Amber Roessner Talks about the Negotiation of Images of Public Figures

A few years ago, Amber Roessner’s research seemed to take a sharp turn. Having written a successful book on baseball greats like Ty Cobb, she turned her attention to a former president and the role journalism played in his election. Campaign and sports journalism might not seem like they have much in common, but Roessner noticed some overlap. Here, Roessner talks about how Jimmy Carter, like several baseball heroes before him, used the media to his advantage when creating an image in the public eye.

Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash.

“How on earth can you shift from a book about baseball to presidential politics?” my mother asked me in 2010 as I finished research for Inventing Baseball Heroes: Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, and the Sporting Press in America and started digging into my next topic, the rise of a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, in 1976. I imagine the skeptical tone of her voice might have sounded a bit like that of Miss Lillian Carter when her eldest son told her that he intended to run for president. “President of what?” Miss Lillian asked, baffled by her son’s shift from peanuts to presidential politics.

My decision to move from a fruitful area of scholarship in sports media history to what many viewed as well-plowed ground surrounding Jimmy Carter certainly mystified my family and colleagues, but I persevered with my intention to delve further into my original dissertation topic, Time’s 1976 “miracle man.” At the heart of both studies is a common theme: the negotiation of images of public figures in the news media by journalists, public relations professionals, and advertising specialists, and the influence of these mediated images on our collective communities and cultures.

Detroit Tigers centerfielder Ty Cobb. Painting by J. F. Kerman.

Researching and writing my first book about “herocrafting,” or the practice of hero construction in the sporting press, was in many respects the first step of research in my book on the Carter presidential campaign. The symbiotic relationships that permeated sports journalism in the early twentieth century remained prevalent in campaign journalism until the emergence of the credibility gap in American politics under the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Moreover, the practical understandings of theories of image and the professional norms of journalism, public relations, and advertising gleaned from research for my first book offered valuable context for this volume.

Likewise, my first book opened up one instrumental door that might have otherwise remained closed—the door to the most notable office at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library & Museum. Upon beginning my research in 2010, I wrote to the appropriate individual at the library in an attempt to secure an interview with former president Carter. My request was declined. In August 2014, after scouring all relevant secondary sources, analyzing thousands of media texts from December 1974 to November 1976, poring through more than 200 of 400 boxes identified in the Carter Library, and interviewing numerous individuals including Time magazine’s Stanley Cloud, Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift, the Baltimore Sun’s Carl Leubsdorf, CBS News reporter Bob Schieffer, White House Deputy Press Secretary Rex Granum, and White House Communications Director Gerald Rafshoon, I approached President Carter once more. “I hope that you will give this Winder, Ga., native a chance to put the 1976 election into proper historical context. . . . it is my hope that, through this book, America’s next generation of leaders . . . will better understand the historical roots of the media landscape that they must navigate, and furthermore, that we can change our present system and engage in a more productive political process,” I concluded my letter and inserted it into an inscribed copy of my first book. In October 2014, I interviewed President Carter at the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta. In the opening minutes of our meeting, he told me that he had “very much enjoyed” my book.

Photo by David Roessner.

Including the book as a research sample was probably not a bad idea at all; Carter and his press secretary, Jody Powell, were both avid baseball aficionados after all (Powell had gone so far as to serve as the voice of Ty Cobb for award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns’s Baseball documentary). Carter’s interview proved to be as insightful as one might imagine and served as the necessary lure to secure several important interview participant holdouts from the world of television news. In the final analysis, I will never be certain what won over President Carter, but on occasion, I find myself thinking that perhaps I wrote that first book in order to complete this second one—my account of what Time hailed as one of the most astonishing political miracles in the nation’s history. A decade in the making and involving the analysis of more than 25,000 primary sources, Jimmy Carter and the Birth of the Marathon Media Campaign refigures the final chapter of Watergate as a seismic rupture in presidential politics and the first chapter of a failing media presidency.

Amber Roessner is associate professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She is the author of Inventing Baseball Heroes: Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, and the Sporting Press in America.

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With the rise of Jimmy Carter, a former Georgia governor and a relative newcomer to national politics, the 1976 presidential election proved a transformative moment in U.S. history, heralding a change in terms of how candidates run for public office and how the news media cover their campaigns. Jimmy Carter and the Birth of the Marathon Media Campaign offers an incisive view of the transition from the yearlong to the permanent campaign, from New Deal progressivism to New Right conservatism, from issues to soundbites, and from objective news analysis to partisan commentary.

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