Polls, podcasts & the past

I’ve known about podcasts for ages but just had not found the time to become a regular listener to any of them.

However, with my new job I am now catching the bus 6 times a week, perfect podcast listening time!

My husband – an avid podcast listener and political geek – suggested I might be interested in a podcast that isn’t actually history or Screened History related called: FiveThirtyEight Politics.

After listening to a number of back episodes I came across one that caught my Screened History interest: it was a rerun of a discussion between the regular FiveThirtyEight presenters and the team who make The West Wing Weekly podcast.

The episode – Politics Podcast: Good Use Of Polling Or Bad Use Of Polling — In “The West Wing” – interested me for a number of reasons.

Particularly thought provoking was its use of scenes about political polling from The West Wing (a fictional representation of the real world) as a catalyst to analyse not just the historical and contemporary use of polls in American politics, but also the screened representation of them.

The discussion beautifully demonstrated a number of the ways that even contemporary film and television programs can provide rich material for Screened Historians:

  • the way that elements (or the entirety) of a contemporary screen artefact – like a television show – can offer an opportunity to discuss historical events or issues
  • the way that representations of events or issues in fictional television programs need to be understood within the broader context of its process of production (the episode includes an extended discussion of how Sorkin’s personal view of political polling directly shaped the depiction of polling in the show).
  • the need to understand the broader social and historical contexts of Screened History artefacts. The West Wing, as recent as it was, was still as a product of a particular historical moment and this very much shaped its content and narrative.
  • the insights that the responses of fans and the attitudes of producers can offer for research.

The West Wing was very much a program shaped by the times in which it was produced.

Numerous other political television shows – like the current Netflix series Designated Survivor – as well as films like Dave, The American President or Wag the Dog (to name just a few) – also offer similar opportunities to consider screen representations of American political history, and viewers responses to them.

This is not a new topic of research, but it is highly topical.

In the new era of the Trump presidency, when the line between the truth and a lie is being eroded and the past is no more than an ‘alternate fact’, it will be fascinating to look back in 10, 20 years to see what screened artefacts are produced during this period.

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