Teaching Essay: The “Showbiz Politics” of Copyright Reform

Jason Lee Guthrie & Amber Roessner

As a Southern governor with presidential ambitions, Jimmy Carter “had treated multimillionaire [Capricorn Records co-founder Phil] Walden like a good ol’ boy—with respect.” So wrote Rolling Stone reporter Art Harris of Carter’s invisible, showbiz campaign in December 1975, and he added, “Now that Carter requires a good deal of money and loyalty to boost his name recognition and glamorize his persona of soft-spoken sincerity, Walden has not forgotten.” Instead of sporting William Jennings Bryan’s cross of gold, the record mogul wore a “green Jimmy Carter for President button” in hopes, according to Harris, that Carter might enact beneficial copyright and antipiracy legislation. Perhaps it was fitting that the freelance writer for the popular magazine of music, politics, and American culture with a cult-like following—and not a traditional campaign reporter—might uncover one of the most poignant newspegs of the bicentennial presidential election: the showbiz campaign trend to seize celebrity exposure and fundraising dollars.

After reading about this phenomenon—a minor narrative thread in Amber Roessner’s book, Jimmy Carter and the Birth of the Marathon Media Campaign (LSU Press, 2020), copyright historian Jason Lee Guthrie suggested exploring more deeply how journalists covered this phenomenon during the 1976 presidential campaign. In “Covering Copyright: Phil Walden and Jimmy Carter in the Press During the 1976 Presidential Campaign” (Journalism History, Summer 2022), Guthrie and Roessner do just that, exposing the Vietnam and Watergate-inspired investigative journalism inflected with overtones of quid pro quos and scandal and the ways in which issues such as copyright can take on a cultural meaning apart from their statutory power in press coverage.

To supplement the research article, this teaching essay offers suggested readings and resources, discussions, and experiential learning activities and assignments for undergraduate and graduate students in a wide range of interdisciplinary courses, including media history, media law, and political communication. Based upon these activities, students will have the opportunity to explore primary and secondary source materials around presidential campaigns and copyright cases and to consider more deeply the manifestation of what Kathryn Brownell has characterized as “showbiz politics.” The increasing dependency on political consultants and skilled image merchants who sold campaigns through the visual authority of mass media is one of the most interesting phenomena in modern U.S. culture. The material below will allow students to explore how issues like copyright law can transcend legal statues and come to represent the intersection of politics and popular culture.

Suggested Class Discussions & Activities

For Undergraduate and/or Graduate Media History and/or Political Communications

Review “Hope for America: Performers, Politics, and Popular Cuture,” Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/hope-for-america/political-songs.html, and consider how political actors and agitators have drawn upon music to engage in political communication throughout the history of our nation. Write a three- to five-page essay that offers insight into specific historical examples of instances in which political actors and agitators have negotiated political messages through music and/or musical endorsements, citing specific primary sources.

Review Showbiz Politics and Jimmy Carter and the Birth of the Marathon Media Campaign and consider how candidates engaged in modified showbiz politics after midcentury. Please cite primary sources, including archival documents and news coverage of the phenomenon, accessible through digitized presidential archives, such as Eisenhower’s Online Documents, JFK’s Digitized Collections, Nixon’s Online Collection, Ford’s Digital Library, and news sites such as Chronicling America and ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Review Jimmy Carter and the Birth of the Marathon Media Campaign and explore “Selected Documents on the 1976 Presidential Campaign,” The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Digital Library, The Rolling Stone Archives and ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Consider in a three- to five-page essay, that includes citations to primary and secondary sources, how presidential candidates such as Carter, Brown, Ford, and Reagan exploited celebrity musical acts to endorse and engage in fundraising for their campaign, as well as how journalists reported on the phenomenon.

Consider how recent presidential candidates have exploited celebrity musical acts. Please find relevant primary and secondary sources to support your argument.

Report on the continued trend of “showbiz politics,” using relevant sources, including interviews with experts and/or primary and secondary sources.

For Undergraduate and/or Graduate Media Law

In a three to five-page essay, consider how the law intersects with media and popular culture [i.e., social media informs and shapes public opinion, but it also spreads disinformation]. Consider the reciprocal inability of the law to keep up with technological change and recent lobbying by big tech, which has some specific connections to internet protocol.

Review news coverage of one (1) of the recent copyright cases listed below in Rolling Stone magazine. Then, identify and review coverage of your chosen topic in a more mainstream news outlet (ex: NYT, BBC, NPR). In a three- to five-page essay: 1) summarize the case, including the specific claims made by the parties and the legal issues involved; 2) compare and contrast the ways the story is framed in Rolling Stone versus the mainstream outlet; and 3) conclude with your thoughts about the reasons behind the similarities and differences that you noted.

Suggested Readings & Resources

Kathryn Brownell, Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

Kathryn Brownell, “The History of Hollywood and Politics,” Road to Now Podcast Episode 21, September 25, 2016, https://roadtonow.libsyn.com/21-kathryn-cramer-brownell-on-the-history-of-hollywood-in-american-politics

Lori Amber Roessner, Jimmy Carter and the Birth of the Marathon Media Campaign (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2020).

Lori Amber Roessner, “Jimmy Carter and the Media,” Journalism History Podcast Episode 43, February 17, 2020, https://journalism-history.org/2020/02/17/roessner-podcast-jimmy-carter-and-the-media/

Lori Amber Roessner, “Rock Music Couldn’t Help Carter in 1980—And Showbiz Won’t Save Trump in 2020,” Washington Post Made by History, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/10/09/rock-music-couldnt-help-carter-1980-showbiz-wont-save-trump-2020/ .

Art Harris, “Candidate Jimmy Carter: Rock’s Good Ol’ Boy,” Rolling Stone, December 4, 1975, https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/candidate-jimmy-carter-rocks-good-ol-boy-44009/

Jim Jerome, “Phil Walden First Picked the Allmans—Now He Thinks He’s Got Another Hit Named Jimmy Carter,” People, September 27, 1976,  https://www.theguardian.com/music/2012/oct/30/jimmy-carter-president-interview

Joe Klein and Dave Marsh, “Rock Meets Politics in 1976,” Rolling Stone, September 9, 1976, https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/rock-meets-politics-in-1976-57158/

Patrick Snyder, “The Sorrowful Confessions of Gregg Allman,” Rolling Stone, November 4, 1976, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/the-sorrowful-confessions-of-gregg-allman-108095/

All previously unpublished, photocopied materials cited in “Covering Copyright: Phil Walden and Jimmy Carter in the Press During the 1976 Presidential Campaign” (Journalism History, Summer 2020) are available online at: http://www.philwaldencorrespondence.wordpress.com

“Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers,” Library of Congress, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/

Interviews with Jay Beck, Chip Carter, Bert Lance, Frank Moore, Bill Shipp, Jack Watson, and Phil Wise, through Reflections on Georgia Politics Oral History Collection, https://sclfind.libs.uga.edu/sclfind/view?docId=ead/RBRL379AMP.xml;brand=default

Interview with Peter Conlon, Alex Cooley, and Tom Beard, April 10, 2013, Richard B. Russell Library Oral History Documentary Collection, Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, University of Georgia Libraries, Athens, Georgia, http://ohms.libs.uga.edu/viewer.php?cachefile=russell/RBRL175OHD-023.xml

“Hope for America: Performers, Politics, and Popular Culture,” Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/hope-for-america/political-songs.html

“Selected Documents on the 1976 Presidential Campaign,” The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Digital Library, https://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/library/exhibits/campaign/campaign.asp#Media

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s