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Technology, Media, and Political Change

Wang, Tianyi (2020) Technology, Media, and Political Change. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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My dissertation studies the political impacts of media and information technologies in American history. The first chapter employs novel data to examine the electric telegraph's impacts on political participation and news coverage in the mid-19th century America. I use proximity to daily newspapers with telegraphic connection to Washington to generate plausibly exogenous variation in access to telegraphed news from Washington. I find that access to Washington news with less delay increased presidential election turnout. Text analysis on historical newspapers shows that the improved access to news from Washington led newspapers to cover more national political news, including coverage of Congress, the presidency, and sectional divisions involving slavery. The results suggest that the telegraph made newspapers less parochial, facilitated a national conversation and increased political participation.

The second chapter investigates the political impacts of the first populist radio personality in American history. Father Charles Coughlin blended populist demagoguery, anti-Semitism, and fascist sympathies to create a hugely popular radio program that attracted tens of millions of listeners throughout the 1930s. I digitized unique data on Father Coughlin’s radio network. Exploiting topography to generate plausibly exogenous variation in radio signal strength as well as another difference-in-differences strategy, I find strong evidence that Coughlin’s anti-Roosevelt broadcast reduced the support for Franklin D. Roosevelt in presidential elections. Moreover, Coughlin’s broadcast appeared to influence public sentiment concerning WWII and anti-Semitism.

The third chapter studies whether media and information technologies can empower minorities in the resistance to oppression. Specifically, I assemble a novel dataset to study the effects of black radio on black political activism and participation during the civil rights movement. Exploiting plausibly exogenous variation in signal reception resulting from topographic factors, I find strong evidence that black radio increased black voter registration and the presence of NAACP chapters in the South during the early 1960s. I explore potential mechanisms and also provide evidence that black radio led to greater political power and economic benefits for Southern blacks, as measured by state aid transfers and legislative support for civil rights bills in Congress.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Wang, Tianyitiw41@pitt.edutiw41
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairWalsh,
Committee CoChairGiuntella,
Committee MemberShertzer,
Committee MemberHanley,
Committee MemberRees,
Date: 16 September 2020
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 4 August 2020
Approval Date: 16 September 2020
Submission Date: 7 August 2020
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 156
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Economics
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: Information Technology, Media, Political Economy, Electric Telegraph, Father Coughlin, Black Radio, Great Depression, Civil Rights Movement
Date Deposited: 16 Sep 2020 15:19
Last Modified: 16 Sep 2020 15:19


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