US  MEDIA  AND  PUBLIC  POLICY



WHAT IS THE NEXUS BETWEEN MEDIA AND POLITICS IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA? HOW DOES ONE IMPINGE ON THE OTHER AND WHAT ARE THE PERCEIVED RAMIFICATIONS OF SUCH A RELATIONSHIP? ILLUSTRATE YOUR ANSWER WITH EXAMPLES.

America is world-renowned for its liberal democratic ideology. The sheer amount of freedom and liberty that it grants to its citizens is simply stupendous vis-à-vis the other countries on the globe. Especially noteworthy is its First Amendment which runs thus :

              “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

 

This Amendment has thrust phenomenal power in the hands of the American media[1]- the power to voice out what it pleases with minimal hindrance from the other institutions of the country. We can well imagine why the Constitution has laid out such an Amendment; America IS the land that enshrines freedom and liberties of all sorts, especially that of speech and expression. But, as is the case with all forms of power and authority, there come its fair share of hurdles. The issue at hand is whether the media have abused the authority vested in them and if they continue acting NOT as a responsible entity, but simply as a money-minting one.

 

                                                 Zooming a trifle closer to the topic I shall be examining today, we are confronted by yet another powerful sphere- that of politics. The realms of politics and media often clash and sometimes overlap. This is due to the fact that the media started off as a mouthpiece for both the public as well as the government and this is what raises conflicts. While the media feel that they owe it to the public to showcase everything that goes on behind closed doors in the government, the government feels the media owe it to them to act as their ally (of sorts) and help it to propagate its agendas. This constant tussle between the politicians and the mediamen causes the First Amendment to come under close scrutiny as well as redefine the function of the media.

 

                                                 There have been five critical functions of the mass media when it comes to dealing with politics. They are:

1.      Newsmaking- Selecting which issues get media coverage

2.      Interpretation- this is when the newsmakers search for an ‘angle” or “perspective” on the story they’re covering. This aims to provide the masses with explanations on the events and personalities.

3.      Socialisation- when the media attempt to teach the mass audience the elite’s preferred political norms and values

4.      Persuasion- when the politicians seek the media and use them for their own benefit, i.e, to get through to people[2]. The most obvious form of political persuasion is witnessed during elections.

5.      Agenda-setting- defining the issues ,identifying alternative policies, focusing on political, economic and social “crises”—critical aspects of national policy-making [3]

 

The final point merits a more detailed explanation-the conditions in society that aren’t defined as “crises” or “problems” by the mass media never become policy issues. Political leaders, anxious to get coverage on the evening news programs, speak out on the issues the mass media have defined as important and it has been researched that it has been the same with the masses.

 

                                                 Having said that, however, there have been findings that tell the diametrically opposing story. Only 26% of the people polled and interviewed held the view that mass media were important. The rest made their choice between interest groups and researchers. This was because they felt the media report on what is going on in the government than have an impact ON government agenda. A prominent reporter himself said that the media tendency to give prominence to the most newsworthy or dramatic story actually diminishes their impact on governmental policy agendas since such stories come toward the end of the policy-making process than at the beginning. For instance, the media might cover a carefully staged and dramatic congressional hearing that took weeks to prepare or that was prompted by some event beyond the control of either media or Congress. In either case, the agenda was set much earlier and by processes not much affected by the media.[4]

 

                                                 At this juncture, I would like to state my stance and that is that I adhere to the former viewpoint that he mass media DO play a significantly major role in deciding how the government governs the polity. I shall strive in the course of this paper to justify this stance while simultaneously showcasing how the latter view that the media are not to be overly concerned with merits some amount of respect.

 

                                                The American voters are hard to reach and hard to move. They rely on a kaleidoscope of media outlets, old and dew, to follow news about the presidential campaign-  virtually all of which are given a mixed review for political objectivity. But ironically, most voters claim that political endorsements by celebrities, local newspapers, religious leaders and union officials exert little influence on their voting decisions. Ever since the advent of the Television, the American citizens have been hypnotised by its wondrous charms. The marriage between the TV and politics took place in 1948, but since less than 200,000 homes have TV sets in them, the real impact wasn’t felt till 1952 and 1956, till the Eisenhower-Stevenson campaigns. By 1965, almost 35 millions homes had TV sets and by this time, the TV was playing a key role in the presidential campaigns.[5]It has been the result of numerous polls that almost 75% of the American polity voted TV as their primary source of campaign news, but they clearly demarcate between cable, network and local outlets. The introduction and pervasiveness of TV talk shows since 1992 brought about a major change in how the politicians could get in touch with the electorate in a more direct manner. These talk shows provided more substantive information and a more positive and balanced portrait of the candidates than the “establishment” media did.[6] Thus, it becomes transparent to us that the TV does indeed have the greatest singular impact on the voters’ choice of candidate and also that the TV has a vast influence on the American people in just about any issue.

 

                                                 Having been shown the power that the American television holds over its polity, I shall now show you how the medium misuses its power in deliberately curtailing coverage on any event and therefore, is guilty of colouring the people’s views on that particular  issue. This is so especially in the domain of presidential campaigns. Ever since the birth of talk show formats, the TV medium has sought to superimpose its own views of the presidential-hopefuls onto the citizens’, thus tainting their judgement. The people behind the TV events forget that their duty is to report events and leave personal feelings or emotions out of it and instead what is depicted is not just events that have been tampered with, but also the biases of those who made that TV program possible. For instance, it was found that network correspondents criticized the candidates for “not talking about” issues that they had in fact addressed. It has been found that their real crime lay in not discussing these issues in a fashion that journalists would have found newsworthy. Unfortunately, the viewers couldn’t have known that. Nonetheless, any absence of substance in campaign ’92 was due more to the choices made by the journalists than the failure of the politicians to address the issues.[7] “Ad Watches”, which was the buzzword when it made its debut, was claimed to be a great achievement of the press, but all too frequently, they simply replaced the campaigns’ interpretations of ambiguous facts with their own. Furthermore, they had the unintended effect of portraying the candidates’ overall advertising campaign as more negative than they really were.

 

                                                 The media are also guilty of making or breaking the image of any presidential hopeful and the way they set about the latter in particular seems very perversely done with a lot of relish. The most obvious victim of this sadistic trait of the media was media’s old antagonist, George Bush. Bush got, by far the worst coverage of any candidate during both the primaries and general elections. Bush’s situation was further exacerbated by highly negative and sometimes inaccurate reporting on the economy. It is noteworthy that he did not incur such wrath from the press due to any bad behaviour during the campaign. It was the media’s decision to arbitrate the campaign instead of just narrating it that encouraged the reporters to upstage all candidates with their own pronouncements and think nothing of the vicious mud-slinging that was involved in the process of actually doing so.

 

                                                 However, as we all know, it was George Bush who won the presidential elections that year and took on the charge for the next four years. This causes one to  pause and ponder on why if media were indeed so very powerful, such bad press did not mow Bush down. This is where one must realise that to point the finger solely at media is a highly atavistic notion for despite the bad coverage, Bush won the elections. This suggests that the American polity does not simply absorb what is broadcast on the TV, but also does analyze certain events and reach its own conclusions about things and make value judgements. It is not entirely swayed by everything that the media throw at it although a considerable proportion of the electorate’s voting decision is based predominantly on the media. Another point to be taken note of is that the politicians use the media just as much as the media bank on them for sell-outs for bolstering their image. The amount of time and effort, not to mention money, that go into making the 30 second advertising campaigns is quite earth-shattering. Hence, it is crucial that we must look at the interplay between the media and political figureheads in its entirety

 

                                                 The media like to assume the position of a watchdog and sniff out what they believe will  be in the interests of the general public. In doing so, however, they display proclivities to publicise and create a furore over sensational tidbits rather than hard, concrete news. For example, the whole Clinton shenanigan with Monica Lewinsky was given immense media coverage when compared to the core issues of any country like the economy and defence. Norman Solomon, a prominent journalist said:

               

                “ Amid constant media din, it takes a conscious leap to remember that the key political lies of our nation have nothing to do with the sex in the White House or anywhere else.”

 

This suggests at once that the media hold the power to swing the population’s attention from the more fundamental issues as those aforementioned to such tabloid-trash. The entire nation was caught up in the frenzy of the Clinton’s impeachment trial that they neglected the issues that held direct appeal to them….the most effect on their daily lives—the question of their bread and butter.

 

                                                 But, once again, as with the Bush’s victory in the ’92 elections despite the bad publicity and image created by the media, Clinton was able to ride the wave of the same and land safely on the shore. The paramount reason in his victory over his opposers hinges on the simple fact that ever since he walked into the Oval Office, America experienced an economic boom like never before. Add to that his personal charisma and the American’s ideology of each-man-for-himself  theories, you end up with Clinton hardly being much more than dented by his sexual escapades. This once more displays the american polity’s will over the media, however massive their forces might be. Although the media tore down Clinton’s image and shamed him mercilessly, his party members stood by him mainly because they realised the public was with him and it would be detrimental to their party to maroon Clinton at that critical moment. Therefore, it would be pure folly to say the American people are completely blinded by the media and that they can and do take measures which they themselves have thought of by engaging their analyzing faculties, however meagre they might be.

                                              

 

                                                 If we peeked into the arena of foreign politics and examine the role the media play in it, we are again confronted by its power to sway public opinion and brainwash a certain chunk of the population in believing what they want it to believe. The current hot issue in the US, Sino-US ties, has been creating waves due to media coverage. There was a conference held in May 1998 just to clear the air between the two countries regarding the issue of unnecessary bad press on China and how China feels this affects its image in the United States unjustly. Most speakers in the conference concurred  that the media have a significant impact on policy-making, citing examples where government leaks to the press intended to direct attention to a particular issue, and situations where government considered the official analyses  “ so overcooked and hedged” that they were not useful and instead chose to rely on information provided by trusted journalists.[8] It was the comment of one Chinese participant that the interest groups in the government like the Pro-Independence for Taiwan lobbyists and Human Rights Watch make extensive use of the media to gain the advantage over China in that they are successful in using the media to build a derogatory picture of the Chinese and aggravate the whole picture too. For instance, he said that China received media coverage 64 minutes before 1990 while in the year of the Tiananmen , 1989, it received a total of 881 minutes.[9] One of the recent events that was hyped up in the American media in this specific arena of the political atmosphere was the Clinton-Jiang summit in China, and particularly whether Clinton would be portrayed as a statesman reaching out to China while embracing pragmatism or if he would be a namby-pamby politician and pussyfoot around the issue. The speculation in the conference about the direction that the US media will take was that the newspapers and TV will not cover the  Chinese angle, but will instead write articles of the slant where they will explore how Clinton’s representation of the country would be. This therefore puts pressure on the President to behave in such a way so as to not let the people of America down and uphold the American ideology of freedom of speech and expression. Again, we are faced with how the media exert influence on the politicians by closely monitoring their actions, be it inside or outside of the country.

 

                                                 Finally, I would like to talk about the celebrated Vietnam war. This war is the nemesis of America and its people simply because it serves as a reminder of the defeat of the great American ideology and hits at the jingoistic pride of its people. Even in something as huge as this war, the media has played a phenomenal role in hyping and downplaying chunks of it. During Lyndon Johnson’s initial term, the media was mostly controlled by the government and reported whatever they were fed by the government. But during the later stages, the mediamen were given full freedom to go ahead with the troops to Vietnam and capture on film whatever was actually happening out there. This was when the problems started. When the government was the only institution that knew what was going on in Vietnam, it was able to manipulate the public sentiments and ignite the indignant fervour of the people through maneuvering the media and doling out the “news” to them. But once the media had the shackles off them, they started trimming and garnishing the stories the way they pleased and televised what they felt would have the most lasting impact on the masses and what would earn them the most revenue. Of course, the media also committed the crime of imposing their own opinions of the war stories and incorporating their views into them while reporting them. Thus, the public opinion was drastically changed halfway through the battle. When the public began to read all the horrific stories of the amount of bloodshed in Vietnam, they raised their voices in protest of the war and demanded withdrawal of the same troops they once demanded to send.

 

                                                 Another reason the public fervently wanted to pull back the troops was because of the visual impact of the gore and horrendous crimes that were being committed on the American youth in Vietnam. Since the TV men were allowed to go wherever they pleased with the troops in the Nam[10], they shot the most grisly of murders and the most brutal of crimes and broadcast them on the TV back in America. This is also why the Vietnam war is called “War fought in the living room” since the war was brought into the homes of the citizens and they could see what was happening to their sons and relatives in a small country in the Far East.

 

                                                 The Vietnam war also exemplifies the juxtaposition of the media and politics as we see how politicians had manipulated the media to get the public support for American involvement in, and later commitment to the war. But once the media were given a freer hand, the scales were tipped and the media got the slightly upper hand and managed to convince the people that continuing the war was the worst thing to do.

 

                                                 In conclusion, it is clear that the nexus between the political figureheads and the media people is indeed a crucial one since one needs the other to enhance itself in front of the public’s eyes. It almost seems like a competition field where the two institutions are vying for the most attention and the quality of attention as well. There are instances where the two have worked hand-in-glove, but I have not discussed those due to constraints in space. It is clear, however, that the media do have the edge over politicians since they are not curtailed by public opinion as much as the politicians need be and are. They do not have to fear the poll results as much because they can always dig up dirt on some celebrity in case their ratings dip. The politicians, on the other hand, have to be cautious in dealing with the public because they are public figureheads and therefore, constantly under scrutiny and people are looking for the slightest pretext to bring them to the guillotine. In that sense, they have a lot more at stake and stand to lose more than the mediamen. Hence,due to all the constraints imposed on the politicians, they do not have the kind of liberty and power that the media do although they do have,arguable, a significant amount of power vested in them. They are, after all, the elected and esoteric group of people who have been elected by the people of America to govern them. But, in my opinion, it is undoubtedly clear that the media have wrested much of the original power that rested in the hands on the politicians and now maintain a considerable edge over them.

                                                          BIBLIOGRAPHY:

 

1.      Burns MacGregor, James, Peltason, J.W, Cronin, Thomas E. and Magleby, David B., Government By the People(Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1993)

2.      Chelf, Carl P., Public Policy Making in America: Difficult Choices, Limited Solutions(Scott, Foresman and Company, 1981)

 

3.      Cummings. C Jr and Wise, David, Democracy Under Pressure: An Introduction to American Political System(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1989)

 

4.      Dye, Thomas R. and Zeigler, Harmon, The Irony of Democracy: An Uncommon Introduction to American Politics(Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1996)

 

5.      Georges, Christopher, “Public Opinion”, Points of View: Readings in American Government and Politics; Edited by DiClerico, Robert E. and Hammock, Allan S. (McGraw Hill Inc, 1995)

 

5. West, Darrell M. “Campaigns and the Media”, Points of View: Readings in American Government and Politics; Edited by DiClerico, Robert E. and Hammock, Allan S. (McGraw Hill Inc, 1995)

 

6.      Kingdon, John W., Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies( Little Brown and Company, 1984)

 

7.      Lawson, Teresa J., National Committee Policy Series, Web version (http://www.ncuscr.org/conferen.htm)

 

8.      Editorial Board, “Brill article details media role in plot to oust Clinton” (19th June 1998), web version (http://www,wsws.org/news/1998/jun1998/star-j19.shtml)

 

9.      Leo, John, “Introduction: The Cost of Good Intentions” (1995), web version( http://www.cmpa.com/archive/gdintro/htm)

 

10.  Fisk, Robert, “US media mirror distorts Middle East”(June 10, 1998), web version (http://www.codoh.com/newsdesk/980610.html)

 

Willey, Barry E., “The Military-Media Connection: For Better or For Worse”( Dec-Feb. 1999), web version (http://www-cgsc.army.mil/milrev/English/DecFeb99/willey.htm)



[1] The reference to the “Press” in the Amendment is now regarded to cover all other forms of mass media

[2] This is a case where the politicians make use of the media instead of the media being the more proactive party, unlike in the other four functions

[3] Thomas R. Dye and Harmon Zeigler, “Elite-Mass Communication: Television, the Press and the Pollsters”, The Irony of Democracy: An Uncommon Introduction to American Politics(Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1996), pp145-147

[4] John W. Kingdon, “Outside of the Government, but not Looking In”, Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies (Little, Brown & Company, 1984), pp61-63

[5] Milton C. Cummings Jr. and David Wise, “Political Campaigns and Candidates”, Democracy Under Pressure: An Introduction to the American Political System (Hancourt Brace Jovanovish, Publishers, 1989)p315

[6] John Leo, “Introduction: The Cost of Good Intentions”(1995), web version, (http://www.cmpa.com/archive/gdintro.htm)

[7] John Leo, “Introduction: The Cost of Good Intentions”(1995), web version, (http://www.cmpa.com/archive/gdintro.htm)

 

[8] Teresa J. Lawson, “US Media Coverage of China”, National Committee Policy Series, No.14, web version (http://www.ncuscr.org/conferen.htm)

[9] Teresa J. Lawson, “US Media Coverage of China”, National Committee Policy Series, No.14, web version (http://www.ncuscr.org/conferen.htm)

 

[10] According to the war veterans.

 

Any comments or questions regarding this essay can be addressed to: Radhika Prabhakar

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