Who is Influencing Whom?   Leave a comment

We live in an age that demands timeliness and instant access to information and the media play a crucial role in informing the public about politics, campaigns and elections. While the media fulfills this role, American culture is cynical about the media and politicians, perceiving a media bias. What is often overlooked is that government has a tremendous influence on the media at least equal to the influence the media exerts on government

Does the media report politics or does it shape political events?

The media helps influence what issues voters should care about in elections and what criteria they should use to evaluate candidates. There’s a belief that the media influences the voting behavior of people. It’s unlikely that someone who takes an active interest in politics is going to be redirected by the media. However, the media can sway people who are uncommitted to a clear position. Since these voters often decide election results, the power of the media can be substantial.

Because I read Barack Obama’s books and saw stances there that I could not support, it wouldn’t have mattered what the media reported in the run-up to the 2008 election. I was going to vote against him. But if you never read the books or you hadn’t met Sarah Palin personally or you thought John McCain was a little old, the media promoting Barack Obama at every turn probably had some influence in convincing you to vote for him.

Successful politicians learn that the media are the key to getting elected. FDR massaged American sentiments with his Fireside Chats. Ronald Reagan used his film skills to communicate very effectively with American voters. Government officials stage media events with the precision of wedding planners. Critics believe too much attention is focused on how politicians look and on the occasional soundbite than on how they have performed in office or the experience they bring to their first crack as a public servant. Media exerts a profound influence on the behavior of candidates and officials.

Most Americans learn about social issues from print or electronic media. Media focused on some issues and ignores others and that can help set what gets done in government. Media sources are often accused of emphasizing scandal and high-interest issues at the expense of duller, but more important political programs. The government’s priorities can be rearranged as a result.

On the other hand, a 2013 Pew report on the state of the media exposes one of the worst-kept secrets in politics: reporters are losing their power to frame presidential contests for the average citizen.

Technology has enables candidates/campaigns to more effectively end-run the mainstream media. President Obama’s campaign team has used everything from Twitter to images on Flickr to sell their preferred image of the nation’s chief executive.

This is exaserbated by their being fewer news reports than there were a decade or so ago. Magazines and newspapers are shrinking and these were the investigative reporters of the past. With fewer reporters and more to cover due to the 24-hour news cycle, there is a tendency to resort to paint-by-numbers reporting for those who are still in the business.

What does this mean for political coverage? Well, political media has less ability to play its traditional referee role at the same time that public distrust of the media is rampant among partisans of both parties. Without the negative influence of the media, some people say, the public can focus on the issues and where the two parties stand.

Or not….

Nearly three-quarters of all statements made about the two candidates’ characters in 2012 were negative, which was a significant rise over 2008, which was the most negative campaign I watched on television … and one reason I no longer use television for political news.

With the news organizations pushed out of the information pipeline, voters are alone in sorting through messages that are tested before focus groups and opposition attacks tailored with great specificity. Is that independence a good thing? Well, I like it, but it is a lot easier to campaign successfully if there’s no one checking a candidate’s facts and increasingly, there is no one checking the facts.

Campaigns have more power to frame both their positive narratives and their opponent’s negative one. If the Pew numbers are right, both sides are spending an inordinate amount of money on the negative side of the ledger.

This is where social media come in. I don’t buy that you can learn anything about a candidate or an issue in a Twitter or Instagram post, but social media does give folks an opportunity to talk about what’s important to them and how a candidate might or might not address those concerns. And, if the current debate on the Keystone Pipeline is any evidence, Facebook is filled with emotional rhetoric lacking the ability to fact-check.

More than that, the Internet has allowed a flood of non-tradition news sources — some with variable trustworthiness. Again it comes back to whether or not we the people should trust any media source on any subject.

Additionally, we should be aware that as much as the media influences government through influencing elections, our government influences us through its manipulation of the media.

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