I view this as a mini-series that has to be told over four nights. —Andy Card, co-chair of the 2000 Republican Convention.
Does the media primarily report politics, or does it shape political events? The quote above certainly reflects the power of the media to determine the course of major political events. The purpose of a political party convention is to formally nominate a presidential candidate, but of course the party wants to win votes in the general election. When politicians play to the media, does the media then control politics? Many people today criticize television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet for unfairly using their power as a major link between citizens and their government. Do the media fairly explore issues, or do they impose their own positions?
The influence of the media is increased by the fact that campaigns today have become more focused on the individual than on the party. In order to win primaries, individual candidates seek media attention to gain attention from voters. As a result, do voters hold political power, or has the media simply replaced political parties as the primary force behind candidate selection?
The Political Influence of the Media
The media can shape government and politics in many ways. Here are a few:
- By influencing political opinions of voters. Not surprisingly, the voting behavior of people who are actively interested in politics is probably not changed by the media. Committed Democrats and Republicans selectively learn what they want to from media sources. However, the media can sway people who are uncommitted or have no strong opinion in the first place. Since these voters often decide elections results, the power of media in elections can be substantial.
- By determining the behavior of candidates and officials. Many good politicians have learned that they can succeed — in getting elected and in getting things done — if they know how to use the media. President Franklin Roosevelt was famous for his “fireside chats,” in which he soothed the pain of economic depression and war by talking to citizens over the radio. President Ronald Reagan’s skills as a film and television actor enabled him to communicate very effectively with American voters. Government officials and candidates for office carefully stage media events and photo opportunities. Critics believe that too much attention is focused on how politicians look and come across on camera, rather than on how good a job they are doing in public service.
- By setting the public agenda. Most Americans learn about social issues from print or electronic media. The fact that the media focuses on some issues and ignores others can help set what gets done in government. Media sources have often been accused of emphasizing scandal and high-interest issues at the expense of duller but more important political problems. The government’s priorities can be rearranged as a result.
The media clearly has a great deal of power in American politics today. Is that a good or a bad thing for government? From one point of view, the media abuse their power, especially since they are driven by profit motive to give people what they want, not necessarily what they need. On the other hand, perhaps the media serves as an important player in a modern “checks and balances” system. Reporters function as watchdogs to ensure that presidents, representatives, and justices do not abuse their powers. The media, in turn, is checked by government regulations, by skilled politicians, and by the people’s own good judgment.