Media and Politics
by Lauren SANFILIPPO, Intern
The Light Millennium - Period: May 18 - June 12, 2015
[Lightmillennium.Org, New York] Malcolm X once said, “the media's the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that's power. Because they control the minds of the masses.” Journalists, young and old, from all over the country would flock to Washington D.C., to join the campaign trail, happy to sit on a cramped bus for months on end. It wasn’t until the seventies that everything changed. Nixon’s Watergate Scandal, the Pentagon Papers and the Vietnam War all heavily impacted public opinion, creating a new age of investigative journalism. Journalism has continued to progress, and change, since then. As the United States has entered the Internet Age of journalism, reporting has become less about informing the public and more about causing controversy. This type of reporting is hurting society, misinforming the average person, and causing a detrimental, paradoxical way of thinking that is perpetuating partisanship.
One of the major problems with the role of modern day technology is the “instant” aspect of society. Reporters in the seventies and eighties would send articles to their editors once, maybe twice a day, and that work would be thoroughly checked and read over. In 2015, that is not the case. With social media platforms, like Instagram and Twitter, and a very young press corps, any mistake or blunder that a politician makes goes viral in hours, if not minutes (Hamby 4). When the news is more interested in reporting what a politician wears to the supermarket, compared to where they stand on education, voters get the wrong idea. Voters are not getting the crucial and influential information that they need to make an educated decision.
Another major problem of this constant, free-flowing information is that, through these social media platforms, partisanship increases. The media creates all these separate, specific bubbles, resulting in “conservatives [..] only listening to conservatives, and liberals [only listening] to liberals (Hamby 27).” That alone introduces a bias into news reporting.
These effects are also felt in the media coverage of Presidential campaigns. On the campaign side of things, candidates and politicians are continuously struggling to get their message across on their own terms. “More and more, the mainstream political press is being cut out of the election process,” which should make the average person question the true motives of most journalists. Eric Fehrnstrom told Hamby that, “‘[Obama] would much rather go on a Fox program where [he knows] the question is going to come up and Mitt can give his answer and it’s not going to a frenzy of questioning. He will be able to give his response. There may be a follow up or two, and then that’s it. The frenzy is not something that you would willingly do if you had other options. It’s like here you can either do this frenzied news conference, or we can do a more sedate studio appearance with Sean Hannity (Hamby 50).’” Obama, throughout his presidency, has received a lot of pushback for not letting the media have open access to his every move, but that is what the modern day media has required politicians to do. Media today is used as a weapon, not an enabling device. If Obama did not take such precautions, the media feeding frenzy would eat him alive.
Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism discovered that “political candidates and their allies—spokespeople, cable news surrogates, Super PACs and the like—were the source for about half of the prevailing narratives about the campaigns in the press. The media was not setting the agenda: they generated only about a quarter of the national political conversation (Hamby 33).” The Pew study concluded that “journalists to an increasing degree are ceding control of what the public learns in elections to partisan voices [… ] The press is acting more as an enabler or conduit and less as an autonomous reportorial source (Hamby 33).” Journalists are no longer creating the news; they are just perpetuating it.
That much was apparent in Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary, “Journeys with George,” which covered George W. Bush and his journey throughout 2000 presidential election. Pelosi and President Bush had an easy and fun relationship, both being able to laugh and poke fun at each other. That changed very easily though when Pelosi started asking Bush questions about the results of capital punishment in Texas. The President did not answer her question, and refused to speak to her a couple days afterwards (Pelosi, “Journeys with George”). That is one of the many cons of “the bubble.” The politician’s whose bubble you are in has complete control over you. For example, during Mitt Romney’s presidential run in 2012, reporters claimed that they barely ever saw the candidate, and that when the press corps did see him, they usually felt unsure and afraid (Hamby 49).” Dan Balz, of the Washington Post, said that “the access to the candidate is minimal to none and that didn’t matter whether you were traveling with the president or traveling with Romney (Hamby 42).” On a certain level, the only way that journalists can get full access to a candidate is if they are on the candidate’s side, and that is not what journalism is supposed to be about. But that is what the media has turned it into.
That, though, leads to another problem. Pelosi, in her documentary, also discussed how these reporters that are in the press corps, following a candidate around for months, have a vested interest: their careers and success rides on the candidate’s career and success (Pelosi, “Journeys with George”). Hamby also came to the same conclusion, saying that, “in a sense, their careers were tied to the fates of their candidates (Hamby 18).” How is it that a journalist then can write an unbiased view when it is their livelihood on the line? That journalist would want their candidate to win, so they can follow that candidate’s career, while furthering their own. This may lead to the skewing of information, which the public is not informed of.
The role of the civilian is vital to American society. The people are supposed to be sovereign, they are supposed to have a voice. The media is supposed to help that voice be heard. The media does not have the best intentions though. They only care about winning, being the reporter to talk about a one-sided story that, soon after, every other reporter is also going to be talking about (Hamby 20). The media has substantially lowered the quality of political reporting, so much that journalists are becoming sloppy. Fact checking seems less important, along with spellchecking (Hamby 38). In his article, Hamby wrote that, “reporters […] seemed to care about self-promotion, clicks and buzz as much as the journalism they were supposed to be practicing. Sourcing standards were increasingly slipshod, too. In one sense this was helpful. Reporters were more likely to write up negative research or use an anonymous quote without much skepticism or pushback—as long as they got the story first (49).” When it is all about beating your colleagues to the punch line, then it is more about competition, and not being a linkage institution for the people. Not only is there a chaotic rush to be the first to get a story out, it is also all about putting a twist on it, whether is be extremely conservative or extremely liberal. That partisan way of thinking causes the people to see only in black or white. Politics is in many, many shades of grey.
Journalists are the only ones guilty of feeding into the ever-growing media. As Pelosi discussed, any sort of political campaign is extremely staged. It is theatre, a performance for the camera. Every smiles and every wave is perfectly choreographed (Pelosi, “Journeys with George”). When politicians and candidates manipulate the media like that, they are not being truthful. Most Americans are not critical enough, and do not know how to deconstruct and reconstruct an argument, or and image put in front of them. When politicians pose for the camera, people believe that they are being sincere. That is not fair to the people.
All together, the journalists seems to be continually growing more vapid and attention hungry, while politicians seem to be only concerned with public appearance and re-election. The growing influence of the media is largely effects both. As long as our journalists, our gatekeepers of society, keep fighting over who wore what and when, America will remain split. Instead of endorsing radical thinking or a specific view, journalists are supposed to tell the truth and let the people form their own opinions. They are supposed to be bipartisan, not endorsing political party lines. Though the media does have its positives, the United States has not yet learned how to utilize them. Until then, the media will continue to harm politics and the people.
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Hamby, Peter. “Did Twitter Kill the Boys on the Bus? Searching for a better way to cover a campaign.” Shorensteincenter.org. Joan Shorenstein Center, Sept 2013. Web. 12 March 2015.
Journeys with George. Dir. Alexandra Pelosi. Purple Monkey Productions, 2002. DVD.
This article written and contributed by Lauren SANFILIPPO, Intern, as part of her internship with The Light Millennium for the period of May 18 - June 12, 2015
Posted by Bircan Ünver on June 28, 2015