Friday, March 28, 2008

Media in Politics - Free Essay -

Media in Politics

It is a reasonable expectation that the media will gather the facts and report the news fairly, accurately and responsibly. The American public relies on the media for a great deal of its information. "The role of the press in American politics has become a major source of discussion and controversy in recent years" (Davis, 1). The question raised in this paper is, "Does the media present the news fairly, accurately, and completely?" The short answer is no, the long answer will be examined throughout the following essay. This essay will examine the media and its influence and effects on politics and government.

"Public Occurrences" was the first newspaper to appear in colonial America. This publication begins the history of the media and its effects on politics and government in America. The paper was struck down soon after being published and its publishers arrested. Without the protection of the First Amendment, newspapers had little chance of survival; especially if they were critical of established authority.

The first successfully published American newspaper came almost fifteen years later in 1704. It was entitled the "Boston News-Letter". Several other papers came into circulation in colonial America and just before the Revolution there were twenty-four papers in circulation. Articles in colonial newspapers were a major source of political pressure in shifting public opinion from reconciliation with England to complete political independence. Thus began the history of the media influence in America and its effects on American government and politics.

The number of printed newspapers in America continued to grow and by the end of the Revolution there were approximately forty-three newspapers available to the public. They played an important role, informing the public, in the political affairs of the young nation. In 1791 the Bill of Rights was passed securing the freedom of the press. Protected by the First Amendment, American newspapers played an important and influential function in local and national politics. Newspapers were originally a luxury only enjoyed by the wealthy and the literate minority. It was during the era of Jacksonian democracy, the 1830's, that newspapers became more widespread. This resulted from the invention of the "Penny Press." It was now possible to sell newspapers for one cent a copy. Advances in technology made it possible to reduce the cost of newspapers and increase their availability to the public. It wasn't until 1850, with the invention and development of photographs, that newspapers included pictures accompanying the stories reporters covered. By the end of the nineteenth century, newspapers took on a similar form to that of newspapers today.

The above brief history of newspapers demonstrates the growth of a free press in America. The benefits of a free press in a democracy include: the free and open exchange of ideas including ideas critical of government, widespread distribution of differing views on controversial issues, open debate during local and national elections, and access to information by a literate public. However, a free press is not free of detriments. It would be inaccurate to suggest or imply that the press in particular and the media in general are always responsible and truthful.

One example of how the print media can affect and influence the views of its readers and the politics of a nation came at the end of the nineteenth century. In Mightier Than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History, Rodger Streitmatter provides a brief account of "yellow journalism." Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, and William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal, battled each other for increased circulation. In New York the World and the Journal were ranked number one and two respectively. Pulitzer and Hearst revolutionized journalism and maintained a heated rivalry for increased circulation. It was this "bitter rivalry (that) gave birth to the double-barreled brand of sensationalism known as yellow journalism" (Streitmatter, 68). Yellow journalism began mainly as a way to put more papers in circulation, but it went too far in its sensationalism -- "from distortion and the staging of events to disinformation and the systematic manufacturing of news" (Streitmatter, 69). Perhaps the most vivid example of yellow journalism came after the explosion of an American battleship, the USS Maine. Yellow journalists stirred up public frenzy, deliberately reported misinformation, and convinced much of the public to support a war with Spain. Once the public supported war, it was only a matter of time before the president moved for a declaration of war. Historians argue that yellow journals, through sensationalism and misrepresentation, created an atmosphere that actually resulted in a war that could possibly have been avoided. The successful manipulation of public opinion through the use of yellow journalism affected national policy and persuaded a nation to go to war.

This idea of the media stirring up a public frenzy can be related to today's international concern for the war on terrorism. Although the circumstances are different in the twenty-first century global community, the media play a huge role in the pursuit of the present war on terrorism. For example, the FBI recently released pictures of possible terrorists who entered the United States with fake identification. Shortly after the pictures were aired, it was discovered that one of the fugitives was not a terrorist and wasn't even in the United States. It was a picture of a man who currently lives in Pakistan and has never set foot in America. Although this error was not intentional and therefore not an example of yellow journalism, it illustrates how the media continue to influence the public. The rush to "scoop" a story can and does affect the lives of those who are mentioned in the reports as well as those who read and are influenced by the reports. It must be remembered that all forms of mass media are commercial businesses. The need to be first with the story has become more important than the need to report the facts and events responsibly. Irresponsible reporting created the sensational brand of journalism known as yellow journalism and continues to be present in the media today as reporters, broadcasters, and editors strive to be first with the news. By the beginning of the twentieth century the influence of the media extended beyond the printed word to include broadcasting. In the 1920's radio broadcasting began on a commercial basis. By 1930 commercial radio was solidly established. Franklin D. Roosevelt successfully persuaded the American public to accept his New Deal with the help of radio. His "fireside" chats were a regular feature of prime time radio. "Roosevelt's use of radio probably not only fostered public support for his domestic policy moves, but also changed the relationship of the average citizen to the office of president. The presidency no longer seemed a distant office"(Davis, 95). This example demonstrates how the innovative use of radio was used to shape public opinion and gain support for national policy. However, the radio's dominance in mass media was short-lived. By the middle of the 1950's television became the dominant mass medium. Technological advances continued throughout the twentieth century to extend broadcasting to include cable television, satellites, and internet access. These developments changed the face of news.

One of the first demonstrations of the power of television came in 1952 when in just one broadcast "it transformed Richard M. Nixon from a negative Vice-Presidential candidate, under attack, into a martyr and an asset to Dwight D. Eisenhower's Presidential campaign"(White, 282). Although television was limited to partisan politics in its early stages, White argues that its use was influential and its effects immediate.

The power of television can also be seen in the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates of 1960. In scheduling four televised presidential debates, Kennedy and Nixon pioneered what would become an essential element of future presidential campaigns. After the fourth debate a survey was taken. According to White, the survey indicated that most of the people who listened to the debates on radio thought the two candidates came off almost equal. But it was a series of visual misfortunes that made the television audience respond in another survey by saying that Vice President Nixon came off poorly in the opinion of many. Among the misfortunes affecting Nixon were the color of his suit, failure to wear make-up, and a recent recovery from an illness. The light gray color of Nixon's suit failed to contrast with the light gray background of the set. According to White, Nixon's advisors told Nixon to wear a lighter suit because they were mistakenly informed about the darkness of the set. Therefore, Nixon appeared as a fuzzy gray outline on black and white television sets. Unlike Kennedy, Nixon refused to wear make-up for the broadcast. This also hurt Nixon's appearance on television. Finally, Nixon had recently recovered from an illness and had then completed two exhausting weeks of campaigning. He had lost weight from the illness. His shirt fit loosely. The coincidence of these misfortunes made Vice President Nixon appear thin and weak on camera. Americans who viewed the debates on television apparently were more concerned with the image they saw of the candidate and less concerned with the candidates views on particular issues. Vice President Nixon came off poorly during the television debates and lost the election. "It was the picture image that had done it -- and in 1960 television had won the nation away from sound to images, and that was that" (White, 290). The American public relies on the media to report the news accurately and fairly. We expect them to do more than create "images" of local and national candidates. We rely on them to present the facts in a balanced and fair way. "Indisputably, the media are more pervasive today than they were just thirty years ago. The expanded availability and usage of mass media are facts--perhaps phenomena--of American life" (Davis, 3). The citizens of a democratic republic need to be informed, not mislead. Imaginative use of the media can create public perceptions of candidates that do not represent their true character. "The press has been accused of determining the images of candidates. Empirical studies support the conventional wisdom that the mass media do affect voters' perceptions of candidates, particularly at earlier stages of a campaign" (Davis, 245).

In discussing new forms of journalism, Davis describes "...advocacy journalism--the practice of using news stories to support issue positions advocated by the journalist" (Davis, 101). Critics of this form of journalism argue that journalists who practice advocacy journalism are abandoning objectivity. The public is not getting a fair and accurate news report but a biased view of the news to advance a favored position. Bernard Goldberg makes a similar argument in his book, Bias. Goldberg accuses network newscasters of intentionally reporting misleading statistics on AIDS and homelessness in order to raise public interest in these two social problems (63-96). The controversy surrounding advocacy journalism is not easily solved. Any attempt to regulate the media would interfere with the freedom of the press guaranteed by the Constitution. However, the public is not always told when reporters and journalists are reporting and when they are advocating.

Advocacy journalism is not limited to print media. On June 26, 2002 Katie Couric interviewed Ann Coulter on the Today Show. Coulter was being interviewed to discuss her most recent book, Slander. While Coulter was answering a question, Couric interrupts to challenge a quote appearing in the book. Couric's challenge has nothing to do with the previous question or Coulter's answer. Couric becomes animated and combative. She raises her voice over Coulter's responses and at one point Couric says, "I'm the one conducting the interview." Couric never offers a substantive challenge to anything appearing in the book, Slander. However, an unsuspecting audience would not know that. The popularity and celebrity of Couric, the TV personality, overwhelms the remarks of Coulter, the author. Paraphrasing Davis, this demonstrates advocacy broadcasting.

Michael Kelly, writing for the New York Post, provides an interesting point of view in his column, "The Myth of Media Fairness", appearing December 21, 2002. The essential point of the column is that journalists don't have any professional training or discipline. "Journalism is not a profession in the sense of medicine or law or science. Journalists do not go through years of brutal academic apprenticeship designed to inculcate adherence to an agreed-upon code of ethics (such as the Hippocratic oath) or an agreed-upon method of truth-determining (such as the method of scientific inquiry)."(Kelly, 17) Without a public recognized standard, journalists and broadcasters are free to report the news as they see it.

This paper began with the claim that it is a reasonable expectation that the media will gather the facts and report the news fairly, accurately and responsibly. It concludes with the assertion that although the media report the news it is not always fair and accurate. Yellow journalism, the Nixon-Kennedy debates, and advocacy journalism (broadcasting) demonstrate that the influence the media have on government and public opinion. In a democracy any attempt to regulate the influence of the media will conflict with the constitutional protection of the First Amendment. The antidote for an overly influential media is an educated public.

Works Cited

Coulter, Ann. "Ann Coulter on Liberal Bias in the Media." Interview with Katie Couric. Today. NBC. WNBC, New York. 26 June 1994.

Davis, Richard. The Press and American Politics. New York: Longman, 1992. Graber, Doris A. Media Power in Politics. Washington D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1990.

Goldberg, Bernard. Bias. Washington D.C.: Regnery Publishing Inc., 2002 Kelly, Michael. "The Myth of Media Fairness." New York Post 21 Dec. 2002: 17.

Streitmatter, Rodger. Mightier than the Sword. Colorado: Westview Press, 1997.

White, Theodore H. The Making of the President 1960. New York: Antheneum Publishers, 1961.



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