Media as the "Fourth Estate"
Access to information is essential to the health of democracy for at least two reasons. First, it ensures that citizens make responsible, informed choices rather than acting out of ignorance or misinformation. Second, information serves a "checking function" by ensuring that elected representatives uphold their oaths of office and carry out the wishes of those who elected them.
In the United States, the media is often called the fourth branch of government (or "fourth estate"). That's because it monitors the political process in order to ensure that political players don't abuse the democratic process.
Others call the media the fourth branch of government because it plays such an important role in the fortunes of political candidates and issues. This is where the role of the media can become controversial. News reporting is supposed to be objective, but journalists are people, with feelings, opinions and preconceived ideas.
How Media Helps Shape Public Opinion
A clever choice of words can make things seem different than they are. For instance, during the Vietnam War, the Defense Department of the United States used many misleading phrases in news reports. Instead of "forced transfer of civilians" they said "relocation", and instead of "lies" they said "elements in the credibility gap." By using carefully chosen phrases, the Defense Department made their war efforts seem less harmful to the people in the United States. They aren't "vouchers", they are "opportunity scholarships"; it's not "tax cuts", it's "tax relief."
If we didn't know better, we'd think that the dogs have gone crazy and started attacking humans in unprecendented numbers (ala Hitchcock's "The Birds"), but in fact dog attacks on people are down . It's simply that the Diane Wipple story has drawn public attention (and media focus) to the dog-bites-man story.
Media's Influence on Politics
The influence of the mass media affects politics in the United States greatly. The public's point of view is changed by the way the news is reported. When the public's views are affected, the voting polls are too. In turn, when votes are changed, different public officials are elected. The government officials are the men and women who make the laws and generally run the country. The mass media is at the beginning of a long chain, but nonetheless, the media has a powerful effect on politics in the United States.
Role of the media during the election cycle and beyond...
- Primary season: Importance of doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire...goal is not necessarily to win, but to win over expectations (Clinton in '92). Candidates who exceed expectations win, those who fall short lose.
- Horserace coverage: typical of media coverage of elections. Not coverage of issues, but report of who's ahead, stats, and %s of public opinion.
- Sound bytes: contribute to problem. We now expect brevity. We expect issues and campaigns to be summed up in seconds. No time for content in a 10 second sound byte.
- "Line of the Day" begun by Reagan WH. Pre-empted the press. Presidential manipulation of the press by setting the agenda before the media could decide what to cover.
- Importance of a good White House Press Secretary: The creation of this position represents the importance of maintaining a good relationship with the people and the press. Theodore Lowi describes the Press Secretary as "the apex of a huge public relations apparatus in the executive branch which devotes an extraordinary amount of staff, resources, and time to generating a positive image of the president." Dee Dee Myers, Mike McCurry: important to build good relationship with White House Press Corps. Tough job: must balance loyalty to pres and appearance of being "on board" with maintaining trust and respect of press (so that they will cover you favorably.)
Consequences of "media politics"...
- Decline in party influence-foremost among the changes brought on by the new media politics is the declining influence of political parties, particularly in presidential elections. During the 40s, when social scientists first investigated the impact of media on the outcome of presidential elections, party allegiance was the most important determinant of the vote. Today, the candidate as a personality is the primary determinant, and party affiliation comes in close to last. When voters base their decisions on a candidate's personality, character, or stand on the issues, the media becomes a very significant player b/c they are the chief source of info about these matters. As image becomes more important, the role of parties naturally declines. When voters can see and hear candidates in their own living rooms, they can make choices that differ from those made by the party. The role of party as campaigner for the candidate has become almost obselete. More candidates enter the races and campaign on their own strengths, raising their own money and building their own organizations.
- Increase in power of media in elections and campaigns (media as "king makers")- more than ever, media personnel can influence the selection of candidates and issues during election time. The selection process begins in the primaries when newspeople, on the basis of as yet slender evidence, must predict winners and losers in order to narrow the filed of eligibles. Concentrating on the front runners in public opinion polls makes the media's task more managable, but it often forces trailing candidates out of races prematurely. Example of little known Georgia Governor, Jimmy Carter. NBC called Carter "the man to beat." Afterwards, he got the covers of Newsweek and Time. Conversely, the media has been known to destroy candidacies: Joe Biden and Gary Hart in 1988.
- Marketing imperative- the type of candidates that emerge has also been altered by the new media politics. Political recruiters have become extremely conscious of a candidate's ability to look impressive and to perform well before the cameras. People who are not telegenic are eliminated from the pool of available recruits. Abraham Lincoln's rugged face probably would not have passed muster. Franklin Roosevelt, who was keenly aware of the likely harmful effects of a picture of him in a wheelchair (which would make him appear weak), never allowed photos to be taken while he was being lifted to the speaker's rostrum.
- The post-modern campaign- mass media coverage has become the campaign's pivotal point. Campaigns are arranged for the best media exposure before the largest suitable audience. To attract media coverage, candidates concentrate on press conferences, talk show appearances, or trips to locations that serve as good backdrops for photo ops. Appearances on various entertainment shows are now routine (anyone remember Clinton blowing his sax on Arsenio?) Candidates plan their schedules to dovetail with media coverage habits. They spend disproportionate amounts of time campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire where media coverage is heavy.