Why Commercialized Media are Bad for Democracy
This blog post was first written in 2012 in the lead up to the Presidential Election. I have changed a couple things and reposted it here because I think its still relevant now as we approach the 2014 Mid-Term Elections.
It is widely accepted that politics and media have become enmeshed. Our political process is media-ized. The nature of this joined media-politics relationship is one of interdependence. Viewing themselves as a critical, fourth estate, the media are dependent on politicians and their spin-doctors for content. Politicians are dependent on the media to steer the public into the voting booth. The media-ization of politics has both ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ and after careful consideration of both columns I will argue that the media-ization of our political process is largely detrimental to society.
The nature of the media-politics relationship is one of mutual interdependence between journalists and media elites. Also affecting this relationship are the pressures of commercialism that, as commercial entities, media organizations are highly influenced by. This can best be understood by examining both the media’s idealized role as well as its actual role.
In the idealized media-politics relationship journalists and media professionals see their role as a special fourth estate of the government charged with playing a watchdog role and providing a check against government power. This is what Eric Louw sees as the ideal relationship. (Louw, 2010, p. 48) This idealized role of the media has become normalized since John Delane first brought it forth in 1852 and is now the standard paradigm though which journalists see their profession. Journalists see being critical of politicians as central to their relationship with the political process. Further, journalists see it as their duty to “champion citizen rights” and “provide a platform for debate.” (Louw, 2010, p. 49)
Problematically, this has resulted in journalists depending upon the political elite and their spin-doctors. This is a problem because “political sources are inherently going to be manipulative and engage in demagoguery because they have a vested interest in manipulating the media machine.” (Louw, 2010, p. 71)
The actual media-politics relationship has also created dependence the other way; politicians depend on the media to steer the masses into electing them. Because political elites need the mass public to elect them and they cannot interact personally with these mass publics (nearly enough) they rely upon media to disseminate their messages. Thus, media and the political elite are dependent upon each other in a symbiotic relationship.
The media-politics relationship is heavily influenced by commercial pressures, and thus, is a hybridization of adversarial and sensationalist journalism. As Louw explains on page 73, the commercialization of media frees the press from state control, but creates a dependence on profit and the bottom line. Commercialized media depend on revenue to exist and must produce content that is commercially viable. This has led to a media bias for “entertaining, titillating and sensational content.” (Louw, 2010, p. 49) Commercialism drives media to favor profitability over quality content. Louw explains that this trivialization is profitable because it “appeals to mass audiences and facilitates the de-skilling and downsizing of newsrooms.” (Louw, 2010, p. 57) Journalists as critics of politicians is part of the ideal media-politics relationship in the actual relationship the media have become highly critical of trivial aspects of politics. Hollihan argues that he believes that “political campaigns have become too focused on the politics of personal character.” (Hollihan, 2009, p. 295) Critical journalism as the standard has led many journalists to distrust all politicians and to seek out scandal type stories. Stories mainly about “sex, marital difficulties, drug use and the like- about the private lives of all celebrities, including politicians” have exacerbated the media bias toward sensationalism. (Hollihan, 2009, p. 299) The result of the media politics relationship is “sensationalized watchdogism appealing to entertainment-seeking mass audiences.” (Louw, 2010, p. 49)
There are many ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ to the media-ization of politics most of which, can be interpreted to go either way. Louw describes a significant ‘pro’ for the governments and militaries around the world that engage in warfare. The emergence of mass media has made the justification of war and the manipulation of potential fighters much easier. Louw writes that within democratic countries fighting wars requires “whipping up mass public support for war, so that citizens will sacrifice their lives and pay taxes to fund wars.” (Louw, 2010, p. 142) Indeed, this need started the use of mass media to disseminate propaganda as early as the Spanish American War in 1898 and was fully developed during the First World War. Yes, the media-ization of politics has been very beneficial to military’s and government’s spin-doctors. Louw goes so far as to say that “television, when used well, can be a military PR unit’s dream medium.”(2010, p. 154)
One ‘con’ of the media-ization of politics is that it’s negativity results in lower voter turnout. Hollihan argues, on page 312, that negative portrayals of politics by the media have led to increased public cynicism and decreased voter interest. This is a ‘con’ for the American people who benefit from a large, well-informed, voting electorate. Hollihan uses a quote from Bennett to illustrate how the media are increasingly portraying politicians as unsympathetic, scheming, and incompetent. This is a serious ‘con’ for the American people because it degrades the political process by which the country runs. Particularly, political campaigns which are increasingly trivialized and conflict-ized by the media. The media degrade political campaigns by reducing the discussion to non-issues and generally trivializing the political discourse. Examples of this can be seen throughout the 2012 political campaigns as well as articles from many news organizations voicing the popular dissent against negative political ads. But negative portrayals of politics in the media are not limited to campaign advertising, media portrayals of politics and politicians are often negative even outside of campaigns.
Another ‘con’ to the enmeshing of politics and media to the public audiences of mass media is the various biases in the media. Though there is not much ideological bias today, according to Hahn, the media do hold many biases towards other things. These include a bias toward what makes money, toward the visual (on TV), toward the immediate, toward the status quo, toward American assumptions, toward fairness and balance, for bad news over good, and for certain story structures. These biases are underlined by points made by Louw when he illustrates a trend toward trivialization and titillation in the media and away from hard news. The media having these biases is detrimental to society because it results in a manipulated worldview to media audiences. Media do not support the education or wellbeing of their audiences if they spread biased information. (Hahn, 2003, ch. 3) A good example of a bias toward trivialization and toward what makes money was a recent CNN headline story about a pet monkey that became lost at an Ikea store. This is a very trivial story that is not relevant to a national audience. A story about a lost monkey in a department store does not deserve space along headlines about war and global economies like this story had.
The effects of media-ized politics on political campaigns, is also largely negative for voters. The primary method by which the media influence political campaigns is through “agenda-setting” or the press’s ability to shape mass attention and interest toward some things and away from others. Hollihan writes, “The media have profound power to shape public conversations about social issues.” (Hollihan, 2009, p.117) Though this agenda setting function of the media can be a ‘con’ and a ‘pro’ for political elites it is primarily a ‘con’ for the public because it hinders public discourse and shifts conversations away from important topics. It can be a ‘pro’ for elites if they have enough power to control the agenda setting in a way that benefits them. Because the media have many biases previously discussed by Hahn they do not always ‘set the agenda’ in a way that is best for society or for most candidates.
Considering these pros and cons has led me to conclude that the media-ization of politics is primarily detrimental to the American political process, though, I’m not convinced that any integration of media and politics is inherently negative for society. Where the inherent troubles are introduced is via the dependence on profit. Politicians using media to disseminate their messages and the media relying upon political elites for content are not necessarily bad things.
I can clearly imagine an integration of media and politics that works smoothly and productively for to the benefit of the democratic process. Without the need to maximize profit margins the news organizations could hire the better journalists and provide them better training so they could produce higher quality work. These better journalists could, being freed from time constraints set by the bottom line, work more slowly, but not too slowly, to accurately analyze campaigns and candidates and present them in clear ways without sacrificing their complexity. They could be critical without becoming trivial or overly adversarial. Journalists would not be pressured to get a quick sound bite from the first available “expert” so they could take their time to find the best sources for their stories. I do not think the problem is the integration of media and politics but rather it’s the dependence on financial returns that causes most of the problems.
I consider the media-ization of politics to be a seriously negative force in society only when paired with the influence of commercial pressures. These commercial pressures introduce many of the problems we associate with media-ized politics and without the profit dependence an integration of politics and media would not be nearly as harmful to democracy. However, let me be the first to say that it is not easy to envision a system of media where there are not problems for politics and society as a whole. Simply removing the commercial pressures from media, would be extremely difficult to do and would not eliminate all problems from our media-political system. Removing commercial pressures is not a cure-all solution. Thus I conclude that there is not an easy solution or perfect system for media or politics to function without difficulty or problems but a reduction of commercial pressures on media organizations in America would likely be beneficial for most citizens.
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Hahn, D. F. (2003). Political Communication. PA, USA: Strata Publishing.
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Louw, E. (2010). Media & Political Process. Thousand Oaks, CA, USA: Sage.
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2 http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/08/too-negative-voters-blast-obama-romney-ads/ ABC article on negative campaign ad
6 http://edition.cnn.com/video/?hpt=hp_c4#/video/us/2012/12/11/moos-pkg-ikea-monkey.cnn CNN trivial article about monkey