Media and politics
While some scholars and citizens believe that the media is too critical, and that it causes dissatisfaction with, and distrust of, the government, others feel that the media is not critical enough - Media and politics introduction. There is evidence to suggest that not one, but both sides are right.
According to Thomas E. Patterson, news reporting changed over the last few decades from descriptive to interpretive. Whereas, at one time, reporters attempted merely to describe events that took place, they now attempt to tell their audiences why. According to Patterson (97):
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One consequence is a form of news coverage that focuses on the negative aspects of politics. This development contributes to the public’s dissatisfaction with its political leaders and institutions and makes it more difficult for officials to govern effectively
Some of the press’s focus on negative issues is justifiable. Much of it is a result of the dishonesty of presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War and Watergate. According to Patterson (103), the press felt that, because two presidents had lied, “none could be taken at his word.” Patterson says that the past has left the press with an unhealthy attitude. Indeed, he says: Reporters have a jaded opinion of politicians, whether liberal or conservative, and of the political process within which they operate.” It is true that presidents have often lied to the public. In recent times, President George H. Bush promised “no new taxes,” yet there were new taxes. Even more recently, President Bill Clinton was caught lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Therefore, the press is right to be skeptical of politicians’ methods.
Yet there is more to the press’s constant focus on negatives than healthy skepticism.
According to Patterson, “The absence of effective restraints on this attitude is reflected in the fact that political leaders and institutions are likely to be criticized almost regardless of what they do.” (Patterson, 99) And according to Eshbaugh-Soha and Peak (127), “The media have their own goals of increasing ratings and profits, and will not always address issues that presidents find important.” Members of the press also take market forces into consideration. Audiences are more interested in drama than they are in the mundane, thus, sometimes, in order generate more demand for news, the press focuses more on conflict. Indeed, when it can, it will often create drama. According to Patterson, “The news, at best, is a workable compromise between the economic need of news organizations to attract
and hold their audiences and the polity’s need for a public forum.”
In addition to economic considerations, many members of the media, and, perhaps more importantly, many owners of media outlets, have their own biases and policy objectives. According to Page (21):
Media organizations (e.g., Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation) and their executives might seek public policies of particular concern to themselves (e.g., relaxation of limits on foreign ownership of U.S. TV stations), by
making campaign contributions, doing favors for politicians, or lobbying, just like other interest groups.
Finally, the media often faces challenges it cannot meet. Today’s audiences expect up-to-the minute news. Because members of the press must compete with other networks to break news stories, the press does not always have adequate time to check the validity of the statements politicians release. In many cases, the press often relies on the refutation of political opponents as a “check” on news releases. According to Patterson:
By the mid-1970s, the media had settled upon a substitute for true investigative journalism. They began to use opponents as a means to undermine a politician’s claims. When a politician made a statement, they
turned to his adversaries to attack it. Conflict, always an element of political coverage, became the predominant theme. (Pastterson 103)
Because these refutations are more often than not, quite negative, the press reports from a negative slant. Therefore, oftentimes, when, the media is critical, it is not because of any ethical reason, but instead because of personal bias, self-interest or the inability to perform the duties expected of the members of the press.
Yet despite all the reasons the press has to portray the government in a negative light, many object that media coverage of the government is too favorable. Indeed, according to Greenblatt (3), some believe that the media has, “become little more than stenographic services for government and corporate power brokers.” According to Miskin (1), during the Persian Gulf Crisis in the nineties, television network news in particular largely parroted the Bush administration’s line, accepting and passing on its version of reality as the truth.” It would be hard to argue that the same is true of the Media today, as war coverage is most commonly quite negative, however, the press has frequently throughout history, championed the causes of presidents’.
According to Hussein (35), during the Clinton presidency, “Nearly every pronouncement of the US government was taken at face value by the major media.” When it was suggested that US policy towards Iraq was murderous, says Hussein, the press refuted the claim by saying that even suggesting so was “tantamount to a defense of Saddam Hussein’s regime.”
One reason the media often parrots the words of an administration is that the government is one of the media’s most important news sources. According to Page (22), “government officials serve as the chief sources of many kinds of political news and tend to constrain the range of debate found in the media” This sort of constraint, says Page, when taken to an extreme, can lead to a situation in which news outlets merely repeat government propaganda (Page, 22).
Just as economic factors can influence the press to cover the negative side of politics, they can also lead the press to look the other way when critical coverage is necessary. According to Miskin (1), sometimes the media finds it safer to “”wave the flag and propagate disinformation (in the name of ‘military security’)”, than it does to criticize government officials and thereby “alienate advertisers.” (Miskin, 1)
Evidence indicates that there are good reasons for the media to be too critical, but it also indicates that there are good reasons for it not to be critical enough. Yet, which case, does the Media, in reality, take? The truth seems to be that the media takes both courses. While it often criticizes politicians personally, it is often not critical enough about policy. According to Hussein, journalists investigated every angle they could think of in Clinton’s sex scandal, but they, “scarcely raised a serious question about the military build-up in the Gulf.” Indeed, he says, they became “watchdogs” in regard to Clinton’s personal life, but “lap dogs” when it came to foreign policy.”
Is the Media the same today? The media began attacking Bush for activities in his personal life. They brought up his former struggle with alcohol, laughed at his college antics (like dancing the alligator) and criticized the idiosyncracies in his speeches. Indeed, Bush’s personality traits provided the media with fodder frequently. Indeed, according to Jenny Edbauer (1) of the John Hopkins University Press, “His mouth opens, but the words won’t come. And when they do finally come, they are wrong. “ This was once enough to satisfy the press. But Bush’s foreign policy seems to warrant more criticism these days.
Though, according to Hussein, “scarcely a serious question” was asked of Clinton regarding his foreign policy toward Iraq, today, critical questions and comments about Bush’s foreign policy abound. One of the major criticisms the media launched against the Bush administration, was the statement that Bush allowed torture in Abu Ghraib. Not only did the press mention this idea, they displayed pictures of the victims of the torture. (Henderson, 1) Indeed, the press has often called the war in Iraq a terrible foreign policy blunder.
Clearly, then, Hussein’s observation about the lack of press criticism, seems not to apply to the current presidency. But is the press too critical? Perhaps the best way to determine the answer to this question, is to determine what the proper role of the media is in political life.
The importance of a free press was established, in part, by Andrew Hamilton in the Zeneger Trial. Zenger argued that it was a right of free men to, “complain when they are hurt.” Furthermore, said Zenger, they had a duty and a right to inform their neighbors when politicians were abusing their power. Without this right, he argued, they had no liberty. The court ruled in favor of Zenger and had him acquitted.
If men have the right to complain against the abuse of power, and if they have the right to alert their neighbors of violence and craft, then it sounds reasonable that someone ought to be in charge of guarding against such things. The logical group to report on such abuses are reporters. Patterson backs up this idea, saying, “politics is sometimes plagued by officeholders’ deceit and myopia.” This, he says, they ought to inform the public about (Patterson, 106).
Although the press ought to report on real harms, many members of the press take criticism too far or criticize when they should not. According to Patterson (107), a consequence of this it that they have begun to “rob political leaders of the public confidence that is required to govern effectively.” (Patterson, 106) Another problem with today’s journalism, is that journalists do not know their places. Whereas, when descriptive reporting was commonplace, reporters acted as mere storytellers, today’s journalists often portrait themselves as stars, and according to Patterson, they have begun to act as if they know all the facts. The proper thing to do, he says, is to”subordinate” the journalists voice and to make the news the focus once more. (Patterson, 97)
Yet it is unrealistic to expect the press to subordinate their own voices voluntarily. Restricting the press too much through law threatens the principles of liberty, and is furthermore, unconstitutional. Is there, then, any solution to the problems caused by a press that is too negative? The evidence says, “yes.”
Although, in the past, creating networks to provide alternative news has been difficult because of costs, the Internet has made it possible for many voices to be heard at low or no cost.
Indeed, according to Greenblatt (5):
Americans who once had to get their news from one or two local newspapers or a 30‑minute broadcast by one of three networks can pick their own “politically appropriate” media — from right‑leaning talk radio, Internet sites and Fox News to left‑leaning independent media sources or newspapers from around the world via the Internet.
This helps solve, not only the problem of too much but also the problem of not enough. In the case of the former, if the major networks attribute false motives to a candidate, the supporters of that candidate can defend him through blogs, online journals or even through video releases on online sharing sites like YouTube. In the case of the latter, if the media decides to look the other way when an official makes a foreign policy blunder, critics can inform the world through the same methods.
In conclusion, although members of the mainstream media are guilty of turning away from stories that they ought to cover – and although they are guilty of focusing too much on the negative side of governance, their role in politics is essential. The media can and should stay informed and inform the public about abuses of power and threats to individual liberties. The media should not, however, abuse its own power and it should not undermine the authority of officials who truly wish to do the will of the people.
When the media does begin to try to unjustly undermine the authority of those who govern, it ought to be combated. Not through overly-restrictive legislation, but instead, through economics. The citizens of the United States should pull their support from such media and turn to fairer outlets for news and entertainment.
Furthermore, when the media stops doing its job and fails to inform the citizens about true dangers to their liberties, the citizens ought to inform each other through the alternate means that are, today, available. Though the style and form of news media may need to change, the importance of fair and thorough reporting will not.
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