POLITICS ISN’T WORKING? LOOK AT THE MEDIA

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AS IT IS FREQUENTLY ARGUED, ‘POLITICS ISN’T WORKING’ AND THE MEDIA HAVE CONTRIBUTED TO A ‘CRISIS IN POLITICAL COMMUNICATIONS’ CREATING AUDIENCES WHO ARE POLITICALLY CYNICAL OR APATHETIC.

“What’s going on now in journalism is what I call the Studio 54 phenomenon – pushing the envelope, seeing how far we can go before we close the place down. It seems to be an unwritten rule to see how much we can get away with as journalists. I don’t believe there is moral decay in society. And I don’t believe the Lewinsky scandal and the coverage of it indicated such decay. I think we are better off than we were in the ‘50s. And like Studio 54, I think human nature will tell us when it’s time to close down.”

• Today on the tube to Richmond I picked up a copy of Metro that was lying around. It was open on the page with the article reporting on Prince Charles’ speech in Fleet Street yesterday on the media and their growing tendency to be cynical and create cynical audiences.
To the article in Metro I would like to juxtapose one by Paul Bonaventura and Mark Hayhurst in the Spring 2002 issue of the Tate Magazine. “Although it’s fashionable now to worry about democracy and to take the nation’s political temperature after each miserably low by-election or local election turn-out, the opposite argument could actually be made. Never have there been so many opinions around and so much unwillingness to follow leaders. Never have people wanted to express themselves so much. […] This explosion of democracy can be seen through such contemporary phenomena as desktop publishing, talk radio, television chat shows, karaoke machines, newspapers’ columns of people’s likes and dislikes, websites and webcams and online chatrooms. Few people feel anymore they have to be qualified to express it. Technological changes – the Internet in particular – might have paved the way for this opinion-drenched society, but the cultural changes have been decisive.”
The statement is interesting, in that it takes into account – quite uncritically though – all we’ve been discussing this term, and has a very positive outlook on the affirmation of democracy in contemporary Britain.
Considering these two positions, the central questions we should critically look at are: what is the relationship between the media and the workings of democratic societies? To what extent can the media work in favour/ against the idea of citizenship? How do the media affect their audience and shape, if at all, their attitudes?

• Schulz offers a model for the understanding of the situation. ”The mass media take on a central role in the working of the political system. This arises especially because of the decline of all other fora for political interaction, especially the political meeting. […] Schulz suggests that extensive reliance of mass media has been accompanied by an increase in cynicism and negativism towards politics in general.”
In fact, I believe it is sufficient to watch any piece of election campaign to realise how it is dogmatism and cheap mythicising to prevail – “The disciplines of political science and mass communication have been under the sway of what one recent book terms ‘the voter persuasion paradigm.’”(Dan Nimmo and David L. Swanson)
To this regard, can we consider the adversarial political interview to reverse the process we’ve highlighted as a credible vehicle? Ideally, yes. In practice, it is difficult to find an example that demonstrates this ‘ideal’. In fact, if we look at journalists like Paxman, we realise how such interviews are more like stubborn power-games than anything else. They are aggressive spectacle. Rarely the two parties come to an agreement/ conclusion, in a context that to me looks more like the ‘serious’ equivalent of the Jerry Springer show, with the main difference that in talk shows, it is argued by some, people feel they have a chance to express their views and problems, whereas they don’t as far as politics goes. What is interesting about talk shows is that researchers on these shows most of the time find their stories in the tabloid press, and then look for guests the tendency, as I see it, is towards the decline of a politically committed PS, and perhaps the rise of a tabloidised one.

• We come here to another argument in favour of the view that the media are creating cynical and apathetic audiences is that linked to sensationalism. According to this, constant and dramatic coverage of cruel, say, war imagery desensitises the audience. Such argument is linked to that of what I believe is the major issue: that of the tabloidisation of the press. This is a process that can be traced back to the very beginning of the 20th C, when the first gossip column appeared in a British newspaper, which reflects now in the growing tendency to ‘factual TV’ and the proliferation of gossip and lifestyle magazines. The danger is powerfully worded by James Carey, who remarks that “Journalism can be destroyed by other forces other than the totalitarian state; it can also be destroyed by the entertainment state.”
Politics-wise, such concentration on secondary aspects of the private life of the politicians (e.g. insinuations on Bush taking cocaine more important that the Papal visit to Cuba – is this the ultimate apotheosis of infotainment?) and the lack of appropriate debates (arguably) results in audiences more cynical and less interested in the process. Bernstein and Woodward claim that contemporary media are becoming PR firms and do not investigate enough anymore (like they did, foe example, with the Watergate scandal). If they investigate now, it can be argued, it is on rather tabloidised issues, and in a tabloid manner, like in the case of the Lewinsky scandal.

I would like to this regard to mention a study conducted in the 1968 US presidential election campaign (Humphrey and Nixon), and reported by M E McCombs and D L Shaw in their essay The Agenda-Setting Function of the Mass Media. The findings indicated that “a considerable amount of campaign news was not devoted to discussion of the major political issues but rather to analysis of the campaign itself.” They come to the conclusion that “voters tend to share the media’s composite definition of what is important which strongly suggests an agenda-setting function of the mass media.”
James Wilson contends that “Americans like to say they are disgusted with what the media portrays. But they portray it only because we – or at least a large number of us – want to see it.” Are we coming to the paradox that the media are playing their watchdog role indeed, but limiting it to tabloid issues?
Similarly, Colin Sparks says that if the news is tabloidized then that’s because that’s what people want. According to him, we have turned off from wanting to be politically informed, feeling that our being political and out rights as citizens are given for granted anyway, and we aren’t involved with what happens in Parliament.

John Fiske is more optimistic, and doesn’t agree with critical political economy models. He believes audiences are active and tabloid news is about disbelief – about ‘laughing at the powerful’, who express themselves through ‘hard news’. Fiske seems to me to forget that sure, the audience can be very active, but it can be argued that the producers’ power of selection and transmission of certain sets of ‘values’ rather than other is very high, and that the more money a company has the more it will be likely to be able to ‘brainwash’ its consumers (think of the argument on Berlusconi in Italy), therefore most certainly influencing their watching attitudes and modes of perception of news and political debates.

The fact with tabloidization of news (with regard to presidential election campaigns) is that we are not given a proper context and background for our ‘choice’. Election campaigns look more like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire then fair political debates. As a result the complaint that we have cynically lost interest in campaign coverage (which of course results in ill-informed choices).

• ‘PRIME TIME, NOT PRINCIPLE’ = $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
Image-making (=mythicising) is therefore most important in politics. “The images that appear on those screens are the ones on which elections are decided.” Let us think here of the broadcast of the Nixon/ Kennedy debate and the way the two came across, without make-up, and the importance of being ‘telegenic’. So we have Mrs T employing Saatchi to cure and promote her mage; we have campaigns that soon are going to be sponsored by Max Factor; we have Bush not answering questions (which is what he should do at all times) because ‘this is only a photo-opportunity’; we have sound-bites, spin, catchy images, brevity news are broadcasted 24/7 virtually from every place in the world; time has shrunk considerably and that implies an even harsher process of news selection – they say they just don’t have the physical time to provide appropriate debate. As a result, once more, political communications are turned into spectacle, where “the television camera is the only spectator that counts at a political convention or demonstration.”

Journalist Roone Arledge denounces: “Because the primary process, not the conventions, now chooses the candidates and eliminates debate over issues, the biggest fights at the conventions are about who gets on television.” Arledge proposes an alternative idea for the solution of the problems news making is facing. He suggests that if change doesn’t come from politics, since media and politics are so intertwined, the change should then come from the media, by re-thinking “the way that politics gets on television. We ought to give seriousness a chance.”

The appalling coverage of last year’s May Day makes what said so far clear. There seemed to be more cameras than people really, and the real-time coverage by the different TV stations turned the (suffocated) manifestation into a partisan support for the police. The emphasis wasn’t on globalisation at all, but rather on the damages to the buildings, the possible wounded, etc. sensationalism + tabloidisation = spectacle = apathy and cynicism.

• The issue of commodification of the information industry is one to be taken seriously into account. “Contemporary news organizations are primarily oriented toward their audiences, not as citizens but as consumers. The most prominent audiences for the news are advertisers. Advertisers, nor readers, after all, provide the bulk of the income and profit to news organizations.” Timothy Cook here makes the point clear: since the media treat us as consumers, the media will tend to concentrate on light entertainment that they believe appeal to a younger audience, who are the ones nowadays with increasing spending power. The underlying principle is that, to put it crudely, sex sells, politics doesn’t. This was made clear by the head of the Media Research team at Channel4, who at a recent lecture he gave that I attended, confirmed that their targeted audience is the 16-24(34) group.

• In such situations therefore, another key issue at stake is whether journalists will be able to stand up for themselves and their ethics with the purpose of stimulating diversity and democracy, even if that means going against the government. Journalists, to go with Herman’s analysis in his The Global Media, are facing two major kinds of threats (that have their repercussion on the public sphere: that of government control (censorship) and that of private systems of corporate control (self-censorship).
This links us to the discussion on globalisation. The risk of tabloidisation of the news is increasing, as corporate control is increasing due to the firms’ increase in size-ownership (mergers). In practice this means that it’s getting even more difficult for journalists to speak their own mind without going against the directives of the bosses that are always more closely connected to the politicians in power.

NB – This set of workshop notes has been done trying to gain a critical overview of the major debates on the relationship between the communications media and politics dealt with this term. I’ve tried to avoid repeating myself over definitions of public sphere or political economy models, which obviously provide the background for our discussion and which we’ve had a chance to discuss in previous notes. I’ve therefore concentrated on magazines and newspaper articles and books that express views that I find are close to my approach to the question.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

• Rheingold, H. (1994) The Virtual Community. London, Minerva
• Cook, T. E. (1998) Governing with the News. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
• Columbia Journalism Review, Issue Nov./Dec. 1999
• McQuail, D. (1994) Mass Communication Theory. London, Sage
• M E McCombs and D L Shaw, The Agenda-Setting Function of the Mass Media in H Tumber, News: A Reader. Oxford, Oxford University Press
• Wilson, J. Q. (2000) American Government. Boston, MA, Houghton Mifflin Company
• Paul Bonaventura and Mark Hayhurst in the Spring 2002 issue of the Tate Magazine

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