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The Role of Media in Politics

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Authored by K. Thor Jensen in Politics
Published on 07-24-2009

A common nickname for the media is “The Fourth Estate” – this term, which was first recorded in the 19th century, referred to the three estates of the British Parliament. Newspapers of the time formed an unofficial fourth group that wielded just as much, if not more, power in shaping public opinion. The press has long been the middleman between the actions of politicians and the opinions of the public, and it can be shocking just how much force a motivated media can wield. In this article, I will trace a brief history of media’s involvement in politics so we can judge whether that power is being used wisely.

Ever since the earliest days of mass media, the newspaper titans have used their power to meddle in politics. Before a façade of objectivity was required, most of the publishers agitated in their pages for pet political causes, going as far as William Randolph Hearst’s pushing the United States into the Spanish-American War with his over-the-top “yellow journalism.” As the age of the newspaper has come to a close, its power to motivate and shape public opinion has declined. Few now go to its pages for political coverage.

The advent of television can be fairly said to have reconfigured the face of politics forever with one televised debate. When Richard Nixon sat down across from John F. Kennedy in September of 1960, most political wags expected the California Senator to wipe the floor with the brash Kennedy. However, the reverse proved to be true, as Nixon’s personal charisma didn’t translate over the airwaves and he came off as sickly and uncomfortable. JFK looked cool and collected. Kennedy easily won the election, and the power of the boob tube has continued to influence our electoral choices unabated. Remember Howard Dean’s primal scream, or Sarah Palin’s many conversational fumbles? Without television, these influential moments would have been lost to the ether, but instead they were recorded forever and turned some major political tides.

Most recently, the Internet has totally transfigured the way the media and politics intersect. The rise of citizen journalism has led to anybody with a good story being able to get coverage for it, spreading like wildfire across blogs and news sites without any funding – or journalistic training. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing – the free access to information gives consumers far more than traditional media could offer, but at the expense of the reliability that those organizations can promise. It is becoming increasingly hard to separate truth from fiction, and that can have devastating effects during a political campaign.

So is the media responsible in their coverage of political news? It depends on who you ask. Extremists on both sides argue a constant bias against their candidates and issues of choice, and plenty of right and left-wing outlets exist for both parties. As with any media, the real onus is on the consumer to go deeper than the headlines and discover the truth about their politicians for themselves.

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