How Do Citizens Connect With Their Government?

5d. The Media

Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan's ability to use the media to reach the people helped him land the nickname "The Great Communicator." Here, Reagan steps to the podium to deliver a speech at the 1984 Republican National Convention.

"I view this as a mini-series that has to be told over four nights." -Andy Card Co-chair of the 2000 Republican Convention

Does the media primarily report politics, or does it shape political events? The quote above certainly reflects the power of the media to determine the course of major political events. The purpose of a political party convention is to formally nominate a presidential candidate, but of course the party wants to win votes in the general election. When politicians play to the media, does the media then control politics? Many people today criticize television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet for unfairly using their power as a major link between citizens and their government. Do the media fairly explore issues, or do they impose their own positions?

The influence of the media is increased by the fact that campaigns today have become more focused on the individual than on the party. In order to win primaries, individual candidates seek media attention to gain attention from voters. As a result, do voters hold political power, or has the media simply replaced political parties as the primary force behind candidate selection?

The Political Influence of the Media

The media can shape government and politics in many ways. Here are a few:

The Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network — better known as C-SPAN — has been bringing live, commercial-free coverage of House of Representatives and the Senate sessions into homes since 1979.

1. By influencing political opinions of voters. Not surprisingly, the voting behavior of people who are actively interested in politics is probably not changed by the media. Committed Democrats and Republicans selectively learn what they want to from media sources. However, the media can sway people who are uncommitted or have no strong opinion in the first place. Since these voters often decide elections results, the power of media in elections can be substantial.

2. By determining the behavior of candidates and officials. Many good politicians have learned that they can succeed — in getting elected and in getting things done — if they know how to use the media. President Franklin Roosevelt was famous for his "fireside chats," in which he soothed the pain of economic depression and war by talking to citizens over the radio. President Ronald Reagan's skills as a film and television actor enabled him to communicate very effectively with American voters. Government officials and candidates for office carefully stage media events and photo opportunities. Critics believe that too much attention is focused on how politicians look and come across on camera, rather than on how good a job they are doing in public service.

3. By setting the public agenda. Most Americans learn about social issues from print or electronic media. The fact that the media focuses on some issues and ignores others can help set what gets done in government. Media sources have often been accused of emphasizing scandal and high-interest issues at the expense of duller but more important political problems. The government's priorities can be rearranged as a result.

Donna Rice and Gary Hart
Who are these people? Gary Hart had a good chance of becoming President in 1988, but when his affair with Donna Rice was revealed by the press, he was forced to abandon his campaign.

The media clearly has a great deal of power in American politics today. Is that a good or a bad thing for government? From one point of view, the media abuse their power, especially since they are driven by profit motive to give people what they want, not necessarily what they need. On the other hand, perhaps the media serves as an important player in a modern "checks and balances" system. Reporters function as "watchdogs" to be sure that Presidents, Representatives, and Justices do not abuse their powers. The media in turn is checked by government regulations, by skilled politicians, and by the people's own good judgment.

On the Web
The Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network — better known as C-SPAN — started in 1979. It provides continuous, commercial-free coverage of the House of Representatives and the Senate when those bodies are in session, and assorted public affairs programming when they are not.
The Cable News Network — or CNN — provides this information-rich, multimedia-laden companion to its television network. Get the latest news from around the globe, and use RealPlayer to view video clips of breaking stories. To paraphrase James Earl Jones: "This ... is CNN's website."
National Rifle Association: Institute for Legislative Action
The National Rifle Association (NRA) is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the U.S. today. This website, the home of the NRA's "Institute for Legislative Action," acts as an information warehouse and provides the tools necessary to write your elected representatives to express your support or disdain for their gun policies.
The Washington Post
Far and away one of the United States' most respected daily newspapers, The Washington Post provides coverage of all the news, with an excellent amount of news on governmental happenings "inside the beltway." Visit their special "On Politics" section for election and government information.
The Associated Press
In 1848, representatives of six New York newspapers pooled their resources to better cover the latest news from Europe — and the Associated Press was born. The AP is one of the world's most respected news agencies, having won almost 50 Pulitzer Prizes.
Independent Media Center
Many worry about the ability of the corporations that own news organizations to fairly and accurately cover stories that may effect their success. The Independent Media Center offers grassroots, non-corporate coverage of governmental and social events from around the globe.
FAIR: Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting
Concerned about the fairness and accuracy of the news you use? So are the folks at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) who act as a national media "watchdog" group. FAIR supports greater diversity in the press and spends a great deal of time keeping an eye on the media and its practices. Read some eye-opening reports and statistics here.
Franklin D. Roosevelt's Fireside Chats
FDR's fireside chats helped alleviate the tensions of the Great Depression by keeping people informed, using the new medium of radio. This site has a audio files of the fireside chats along with a transcript.

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