Bhaskar's Corner

Politics & the Media

In recent years, the increasing influence of the media has changed the shape of politics all over the globe. Consequently it has raised provocative questions about journalism’s role in the political process. There are questions about the media’s effect on the political system and the subsystems — including the legislature, the executive and the lobbies.

Is media power in politics a myth or an exaggeration? Who influences whom? When does the media power peak and when does it touch the bottom — these and similar other questions, however, defy any clear-cut answer.

Research over the decades suggests that the media effect on politics cannot be answered in broad generalities. There are various types of effects, on different types of political dispositions, at various levels of political activity, under various conditions. Further, the mass media are highly diverse in content and include a very wide range of activities of which politics is only a miniscule part.

In politics, the mass media influences not only individual opinion but also the way politics is conducted. Today, if political roles are changing, so are the expectations of politicians. Changes take place even between the relationship of followers to leaders, and, perhaps, also some values of political life itself.

Walter Lippmann, a renowned American journalist and political analyst, once said that journalists point a flashlight rather than a mirror at the world. Accordingly, the audience does not receive a complete image of the political scene. Instead, it gets a highly selective series of glimpses. Reality is also tainted. It was his view that the media cannot possibly perform the functions of public enlightenment that democratic theory requires. He reasoned that the mass media cannot tell the truth objectively because the truth is subjective and entails more probing and explanation than the hectic pace of news production allows.

Images of reality the mass media portray differ from country to country. Judging by their respective media, audiences are apt to form quite varied images about events and their international ramifications. Different media produce different opinions when journalists disagree about which political actors and actions deserve the spotlight and which should be regarded positively, negatively or as neutral.

Influence also depends on the credibility of the media and on the esteem with which their audiences regard them. Usually, the media have negative ratings in European countries, but a positive score in the United States. Despite credibility problems, most audiences in Europe believe that the media have much less influence on the three branches of government, while Americans credit the media with a great deal of influence over governmental institutions.

 Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Russian writer, remarked in 1947 while delivering a talk at Harvard University, that the press had become the most powerful force in Western countries. It had surpassed in power the executive, legislature and the judiciary.

Nearly everyone acknowledges that the media plays a powerful role in our public and private lives. Also, opinions about the media and estimates of their influence on society’s other institutions are important barometers of democracy’s functioning.

On the other hand, attitudes about the media have been highly critical. Critiques of the press have spanned a century and several continents. Balzac (1799-1850), the French novelist and dramatist, wrote in 1840 : “In France, the press is a fourth power of state; it attacks all, yet no one attacks it. It reprimands recklessly. It asserts domination over politicians and men of letters that is not reciprocated, claiming that its protagonists are sacred. They say and do horribly foolish things; that is their right! It is high time we took a look at these unknown, second-rate men who hold such importance in their time and who are the moving force behind a press with a production equal to that of books.”

A Louis Harris survey in 1987 revealed that as compared to America, Germany, Great Britain and Spain had little or no confidence in the media. The pluralities in these three countries said the media had too much power. This survey assessed the media’s influence on three central institutions of government-the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Some respondents accused the media of undermining the separation of powers that is the foundation of democracy.

Whether the media actually impedes the operations of the other three organs of democracy is difficult to say, but as the Indian experience shows, the media has a more abiding influence on government and its institutions rather than the other way round.

The American humourist, Will Rogers, contended, “All I know is just what I read in the papers.” For many Indian politicians, there is a good bit of truth in this aphorism — what they learn about ongoing political events comes primarily from the news media. Therefore, the media as a supplier of information moulds public opinion and influences political decisions. If the media guides citizens’ attention to certain issues and influences their thinking process, the media also influences the choice of issues that will be matters of political concern and action. That is the reasoning behind the agenda-setting hypothesis of scholars like Maxwell E. McCombs and Donald L. Shaw.

Agenda-setting or the ability of the media to influence the course of events in the public mind has been part of the political culture of the United States of America for nearly a century. The assumption of media power has been asserted by political journalist and historian, Theodore White, during the presidential elections of 1972. According to him, the power of the press in America is primordial. It sets the agenda for public discussions; and this sweeping political power is unrestrained by any law. It determines what people will talk and think about — an authority that in other nations is reserved for tyrants, priests, parties and bureaucrats.

The idea of agenda-setting asserts that the priorities of the press become the priorities of the public. What the press emphasises is emphasised privately and publicly by the audiences, asserts White. The press largely structures voters’ perceptions of political reality. It can also influence which issues make up the agenda for any particular elections.

In 1952, the Republicans led by Dwight Eisenhower successfully exploited the three Ks — Korea, Corruption and Communism — in order to regain the White House after a hiatus of twenty years. The prominence of those three issues, cultivated by press reports extending over many months and accented by partisan campaign advertising, worked against the incumbent Democratic party.

There are numerous instances of how popular American presidents’ actions and statements reported in the media affected public opinion. These include President Nixon’s persistent opposition to speeding up troop withdrawals from Vietnam during 1969,1970 and 1971; Reagan’s 1981 argument of AWACS airplane sales to Saudi Arabia; Carter’s 1977-78 increased attention to Arab countries, his 1982 bellicose posturing towards the Soviet Union; Ford’s 1974-75 defence of military spending and Carter’s advocacy of cuts in domestic spending, et al.

In contrast, unpopular presidents had little success at opinion leadership. In several cases, unpopular presidents made serious efforts to advocate policies but failed to persuade the public.

In no area of public life have practicing politicians taken media effects more seriously than during elections. Political campaign organisers spend much time, effort and money to attract favourable media attention to candidates for major electoral offices. When their candidates lose, they frequently blame the tone of media coverage, or rather the lack of it.

There is an old saying that there are many slips  between the cup and the lip. It is one thing for politicians to create a particular image and another for that image to be conveyed to news people and, through them, to the voting public.

Systematically establishing the impact of election communication on the public’s opinions and behaviour is a real challenge. The nature of campaign coverage has also a profound impact on the way people vote. This is confirmed by how people tended to view the candidate — as the winner or the loser. As for the media ,that old line of legendary coach Vince Lombardi – “Winning Isn’t Everything, It’s The Only Thing” — is taken to heart and the public response usually follows suit.

Ever since the television age of politics was born in the 1952, American presidential stakes between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, the ability to use the medium has been increasingly essential to electoral success. In 1960, John F Kennedy’s video persona in his televised debate with Richard Nixon proved his margin of victory.

Similarly, in 1976, Jimmy Carter co-opted television in the Democratic primaries to help him create a candidature  that was larger than life. Ronald Reagan throughout his presidency proved that the visual medium had become the political message. Reagan’s White House advisors understood early that in areas of government policy and global complexity the nature of the medium is tedium. And so, by controlling the pictures, they could control the pacing of the news shows.

The media effects politics in a variety of ways. They also affect public policies. By mobilizing hostile public or interest group opinions, the media may force a halt to political choices. But, as a general rule, journalists should disclaim any motivation to influence public policies through their news stories. Except for the editorial pages, their credo calls for objective, neutral reporting. Only investigative stories may be the major exceptions to this rule.

Contemporary political folklore pictures the media as adversaries of officialdom who alert the citizens to governmental misdeeds or failures. In reality, there are, or may occur, many situations when officials and journalists work together to bring about needed action.

The power of news people rests largely in their ability to select news for publication and feature it as they choose. Many people in and out of government try to influence these media choices. But in the ultimate analysis, it is the editor and news directors — the gatekeepers in news media- who, in an ideal situation, decide which item to clear  and which one  to reject.

(First Published in The Frontier Post)


Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.



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