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The role of the mass media in American politics today

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The mass media today play a vital role in American politics and possess a vast amount of power with reference to the political process. A role is defined as characteristic and expected social behaviour and the function, position or actions taken by a required person or group. (web reference 1) Politics as we know it is inconceivable without the mass media. They are the central forums of political communication in modern liberal democracies and are known today as the ‘fourth estate’. This essay will argue the role the mass media play in American politics by examining ideas of political propaganda; dominant ideologies presented in the media, polysemic meanings conveyed, political party campaigns, journalistic bias and their positions as gatekeepers. The mass media of the United States of America are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function.

Governments everywhere are aware of the political importance of the media. Governments therefore have developed philosophies about the political role to be played by the media in their societies and ways to control the impact of the media on government activities. The Latin definition of media is “middle” (O’Shaughnessy, 1999:2) as they are the middle chain of communication from the sender and the receiver of information. In society today, the media are situated in a pluralist model of liberal democracy and are often seen as fulfilling the vitally important role of ‘fourth estate’ being the guardians of democracy and defenders of the public interest. (web reference 2) The mass media in American politics are known as the fourth branch of government in addition to the main three of the President, executive and judiciary branches.

Within contemporary society today, the media transmit political propaganda from the political to the public sphere. Propaganda is information or material spread for the specific purpose of promoting a doctrine or cause which reflects the views and interests of those advocating or opposing it. (web reference 1) Journalists and their editors tend to frame political news in ways, which emphasise rivalries between leaders and, to a lesser extent, the contest between government and Opposition front benchers. Tiffen’s position on the power of the media throughout politics is:

The political role of news tend to picture news content as a deliberate exercise of power – the expression of propaganda to further the interests and attitudes of those producing it (2000:184)

To an extent, news today is a form of popular entertainment and neglects to inform people in a reliable way. Hartley claims:

News is not the newsworthy event itself, but rather the report or account of an event. It is a discourse made into a meaningful story in the same way as speech is made up out of elements of language. (1982:11)

People are independent of television news as a reliable source of information compared with newspapers. (Lodziak, 1986:64) Television news, current affairs and prime time entertainment neglect to represent viewpoints, which contrast dominant interests. Ideology is apparent in the mass media as it reinforces the dominant ideas of the ruling class and elite corporations within American society. Television is a cultural agent that provokes and circulates these ideas, which serve the dominant interests within the variety of social groups that constitute its audiences. (Barker, 1997:81) News is organised on a daily basis within a limited timeframe with the need to maintain popular ratings, which leads to the simplification and sensationalism of events. Consequently, audiences rarely receive a complex understanding of events.

The media are technologically developed and economically profitable forms of human communication held either in public or private ownership, which can transmit information and entertainment across time and space to large groups of people. Ownership of media corporations greatly influences the delivery and distribution of political information to the public. The American mass media are predominantly in private ownership as opposed to public. Public broadcasting channels like the ABC in America and BBC in the United Kingdom have lost audience support and market share due to the dominant influence media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer possess. O’Shaughnessy states:

Their influence on media output is so great that it increasingly limits our information and gives them significant political power. Their companies have control over publishing, print, television, satellite outlets, and over news, entertainment, sports and other non-media interests. (1999:13)

The presentation of news through the mass media is seen to reflect the political prejudices of the owners. This notion conveys an apparent bias within the media and displays the amount of power and influence the media possess within contemporary society.

The lack of accuracy inherent in the mass media is considered a measure of apparent bias. Bias being: “the failure to treat all voices in the marketplace of ideas equally”. (Rachlin, 1988:7) Media corporations that are impartial and fair are understood to present the world the way it is. Impartiality assists the media in legitimacy and authority and permits the media to shape their accounts within preferred ideologically embedded cultural stereotypes.

Media highlight issues and identify particular topics as social concerns. Importance is attributed to the relevance of the particular issues conveyed by the media and the majority of society accepts this as truth/knowledge. Depending on the political preference of the owner of the media corporation, the political system will be presented differently. George Gerbner from the University of Pennsylvania argues that:

we have many more channels than ever before… at the same time ownership shrinks; so what happens is fewer owners own more channels and therefore can program the same materials across many channels; instead of more channels creating greater diversity they seem to be creating greater homogeneity, greater uniformity, greater standardisation and greater globalisation (O’Shaughnessy, 1999:13)

In this process, the media present a set of cultural values that their audiences are likely to accept as typical of American society. The media
thus help to integrate and homogenise society.

Paradoxically, both politicians and the American media possess power and they co-exist with one another in the public sphere, which enhances the other’s success. The more a political campaign is broadcast, especially on television, the more public attention they receive. This can work both for and against the political party in question, as it must be positive media exposure to work in favour of promoting a political campaign.

The Constitution of the United States declares: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” (McKay, 1989:313) The mass media have enormous power within society and manufacture news stories in a way that sells. Political scandals and bad behaviour of Presidents and their Congress members will attract media attention undoubtedly. In the case of the New York Times v. United States, 1971 or more popularly known as the “Pentagon Papers” it was eventually decided in favour of the press. Bennett claims:

The Supreme Court ruled that the press and the public’s First Amendment

right to decide the truth was greater, in that particular case, than the government’s right to keep legal secrets. (1994:402)

Another instance of an American political scandal, which was heavily broadcast on an international scale, was the alleged controversial Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky affair. Most media outlets around the world broadcast this alleged scandalous occurrence of the unacceptable behaviour of an American President, as the public expects the leader of their country to be a respectable individual and if they are not, the public want to be informed. This alleged affair secured prominence in the mass media and most people would recall President Bill Clinton continually stating: ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’. Graber is concerned about the power of the media to set the civic agenda as it is “not controlled by a system of formal checks and balances as is power at various levels of government” (1989:8) This emphasises the need for closer surveillance to be kept on the mass media.

As the media are the central forums for political communication, they have become the essential arenas for political conflict. News coverage dwells on political conflicts, especially television current affairs programs that have a longer timeframe to discuss current issues of public interest. In their representations, the media display a biased account of events to the audience. The media have more influence than power in the political system; however, the media providing publicity to the political parties voicing their policies strengthens campaigns. This can be seen in the Californian “three strikes” policy, which was implemented to keep criminals in jail once they had re-committed a crime. The legislation was given media coverage all over the state of California, which increased awareness of the policy and conjured up more support for its implementation.

“Governments believe their electoral interests are directly involved and the delivery of favourable and positive coverage in the media equals political success”. (Tiffen, 2000:183) If the mass media present an American presidential candidate in a certain way, it can either assist the candidate’s success or be the ingredient to their downfall.

Political leaders, governments, the major parties and many pressure groups have developed quite sophisticated public relations strategies for securing favourable news coverage. (Stewart & Ward, 1996:249) The President of the United States of America “is covered more than any other news source”. (Bennett, 1994:392) Major political parties have come to see the medium of television as an effective means of communicating directly with voters. Politicians could reach a mass audience and communicate their policies on a national scale. Most politicians have learnt to address voters using the 10 -15 second sound ‘grabs’ which they repeat during interviews to emphasise the intended message to the public. If a more complex statement was communicated, the main elements of importance would be lost and the specific topic of discussion would be less concrete.

Although not all-political matters will be debated in the mass media, newspapers, radio and especially television are an important part of the political process. Interestingly, Stewart and Ward (1996:249) claim that until 1983, “radio and television were forbidden to broadcast election news or carry political advertising during the 48 hours before election day lest they unduly influence voters”. Although some voters are highly susceptible to propaganda messages, most of the public is loyal to the political party they support.

Images of politicians portrayed throughout the media have a definite impact upon the public. The media have the power to present a politician in a positive or negative light depending upon the topic of discussion, however they must ensure they abide by the law as if they misrepresent a politician they could be sued for defamation. If political issues over time are repeatedly given news coverage, the public tends to view these issues as important. An instance of this would be the recent saturation of news coverage of the war in Iraq. Societal opinions may alter with influential factors presented through the mass media such as changing social, economic and political conditions in America.

Many politicians see journalists as information gatekeepers. By gatekeepers, it implies that journalists are the ones who decide what information is allowed to be presented and what information gatekeepers leave out. Everything and everyone has to pass through their privileged discourses. These people are the mediators for public access to the world.

In reality what the general public read, hear, and view from the mass media is information that has undergone a highly engineered process of filtering, editing and packaging before it reaches their consciousness. Innumerable decisions are made along the way that affects not only what you read, but also whether you get to read it at all. The process falls under the heading of “production value,” and decisions about what to print are often termed “gatekeeping.” Traditionally, there have been legitimate reasons for “packaging” information. Because content was necessarily circumscribed by length, largely out of consideration for distribution and cost, decisions had to be made on what a physical product should contain. The main reason for the mass media being gatekeepers is for privilege.

The mass media are an important influence on politics in America today as they rapidly present politically crucial information to mass audiences. These audiences include political elite’s and decision-makers whose political activities are shaped by information from the mass media. News shaping is unavoidable because space is limited and facts do not speak for themselves. Hence, the media select and shape the material needed by political elite’s and the general public for thinking about the political world and planning political action.

This essay has explored the vital role the mass media possess in American politics by examining instances of political propaganda, dominant ideologies presented in the media, polysemic meanings conveyed, political party campaigns, journalistic bias and their positions as gatekeepers. This analysis has led to the conclusion that not only is the American mass media seen as the fourth branch of government by being the guardians of democracy and defenders of the public interest (web reference 2), but they are also the middle chain of communication that connects the political to the public sphere.


Barker, C. (1997) Global Television: An introduction, Blackwell Publishers Ltd,

Oxford, UK, p176-183.

Bennett, W.L. (1994) Inside the system: culture, institutions, and power in American

politics, Harcourt Brace College Publishers, Texas.

Fiske, J. (1987) Television Culture, Methuen & Co. Ltd.

Graber, D (1989) Mass Media and American Politics, 3rd ed. Third Printing, America.

Hartley, J. (1982) Understanding News, London, Methuen, p11-37

Lodziak, C. (1986) The Power of Television, St Martins Press, New York.

McKay, D (1989) American Politics and Society, Basil Blackwell Ltd, Oxford.

O’Shaughnessy, M. (1999) Media and Society: An Introduction Oxford University

Press, South Melbourne, AUSTRALIA.

Rachlin, A. (1988) News as hegemonic reality: American political culture & the framing

of news accounts, Praeger Publishers, Greenwood Press Inc, New York.

Stewart, R & Ward, I (1996) Politics One, Macmillan, Melbourne

Tiffen, R (2000) ‘The news media and Australian politics: contemporary challenges for Australian democracy in the information age’ in Politics of Australian Society: Political Issues for the New Century, Eds. Boreham, P, Stokes, G, & Hall, R, Pearson Education Australia, Frenchs Forest, Sydney.

Tiffen, R (1989) News and Power, Sydney.

1. www.dictionary.com

2. http://www.cultsock.ndirect.co.uk/MUHome/cshtml/index.html

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