The relationship between politics and mass media has always been complex. Politics is supposed to be an administrative process for a country’s future whilst overseeing the present – sometimes undertaken by way of heroic truthfulness, at other times, through cynical deceit. But is the media now playing from the same rulebook?
Winning as an end in itself
There is concern that politics has become more about simply winning, and then winning again, to the point where relentless politicking is affecting the electorate and the results of the political process. Edelman’s 2017 annual trust barometer survey showed a sharp drop in UK voters’ trust, with only 18% saying they trusted political parties in general to ‘do what is right’. The same survey also revealed that the number of people in the UK saying they trusted the media fell from 36% in 2016 to 24%. Clearly, more confidence being placed in the media than in politicians grants a great deal of influence to those similarly mistrusted media channels. For those who reflect upon the media, it is becoming more relevant to ask: what now constitutes news, and what are the responsibilities - if any - of those who communicate it?
Where persuasion becomes manipulation
The presentation of political debate is one of confrontation, much the same as how sports are presented by the very same media outlets. But this is no coincidence. For example, Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, is also a sports fan who deliberately chose to incorporate certain characteristics of sports network ESPN into CNN’s 2016 presidential election coverage. Speaking to the New York Times, Zucker revealed “the idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached [election coverage] that way”.
Certainly, the parallels between politics and sport are obvious. Winning and losing is a natural part of the process for both. There are political parties, or teams, that go head-to-head for a top prize, within certain parameters. Each of these teams has its partisan supporters. There are even party/team colours, each having its star ‘players’.
From this, it is easy to see how media can frame politics as sport. Like sport, political partisans report news on the ‘game’, and people then take to online message forums and comments sections under the media to continue the discussion. Also, it is not uncommon for media bodies to have an open political bias, such as the Telegraph and Guardian newspapers in the UK. You may ask, does this emphasise the divisions between people, or does it stimulate debate?
Who do you support?
The 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study reported on the American electorate, and the opinions that Democrats and Republicans were equally likely to express. The report showed that ‘41% of people with strong partisan feelings said winning was more important than what the victory would actually mean for society’ and ‘38% of partisans agreed that their parties should use any tactics necessary to “win elections and issue debates”’. This tribalism, so often associated with rival sports fans, could well be attributed to the manner in which people are exposed to political discourse.
Important votes are presented in the same way as any ‘fight of the century’ is, with countdown clocks, dramatic graphics, and pre and post-debate panels. The interaction between hosts, pundits, commentators, even politicians is very often framed as entertainment, often with conversations between two talking heads being reduced to a yelling match.
In his 1985 book, ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’, Neil Postman made some observations on how the prevailing influence of television on people’s lives has made entertainment itself the most normal way to experience life, arguing that television shifted expectations so that all subject matter is presented as entertainment. His damning claim was “if politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether.” The worry is that because television poses news as entertainment, it is inevitable that viewers are deprived of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world.
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