What role has been played by the media in US political contests?
The media has often played a significant role in political campaigns. Media coverage can contribute to the way a candidate is viewed in the eyes of the public, a fact that became even more prevalent during the 2008 U.S. elections with the introduction of ‘New Media.’
The following essay is an examination of the media’s role in US political contests. It will look at the rise of the celebrity politician in the 2008 general election whilst examining the importance of new media, old media and the virtues of the public appearance and perception of politicians. The essay will end wondering if media coverage in the 2012 election has begun to slide.
The 2008 presidential race was particularly media saturated and the public perceptions of the candidates were often shaped by the media. As stated by Halperin & Heilemann it was “as riveting and historic a spectacle as modern politics had ever produced” (2010:IX) and received “wall- to-wall media coverage” (2010:IX). The Media had a bigger role in the 2008 election than simply following events though as it gave birth to, or at least brought to maturity, the idea of the celebrity politician, as witnessed by the twin phenomenon of Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. Halperin & Heilemann note that a smear campaign against Obama was thought up by McCain adman Fred Davis who said they should, with reference to Obama’s celebrity, “turn that against him. Big CelebritySo’s Britney Spears! So’s Paris Hilton!” (2010:330). The eventual ad was called ‘Celeb’ (Halperin & Heilemann, 2010) and it led to the first chink in Obama’s armour with the media. It is interesting to note that later on when Palin was chosen as the running mate on the republican ticket there were fears in the McCain camp that the same type of campaign could be used against her (Halperin & Heilemann, 2010), illustrating that this type of coverage, and the way political campaigns use the media, can be a double edged sword.
New Media played a significant role in the 2008 election. Canavan states the Obama campaign was “aided by an acute awareness of mimetic branding and viral marketing” (2010:14). Schudson observes “in 2008 the “new media” played a newly prominent role” (2009:6). The use of new media in the Obama campaign was an important part of his strategy. Canavan writes that the Obama campaign produced “half a billion dollars from three million people over the Internet” (2010:15). This shows that the proliferation of new media in the 2008 general election, and the use of it by the candidate who most visibly signified change, was a huge coup, certainly at least where donors were concerned.
What of traditional media thoughDo the news networks or the press still play a role in US political racesThe answer, at least pertaining to the 2008 race, is an unequivocal yes. The deeper question though is how these institutions actually affect the outcome of an election. In terms of the 2008 election it must be concluded that they played a massive part. Halperin & Heilemann note that almost every political entity in their book has a scene where they complain about the way they are being represented in the press, even Obama (2010). But it would seem that much of the press wanted Obama to win as they would ignore infractions made by him that they would not consider for other candidates, as noted by Halperin & Heilemann when, after being jabbed at by Obama in a debate, Hillary Clinton complained to her aides “can you imagine if I’d made a crack like that?” (2010:180). Halperin & Heilemann go onto say “the press would have guillotined her on the spot” (2010:180).
Street asks the question of whether the media’s role in political races is a good or a bad thing. He writes “reliance on television as a medium of communication tends to shift the criteria by which politicians are judged and by which they operate. Television’s intimacy, its use of close-ups and one-to-one conversations, focuses attention on politicians’ ‘human’ qualities. The result is that populist empathy rather than elite leadership becomes valued” (2004:6). Street also notes however that aesthetics and the way candidates are perceived in the media can be an important part of a political contest because aesthetics and perception can provide a notion of the candidate’s character and that is an important aspect to consider when entering the voting booth (2004).
Now that the political world is observed by both new and old media, it is interesting to note how the two have played their part so far in the 2012 election. As far as new media is concerned, the interest certainly seems to have waned. Journalist Susan Delacourt observes “The 2008 presidential election that brought Barack Obama to power was probably a “watershed” for social media…an apex that probably won’t be reached again in the current U.S. campaign” (2012). The current election seems to have passed by old media in many ways as well. Matthew Stieglitz wryly asks of the 2012 election “that the media bring its election coverage to something bearing a resemblance to news, and that people become informed. If the issues mentioned above are any indication, this country would be better served with a populace that spends time debating politics instead of debating the cancellation of Jersey Shore” (2012). Maybe the politics just as aren’t as interesting to a media that can now observe the politics of reality TV stars personal lives…and don’t need a press pass to do it.
As you can see, historically media has played a big part in the political landscape and has helped to shape people’s views of the candidate, whether through highlighting their proposals or simply believing in the character of the person they have shown on TV. In 2008 media coverage of the election seemed to reach a critical mass, in both old and new media, but both have now begun to contract somewhat.
Heilemann, J. & Halperin, M., (2010), Race of a Lifetime, 1st Edition, the Penguin Group, Great Britain
Canavan, G., (2009) ‘Person of the Year: Obama, Joker, Capitalism, Schizophrenia.’ Politics and Popular Culture. [online] Available at: http://www.c-s-p.org/flyers/978-1-4438-2259-6-sample.pdf [Accessed 12th September 2012]
Schudson, M., (2009)’ The New Media in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Campaign: The New York Times watches its back.’ Javnost-the public. [online] Available at:
http://www.journalism.columbia.edu/system/documents/270/original/javnost-nyt2008.pdf [Accessed September 13th 2012]
Street, J., (2004) ‘Celebrity Politicians: Popular Culture and Political Representation.’ The British Journal of Politics & International Relations. [online] Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-856X.2004.00149.x/pdf [Accessed 12th September 2012]
Delacourt, S. (2012) ‘Is ‘new’ media becoming old hat in the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign?’ The Star. [online] Available at: http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/politics/article/1227281–is-new-media-becoming-old-hat-in-the-2012-u-s-presidential-campaign [Accessed 12th September 2012]
Stieglitz, M., ‘Dear American Media: Step Up Your Game.’ Politics 365. [online] Available at: http://politic365.com/2012/09/07/dear-american-media-step-your-game-up/ [Accessed September 8th 2012]