Economics, Philosophy, Politics, Science

The media at the hinge of political history

I’m beginning to wonder whether the media is in some sense the most crucial actor in understanding political change in a democracy.

The more you read in political science, the more you find grounds for skepticism that various ostensibly powerful actors can bring about change through their own actions. The presidency, for example, doesn’t appear to be all that it’s cracked up to be. Despite our desire for a President who will use the “bully pulpit” to sway the public, the evidence suggests that Presidents rarely succeed in changing public opinion. At most, their public statements can help shape the agenda, forcing the public to have an opinion on an issue — by influencing what the media talks about.

The courts rarely depart significantly from public opinion, despite the myth of the Supreme Court as the last refuge of liberty and equality in times of crisis and stress. In theory, the Supreme Court might be able to bring about political change by decree, ordering the government to do this or that radically unpopular thing. But that almost never happens in practice.

I suppose someone could argue that Congress is a driving force for political change. Maybe they’d point to the Senate’s ostensible deliberative golden age in the antebellum era. But I don’t imagine many people would seriously suggest that Congress today is leading much of anything, or more influencing than influenced.

The public itself is remarkably uninformed, and seems likely to remain uninformed despite the dreams of theorists of deliberative democracy for “deliberation days” and so on. To the extent that some portions of the public are informed, they’re largely informed by the mass media — and, perhaps, social media, to the extent that the two are different.

How about grassroots activists? There’s no doubt that activists can be a real force for political change — on those rare occasions when their decades of Sisyphean efforts bear fruit. But, when this happens, it is usually in part because they have succeeded in getting favorable coverage by the media. Or because they have made their own favorable media, for example by creating a popular, muckraking documentary film.

In fact, one of the interesting features of civil disobedience is the necessity of attracting media attention. Without the media covering — ideally, filming — your demonstrations, it is extremely unlikely that you will succeed in changing public opinion. (Although the rise of social media may have changed this to some extent.) As I mentioned in the Gene Sharp post, it was only after the American public saw Southern officials like Bull Connor violently repressing civil rights protesters on TV that public opinion moved powerfully in favor of civil rights legislation.

It’s true that our corporate and individual billionaire oligarchs influence the course of government action through lobbying. But they also rely heavily on the media, including through ownership of media businesses. And lobbying will become less effective where the media has focused negative public attention on an issue.

So: could it be that the media is the most significant causal actor in understanding political change — at least in a more-or-less well-functioning democracy where elected officials are responsive to public opinion? (NB: It may be that in our own democracy, elected officials are more responsive to the opinions of the wealthy than the public as a whole, but I’ll set that issue aside for the moment.)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Lincoln famously said, “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” I already questioned the latter half of the claim based on the effectiveness of lobbying. Now I wonder whether the whole claim should be restated: “With positive media coverage, nothing can fail; without it nothing (except lobbying) can succeed, and even lobbying can’t succeed in the face of enough negative media coverage…”

One question to explore would be: does public opinion, as perceived by political actors who feel pressured by public opinion, ever depart significantly from mass media coverage? Are there significant, non-random disagreements between the views promoted by Fox News and the views of its (non-hate-watching) audience? And if public opinion tends to align with mass media opinion, is this because the media is doing a good job of shaping public opinion (the “propaganda” view), or because the media is doing a good job of reflecting public opinion? Which way does the arrow of causation go for the most part?

Speaking of Fox News: if the President, Congress, and the courts aren’t very effective at changing public opinion, and the media is — and if the government is roughly responsive to public opinion — then it seems like Fox News deserves to be taken very seriously as an actor in American political history. The conservative movement activists who have laid the foundations for the views of Fox News would deserve to be taken seriously as well — for their influence on Fox News, which in turn (so the argument would go) has exerted an enormous influence over the views of a large part of the electorate, directly and indirectly, which in turn has exerted an enormous influence over the actions of elected and unelected (but still responsive) government officials…

One implication of the line of thinking in this post relates to those occasions when the President has criticized Fox News. Some commentators respond to these criticisms by suggesting that they’re beneath the dignity of the Presidency, that the President should not be picking fights with a news network. But if the hypotheses in this post are accurate, the mass media may have as much power as or more power than the President to shape public opinion. Under these circumstances, picking a fight with the mass media might seem appropriate and fair — just like trying to manipulate coverage through selective leaks and other forms of access — as Teddy Roosevelt did with progressive journalists in the defining age of the “bully pulpit.”

I’ve always been skeptical of Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent model of the mass media as a vehicle of propaganda — mostly because, in its crudest form, the idea is sometimes used to suggest that those who agree with Chomsky would be able to persuade the benighted American public to become anarcho-syndicalists if only the mass media gave the radicals a chance to make their case. (Compare the Marxist’s baffled search for an explanation of why the proletariat never seems to get around to revolting, even though — in the Marxist’s view — it would so clearly be in the proletariat’s self-interest! Or, for that matter, compare Thomas Frank’s assumption that Republican voters can’t possibly believe that conservative economic policies benefit them, and need to be hoodwinked into voting Republican through the exploitation of social issues like abortion and gun rights.) I’m very skeptical that Chomsky could ever persuade much of the American public to agree with his political views, even if he owned Fox News and several tabloid newspapers.

But if the media is the crucial bottleneck in the course of political change, then Chomsky’s questions about the media, if not his answers, deserve to be given more attention, despite their old-fashioned (Orwell-vintage, pre-Internet, pre-social media) feel.

My initial sense is that the force of reasons might have a significant role to play in this analysis. Against the frequent social science skepticism that reasoning, rhetoric, and deliberation, as opposed to crude (usually monetary) self-interest, can play a significant role in shaping human behavior, the media may be one area where reasons actually matter — although, of course, not as much as we might like, or in the ways that we might like. The reasoning of those who make decisions regarding media coverage will be as distorted by tribal biases, laziness, self-interest, narrow-mindedness, defensiveness, and so on, as the reasoning of anyone else. At the same time, my guess is that outcomes in media coverage cannot be understood or predicted without paying attention to reason-offering — unless one defines the investigation in such a way that the products of reasoning (for example, the defining of ideologies and the sorting of policies and ideas into ideological categories and policy preferences) are taken as a given, as though they required no explanation.

For someone who believes that indeterminacy pervades the world of ideas, these outcomes have no natural necessity, and require explanation.


4 thoughts on “The media at the hinge of political history

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