When one analyzes what makes a democracy, as the Constitution of the United States of America defines as “by the people,” one becomes hard-pressed to understand how political power positively fits into the puzzle that makes democracy work. Nevertheless, it’s important to analyze what exactly political power is, and then apply that knowledge to our understanding of a democracy. Therefore, we will examine Gadi Wolfsfeld’s first two principles concerning political power, found in his book, “Making Sense of Media and Politics: Five Principles in Political Communication.” We will then apply what we learned from these principles to the Digital Age.
Wolfsfeld’s first principle of political communication is, “political power can usually be translated into power over the news media.” This is one of the most enduring lessons in the field of political communication. Those who have power (i.e., the President, Speaker of the House, etc.), not only find it much easier to get coverage, but also find it much easier to get their messages across – especially when they control the flow of information. For example, Barack Obama, by virtue of being the President of the United States, receives free coverage from media sources, like C-SPAN, at every event where he is present. Also, the bills that he advocates take on a certain weight that only the President can muster. He receives a lot more coverage, due to his high status and power, than an individual member of Congress does. This is true because the news media are more interested in political elites than in those that are not considered political elites. This has far reaching consequences for the role the media plays in politics and undermines, what Wolfsfeld describes as a central component to a healthy democracy, “the ability of the weaker adversaries to be heard.” Therefore, as a result of this disparity, the politically powerful have more impact over policy. As Wolfsfeld says, “those with political power enter the media through a VIP gate, which provides them with many advantages over those who are forced to come in through the back entrance.” (Wolfsfeld, 120)
The ones not considered ‘elites,’ the ones “forced to come in through the back entrance,” find themselves in a very difficult position. They are often “forced to pay the dues of disorder to get in [get coverage], and then to add insult to injury, [they] find themselves being booed by the crowd when they enter.” With that being said, weaker challengers often have the choice of either doing something outrageous or being banished to “that distant land of obscurity." In the following video, “Lesser Known Presidential Candidates,” Vermin Supreme outrageously goes to the land of obscurity as he sings a song advocating people to vote for him, and subsequently sprinkles ‘magic dust’ on one of his competitors because “Jesus told him to.”
This video is a great example of just some of the methods that lesser known candidates utilize in an effort to be recognized. (Wolfsfeld, 120)
Interestingly, this widespread bias towards the political elite not only denies access to the politically weak within the United States, but it also denies the ability of many countries to be effective on the world stage. As Wolfsfeld said, “in general one can say that in many areas, when it comes to media attention, the rich get richer and poor remain poor.” It’s unfortunate, but political power reflects not only within our own country, but also on the world stage. (Wolfsfeld, 2)
The fact that those in more prestigious levels of power receive the most coverage brings up an interesting concept called, ‘cumulative inequity.” Cumulative inequity discusses how the issues of the powerful, over time, take up seemingly all of the media time, while the issues of the less powerful are neglected. This type of bias towards the political elite undermines the ability of all people to be heard, and, subsequently, does an injustice to some of the people affected by the potential loss of change. The amount of coverage the recent health care bill advocated by President Barack Obama received/receives is a perfect example of the elite's stories receiving most - if not all - of the news coverage.
Nevertheless, the news media still has a job to do – even when that job leads to an inordinate amount of media attention given to the powerful. This brings us to a key point in our understanding of the relationship between journalists and political leaders - it's a relationship that can be considered a “competitive symbiosis.” Essentially, this means that leaders want publicity and the journalists want interesting information they can turn into news. It’s competitive because each wants to get the most from the other while ‘paying’ as little as possible – the politician does not want to give out all of the information that he or she knows, but the reporter also does not want to give the politician a free ride. Still, the trend remains the same; the more powerful leaders have the best information to ‘sell,’ while the non-elites don’t get much coverage. The reporters must tread carefully though because in order to retain their favorable position with any particular political actor, they must not be irritating in their questioning, at risk of losing their future ability to question that same politician. The following video is a great example of ‘competitive symbiosis.’ Although President Clinton was at a public meeting with Yasser Arafat, the media felt it was their job to get answers in regard to the progress of the investigation into the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
As one can tell, although the timing was not ideal, the media wanted information. So, President Clinton, on the spot, had to answer them. President Clinton gave out information, and the media got a story from that information. Another example of ‘competitive symbiosis’ can be found in President Richard Nixon’s press conference in regard to the Watergate Scandal. This was a significant press conference because Nixon - although not fond of the camera due to its negative effect on his campaign ratings in the prior election - wanted to get past the Watergate Scandal with the media. Therefore, he allowed for the following rare media questioning of the president in a unique form of ‘competitive symbiosis.'
A final example of ‘competitive symbiosis,’ found in the following video, shows President Clinton’s refusal to answer the question of reporter Brett Hume after Hume accused Clinton of “zigzagging” between who he was going to choose for a Supreme Court nomination – Judge Bryer or Judge Ginsburg. (Wolfsfeld, 10)
Wolfsfeld’s second principle that applies to political power states, “when the authorities lose control over the political environment, they also lose control over the news.” Interestingly, no matter how significant the advantages are over their opponents, elite political actors rarely have complete control over the media. “When leaders are unable to take control over events, find themselves at a loss when trying to take control over the flow of information, or are unable to mobilize a wide level of elite consensus in support of their policies,” the news media will turn on them. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 - a hurricane that did a tremendous amount of damage to New Orleans, - the coverage of President George W. Bush transitioned into a seemingly metaphoric, public execution where Bush was consistently blamed for the destruction of the hurricane.
As well as being an example that can be applied to our aforementioned, analyzed concept, ‘competitive symbiosis,’ this video is also a great example of how the media portrayed Bush; they said the administration’s relief efforts were inadequate, and Bush saw a sudden drop off of his control over the news due to his loss of control over the political environment. (Wolfsfeld, 120)
Nevertheless, when political elites lose control over the political environment, there are ways to help regain control of the media - damage control is a method commonly utilized. In the following video, the newly formed Democratic Coalition meets with the press in order to discuss President Clinton’s relationship and subsequent scandal with Monica Lewinsky.
The members of the Coalition, being Senators themselves, held their own political weight. Still, they applied their presence and their advocacy to presenting the position that the Clinton Administration was doing all that it could to satisfy the media’s questions. As a result of their successful use of damage control, more political power over the media was returned back to Clinton.
Relating to this, it’s necessary to recognize the extent to which those in charge have control over the political environment. “The ‘political environment’ refers to everything people are doing, thinking, and saying about an issue at a particular time and place.” A beneficial way to think about this is to break down the political environment surrounding an issue into three components: “the authorities’ level of control over events, their control over the flow of relevant information, and their ability to maintain a high level of elite consensus surrounding their policies.” When one examines any issue using these three factors, one gains a much better understanding of how the powerful become weaker, and how the weak can become powerful. (Wolfsfeld, 3)
The previous principle is especially interesting when analyzing the news media’s attempts to make peace. As Wolfsfeld discusses, there was a difference in roles between how the media attempted to bring an end to conflict in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. In Northern Ireland, the media provided an important source of support for peace. However, the media was a serious obstacle in attempting to bring a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. Political power, most assuredly, plays a role in this, as a political actor, of some sort, shows his or her ability to maintain political control.
The Digital Age is a new era in the relationship between political power and the news media. As Wolfsfeld says, “when anybody with a video phone can become a journalist and political movements can simply load their messages on YouTube, who cares about getting on the evening news?” Through means like YouTube, Facebook and other various internet sites, non-elite political actors now have the capacity to get their message out without needing a large amount of coverage from the news media. For example, when running his Presidential campaign, President Barack Obama ran one of the most efficient grassroots operations. However, it was through using YouTube, Facebook and other various Digital Age means that Obama resonated with so many voters. By using the tools frequented by younger generations, he was able to reach out to a younger, dormant voting generation that saw his messages through their style of media. As a result, he won the election. (Wolfsfeld, 2)
It is reasonable to say that the ‘new’ media has made it more difficult for leaders to maintain control over the political environment, especially concerning the free flow of information. Widespread, cheap/free tools like YouTube will undoubtedly help the non-elite political figures get their message out to the masses – they will just skip the mainstream media all together. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that “as new technologies evolve, polices must be crafted to allow maximum access by as many citizens as possible.” If we, the people of the United States, do not adopt policies that will keep up with technology, then misrepresentation is inevitable. (Cook, 189)
In conclusion, political power over the media is a foundational characteristic defining the relationship between political elites and the news media. However, when political elites lose control over the political environment, they are firsthand witnesses to the media turning on them. Nevertheless, there is a significant possibility that we will see a lot more political usurpations during the Digital Age. The underrepresented will then be able to represent themselves in a way that is equal to the political elites who use their power to influence the news media. Therefore, when the Digital Age does advance to the point where non-elites are able to get their information across without being barred by lack of media coverage, then the United States will truly return to a democratic nation where all views are analyzed, discussed, and given attention.
Cook, Timothy E. Governing with the News: The News Media as a Political Institution. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005. Print.
Wolfsfeld, Gadi. Making Sense of Media and Politics: Five Principles in Political Communication. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.