Posted on August 09, 1999 in Washington Watch

I recently came across a news item that focused my attention on the intimate connection between media and politics in the United States.

It was a poll showing that health care, education and social security rated as the top issues of concern to American voters as they look forward to the 2000 elections.

Ten months ago, in the midst of the President’s Monica Lewinsky scandal, voters were saying that ethics and morality were the main concerns. A few months later with a U.S.-led NATO force pounding Serbia, for the first time in over two decades, voters were insisting that foreign policy was their number one concern. Only a few months ago, in the aftermath of the killing rampage in a Colorado high school, a traumatized nation was telling pollsters that their number one concern was violence and guns.

Of course, politicians dutifully responded to voter’s concerns in each instance. Republicans were convinced that voter outrage over Clinton’s behavior was a winning issue. They, therefore, vigorously pursued impeachment proceedings against the President. Ignoring warnings that voters, despite their anger at the President’s action, did not want him removed and did not want to prolong the national disgrace, a core group of Republican Congressmen pursued the matter to its limits and lost.

The matter of Kosovo, like the Bosnian conflict before it, generated an equally intense partisan debate. At one point, looking at the polls, Republicans advanced the notion that foreign policy would indeed be a major issue of debate in 2000. Republican presidential candidates boldly criticized President Clinton’s handling of the Kosovo conflict and pledged to present a strong Republican foreign policy agenda before voters in 2000.

In the aftermath of the Colorado killings, Democrats moved quickly to advance gun control as the issue that could define the difference between their party and the Republicans. The Republicans also sensing public outrage over the problem of violence, countered that the cause of the problem was not guns but a lack of values and strong families.

In each instance, political leadership in both parties expended considerable effort to address issues, to propose legislation and policy solutions. These were, for the most part, shelved and forgotten when the issue in question was eclipsed by the next crisis.

And in each instance, it was the almost obsessive fixation of the nation’s media that drove each of these events and transformed them into the number one concern of the day. It was politicians responding to media driven politics.

Another case in point–recall that just two and one-half years ago the issue that outraged the nation was the campaign finance irregularities that marred the 1996 presidential contest. Republicans held hearings, and Democrats proposed campaign finance reform. Both were responding to a public opinion that said that campaign finance was the number one issue that had to be addressed.

Political coalitions were formed, and the issue was debated at great length. It seemed certain that by the time the 2000 election started, American politics would be governed by a very different set of finance rules.

Slowly, however, the importance of the issue receded, the legislative efforts were scuttled, and the matter of campaign finance reform no longer rated any attention in polling of the once outraged public opinion.

The reason, once again, was that the media, which once elevated the issue to that of supreme importance, now ignored the matter in its entirety.

Virtually no outrage, for example, was expressed over the record setting fund-raising totals reported by the frontrunners for the 2000 presidency. Candidates who are attempting to raise the issue of reform, Republican John McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley, are finding it difficult to draw attention to their efforts at change.

All of this is not to say that these are not real issues: campaign finance reform, guns and violence, U.S. foreign policy, and values and ethics in government–all are critical issues that should be a part of our national policy discourse.

The problem is that these issues were only discussed in the context of a crisis when the media drew attention to them. The pattern is the same: a prolonged media generated crisis is created in response to a dramatic event, the public is polled and its attention is focused on the issue raised by the crisis. In response, politicians spend endless hours proposing legislation and policy solutions. An intense partisan debate ensues. As the immediacy of the crisis passes, press attention lessens, public attention lessens and the interest of politicians in addressing the issue also lessens–and the stage is set for the next crisis and issue.

This process is relatively new and is the result of fundamental changes in the way politics are done in the United States today. There was a time when issues had a longer life span, when the media reported on the policies of politicians, and when politicians drove the nation’s issue debate.

Today, however, the news media is playing an even more prominent role in defining the nation’s political agenda. And media personalities have become a central component of the political class that sets priorities, focuses attention on issues and shapes the policy debate of these issues.

A number of factors have contributed to this growing political role of the media. First is the advent of the 24-hour news channels. There are now six of these channels. They feature some news, but also endless hours of reporters and commentators debating and even interviewing each other. All of this is part of the new networks’ efforts to fill 24 hours of coverage.

Another factor of importance here is that as a result of the pressure to fill 24 hours each day, events more easily become transformed into national obsessions–with endless coverage, hours of “talking heads” debating the minutia of each issue, alarmist notices of “breaking news” that are nothing more than little new pieces of information. This is what made up the O.J. Simpson trial, the Monica Lewinsky saga, the death of John F. Kennedy Jr.–to name only a few.

A final matter to be noted here is that fact that the reporters and commentators, who are driving this process, are, in many instances, not reporters but former politicians or future politicians.

There was a time when the notion of the “revolving door” in politics referred to the way government officials were drawn from the ranks of business, while at the same time, after working in government some politicians would move into lucrative business careers. Today, the same concept can be applied to the interchange between government and the media.

Increasingly, former government officials are supplanting professional news reporters. Both liberals and conservatives on television come from the ranks of government and instead of reporting what politicians are doing, on the issues politicians are dealing with, they see their role as shaping the policy discourse and forcing politicians to respond to their proddings.

This interplay between the political class of the media and the world of governance will bear greater scrutiny–but it is a new factor of American life and its impact is profound.

This new political class of the unelected media has enormous power. They don’t report the news; they interpret and even make the news. Their power is such that they have the ability to create realities to which politicians must respond.

It is clear that this political class will continue to have an important role in 2000. They will define issues and define the candidates. In order to break through, a candidate will have to demonstrate an ability to master this media power–the type of mastery shown by President Clinton.

It is interesting that at the present time, with the media focused on the politicians of 2000 and not on any event or crisis, the public’s concern with issues has drifted back to matters that, in fact, directly concern their daily lives–their health, their education and their future economic security. If left alone these would be the issues the public would demand politicians address in 2000. In all likelihood, this will not occur–we will, in all probability, move on to new media generated crises which will impose new issues on our debate for 2000.

Such is the relationship between media and politics today.

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