Mass Media in Politics

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This essay is about the mass media’s influences to the political values of morality and democratic responsibility. In fact, the responsibility contains three separate political virtues, which often work together but are logically different. The first kind of responsibility is informational responsibility: knowledge about government actors and decisions and access to government information. Informational responsibility can be expanded by requiring public statements of the reasons for government action, or requiring release of information the government has collected. A second type of responsibility is participatory responsibility: the ability to participate in political decisions either through fair representation or direct involvement. A third kind of responsibility is accountability responsibility: the ability to hold government officials accountable – either to the legal system or to public opinion – when they violate the law or when they act in ways that hurt people’s interests. In theory, at least, mass media can make the political system more clearly in all three respects: mass media can help people understand the operations of government, participate in political decisions, and hold government officials accountable. In practice, however, its effects are often quite different. In the age of mass media, democratic governments and politicians may find it useful to simulate the political qualities of responsibility through verbal and media influence. This fake responsibility does not help the original political values that encourage the responsibility. Instead, it complicates and covers, which bothers accountability and hides important information in a mass of false political truths. It is a form of reality that is not reality at all. Today political responsibility is virtually impossible without some form of mass media coverage. However, mass media can disturb the values of political responsibility even while seeming to serve those values. People often oppose responsibility to secrecy. However, governments and politicians can manipulate the appearance and exposure of information to reach the same basic goals as a policy of secrecy and confusion. In this way political responsibility can be defeated by what appear to be its own mechanisms: increasing information, holding political officials accountable, and uncovering things that are secret. One can well understand why politicians would want to divert attention from information that is detrimental to their interests. But why would the mass media have an interest in faking responsibility? Indeed, the media’s interests are quite different than those of politicians. Nevertheless the media’s mutual efforts also disrupt the political values of responsibility, even when media and politicians view each other as adversaries. Many different kinds of mass media can simulate responsibility. But the 2

dominant medium of political communication in our age is television. When we use television to understand politics, we see things in the way that television allows them to be seen. At the same time, television creates new forms of political truth that exist because they are seen on television. Television tends to highlight entertainment value. The less entertaining is weeded out, the more entertaining survives to be broadcast. Therefore coverage of public events, politics, and even law must eventually conform to the requirements of ‘good television,’ that is, the kind of television that grabs and keeps viewers’ attention by absorbing and entertaining them. Television promotes coverage that focuses on the figure of participants and on the sporting part of political debate. The question of ‘who’s winning’ and how are they winning tends to dominate television coverage. Television portrays a world of image influence and spin control largely empty of basic debate or actual breakdown. Because television is so vital to effective politics, it eventually helps...
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