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Critically respond to the suggestion that ‘mediatized politics is politics that has lost its autonomy’

By siobhancx May 22, 2014 2966 Words

The definition of ‘mediatized politics’ refers to “a social change process through which the media have become increasingly autonomous from political institutions and actors while at the same time increasing their influence over political actors, institutions and processes.” (Strömbäck 2013) There are four main phases of mediatization; the first of these phases takes place when mass media begins to represent the main source of information and also becomes the main means for communication between political institutions and the general public. This phase gives media sources the opportunity to depict a political party, figure or situation however they wish, helping to mould the opinions of those under their influence by shaping their depictions of reality. The second phase commences as mass media sources begin to become more independent from political bodies, portraying more of their own perspectives and adhering much more to ‘media logic’ rather than any political logic. However it is unreasonable to suggest that the media could ever be entirely independent of any political influence, it is much more realistic to classify it as an interactive and interdependent relationship, in which both act and react with each other. In the third phase of mediatization, as the media continues to be the dominant source of information and communication, political figures and social actors realize they must adhere to media logic in order to be portrayed in a favourable light, leaving the media with the upper hand. “Today all social institutions are media institutions” (Altheide and Snow 1979), an inarguably true quote as every political institution must now play the media’s ‘game’ in order for them to be portrayed how they wish. The fourth and final phase occurs when political actors not only accept media logic but adapt and adopt it as an integral part of their political organisation. “The transition from the third to the fourth phase of mediatization thus spurs the development of “permanent campaigning””(Blumenthal 1980), an idea in which public opinion and continuous media portrayal is essential for political success. Whilst the idea of four phases of mediatization tends to be taken as the standard norm, Strömbäck mentions that some political actors may achieve varying phases based on a number of factors, including their prominence in society as well as “their power base or institutional strengths and the purpose for which they were created.” (Strömbäck 2008) Through researching these four phases it is undeniable that politics has lost its autonomy through mediatization, as the whole process of mediatization itself involves the creation of an interdependent relationship between political bodies and the media.

As discussed in 'The Mediatization and Personalization of Politics in Italy and France: The Cases of Berlusconi and Sarkozy', today it is seen as a necessity for political figures to open up their personal lives for media scrutiny. Once a person steps into the public light there becomes a blurring of the boundary between their public and their private lives as far as the media is concerned. The fact that political figures have accepted this media logic and begun to embrace it (as is defined in stage four of mediatization) is another example of how politics has definitely lost its autonomy, and this has increased even more so in recent decades due to the many media forms and sources that have developed. One could easily argue that a person’s private life has little to do with the effectiveness in which they can do their job, for example if an office worker was found out to be having an affair it would have little impact on their career. However, where politicians in the public sphere are concerned such scandals, whether true or not, can be entirely detrimental for their career. Political figures believed to be doing something morally or ethically wrong in their private time are severely reprimanded by the media. As was previously mentioned when discussing phase one of mediatization, the media are free to depict the situation however they choose based on their own perspectives and logic, the framing of which can then create entirely false realities for the public who then come into contact with the media. The severe influence a public affair can have on a politician’s career is perhaps most evident in the Lewinsky scandal. After Clinton’s affair became public knowledge it left his overwhelming group of supporters split in half. Two strong Clinton supporters interviewed at the time voiced the thoughts of their opposing halves, one commenting “Clinton is a strong and effective president, whatever his personal behavior” the other declaring he was “appalled by the whole affair and could never bring [himself] to support Clinton again”. (Hamilton 2009) Whether such an affair threatens the institution of government or is an entirely personal situation is a matter of opinion. The extreme mediatization of politics which is occurring in our current society is allowing everyone to make up their own opinion on such matters, or so they think. Whilst the public may believe that they are getting broad, well rounded and unbiased information from the media, they are wrong. The media drive their audience, the public, to the conclusions and opinions they wish to generate. By having an input into the creation of public opinion the media then knows how to market and generate their next story in order to create the most impact, thereby maximising revenue. It is undeniable that the media feed off political figures in the public sphere and it is all said political figures can do to try and appease the media by staying on their good side and adhering to their rules. Yet I’m sure any politician who has been the subject of a media scandal would say that no matter how many prior niceties were exchanged, the media have no qualms about digging in their claws and creating a scene when the whiff of a scandal is uncovered. The media also adhere to no real legal obligation as to reporting whether a scandal is entirely truthful or not merely broadcasting whatever will most benefit their revenue, as at the end of the day revenue is the media’s end goal.

In the article ‘"Mediatization" of politics: A challenge for democracy?’ Mazzoleni and Shultz propose the question of whether “skillful politicians may use mediatization for manipulation.” (Mazzoleni and Schulz 1999) This question arises the suggestion that if politicians are in fact able to manipulate the media, are they then having a negative impact on democracy. As previously described, stage four of mediatization is categorized as when political figures adapt and adopt to media logic, accepting what the media find ‘newsworthy’ and shaping their interactions with the media around ‘newsworthy’ topics. Mazzoleni and Shultz state that if these manipulated interactions are the main source of public communication with political institutions then “the media complex endangers the functioning of the democratic process.” (Mazzoleni and Schulz 1999) Whilst it it is undeniable that politics is “shaped by interactions with the media” (Lindqvist 2001), Mazzoleni and Shultz did have some limitations in that they did not view mass media as an individual institution. Instead they viewed it more as a phenomenon that took place in relation to political and various other institutions, which is a relatively old fashioned ideology. Nowadays it would seem much more correct to refer to the media as an entirely individual entity that has much more of an effect on political institutions than the other way around. But perhaps the more pressing question at hand is whether politicians are indeed manipulating the media and therefore the public in order to adhere to their own agenda. A number of examples of how politicians can push the media towards their own agenda include; paying journalists to promote certain issues without revealing their sources, as well as political parties hiring public relations specialists in order to feed information to the press at the optimum time. A major example of the importance of the media to political institutions, is that in recent years various governments and political bodies, especially in the United States, have hired PR firms to ‘sell’ a war through the media. This is a clear example of how politics has lost it’s autonomy through mediatization. While there has always been an evident reliance on the media in regards to war, from the ‘Uncle Sam wants YOU’ to the ‘For The Glory of Ireland’ recruitment posters, it is only in recent decades that the idea of ‘selling a war’ through the media has been created. The most prominent example of selling a war was seen prior to the Gulf War. This operation was arranged by the Kuwaiti government as a result of Iraqi invasion in their country, in order to try and get the United States military to intervene on their behalf. Using their own citizens to present and glorify the idea of a war, the Kuwaiti government began to manipulate the media. A fifteen year old girl testified before the United States Congressional Committee that she had seen hundreds of babies stolen from incubators by Iraqi soldiers and left to die on hospital floors. (Theroux 1993) After the Gulf War had commenced, information began to come to light suggesting that the young girl’s testimony was entirely fabricated and that she was in fact coached by the PR firm Hill and Knowlton. As more and more lies began to be revealed, it was discovered that the girl was in fact the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. This case began to generate the idea that a war had been started on the basis of a PR firm knowing what to say to the media in order to gather attention and to generate a reaction, the same process which is still being carried out today in regards to the Iraq war (Theroux 1993). One man who was involved in the Gulf War, John Rendon of Rendon PR, stated;

“I am not a national security strategist or a military tactician, [...] I am a politician, and a person who uses communication to meet public policy or corporate policy objectives. I am an information warrior and a perception manager.” (Rendon 1996)

Towards the end of the war as US air troops flew over Kuwait, they were saluted by the people of Kuwait holding small American flags, an image which was then broadcast across the globe portraying the American troops as heroes. Rendon admits that nobody who saw the scene through the media thought to question how a city which had been held hostage for seven months was able to get all these flags, they merely saw it how the government bodies hoped they would, as a sign of peace and a declaration of thanks to the United States. (Rendon 1996) This idea mentioned previously of a ‘perceptions manager’ is widely used today, especially in governmental institutions such as the Pentagon. Pentagon planners have been said to define “perception management” as;

“actions to convey and (or) deny selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning. ... In various ways, perception management combines truth projection, operations security, cover, and deception, and psyops [psychological operations].” (Rampton and Stauber 2003)

The fact that the Pentagon so blatantly states that “deception” and “psychological operations” are a part of ‘perceptions management’ clearly suggests an answer to Mazzoleni and Schulz’s question of whether “skillful politicians may use mediatization for manipulation.” (Mazzoleni and Schulz 1999) This only increases the truth of the suggestion that ‘mediatized politics’ is politics that has lost its autonomy. If politics were truly independent of the media then the idea of ‘perception management’ would not even be an issue as politician’s would have no say or care of how they were portrayed in the media. Politics being such a public society issue, in particular in democratic nations, means it is unreasonable to believe that ‘perceptions management’ would not be an important factor in any political campaign. The fact that ‘perceptions management’ is so vital causes the question to still remain, are such activities endangering “the functioning of the democratic process”? (Mazzoleni and Schulz 1999)

The increase in mediatized politics in recent decades has caused political bodies and institutions to become much more conscious of their public image, as well as having to adapt and conform to the idea of ‘media logic’ Media logic can be described as;

“how material is organized, the style in which it is presented, the focus or emphasis on particular characteristics of behavior, and the grammar of media communication”. (Altheide and Snow 1979)

Political figures have become experts at marketing themselves for public acceptance, again reducing politics’ autonomy. In a world where society places such a high value on appearances, image is key. Therefore nearly all political figures have a highly skilled team, writing their speeches, deciding what functions to attend, even picking their outfits. This on it’s own suggests that political institutions now also rely on writers guilds, public relations firms and even fashion stylists. These are all used in order for political institutions to manipulate the media and create a favourable perspective for the public to receive. As the great novelist Hunter S Thompson said “politics is the art of controlling your environment.” (Thompson 1959)

In conclusion, the suggestion that “‘mediatized politics’ is politics that has lost its autonomy” is entirely believable. Through marketing themselves and creating a polished public image using perceptions management, political bodies have become entirely adept at playing the media’s ‘game’ in order to be favourably perceived. The amount of PR companies used by governmental organisations, in regards to everything from election campaigning to charitable events is immense and costly, yet is seen as vital by nearly all political institutions. It is rumoured that the George Bush administration spent over $254 million in his first term on public relations, evidently highlighting its importance on the political agenda. (Barstow and Stein 2005) It is hard to believe that politics could ever have been an entirely autonomous institution to begin with, perhaps centuries ago when the hierarchy entirely comprised of nobility and those of wealthy status. However, nowadays in a world where democracy is the leading form of government, mediatization seems almost necessary. As with anything, there are positives and negatives to mediatized politics, for both politicians and the public. The positives being; the quick and easy means of communication between both political bodies and the public, particularly in recent years through social media sites such as Twitter etc. Also the fact that information is readily available through the media, one does not have to go looking for it, saving time and energy for the public and broadcasting information and awareness for political institutions. However the same factor can also be seen as a negative. As mentioned before, there is no real guarantee that information spread by the media is factual and correct, therefore the public may be subjected to inaccurate information causing them to create false perceptions. “There are no laws forbidding fake news in the UK.” (Miller 2005) If inaccurate information has been broadcast to the public it can do irreparable damage to a political institution or figure. Another negative is the suggestion that mediatized politics is devaluing democracy in societies, something that has been neither proven nor disproven yet is still a cause for concern amongst many. The fact of the matter is that whilst the relationship between politics and the media can be classified as ‘interdependent’ it is evident that political institutions need the media much more than mass media needs them. Political institutions would not be able to function in today’s society without the help and the role of mass media, this truly proves that mediatized politics is indeed “politics that has lost its autonomy.”

References:

Altheide, D, L, and Snow, R, P. 1979. Media Logic. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Altheide, D L. and Snow. 1991. Media worlds in the post-journalism era. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Barstow, D and Stein, R. 2005. Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged TV News. The New York Times. [Online]. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/13/politics/13covert.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0 [Accessed 12 December 2013].

Blumenthal, S. 1980. The Permanent Campaign: Inside the World of Elite Political Operatives. Boston: Beacon Press.

Campus, D. 2010. Mediatization and Personalization of Politics in Italy and France: The Cases of Berlusconi and Sarkozy. [Online]. Available at:http://moodle.dcu.ie/mod/resource/view.php?id=9372 [Accessed 14 December 2013].

Hamilton, L. 2009. The Private Lives of Public Officials | The Center On Congress at Indiana University. [ONLINE] Available at:http://congress.indiana.edu/the-private-lives-public-officials. [Accessed 14 December 2013].

Lindqvist, L. 2001. Views of the Ending of the Cold War: a case study that compares multimodal images in Swedish newspapers and history textbooks. [Online]. Available at: http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:535197/FULLTEXT01.pdf [Accessed 14 December 2013].

MAZZOLENI, G. and SCHULZ, W., 1999. "Mediatization" of politics: A challenge for democracy? Political Communication, 16(3), pp. 247-261.

Miller, D. 2005. BBC broadcast “fake” news reports. Media Lens. [Online]. Available at: http://www.medialens.org/alerts/05/050318_bbc_broadcast_fake_news.php [Accessed 12 December 2013].

Rampton, S. and Stauber, J. 2003. How To Sell a War. In These Times. [Online]. Available at: http://inthesetimes.com/article/how_to_sell_a_war/how_to_sell_a_war [Accessed 16 December 2013].

Rendon, J. 1996 Media Manipulation. Global Issues. [Online]. Available at: http://www.globalissues.org/article/532/media-manipulation [Accessed 12 December 2013].

Strömbäck, J, 2008. Four Phases of Mediatization: An Analysis of the Mediatization of Politics. [Online]. Available at:http://www.socsc.hku.hk/sigc/gc2012/pdf/Reading%20Materials_Taiwan/Lecture%207_Four%20Phases%20of%20Mediatization.pdf[ Accessed 14 December 2013].

Strömbäck, J. 2013. Mediatization of Politics. 2013. Defining Mediatization. [ONLINE] Available at: http://mediatization-of-politics.com/defining-mediatization/ . [Accessed 14 December 2013].

Theroux, D. 1993. Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War: How Government Can Mold Public Opinion. The Independent Institute. [Online]. Available at: http://www.independent.org/events/transcript.asp?eventID=70 [Accessed 16 December 2013].

Thompson, H S. 1959. The Rum Diary. Simon & Schuster. First Edition. New York.

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