Iyengar’s writing “The Media Game” was of special interest to me, given mass communication theories I have learned at UNC. I have always heard of the media as the “gatekeeper” and its role in the agenda setting theory. The media acts as a gatekeeper by controlling, to a certain extent, which stories/groups get their message out. Similarly, the agenda setting theory states that while the media does not tell the public what to think about certain issues or stories, media does have a great influence as to what stories they do think about. For example, although the media cannot tell people what to think about a candidate’s new hair style, it is because the media picked the story up that it is now being talked about.
Iyengar challenges this model in which the media holds dictatorial power to a certain extent, about what stories and angles are covered. One way in particular that campaigns disrupt the agenda-setting model is the “Adwatch” phenomena. For example, the swift boat veterans ad in 2004 was only shown in one tiny West Virginia media market, but was picked up by the media as a news story. In fact, Iyengar notes that in a period preceding the election, there were more stories about the swift boat ad than on the war in Iraq. In this manner, the Bush campaign (or its unofficially affiliated group) became the agenda setter for the media.
In this scenario, the underlying message is that the media is losing to campaigns and political organizations in the power struggle to control and dictate what gets reported. In the recent republican primary, the new political groups, called Super PACs stole headlines by themselves and with the ads they created.
However, although through Iyengar’s lens, stories such as the NPR one are indicative of groups dictating to the media, I would argue that there is deeper meaning than simply that. The Citizens United ruling was a landmark decision that holds deep consequences for how the American political process unfolds– certainly a newsworthy issue. I argue that this is not simply a case of Super PACs dictating to the media, but rather the ongoing media investigation of the consequences of the Citizens United ruling.
Regardless, Iyengar offers at the very least an interesting counter to traditional media models that is rooted in tangible results throughout election season. There is always a battle between PR people and reporters to define and angle news coverage, and this battle is especially well documented in the political arena. This election season will be intriguing to see which ad sets the agenda and frames debate, and how different media outlets accept, modify or frame content from campaigns.