In light of my previous post about the modern-day “rhetorical presidency” and how media forces the hand of our country’s leader, today’s post pans out to look at media’s effect on the political offices outside of the presidency, but also examines the media’s side of the story.
Before the age of social media and continuous news coverage existed what is considered the “golden age” for political parties—an era in which politicians and the initiatives which they supported were considered the cornerstones of social mobility and political progress. Voters often had long-standing party associations, which stemmed from the high level of trust they placed in political parties; political actors would deliver messages to their constituents only when they had substantive information to deliver, and they often enjoyed access to the mass media whenever they wished (Blumler 211).
In The Third Age of Political Communication: Influences and Features, Blumler and Kavanagh point out that even throughout what appears to be a period of genuineness in political communication, this age still seemed to operate on a paradox: despite the fact that there was a greater amount of substantive messaging than what we see in today’s age of political communication, citizens weren’t nearly as interested in what these political actors had to say, but rather their party loyalty, which ultimately drove their vote when arriving at the polls (212).
Following the “golden age” was a period of time in which television began to have an increasingly important role in disseminating information to the public; as its influence increased, politicians began to lose the well-known pattern of how and when they could deliver their messages to the public. Blumler and Kavanagh point out the following:
“This [age] evolved into a highly positivistic, scientistic, unsentimental approach to communication and persuasion based more on the established actualities of opinion climates than on civic visions” (212).
They also point out that this age, too, operated on a paradox in the sense that although citizens were receiving more information and paying greater attention to the messages directed at them, they were actually receiving less substantial information than in the previous age.
The third age, which is what Blumler and Kavanagh argue we are currently in, is characterized by a time in which media is not simply an aspect of politics, but an absolutely integral part of it. They point out that political communication is dominated by “news flashes and inserts, formed bulletins, a wide range of public affairs formats, and 24-hour news services” (213).
“To politicians, the third-age media system must loom like a hydra-headed beast, the many mouths of which are continually clamoring to be fed. When something happens, they are expected to tell the media what they are going to do about it well before they can be fully informed themselves” (213).
It is at this point in which we see Cook’s point that the government’s reliance on the media changes which policies are being pursued, we see Sobieraj’s argument that political actors are willing to do anything to get media coverage, and we see why Gershon claims that press secretaries play such an essential role in any politician’s office. Most importantly, we see Alexander’s idea that politics is all about performance become the third-age paradox: despite that we have virtually unlimited access to all types of political information, are we only receiving information about the performances themselves?
Taken to its most extreme, Alexander’s point easily leads us to believe that there is very little reality to be found even in the background of politics. Policies are pursued because the latest polls tell politicians that their attention to the given matter will spur media attention; speeches are made because the third-age citizens will buy rhetoric over true initiative, and somewhere in the mix, the civic vision that fueled the first age of political communication has quickly been lost.
While this argument brings political cynicism to the forefront, it is important to acknowledge that media has undoubtedly changed the landscape of political operations. And as the relationship between the government and the media becomes increasingly more codependent, how many more paradoxes will we see—and how much more extreme will they become? As research on political communication continues, this is a question that will most definitely have to be considered.
Blumler, Jay G., and Dennis Kavanagh. “The Third Age of Political Communication: Influences and Features.” Political Communication 16.3 (1999): 209-30. Print.