The relationship between politicians and members of the media has, historically, always been very close. While the two groups do not exactly coexist in harmony, they mutually need one another to be successful and thrive. Politicians need media airtime and exposure to win elections and get their message out to voters, while reporters must cover government stories to hold politicians accountable and provide news and information for their viewers. After reading Vanessa Williamson’s article “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” I came away with the impression that media outlets, like Fox News, hijacked the grassroots organization and its movement for their own personal gain. They tapped into the steadfast passion and distrust that fueled the Tea Party Patriot’s anger towards the federal government to, in my opinion, boost ratings and bring more viewers into their fold. However, after giving that musing some more serious consideration, I realized that the exploitation was not just one-sided, but rather a two-way street. I believe that politicians and media exploit each other for their own personal success.
So what counts as exploitation? By definition, to exploit is to unfairly use people in a less powerful position to achieve your own ends. As Kant famously said, the basic principle of all ethics is to not use people as a means to an end. Media outlets and politicians and political groups wield massive amounts of authority in society, so does this still count as exploitation when both groups command power? I think it does, but it, ultimately, depends on the circumstance when one is using another.
In today’s ever-changing media environment, competition for stories and viewers has never been higher. Politics offers relatively little sex or humor, but it does offer an abundance of conflict. And where there is conflict, there is often suspense and drama as to how it will be settled. Hence, one might argue that journalists would tend to focus on political conflict because their audience will find conflict more entertaining than consensus. This was never proven truer than during summer 2010 when Fox News latched onto the Tea Party movement.
Williamson writes in her article that Fox News “mobilized its viewers by connecting the Tea Party to their own brand identity.” The conservative media outlet dispatched its star team of hosts — Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Greta van Susteren, and Neil Cavuto — to Fox News Channel branded Tay Party events. Beck, in particular, cosponsored the Tea Party’s largest event to date, and his “912 Project” quickly resonated with many attendees and Tea Party viewers across the country. Fox News provided what the Tea Party lacked: a communications infrastructure. In return, the news channel’s ratings skyrocketed to their highest level — 7 million primetime viewers — in years. While it seems to be a mutually beneficial relationship between Fox News and the Tea Party, Fox’s sponsorship of the movement and its parent organization is nothing short of exploitation. This was done to boost viewership and strengthen its hold on conservative viewers. As American moral and social philosopher Eric Hoffer once wrote: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
Politicians are notorious for exploiting the media. During campaigns, they will often release flattering personal or family photos to reporters in hopes of gaining positive coverage. This can do more for a campaign than the candidate’s position statement on poverty. Campaigns will also offer “exclusive” interviews to reporters during an election to guarantee news coverage. They know that an exclusive interview will be promoted heavily and given more space in a newspaper or airtime in a newscast than a traditional campaign story. For them, it’s free publicity.
Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign was one of the first to exploit the media. Nixon and John Mitchell, his campaign manager, decided that a good amount of what goes on in the political campaign was wasted effort. As a result, they dramatically reduced Nixon’s daily stops and focused intently on a few made-for-TV events. The Nixon campaign also virtually abandoned the ancient custom of night rallies, reasoning that because they occurred after the TV news deadlines they were not worth the effort. The rallies and other events that Nixon did hold were carefully staged so as to give reporters only one thing to report — the message the candidate wanted to get out — and campaign officials were relentless in their efforts to focus the attention of reporters on that message.
When viewing the relationship between politicians/political groups and the media, both use each other for their own personal gain. It is not a one-way street for either, and the mutual exploitation is done so out of monetary and power-seeking motivations. The news media exploits politicians by using them as inexpensive sources of news that will interest the public. At the same time, politicians exploit the media by using them to communicate with the public and present public images to help their political and social ambitions.