Ideally, the role of mass media in society in relation to politics and governance is not to participate in the formulation of policies. In the strictest terms, it is not even supposed to take part in the debate prior to a political consensus is achieved. However, this is true only if mass media and journalism is considered one and the same. Journalism refers to the collection and the presentation of news information to the public. It may also involve in-depth analysis on the news information and the issues behind it as well as those connected to it. In this regard, journalism does need to be balanced and fair in treating all sides involved in a story.
Mass media does not only limit itself to journalism though. It is a venue for information dissemination, whether it is journalistic or not. Technically, its purposes include entertainment and advocacy. In the case of the former, it is clear that it has the capacity to control artists and their works. Since, it can be employed as an instrument for advocacy, it obviously has the power to suppress or promote issues according to its whims.
Given this description, it can be concluded that mass media can always have the tendency of being biased. As broadcast, print, and online media outfits come out with stories, they cannot avoid taking sides in the conflicts involved in it. In the real world, there is no such thing as absolute objectivity. Media practitioners can never separate their subjective points of view in presenting objective events, issues, or news items. Therefore, in the case of reporting about government and politics, “the reporter is a recorder of government but he is also a participant.” (Cater 7) Because of this, objectivity cannot be achieved by just relying on one media source but by having access to diverse presentations and analysis of various sources. Consequently, objectivity may not be perceived from the media practitioner’s angle but from the audience’s or reader’s perspective after acquiring as many sources as possible.
By legal definition and by actual description, the United States government is composed of three branches. These are the executive, the legislative, and the judicial branches. Each of the three has specific roles and functions. The executive branch implements policies and executes the laws formulated by the legislature. In cases when disputes occur regarding interpretation of the Constitution and the laws, the judiciary takes the responsibility of resolving it. However, as these branches operate with distinct boundaries, these also provide each other the necessary checks and balances. However, despite the separation of powers among such branches, all these may work as one cohesive government depending on whom or what political group or party wields dominance. The existence of a free mass media is a guarantee that the democratic interests of the majority, who are not a part of any of the branches mentioned, still have a means of being heard, whether they are supportive or critical of the government. The mass media is also utilized as a venue where debates concerning legislative measures are being aired or printed for the purpose of informing the public of the merits and demerits of such legislations. Although it has seen this vital role of the mass media, the government cannot establish tight control mechanisms over it in a truly democratic society. Therefore, mass media begins to have the features similar to the other branches in government; it can take part in shaping and scrapping state policies by being a venue of debates and yet it continues to assert its independence and freedoms afforded to it by the First Amendment. In such circumstance, mass media can be considered as the ‘fourth branch’ of government.
In reality, however, mass media stands not just as an instrument for informing the people of vital issues affecting them from viewpoints from contrasting camps in government and politics. The media outfits do not just deliver the news but are also political establishments too with journalists being part of the political contradictions as much as politicians are. (Cook 85) This does not mean though that journalists, especially news reporters actually provide the public with information already manufactured to suit their political interests. It is in the effort of the journalist to provide a more balanced and relatively objective perspective of an issued being debated by the contending political camps within and outside government that another angle is presented to the public. As a result, the journalist himself apparently becomes the source of alternative political views that can have a considerable influence on how the public will see react to the policies and issues being discussed in government. In fact, mass media outfits naturally have better chances of gathering support or sympathy from the public for causes that each of these respectively advocates than the government. First of all, these cannot be directly linked to the government or to any political camp, making it more influential on people who do not want to subscribe to the analysis of political groups with vested interests. Secondly, these have the machinery and the expertise to make their ideas more palatable to the public and more widespread in reach.
Given this power of the mass media, it is unthinkable for political parties, business, and advocacy groups to detach themselves from it. It has also become characteristic of media outfits to take sides in political conflicts due to the influences of such political forces. If the political landscape of the United States is divided into the two basic camps of the liberals and conservatives, the mass media in the country bears such divisions too. Although, the media outfits, in projecting a truly independent and neutral image, do not categorically declare support for the country’s leading political parties, its editorials and the slants of its news reports and opinion columns reflect the vantage point of either the Democrats or the Republicans regarding key federal and state issues and policies. Fox News, for example, is largely known as a conservative media outfit. According to Charlie Reina, a former producer of the company admitted that its editorial policies generally uphold conservative viewpoints and most of its employees are supportive of the Republicans. (Grieve 2003) L. Brent Bozell III, who heads the media watchdog Media Research Center, provides a contrasting view. According to him, “the liberal hegemony over the news media has provided the political Left with the ability not only to slant news coverage portside but actually to control the public conversation, both political and cultural, in America.” (Bozell 10) Bozell explains that the media’s bias can be seen in the manner that it criticizes the policies of the Bush administration, especially on the reaction it made after 9/11. He pointed how the liberal media avoided vitriolic criticisms against the Clinton administration even if it was embroiled in scandals that involved the Democrat president himself.
In the previous presidential election, it was observed that most of the media outfits provided favorable coverage for Barack Obama although John McCain early in the campaign was said to have its support. The Project for Excellence in Journalism, an institution that assesses hundreds of print and broadcast media outfits on a weekly basis found that in one week during the presidential campaign, 77 percent of the news items and feature stories were on Obama. (Myers 2008) Now that Obama is the president and the Democrats have the edge over the Republicans in the legislative branch, the conservatives accused the media of being the White House’s public relations machinery. Currently, opponents of Obama’s health care reform policy and Tea Party activists have often criticized the media outfits for not providing enough coverage on their side.
The methods that the media outfits apply do not directly promote, criticize, or shape a government policy as this would certainly run counter to the principles of journalism. Instead these would come out with investigative stories with findings that can impel government to react. In this sense, it may claim to speak or write in behalf of people who are most affected of certain issues that require government action. Because of this, liberal mass media personalities have many times present the contention that they do not just have the role of being recorders and journalists. They insist that they are also the ‘conscience of society’, delivering criticisms of the government and of society itself according to the varied perspectives of those not in power as well as its own. (Hardt 65) However, it is also this concept that compels certain media outfits to sensationalize the presentation of their products in order to prompt the government to formulate policies that may be popular but unwise. It is also in the same basis that media outfits may choose to support the government by ignoring abuses, corruption, and other forms of wrong governance.
Mass media can never avoid being biased in a society that is itself stratified. It cannot be denied that media outfits are not institutions primarily created for serving the public through information dissemination. Behind the print, broadcast, and online journalists are the corporate owners of the outfits they worked for. Therefore, business interests are also much involved in running these outfits. Despite the assertions that editors enjoy independence from the publishers or corporate owners in terms of content, the reality is that most editors are still pressured into serving the interests of the corporation. This alone proves that the professional and commercial mass media is not neutral. It is true, however, that there are still media practitioners who insist on the freedom from both government and business sectors. They oftentimes tend to pick up on issues advocated by the liberals and, in some cases, even by the Left. While they may rightfully claim that they are absolutely not biased for the powerful sectors, they cannot admit absolute independence from cause-oriented groups. In fact, among media practitioners, they are the most outspoken advocates of progressive and liberal thoughts and actions. The state of the mass media in America only reflects the conflicts and divisions characterizing the country’s politics. In a society divided between the conservatives and liberals, those who assert neutrality actually supports the camp that is in power. Media outfits have to adjust to the reality that “media audiences are becoming politically polarized” between the Republicans and Democrats or the conservatives and liberals. (Dye et al 187) Otherwise, they will lose their relevance.
Bozell, L. Brent, III. Weapons of Mass Distortion: The Coming Meltdown of the Liberal Media. Westminster, MD: Crown Publishing Group, Incorporated, 2004.
Cater, Douglass. The Fourth Branch of Government. New York, NY: Random House, 1977.
Cook, Timothy E. Governing with the News: The News Media as a Political Institution. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Dye, Thomas R., Bartholomew H. Sparrow, L. Tucker Gibson, Jr., and Clay Robison. Politics in America, Texas Edition, Eighth Edition. New York, NY: Longman, 2008
Grieve, Tim. “Fox News: The Inside Story.” Salon News October 31, 2003. 06 May, 2010. http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2003/10/31/fox.
Hardt, Hanno. “The Conscience of Society: Leo Lowenthal and Communication Research.” Journal of Communication Volume 41, Issue 3. International Communication Association, 2010.
Myers, Dee Dee. “Is the Media Trying to Elect Obama? Vanity Fair VF Daily July 21, 2008. 6 May, 2010. http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2008/07/is-the-media-trying-to-elect-obama.html.