Media Effects on Governing
The mass media has played a major role in American politics since the formation of our country. So much so that it has been called by many, the fourth branch of government. Originally, media power was only vested in the papers, but today radio and television are the more prominent forms of news. Since the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, presidents have used the media to spread their views to their constituents. FDR brought us the fireside chats in one of which he requested the American people to put their money back into the banks and get our economy moving again. The media informed the nation of Richard Nixon’s less then honorable means of governing and the media brought the Vietnam war to our living rooms every evening. There are even those who believe that the media chooses our presidents by deciding whether to air the good or bad things they dig up on the presidential candidates.
There are two major ways the mass media effects the public. These are agenda setting and priming. Agenda setting is the way the media dictates the salience of contemporary issues. An experiment performed by Iyengar et al in 1980 showed that media does effect how important an issue is to the public. In this experiment, Iyengar showed three different groups news clippings weighted on the side of specific issues, then showed a fourth control group undoctored news. He tested these subjects before and after the showings and found that in all but one issue, the subjects had moved in the hypothesized direction. This last issue was inflation and he concluded that people just could not think this issue was more important then they already did.
Agenda setting effect is important to the government, especially the president, because it leads to priming. Priming is the use of salient issues by the public to evaluate a public figure. When is comes to voting on a president, priming is second only to partisanship in importance. If you recall the 1992 election in which Bill Clinton ran against an incumbent George Bush, priming played a major role. Bush had been a popular president especially when it came to his role in the Persian Gulf War. His ratings were high throughout his presidency. When Clinton threw his hat into the ring, he began his campaign by successfully shifting the arena back to domestic affairs. One of his campaign slogans was, It’s the Economy Stupid. This made Americans start evaluating Bush on his domestic stance. The economy had not been where most Americans wanted it and as a result Clinton was elected president.
With the media playing such a pinnacle role in politics, it is no wonder that Presidents allocate so much of their time and resources in that direction. All presidents set up an office of press secretary. This person is a direct liaison between the media and the president. As such, the press secretary needs to be looked at as an honorable person with direct access to the president. In addition, presidents do what they can to have the press cover humanity stories, i.e. baby kissing. Just after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, in order to appear in a more favorable light, Clinton took a romantic weekend with his wife and made sure not to keep this a secret.
While the President does what he can to lead the media in a more favorable direction, he is less successful at taking the helm as the press is. Nine times out of ten, when a story hits the headlines, it results in a presidential response to a media decision and not the other way around. Clinton has always been an advocate of stricter gun control laws, but not until the Columbine High School incident in Colorado was he even slightly effective at directing public opinion on the matter. However, when an issue is of substantial importance to the president, he does have a tool in which to attempt to build salience. He can go public. This is when the president appears on prime time television to educate the people on a subject. However, there are many factors involved for this to be a successful endeavor. First and foremost, the president must be a prestigious one. If he is not a popular president, the public will not listen to him and the networks may even refuse to air him. Second, he must communicate well his argument. Third, and most difficult, the people must be effected and take action. Should the public opinion on the issue be shifted, then the president was successful and can continue with his project. An example of an unsuccessful attempt at going public can be seen when President Clinton proceeded to bomb Afghanistan the day after the Monica Lewinsky scandal was proven true. The public was informed on the bombing, but nobody really cared.
The media’s greatest effect on the Office of the Presidency is indirect, but nonetheless a powerful one. The media has a direct effect on public approval in addition to being the facilitators of public approval polls. Public approval in turn is the most decisive factor separating powerful presidents from weak ones. The amount of influence a president has over his five constituents (party, bureaucracy, congress, foreign leaders and the American people) has a direct relationship with his level of public approval. This is not to say that presidents have zero influence on how successful they are, but perception is everything when it comes to playing the game of politics. Most American do not actively seek out as much information as they can about presidents; they only see what is presented to them through the media.