Mediapolitik Primer

, Mary Kapp, Leave a comment

Lee Edwards of the Heritage Foundation has pieced together insightful theories and national case studies to support a forecast of global politics as affected by the mass media. Mediapolitik: How the Mass Media Have Transformed World Politics draws information from the political systems of a variety of countries, contrasting and comparing them to the United States, which Edwards believes sets the standard in public enlightenment within a global power, for better or for worse.

Edwards tackles the issue of journalist responsibility and leadership in the twenty-first century. He acknowledges the factors of negativity that have impacted Americans, expanding on the evolving attitudes and means of journalists since the end of WWII:

“Media cynicism and negativism have unquestionably affected American politics. The University of Michigan has been surveying public confidence in U.S. institutions since the end of WWII. For the twenty-year period between 1972 and 1992, the proportions of people expressing ‘great confidence’ in the executive branch fell from 29 percent to 12 percent, while those with ‘hardly any confidence’ rose from 18 percent to 32 percent.”

The author identifies two prevailing types of journalist attitudes: Libertarian and Social Responsibility. Libertarians feel that they must be free to report whatever they discover, that the public has a right to know “everything about everything.”

CBS’s Mike Wallace admitted at a Harvard media conference that he believed it would be appropriate for him to accompany enemy troops into battle, even if they ambushed and killed American soldiers.”

Social responsibility journalists believe that they can better society by encouraging audiences to behave in more socially conscientious ways. Growing and cumbersome political correctness is a threat in this media outlook.

“In this interdependent world, the U.S. mass media are the most important media, because, first, the United States is the most powerful nation—economically, militarily, politically—in the world. Wall Street determines economic trends, the Pentagon dictates military decisions, Washington approves or disapproves of political solutions around the world, and American TV networks (especially CNN) and major publications influence the flow of news and information on every continent.”

The increasing ability to educate the public through media depends on a variety of factors within the nation, in order to secure a position in the vital interplay of a global community. The size of a role the mass media play in national politics in particular depends upon the following criteria:

1. There must be a significant media infrastructure, including television and radio networks and national newspapers and magazines.

2. There must be a sufficiently large reading or viewing audience to make the media truly mass.

3. Public officials must spend a considerable portion of their time planning for and working with the media.

4. The media must have the potential power to be able to change the process or the direction of a policy, either for good or bad.

The author elaborates on his thesis on worldwide political communication. “There is a need for a theory that presents a picture of politics and media as they are likely to be in the first part of the twenty-first century…” Edwards calls it mediapolitik.

This new theory depends on only three basic models of communication—liberal democratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian:

• In the liberal democratic model, both the politics and the mass media are free of government control. At its best, it operates within a framework of moral and political as well as societal responsibility. The leading example of this model is the United States, which, because of Founders like Madison and Jefferson, provides us with a mediapolitik rooted in democratic principles.

• In the authoritarian model, politics and mass media are regulated by the government, but the economy and the culture are usually not regulated… Politicians and journalists operate within a framework of realpolitik, which allows the government to determine how free institutions shall be.

Extensive study was done in the issue of apartheid in South Africa, a country which has accommodated racial politics since Dutch settlers first landed in Cape Town in the mid-1600’s. The global campaign for economic sanctions against South Africa developed in the 1960’s but was not then supported by either the American or British governments because of the presence of Soviet power and surrogates in the region.

“Without the extensive coverage by the media, external and internal, Nelson Mandela would not have emerged as the charismatic, even messianic black leader who negotiated on an equal basis with the white leadership about the future of South Africa. The live television broadcast of the freeing of Mandela after twenty-seven years in prison, his first public address in nearly three decades, and similar dramatic events in the early months of 1990 were made possible by a reversal of policy by President F.W. de Klerk, who abandoned government censorship and freed the media in a calculated attempt to change world public opinion that had been running so strongly against his government. No better example of the dynamic interplay of politics and media, of how mediapolitik can change the course of a nation, can be found.”

In the totalitarian model, politics and mass media are controlled absolutely by the government. Politics and media serve the state in the name of the people, but the needs of the state always come first. Rights are defined by the party that runs the state. Examples are Iraq, Cuba, and North Korea.

Paul Johnson, British historian and former journalist
has proposed ten commandments for those who lay claim to media influence worldwide:

1. Possess the desire to discover and tell the truth, and make it understood that the truth is not always simple.

2. Always “think through the consequences of what you tell”, asking always what will inform and what will eventually corrupt.

3. Truth-telling is not enough, and can be dangerous without an “informed judgment.”

4. Have a missionary urge to educate, telling the public not only what it wants to know, but what it needs to know.

5. You must distinguish between the “public opinion” that assures liberal democracy and the fleeting “popular opinion.” According to James Madison, it ought to be the reason, not the passions, of the public that sits in judgment.

6. Show the willingness to lead, regardless of the effect on viewer ratings.

7. Display courage, which is the one virtue that is “most lacking in the media.”

8. Be willing to admit error.

9. Habitually be fair, tolerating other points of view while exercising “temperance and restraint in expressing your own.”

10. Respect, treasure, and honor the power of words. They can uplift or kill. They are the “coinage of all culture.”

Mary Kapp is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a program run jointly by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.