Censorship: Here, There, and in the Political News Media
Knowledge is the key to opportunity. In a democratic sense, knowledge is the key component to our participatory democracy. However, what happens when few external forces are consciously limiting the greater public’s knowledge? The political news media is an essential component to democracy in the United States. Whether it is televised, written, or over the radio, millions of Americans rely on the news media to help them make their decisions about which candidates to elect. The mainstream media is structured in a way that profit is generated from the number of audience members who engage a news program. Naturally then, agenda setting is used to lure more audience members. Agenda setting is a logical way to organize information, but it can also be dangerous. Since there is so much information floating around, the media is forced to be selective of which information to cover, and more importantly, which information not to cover. By choosing not to cover certain information the news media is censoring information to the public. Since the political news media is very powerful, what they choose to report has large repercussions on the public. Media corporations often present information in a way that will result in personal gain, often by blurring the boundaries between news and entertainment, selective exposure and disclosure, and through the use of implication.
The two party democratic system has evolved political journalism into two sides: the liberal news media, and the conservative news media. Due to the structure of the media, each side has become bias and uses blurred boundaries between news and entertainment to make money. According to Robert Shogan, a distinguished reporter on public affairs, political candidates and opposing political forces rely more on media smears than on actual votes to achieve their goals, “The upshot is a vicious cycle-voter apathy and cynicism yield more power to the special interests, which in turn makes voters even more cynical and more apathetic while the political environment grows more poisonous” (255). The media creates an environment where it is as if the voters were judging a beauty pageant: the media prioritizes a candidates “relate-ability” and family morals over their prospective policies.
Most issues discussed during the course of the most recent presidential election weren’t even relevant to the presidency. Anything corresponding to the way candidates run their personal lives is not directly affecting the way a candidate can run a country. Therefore, any “personal” information about candidates is entertainment. The news media reported both personal information and political information since voters look to relatable family values and clean histories when nominating a candidate for presidency. John Edwards was doing so well in the opinion polls… until he got a haircut. Edwards was campaigning for benefits for the common man, and it was already revealed in 2007 that Edwards’ campaign was paying around $400 for his haircuts. Then, while campaigning in 2008, Edwards paid more than $1200 for a haircut. This was on the news for days.
One haircut cost Edwards over twelve hundred dollars. The common man pays about fifteen dollars for a haircut, so the cost of the Edwards’ haircuts left many common men shaking their heads. To make matters worse, Edwards’ primary campaign issue is the elimination of poverty in America. (“John Edwards”)
This essentially put his “relate-ability” factor into the negative spectrum on the number line. It is apparent that blurring the boundaries between news and entertainment can have huge repercussions on the candidates, as well as the voters. Another way in which the news media practices censorship, is by choosing which information deserves more coverage.
According to Professors Kenneth Dautrich and Thomas H. Hartley, the news is more likely to cover a candidate’s speech when the speech is “accompanied by dramatic footage” (Dautrich 11). A picture is worth 1,000 words, but when those thousand words are not read, or do not accompany that picture misconceptions start and continue. It is from misconceptions that Obama was repeatedly fending off acquisitions that he is Muslim. This all started by a picture circulating online, supposedly posted by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The picture was of Obama in African tribal garb, but because he was wearing a turban many assumed it was Muslim attire. The conservative news media discussed this more often than the liberal news media, illustrating how much importance they chose to allocate to the issue. Evidently, the media used this information to help support their political goals.
According to William L Rivers, a former professor of communication at Stanford University, information chosen by journalists is subconsciously going to be selective. He argues that the truth about political affairs is inhibited by a form of censorship called selective exposure. He wrote, “Journalists, like their readers, listeners and viewers, are subject to the selective processes. We expose our senses primarily to information that reinforces our own ideas” (qtd in Gallup, et. al. 38). A journalist is less likely than the layman to be misled by selective exposure. After all, if a Democratic reporter is assigned to cover the speech of a Republican candidate, he covers it. But journalists are as subject to the other processes as anyone.
During the first Vice Presidential debate between Senator Joe Biden and Governor Sarah Palin, Fox News and MSNBC both used selective exposure to support their own perspective and reasoning for whom did a better job during the debate. On October 3, 2008 a liberal media political commentator, Rachel Maddow, devoted her show to proving that Joe Biden was the winner. In doing so, Maddow used ten video clips, all of which supported her view. Maddow started off this topic by offering three of her observations:
“Number one the McCain-Palin ticket has mastered the embarrassing science of misquoting historical figures. Number two, Sarah Palin has folksy warmth, and that folksy is winky and seemingly rehearsed. Also, number three, Sarah Palin either does not know or does not care about always getting stuff right….Governor Palin finished up the debate with what I thought was perhaps her strongest, most emotionally-effective, most eloquent moment of the night.”
Maddow was referring to this quote, “It was Ronald Reagan who said that freedom is always just one generation away from extinction. We don‘t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. We have to fight for it, and protect it, and then, hand it to them so that they shall do the same, or we‘re going to find ourselves spending our sunset years telling our children and our children‘s children about a time in America, back in the day when men and women were free.” Then Maddow exposed how this proved Palin to be uneducated, “The threat to freedom Ronald Reagan was talking about was not that national defense or some competing ideology seeking global dominance. Reagan was predicting what would happen in the 1960s, if we got Medicare….I have to admit, I am slightly less moved by the Reagan quote now that I know it was supposed to make me fear the idea of old people getting healthcare. Does Sarah Palin agree? (The Rachel Maddow Show)” The rest of this episode continued in this fashion, and expressed that Joe Biden was the obvious winner of the debate.
On Fox news, however, they had a different approach to proving who the winner was. They used polls and a comparison of who was wearing the largest sized flag pin on their chest. On October 3, 2008 Fox news hosted its morning show called Fox & Friends, where Steve Doocy announced that Palin was the winner of the debate according to a national text poll. He said, “There was a text poll that Fox News ran while you were watching you could actually text and let us know who you thought won. Overwhelmingly by a margin of 87 to 11, you thought that Sarah Palin was the big winner.” After this poll, Doocy also declared Sarah Palin as the winner of the debate from closely comparing the size of the two candidates’ pins they wore the evening before. “There is a clear winner this morning,” he declared, “... Examine the flag pins. Joe Biden had a flag pin, Palin had a flag pin… Hers is about three times the size of his, so I would say flag pin-wise; she is the hands down winner." Each speaker had their own decisive victory, but had to show evidence that supported this victory to convince others.
Other manipulative techniques used by the media and politicians include only sharing some of the story, and purposely implying something that isn’t necessarily true. David Broder, referred to as the nation’s top political correspondent by the New York Times, calls the manipulation technique of only sharing some of the story “selective disclosure.” This was most recently apparent in the coverage of the Iraq war. It is because of manipulative techniques such as selective disclosure that in 2004, 41% of the public believed Suddam Hussein had an active role in the attacks of the World Trade Centers in 2001. It is because of manipulation techniques that 38% of the public believed that the hijackers who attacked the World Trade Centers were Iraqis, and it is because of manipulation techniques that 37% of the public believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction at the time of the US invasion (The Harris Poll).
On October 7, 2002 President Bush told Cincinnati, Ohio, “The evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program ... Iraq has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes and other equipment needed for gas centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons” (Scheer). This story was reported by Judith Miller and Michael R Gordon, both working for the New York Times. However, numerous officials from the Department of Energy and other experts investigated this and found that tubes could not be used for enriching uranium. Even with this declared, the media presented this issue as proof for war. As a matter of fact, that same October day, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice made their appearance on political talk shows to declare the discovery of the tubes and blatantly lie about the Iraqi nuclear threat. “There will always be some uncertainty about how quickly [Saddam] can acquire nuclear weapons” (“Frontline”), Rice explained, “But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud. Imagine a September eleventh with weapons of mass destruction” (“Frontline”). While she never actually said Iraq will make bombs and then use them to defeat America, she certainly implied it, and the media did not question that implication.According to New Republic, many of the analysts who had earlier established that these tubes could not be used for producing nuclear bombs were appalled. One of the analysts, Thilemann, said, “There was a lot of evidence about the Iraqi chemical and biological weapons programs to be concerned about. Why couldn't we just be honest about that without hyping the nuclear account? Making the case for active pursuit of nuclear weapons makes it look like the administration was trying to scare the American people about how dangerous Iraq was and how it posed an imminent security threat to the United States” (Judis).
The answer to why honesty was not the best policy was because Bush needed to have support from the American public in order to sway congress for this national undertaking. According to former press secretary Scott McLellan, "Bush and his advisers knew that the American people would almost certainly not support a war launched primarily for the ambitious purpose of transforming the Middle East, "Rather than open this Pandora’s Box, the administration chose a different path — not employing out-and-out deception, but shading the truth...[an] effort to convince the world that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, an effort…[which] used “innuendo and implication" and "intentional ignoring of intelligence to the contrary" (Herman). In this example of selective disclosure, the public was not told all that was relevant to the situation. This same process is seen when new programs start to appear. This was apparent with Obama’s stimulus plan. His program was optimistically announced, the outcomes of his goals were optimistically described, but somehow the finances to achieve this goal were kept under wraps. The population wouldn’t have been so surprised at the billions of dollars included in this program if they had known beforehand. As David Broder eloquently stated, “the government official of the politician involved puts the emphasis deliberately on the aspect of what he is disclosing that is most favorable from the point of view of the objective that he has in mind” (qtd in Gallup, et. al. 66).
Censorship is not necessarily a bad practice; in this research paper even the author has practiced censorship. I chose the examples which I felt most accurately illustrate the techniques I chose to research. As a society, censorship can hinder the knowledge citizen’s need in order to make informed decisions. Since the profit structure of the news media encourages blurring the boundaries between news and entertainment, the media will be bias. In that bias, selective exposure is natural. However, this can be a dangerous practice when we omit the information refuting the given support. Viewers are not as aware as they could be of media censorship and this causes viewers to trust in the news, giving rise to large percentages of misperceptions. Viewers need to be more active receptors of information and act as a check on the political news media.
Dautrich, Kenneth, and Thomas H. Hartley. How the News Media Fail American Voters : Causes, Consequences and Remedies. New York: Columbia UP, 1999.
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Herman, Ken. "Bush misled U.S. on Iraq, former aide says in new book | ajc.com." Atlanta News, Sports, Atlanta Weather, Business News | ajc.com. 27 May 2008. 17 Feb. 2009 <http://www.ajc.com/meetro/content/news/stories/2008/05/27/mcclellanbook_0527.html>.
"John Edwards Campaign Of Contradictions." The Daily Vu. 1 Sept. 2007. 19 Feb. 2009 <http://www.eworldvu.com/election-2008/2007/9/1/john-edwards-campaign-of-contradictions.html>.
Judis, John B., and Spencer Ackerman. "The Selling of the Iraq War: The First Casualty- UN Security Council -." Global Policy Forum. 30 June 2003. 17 Feb. 2009 <http://www.globalpolicy.org/security/issues/iraq/unmovic/2003/0630selling.htm>.
Scheer, Christopher. "Ten Appalling Lies We Were Told About Iraq | | AlterNet." Home | AlterNet. 27 June 2003. 17 Feb. 2009 <http://www.alternet.org/story/16274/>.
Shogan, Robert. Bad News : Where the Press Goes Wrong in the Making of the President. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publisher, 2001.
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