Closing the Gap: Media, Politics, and Citizen Participation

By Muir, Janette Kenner | Harvard International Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Closing the Gap: Media, Politics, and Citizen Participation


Muir, Janette Kenner, Harvard International Review


It's primary election night in Manchester, New Hampshire. Bright lights of media tents beckon political thrill seekers, most of whom are trying to catch a glimpse of their favorite candidate or media celebrity. The lights cast an eerie glow on the dark night, as cameras, posed in various places, wait with anticipation. Important things are happening here in this snowy town, located in an ardently independent and politically active state. As election results are reported, political candidates begin to sort themselves out--the best rising to the top, the remainder wondering how much longer they can spend precious resources chasing a dream that only a few will ever achieve.

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New Hampshire managed to retain its "First in the Nation" primary status in 2008, amidst attempts by other states to close in on this treasured position. Despite protestations from across the country, there is good reason for starting here. From the interplay of candidates and the press to the frenetic energy of campaign volunteers, no other state provides as many opportunities to see politics in action. As the political campaign process unfolds, there are numerous ways to directly connect with candidates, which is something that becomes increasingly difficult as the primary season progresses and the frontrunners are anointed. This primary also provides an early view of the political energy associated with this campaign year, making it feel different from previous elections. One only needs to look around to see the myriad of political signs dotting the highway, dozens of people standing on street corners cheering for their favorite candidate, and the campaign buses and press trucks creating traffic jams to know that something profound is happening here. There seems to be a movement afoot, a passionate desire for change, and a hope for a new perspective. For some it is the search for a new conservative heart. For others it is the promise of a completely new direction for the country.

In January, I had the privilege of traveling to New Hampshire with 18 others for a course called, "On the Campaign Trail." Our goal was to see and learn about as many political candidates as possible and observe their relationships with media and potential voters. Spending a week trudging through snow, attending candidate events, and talking with the press and citizens alike, one cannot help but take away from that experience the firm realization that politics and media are inextricably linked. As with previous elections, the political reality that candidates attempt to create is directly wedded to the way that reality is mediated by journalists.

Politics and media are clearly intertwined in shaping the national political agenda. Adding to this complexity, however, is a greater public voice utilizing various means to engage citizen participants in the unfolding story. This year, citizen engagement is another strong source of influence, manifested through Internet social networks and blogging sites. As this voice grows, it becomes more challenging for media outlets to garner the kind of influence they held in past presidential campaign seasons. These challenges have significant implications for elections throughout the world.

Every campaign season generates discussion about the ways that media influence the political process and shape public debate. From the earliest US broadsides and editorial cartoons, media have played important roles in framing campaign issues and personalities. In US politics specifically, the press has gone through various stages of influence and now it faces perhaps it greatest identity crisis as it redefines its role in media-saturated society. To understand the ways the media impacts US politics, the potential for citizen engagement in the process, and the evolution of international politics, it is helpful to understand the nature of media influence.

Early Aristotelian writing about the art of persuasion and the common places a speaker may draw from to appeal ethically, logically, and emotionally to an audience, underscores the idea that effective political oratory is carefully crafted and delivered for the greatest persuasive impact. …

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