The Impact of the Media on Politics

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Impact of the Media on Politics


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


THE mass media are our eyes and ears on the world as we have seen in recent events, such as the Libyan uprising and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. It is impossible for anyone directly to know all that is going on in politics (or any other matter)--one cannot be everywhere all the time. Therefore, we are all reliant on the mass media to keep us informed. The mass media also filter facts and make sense of the world for us. The overall theme of this essay is that we are not so much living in the midst of a dramatic new revolution--but rather in a period when old trends have rapidly accelerated. For example, politicians often complain that the media want something done to fit in with their own deadlines. Deadlines are not really such a new problem. A currently popular movie is the Oscar-winning The King's Speech which deals with the stammering of King George VI. The movie does not deal with the speculation that his father's death (King George V) was prompted by the injection of drugs to bring the King's life to a speedy close within 15 minutes--and so enable the death to be reported in the morning edition of The Times. (1)

This article examines three major drivers of change--technology, content and media finance--and then sees how each has an impact on politics. It concludes with a comment on the need for a politically engaged public.

Technology

The essence of 'mass media' is the process of communication of information (true or false) beyond one person. A conversation between two people in the same location is not, under this definition, 'mass media'. However, the ability of that one person to communicate with two or more people does make it 'mass media'. Thus, sermons in places of worship over the millennia would constitute 'mass media'.

What has become more significant is the mobilization of technology to assist communications. For people who feel overwhelmed by the pace of modern communications technology, I recommend William Powers' practical philosophy for building a good life in the digital age. (2)

One of his case studies is the invention of Western printing by Johann Gutenberg in the mid-fifteenth century. Gutenberg observed how wine was made via presses and so converted that technology to printing material, not least the Bible. By 1500 the first wave of printers had produced 30,000 different titles and millions of copies. In 1517 the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther challenged the power of Rome. (3) Luther's message was soon captured in print. Books were a good way to spread rapidly new thinking on theology. The resulting Reformation transformed Europe and, among other things, gave rise to a new form of political governance: the nation-state system (often called the 1648 Westphalian System). (4)

The pace of technological change has continued to accelerate. For much of Western history, the fastest rate at which news could move was the speed of the horse: be it ridden by a single messenger or drawing a vehicle of some sort. By the nineteenth century, news was able to travel at a faster rate via railways carrying newspapers or (very expensively) by telegraph. Twentieth century radio and television then transformed mass media. On March 11, 1956 the film version of Sir Laurence Olivier's Richard III by William Shakespeare was broadcast on US television and it was watched by about 40 million people--it had a larger audience on that one day than all the people combined who had ever seen the play in the previous 352 years.

The Internet era is still in its infancy and so it is currently unclear where that will lead. The Internet's growth is just one aspect of 'Moore's Law', named in honour of Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, who predicted in 1965 that computing power would double in power and halve in price every two years. One dramatic example of the power of doubling that I use in my presentations is the story of lilies growing across a pond and doubling in size every day. …

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