L ast Tuesday evening a couple friends and I were watching Obama’s latest State of the Union. Sometime during the speech one of my buddy’s, a staunch conservative, piped up with a comment regarding the shade of Obama’s gray hair while in front of cameras, as opposed to his hair shade of gray while off camera. As I should have foreseen, knowing all too well that we live in an argument-based culture, other friends of mine in the room took this as an attack on the Obama administration as a whole. Welcome to America.
A cacophony suddenly erupted in my apartment. Everyone began arguing over Obama and the nature and success of his administration. A stupid hair shade comment exploded into a tense, political debate. Everyone behaved as if they “have it right”. I got the feeling that most people in the room weren’t even listening to what the others had to say. So, as I stood there drinking my beer trying to wrap my head around the senseless chaos surrounding me, I couldn’t help asking myself: How can any of these people really know what they are talking about?
So that was that. A few days went by, and it wasn’t until I sat down to write my weekly column one afternoon, that I remembered: How did any of those people really know what they were talking about? In search of a potential answer to my question, one of the first things that came to my mind was a study I read not too long ago on ethics. I found the 1980’s study by Phillip Paterson in a book titled, Media Ethics: Issues and Cases. One would assume (as I did) that voters learn about candidates primarily through fact-based news. Interestingly, Patterson found that this was not the case at all. Most voters admitted learning more about their candidate from advertising than they did from news.
I also discovered that nowadays, presidential campaigns place ads only in contested states. As a result, many voters get very little exposure to even the limited and one-sided information that comes from ads. So what about the Internet with regards to a campaign trail, I wondered.
Web sites have become increasingly important over the past decade with regards to politics. However, since these sites are under the control of the candidate, and are not restricted by constraints of completeness or objectivity, they too must be considered as advertising. Today, more than 30 years after the first study discovered this voter trend, many would conclude that advertising is still the main source of information that most voters use and want.
Part of this problem seems to stem from Journalistic practice itself. News about elections and government officials mostly emphasize strategy and tactics rather than issue stands. A great example comes from an article by Alexander Burns of POLITICO.com, titled “Barack Obama’s 2012 plan: ‘Kill Romney’ (1)
Barack Obama’s aides and advisers are preparing to center the president’s re-election campaign on a ferocious personal assault on Mitt Romney’s character and his business back-ground, a strategy based in early stage expectation that the former Massachusetts governor is the likely GOP nominee.
The Obama administration’s campaign strategy describes forcing voters who want to become informed about policy choices to default. They have to get their information from the usual “negative” or “attack” ads. This can be done, in part, because policy information is largely missing from news. Stories in “the news” lay far too much emphasis on polls, electability, popularity, and character. Given what I found, it’s easy to see how a candidate’s “flaws and weak-nesses” are the only things voters are exposed to.
I feel the pressing issue here is whether people in this day and age have the access they need to get acquainted with a candidate deeply enough to acquire an informed opinion.
I really don’t think people can. Why? Because today, as Paterson would say, candidates are experts in “photo opportunity” and “the Rose Garden Strategy”. Both are designed to prevent anything but the most meticulously scripted candidate contact with the voting public.
The concept of “public servant” is supposed to be the actual working title of people elected through the political process. But it has been displaced in American culture by a concept of our “politician”. Making matters worse, our conceptual “politician” is synonymous with “crook” or “liar”. This conceptual shift is strengthened by images from popular culture in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and All the King’s Men. (2)
Perhaps my limited knowledge of politics and journalism has made me completely miss the mark here. Though, I can’t deny that my reasoning in this article is at least somewhat sound. So consider this food for thought, my dear reader, and ask yourself: can we really know who, or what we are voting for in this day and age? Should changes be made to reverse this muddled way in which so many people around the world receive information about politics?
Perhaps then, a public official’s hair shade may not be important enough to send college students into a mindless argument over successful policy and issue platforms.
2. Patterson, Philip, and Lee Wilkins. Learning About Leaders And Their Character. Media Ethics: Issues and Cases. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. Print.
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