Do the media shape politics, or are they themselves shaped by it?
The Sun newspaper has just announced that it has stopped backing Labour, and instead backs the Conservatives. This is, in its way, a very significant event: the paper’s decision to back Labour in 1997 removed the last prop from the Conservative government of John Major, which lost the subsequent election.
But the media don’t make elections, despite the Sun’s claim in an earlier election that “It was the Sun Wot Won It.” Academic John Curtice has made a small cottage industry of analysing this claim, and is pretty clear that it wasn’t, and it won’t be this time either. “Certainly Labour’s leadership took the supposed power of the newspaper sufficiently seriously to devote considerable effort during the course of the 1992-7 parliament to persuading the paper’s staff and above all its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, that ‘New Labour’ was a party they could back,” he says. But: “When it comes to the outcome of elections, the disposition of the press does not make much difference at all.”
The Fabian society’s blog reports this and analyses it here. The Independent demolishes the thesis. “The idea that people read their favourite newspaper’s instructions and then robotically go out and vote is laughable – and certainly not borne out by any evidence. Moreover, in this instance, The Sun is plainly following public opinion, rather than shaping it. The opinion polls show that the public mood in much of the country swung against Labour some time ago.”
“The real influence of newspapers lies not in their hold over the votes of their readers, but in their hold over elected politicians.”
Meanwhile, David Brooks, conservative columnist at the New York Times, makes the same points about talk radio hosts, and Rush Limbaugh in particular. “Over the years, I have asked many politicians what happens when Limbaugh and his colleagues attack. The story is always the same. Hundreds of calls come in. The receptionists are miserable. But the numbers back home do not move. There is no effect on the favorability rating or the re-election prospects. In the media world, he is a giant. In the real world, he’s not.”
And he agrees, too, that the politicians and various others conspire to make it look as if these guys matter. “They are enabled by cynical Democrats, who love to claim that Rush Limbaugh controls the G.O.P. They are enabled by lazy pundits who find it easier to argue with showmen than with people whose opinions are based on knowledge. They are enabled by the slightly educated snobs who believe that Glenn Beck really is the voice of Middle America.”
“The rise of Beck, Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and the rest has correlated almost perfectly with the decline of the G.O.P. But it’s not because the talk jocks have real power. It’s because they have illusory power, because Republicans hear the media mythology and fall for it every time.”
The media are part of the complex political ecology of decision-making, opinion forming and attitude shaping, but only part; and they are as much acted upon as actors. Simple conspiracy arguments about the “power of the media” mistake cause and effect, misunderstand the way people consume media, and over simplify the decisions that ordinary people take about politics.