Political Influence on the Free Press

In a media saturated democratic society like the US, the relationship between the media and those who govern it is both intimate and complex. Presidents are elected because they know how to present their message in the media and how to manipulate and control media.

In many ways, elections have become media contests. There is still the effort to energize and organize voters on Election Day. But a significant component of electoral politics has become the candidate’s efforts to establish a media-driven message. In some instances this involves tens of millions of dollars in evocative paid advertising. In others, it involves carefully constructed events, designed solely for their media impact.

In all cases, candidates seek to gain control of how their image and message is projected, while at the same time attempting to put themselves in the position of defining their opponent’s image and message.

In this era of all-pervasive media, examples of the above are plentiful. Jimmy Carter was no match for that master of the media, Ronald Reagan. George Bush devastated Michael Dukakis because he succeeded in defining him as a weak liberal. Similarly, while riding high with his popularity as victor of the Gulf War-Democrats took advantage of Bush’s delay in beginning his reelection campaign and succeeded in defining him as a “failed president” who, while winning foreign wars, ignored domestic economic needs.

Clinton, like Reagan, was a master of the media. Time and again, he successfully used it define himself and his message to overpower and drown out competing messages.

In instances where Clinton could not overcome the preponderance of negative press instigated by the Republican-led House and Senate, harped on by ideologically motivated right-wing commentators and then echoed by more mainstream media, the White House would go around the national media and give local press, starved for “exclusives,” direct access to the President.

George W. Bush did much the same during his two campaigns for President. When plagued by reports of “not so youthful” indiscretions, or reporting on his failed policies, Bush gave himself to local media outlets casting himself as “a regular guy,” a man of character and resolve, fighting Washington politics and the “Washington media.”

Contemporary presidents have learned that the media has to be mastered not only to be elected, but to govern. Reagan, for example, escaped a humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon, following the devastating attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut with a quick victory in Grenada. Clinton, fairly or not, was accused of much the same with the surprise attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan.

George H.W. Bush’s conduct during the Gulf War is probably the most successful example of this point. For months after deploying a substantial force in the Persian Gulf, the President and his spokespeople consistently maintained that the forces were there only to “defend and deter.”

Meanwhile, the Administration worked slowly but steadily built public support for future action. In September of 1990, the US public was not prepared for an assault on Iraq or a substantial effort to liberate Kuwait. Different messages were tried and tested-daily, the public’s reactions to these messages were examined and evaluated. There was an observable shift in public attitudes during the next four months. This media-driven public relations campaign worked. By the time the war actually began, the public was ready and Congress supportive.

Similarly, in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, the second Bush Administration used the power of the Presidency and the public’s insecurity resulting from 9/11 to move a pliant national media to build the campaign for war.

The media was, in all these instances, managed in the service of policy and governing, and did not play an independent role in examining Administration campaign efforts. As I’ve noted earlier, too often, media merely “records and reports” what government officials say and does not search for the truth. In fact, only when major dissident voices were raised did the media cover “the other side” and then, in a “he said-she said” format. Thus it was, in the lead-up to the Iraq war, that only after “quotables” like former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft spoke out, or when former Vermont Governor and Presidential candidate Howard Dean built a bottom-up campaign in opposition to the war, were serious questions about Iraq policy raised in the mainstream media.

These challenges have been further fed by new questions that are now being asked, now that stubborn Iraqi realities have defied the Administration’s fantasy scenario about the war’s successes.

The Administration’s response to all of this has been vigorous and sustained. They have denigrated opponents, preyed on fear and relied on patriotic fervor, and managed an effective counter media campaign effort to win the day with public opinion-at least for now.

And so it is that while technically free of government influence, US media is nevertheless profoundly influenced by political and governmental factors. And the interrelationship of political, cultural and commercial consideration combine to make the US media more responsive to these pressures and as a result less free and less inquisitive.