Why didn’t journalists see the Trump phenomenon? I studied the political elite & media for a year. This was my conclusion.
Politicians and media are in a drastic shift in power relations, and this transition is inviting us to rethink how we understand the relationship between the political elite and the media. Social media, blogging, and user-friendly technology is changing the conversation surrounding political communication. Currently, there is a paradigm shift in media as an institution which is infiltrating the relationship between the political elite and the traditional news media. There is no longer a gatekeeper in news reporting — the traditional news media is currently in a state of crisis. This shift from a small amount of networks determining the news to millions of people shaping and retweeting news is polarizing the American people, giving more recognition to the loudest, most angry viewpoints, and allowing for strategic political communications professionals to craft narratives to certain fragments of the population.
While the media and the political elite necessitate a relationship, the media is having to redefine this relationship due to the paradigm shift from being the gatekeeper of information to now being a news opinion shaper. This crisis has been a result of a myriad of different consequential events; as the gatekeeper paradigm is no longer relevant to the current state of affairs. Today, the relationship between the media and the political elite is heavily one-sided, benefitting the politician who now has hundreds of new ways to connect with voters, through social media and Internet websites that span throughout the world. Information is being dispensed at a rapid rate, and although more information would seem like a positive thing, the fragmentation of opinions is allowing for voters to sift through the existing noise and only listen to the information that reinforces their world view. The paradigm shift in media as an institution is affecting the American people because the following news-opinion-shaper paradigm is only catering to polarizing views. As Thomas E. Patterson acknowledges in his book Informing the News, the relationship between journalism and politics is increasingly struggling:
Nevertheless, the day has long passed when the relationship between reporters and officials was a healthy one. Changes within journalism and politics have placed these two groups on a collision course that has brought out the worst in both. National political reporting has become a two-ring partisan circus with citizens cast in the role of unwitting spectators treated to a version of news that is as unsavory as it is deceptive. (34 Patterson)
The paradigm shift is changing power relations, so that politicians are able to craft their own messages and spin their own narratives without as much flack from news organizations. The general public only trusts the media to provide differing opinions, not to completely undermine a politician’s narrative. Indeed, politicians are able to use non-traditional news outlets to get out their messaging systems if the traditional news outlet “fails” to spin a story in their favor. The President and First Lady tend to seek out new outlets to connect with constituents and share their messaging. Donald Trump decides not to show up to a debate because he doesn’t like the moderators, and holds his own event that is streamed on Snapchat, Live Tweeted, and shown on C-SPAN. The political elite no longer need the traditional media for access to the American people, they are able to retain access to constituents through their own social media platforms and non-traditional outlets.
The immediacy of news is also making it difficult for the news reporters to do their job. News organizations are forced to report on stories as they happen, which doesn’t allow for a significant amount of time to edit and synthesize a story. This dilemma is forcing organizations to share information as it happens, and sometimes news organizations get their information wrong. As reporter Kathie Obradovich noted, social media demands news organizations to get out their stories in a timely manner, and those stories must be interesting. Social media is pushing the conversation to be “edgy”, to be different; shifting the conversation to be more focused on news-opinion-shaping than actually news delivering. As evidenced by the news coverage of the Brussels attacks, sufficient air time was dedicated to national security commentators to add a new element to the coverage.
The power dynamics in the new paradigm are completely shifted in favor of the political elite, who are now able to control their narratives in a more effective way. Strategic communications professionals are trained to spin stories and design narratives to pass through legislation, to imprint ideas in the minds of the American people. While there is no longer a credible gatekeeper for fact based reporting and checking, the political elite are increasingly having more power. Furthermore, social media outlets tend to give voice to those who speak the loudest, the ones who voice their political opinions through particular platforms, and usually these individuals are the angriest and the most partisan. The paradigm shift in information dissemination and news reporting is ultimately affecting the American voter, creating a polarizing gap in political views.
The relationship between the media and the political elite is no longer a dual against one another trying to dismantle each other’s narratives. Today, the relationship has to take into account outside factors that are constantly penetrating the dual that is taking place — opinion shapers, political pundits, and “spin doctors” are now part of the equation. The media is struggling to keep their foothold in credibility, as is the political elite. The relationship is, as Kuhn might argue, in a state of crisis, with no institutional framework to help define it. He describes this relationship, as a state without boundaries, where power players “behave more and more eccentrically within it.” As the crisis in this relationship deepens “many individuals commit themselves to some concrete proposal for the reconstruction of society in a new institutional framework” (93). This new institutional framework, is still taking place, so the relationship between the media and the political elite will continue to change and grow as media as an institution evolves. Yet, the political elite in this changing framework continue to have a stronghold on the power dynamics of the relationship.
The changing relationship between the media and the political elite matters because it affects every part of the political process within American politics. Americans are attached to media at every second of the day. We are bombarded with political messages nearly every hour, and the new paradigm which is now being defined will continue to influence political behavior for years to come. As Americans, it is important to be consciously aware of the relationship between the media and the political elite because this relationship affects our daily lives. The opinion shapers tend to craft how we might think about certain political beliefs, it could influence if we vote or don’t vote, it could influence health care policy, education funding, veteran’s affairs, or tax policy. If a politician is able to adequately craft narratives and disseminate messages to the American public, it might be difficult to realize what is good and what is not. At the same time, the polarization of the American people is even more detrimental because American democracy is rooted in compromise. With the news-opinion-shaper paradigm, the only voices that are being heard are the strongest most polarizing voices. There is no compromise offered, and the American people become increasingly more polarized — and as this polarization occurs — nothing gets done. When nothing gets done, people get angry, effectively severing American society.
The paradigm shift that is occurring within media as an institution directly affects the American people. In the 2016 election, Republican candidates have become more “conservative” in their beliefs than they ever have been before, and Democrat Bernie Sanders proudly declares himself a “Democratic socialist”. The cleavage within American society is already apparent — and the ongoing media crisis is perpetuating the polarization in views. No longer can the American people look to the media as a gatekeeper because the American people don’t abide by the shared assumptions that the media is credible. Even President Obama has expressed concern over the state of the news media and theatrics in political communication. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg from the Atlantic, Obama noted that in some ways, the media is too simplistic in delivering simplistic messages:
“I believe that we have to avoid being simplistic. I think we have to build resilience and make sure that our political debates are grounded in reality. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of theater in political communications; it’s that the habits we — the media, politicians — have gotten into, and how we talk about these issues, are so detached so often from what we need to be doing that for me to satisfy the cable news hype-fest would lead to us making worse and worse decisions over time.” (Goldberg 2016)
Instead, the American people don’t know who to trust, so they tend to cling to their values and seek out networks that share these values — they follow their candidates on Twitter and Facebook rather than checking in on traditional news outlets because the candidates can speak directly to them. The media does not influence political decision making or serve as a fourth estate, the media is generally still trying to define their institution as it exists in this new paradigm, leaving the power to the political elite, and trying to use their role as news-opinion-shapers because they can no longer serve the role as gatekeeper.