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What Is the Relationship between the US Media and Politicians?

By Gregory Hanson
Updated May 17, 2024
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The relationship between the US media and politicians is defined by a complicated sort of mutual dependence. Modern American media covers politics extensively, and the news media relies on politics to fill much of its broadcast time. In some cases, media organizations take stands, explicitly or implicitly, and strongly support certain groups of politicians. Politicians, in turn, make every effort to control the images and ideas that permeate the media, either by carefully managing interactions with news organizations or by directly purchasing access to the media.

Media in the United States has always played a role in shaping political life. The rise of mass-circulation papers in the latter part of the 19th century gave media barons a great deal of influence over elections, and politicians often courted the favor of these influential men. Radio proved to be a very powerful tool for politicians, and Franklin Roosevelt is partially famous for his use of that medium to speak directly to the nation, both reassuring a nervous public and explaining his policies to encourage support for his positions.

Television has proven to be even more important, and the televised media and politicians have come to rely heavily on one another. The debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon illustrates the power of television. Listeners on the radio generally thought that Nixon had prevailed, but those who watched on the television believed that Kennedy had won. After this debate, television quickly became the most important medium for political debate and advertising.

Modern political life in the United States is often dominated by the close relationship between media and politicians. News outlets, especially those that run programming all day, every day, have many hours to fill. Interviews with politicians are an inexpensive way to fill programming hours. Politicians, in turn, have become very dependent on the media to maintain their image.

In many cases, media outlets and political reporters have a bias toward a particular party or agenda. This is entirely legal but still causes some concern among those who watch the media. Interactions between agents of the media and politicians from the same camp are typically cordial, whereas those between media personalities and political opponents can be quite acrimonious.

Critics of all ideological persuasions have often expressed concern about the ties between media and politicians in the United States. A major concern stems from the tremendous amount of effort that many politicians feel compelled to expend on creating and preserving a public image. Opponents of this style of media coverage argue that it amounts to little more than marketing for politicians, and does not serve to inform the public or to force lawmakers to address tough and substantial questions.

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Discussion Comments

By Lostnfound — On Jul 31, 2014

You can get real, objective US political coverage from PBS, and the BBC. It's tough to find it elsewhere. Smaller newspapers frequently do a good job of keeping local politicians honest, but the situation has to get really bad before large media outlets will appropriately skewer a president or Speaker of the House, say.

The British press is much less forbearing with their politicians. I've seen editorials and cartoons that are downright nasty. While I despise politics in general, the US media could use some really brave editors and columnists who are brave enough to call the president a fool if that's the case. You should see what the Brits say about Prince Charles. It's ugly. We need some of that incisive commentary on our side of the pond.

By Grivusangel — On Jul 30, 2014

Ever heard the phrase, "Politics makes strange bedfellows"? That's what it means. The relationship between the US media and politicians is a nasty one. It's mutually exclusive, mutually beneficial and a few other "mutuals" that are not suitable for a PG website. If you get my drift.

It's a fact that politicians court the media because they need to be seen by their constituents. The media needs politicians because nothing gets hits on websites, sells papers and boosts TV ratings like stories about political scandals. There's another adage, "I don't care what you say about me as long as you spell my name right." That has considerable truth, too. Except for a few cases, any press is good press for a politician. It can be destructive, but not as often as it is helpful.

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