Contemporary North American politics can be characterized by a level of polarization, hostility, and superficiality not previously experienced. No single variable can be attributed to the current state of politics. That being said, the popularization of television, which occurred by the 1950s, significantly impacted political methodology. By analyzing television’s programming and stylistic tendencies from the 1950s to present day, we can see that by reducing the quality of political discourse, normalizing dangerous subcultures, and shifting the focus of a politician from policy to personality, the popularization of television has heavily impacted the development of North American politics.
Television programming has developed into a major source of news media, educational content, and entertainment. The technology has demonstrated itself to be a massively successful, diverse medium, easily capable of holding an audience’s attention. The rapid permeation of the television into middle-class lifestyles across North America set the stage for the technology to have sweeping social, economic, and political consequences. The overwhelmingly dominant use of television is for entertainment purposes. This is evident when comparing the number of entertainment and non-entertainment channels, and when looking at how aspects of entertainment broadcasting have seeped into other genres. Television’s relentless pursuit of “dramatic highlights” in non-entertainment programming, such as the news, is a salient example of this. This focus on “highlights” is a direct result of television channels competing for viewership. According to a journal article published in Sage Journals, “competitive pressure emerges as a major factor promoting sensationalism” (Vettehen & Kleemans, 2017). When television broadcasts news stories, particularly negative stories, there is often an element of dramatization, as to elevate the emotions experienced by the audience. This is manipulative on behalf of broadcasters and degrades the accuracy and trust of news journalism as a societal institution. The sheer number of broadcasting channels seeking viewership is also a challenge because only the “best” or “most engaging” information or highlights are shown at all. This has particularly troubling ramifications for political stories aired on television, where the depth of thought and nuance of ideas is incredibly important.
Politics is naturally newsworthy and loaded with nuance, which is why short highlight clips fail to break down political content accurately. Even though highlight clips leave out vital information, television broadcasters have not shied away from using them in politics. This has led to the creation of “sound bites” and “talking heads,” in which politicians offer short, catchy phrases to exemplify their main policy points. Unfortunately, the average talking head is only 9.8 seconds long, significantly less time than is needed to adequately cover the topic at hand (Sailor, 2011). For example, Andrew Scheer and Doug Ford, leaders of the Federal Conservative Party and Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party, have consistently used the phrase “job-killing carbon tax” when discussing carbon pricing. This sound bite is short, showcases the current conservative position on the issue without getting into details, and evokes the audience’s emotions.
In contrast, the Liberal Party’s climate change sound bite, frequently used by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is “we’re putting a price on pollution.” This sound bite conveys a positive-sounding message, but once again excludes the details of the policy. Ideally, any issue that makes its way to televised political debate should be represented with the proper level of depth and analysis. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to occur, as television’s emphasis on producing quick and dramatic content has degraded North American attention spans. Countless studies, including a recent one published by the Globe and Mail, show that there exists a link between the use of media, such as television, and shortened attention spans (Ubelacker, 2018). Television caters to short attention spans, as it is a space biased media, conveying information to large amounts of people through short exposure times. The decline of North American attention spans has further incentivized television producers to continue using short, superficial clips. Essentially, television has created an audience feedback loop. It should be noted that the issues associated with television broadcasting and politics are not the fault of the politician, but merely an issue of how characteristic traits of entertainment broadcasting have intruded and damaged the structure of television’s non-entertainment programming.
Television’s focus on providing the most exciting, discussion-worthy news has led to an increased normalization of radical subcultures in a political context. Individuals who hold extreme opinions and beliefs will always exist; however, television must be careful not to amplify the reach of extremist messaging. Occasionally, the media has acted as a catalyst for emboldening radical social groups. While the media cannot tell the public what to think, they most certainly can tell the public what to think about. An example of this has been the resurgence of white nationalism and supremacy throughout the last decade, where “television journalists inadvertently helped catalyze the rapid rise of the alt-right, turning it into a story before it was necessarily newsworthy” (Katz, 2018). The issue lies with exposure, where fringe opinions, such as those held by white nationalists, are dissected and broadcast to millions of viewers. Although the views remain fringe, members of the audience who identify with the described ideology often feel emboldened by seeing it discussed on mainstream television.
Faith Goldy, a controversial, far-right activist who has been denounced for her racist and Islamophobic rhetoric, was elevated by Canada’s media when she announced her bid for Mayor of Toronto. The press fawned over her tweets and publicity stunts, and frequently discussed her political platform, legitimizing it all while knowing she stood no chance of being elected Mayor of Toronto. In the end, she garnered three percent of the popular vote, significantly more than any of the other non-mainstream candidates (Toronto Election Results, 2018). Her media exposure was what likely allowed her to land in a comfortable 3rd place finish. Reporting on extremist candidates and subcultures must be done extremely cautiously, as to avoid injecting further volatility into North America’s political sphere.
Television is primarily a visual media source, and as such, places greater importance on visual as opposed to auditory messaging. For the political sphere, this has resulted in greater superficiality, with an increased emphasis on a politician’s appearance, rather than their political beliefs. The 1960 U.S. Presidential debate, for example, pit John F. Kennedy against Richard Nixon. Subsequently, the medium in which the audience chose to tune in to the debate impacted the audience’s perception of the candidates.Those who listened on the radio primarily credited Nixon for his strong performance, whereas television viewers perceived John F. Kennedy as the winner (Botelho, 2016). While Nixon was viewed to have articulated his policy slightly more successfully, he looked pale, sickly, and ill-equipped next to a radiant John F. Kennedy. Developing a politician’s image has become just as important as developing their policy, evident by current political spending on television ads, which is at its highest peak in history (Butts, 2018).
The negativity and superficiality of politicized television has contributed significantly to the degradation of faith in North American politics. Unfortunately, this degradation of faith is likely to continue, as the media more frequently reports negative stories, incentivizing politicians to be cynical. Part of the negativity of politicized television also stems from the medium’s affordances. Television (much like other new media) has an artificial memory, and therefore negative, past events exist permanently. In politics, this has created never ending scandals, such as Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. This has also helped generate a broader lack of trust in politicians and civil servants. The lack of trust towards the political sphere has catalyzed the rise of populism and anti-intellectualism. These two trends in politics are more common when there exists a destabilizing crisis, as crises further undermine the credibility of the political sphere. Unfortunately, the current political landscape is very much dominated by crises, with climate change, mass migration, and economic inequality creating the perfect breeding ground for such political trends (Rooduijn, 2018).
As a technology, television encompasses the theory of technological determinism, as its influence on politics has been an unintentional consequence of its creation. Analyzing the profound impacts television catalyzed in North America reveals both positive and negative outcomes. Over the last 70 years, television has significantly improved information dissemination and entertainment options. Unfortunately, this has come at the expense of the political culture of North America, which now suffers from chronic superficiality.
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