Elections & the Media in America
Brazilian journals discuss media & the 2005 U.S. presidential election with Vice Chancellor Frank Gilliam
Published: Wednesday, November 03, 2004
Just as the U.S. presidential election this November generated an unusually high level of interest -- even passion -- among the American electorate, so it seems to have provoked intense interest, and concern, all around the world. In the months leading up to the election, international visitors to UCLA often discussed the election. On August 26, a five-member delegation of Brazilian journalists came to UCLA precisely to discuss the election. The journalists were in the United States on a three week tour as part of the project “U.S. Media and Elections,” funded by the Department of State. At UCLA, they meet with Frank Gilliam (Professor of Political Science, Director of the Center for Communications and Community, and Associate Vice Chancellor for Community Partnerships), an expert in mass media and electoral politics to discuss the relationship between the media and democracy.
Political Campaigns and the Media
The meeting began with a brief introduction by Dr. Gilliam and continued with an open and impromptu Q&A about the American media and their affect on the 2005 election.
Q: What are your conclusions about the behavior of the media?
A: Gilliam replied that he is a critic of the broadcast media. The episodic nature of television news tends to offer a distorted view of social issues and does not promote a comprehensive understanding of the issues. The print media, though, does a somewhat better job. Print is more thematic and is able to explore issues in greater depth and to provide more content.
Gilliam stated that the U.S. media are wedded to the notion that there are two sides to every story, and therefore it is their job to explore both sides, thus making their approach "democratic." In reality, however, this is a shallow view because sometimes the media present only one side in depth and whatever they may have to say about the “other side” is only added for rhetorical value. For example, the issue of tobacco: this involves a rhetorical stance that obscures the issues and causes antidemocratic impulses.
Gilliam mentioned that a few nights earlier he gave a commentary on a local news station regarding the swift boat ads and raised the point that the there is a need for such rhetorical debates because its good theater. It is the sort of thing that captivates people. But the problem, Gilliam pointed out, is that this sort of debate does not allow for a discussion of the real issues.
Q: But isn’t that what viewers want to see?
A: "That’s what they say. However, a number of media outlets have deemphasized this sort of 'debate' and it has not lowered viewership." The question is, What leads? Where is balance to be found? Gilliam argued there needs to be more balance.
Q: In reference to the swift boat ads, is it appropriate to talk about Bush?
A: "It’s a tactical error on Kerry’s part not to challenge Bush’s record. Having said this earlier on one of the local television stations, there is no disputing that he served his country and that he was in the fight and he was decorated. It was wartime and a lot of things were going on at the time, they were in the jungle, there was a lot of drug use, it was years ago, but no one wants to talk about those things. When Clinton ran, he said that every time they hit him, he'd hit back. What he was doing was responding to criticism without looking negative."
This is not the media’s fault, but rather the fault of Kerry’s campaign for not dealing with the issue in a tactical way.
Q: Kerry is obviously not a showy man, but he is the one who brought up Vietnam, so is it not fair game?
A: "The problem with the American left is that they don’t understand that when having a conversation with the public you can’t tell them it’s a complex process." It is not, Gilliam emphasized that answers should be simplistic, but in this case the issue can be simplified to “I served, you didn’t.” It is obvious, Gilliam contended, that the swift boat ads are tied somehow to the Bush camp, but it is up to the Kerry campaign to point that out.
African American Voters
Q: After watching the press, I noticed that African American groups have been given little attention in Kerry’s campaign. Does the Republican camp do a better job?
A: "No. The Democrats know Blacks don't vote for the Republicans. There is some energy in the African American community that would like to get rid of Bush, but I don’t know if its enough to mobilize enough Black voters. The Democrats take the African American community for granted."
Democrats, Gilliam continued, do think they can win in the South, but the issues that the African American community cares most about (jobs, provision of services in the inner city, law enforcement) are not the issues of white middle class voters, and it is to that group specifically that the Democrats are to appeal to.
Q: People in New York told us that that voted for Republicans but that they still considered themselves Democrats. How can that be explained?
A: Gilliam responded that foreigners are often amazed at how cavalierly Americans take the right to vote. Sometimes in history they have taken it seriously, for example in the 1960s. Essentially there is no big difference between the two parties, Gilliam declared, which is why the electorate loved Clinton. His cabinet had great diversity and he clearly had life experiences with all different kinds of people. His own background, of course, is working class.
However, when voters look at Kerry, Gilliam explained, they see Yale and a privileged life. There is nothing that really distinguishes Kerry from Bush. If you are in the underclass, it makes no difference: they are still both white, privileged males.
Americans are very lackadaisical about the democratic process, Gilliam observed. For example, here in Los Angeles, in the last mayoral election, there was only a 23% voter turnout. There is as feeling that the country will survive with or without those votes.
Q: If the election were held today, I have heard that Kerry would win. What could the media do to assure Bush wins?
Gilliam replied "I don’t think that Kerry would win. There is an equation that political science uses that says if after a convention, the incumbent’s approval ratings are below 48%, then the incumbent will lose."
The current swift boat ads have captured the media's attention, Gilliam remarked, which has not allowed Kerry to talk about the issues. "We have not even heard the term 'Stronger at home,' since the convention and that’s a big part of his platform. I think the real test will be the debates." Bush appears folksy, simple, tough, and aggressive. Gilliam noted those are traits people respond to. He is the kind of guy you want to have a beer with. But, Gilliam added, how well Bush will do in the debates remains to be seen, because he is not a “thinking guy.” The question in the minds of many voters will be, Does Kerry look presidential? Is he tough enough?
The media coverage in the 2005 campaign, Gilliam argued, shows that conservative media have developed a voice. Fox, and to some extent MSNBC, are partisan. The same goes for talk radio; the right is hammering Kerry. On the other hand, the 9/11 report had a lot of criticism of the current administration, yet the media have not had adequately reported on this.
Q: Do the media reflect their owners?
Gilliam replied: In the case of Fox, yes. Research has showed that that is the case with Rupert Murdoch. All the others are reflective of a dominant culture/world view. But it is the boards, the executives who exercise great power. And they are a very homogeneous group.
Q: Is the movement of Fox to the right something recent? Will it continue? And if it does, will a leftist alternative emerge?
A: Gilliam's answer: "Yes, yes, and yes." Fox will likely continue to move further to the right, and at some point it is likely that some benefactor of a leftist alternative will emerge.
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The visit to UCLA was part of the International Visitor Single-Country Project for Brazil (Monday, August 16–Friday, September 3, 2004). The program was sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and was administered locally by the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles. The itinerary at UCLA was arranged by the International Institute’s International Visitor Bureau.
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