There must be a more efficient way for politicians to communicate with the electorate than through the media. Yet how many of us even know if our representative has a web presence. I’ll admit I don’t even know who my MP is (Member of Parliament; being British I’ll be using British terms here, although the general situation isn’t limited).
But if politicians want to communicate with the electorate, the only real option they have is via the mass media. And what happens if the media don’t like the message the politicians want to send? The coverage could easily be skewed against them, or, possibly worse still, they may not get covered (or not beyond the initial message).
Because, ultimately, the media get to control the delivery of the message, and to direct the general political discourse. (Obviously referring to the media as a single block is simplistic, but unless one element of the media takes a position it may not matter if politicians do.)
So how do they determine which are the important stories? By which they believe will gain them the biggest share of the audience, so the more sensational, the better. We don’t really have a free press so much as a free market press (in terms of mass media, since a lot of online media which has the potential for greater freedom is still in its infancy, and reaching the general public on a large scale is still primarily the domain of the print and broadcast media). They survive on their ratings (or on advertising revenue linked to ratings) and so go with the stories they believe the public would pay more attention to.
The political discourse is therefore directed by the media’s view of what will attract the most attention of the lowest common denominator, which they may even convince some of the public is what they should be interested in. (How long did they drag out the expenses scandal? Sure, there were offensive actions by some politicians, but by then end I’d almost started to feel sorry for some of them simply because they were obviously being victimised as a means to generate sales for the media.)
Given this climate, how much influence can the media really exert over political decision? Are we actually being governed by the media? Or, rather, by their view of what the shortest of attention spans of the lowest common denominator will focus on. So we basically live in a mediacracy.
That isn’t to say the media are a cohesive unit that won’t turn on each other. So does this mean we could use them as a kind of democracy, spending money or attention on the media which comes closest to our views (maybe more of a choice than that we get between politicians)? Not really, since who’d deal with all the boring decisions they don’t consider newsworthy.
So we’re stuck waiting for society to catch up with the evolving technologies, which could change the political landscape, removing most of these problems. And probably replacing them with new problems, or, more likely, new versions of the same old problems.