Monday, October 19, 2009

Manuel Castells, Creigh Deeds, and Bob McDonnell walk into a bar...

Okay, not really. But in reading Castells' article, "Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society," especially his discussion of media and politics, I kept coming back to the showdown that is currently playing out on our local TV stations. The state of Virginia will elect a new governor on November 3rd; will it be Democrat Deeds, a state legislator from the rural southwest corner of the state, or Republican McDonnell, a lawyer who grew up in northern Virginia and who now lives in Virginia Beach? At this writing, McDonnell is leading Deeds by 14 points. However, there are still two weeks left before the election, and anyone who's watched a political race unfold lately knows that a lot can change in the final stretch. And the media inarguably ignites the spark that can lead to that change.

As Castells states, "In our society, politics is primarily media politics." We learn from the media, be it print, television or Internet, everything about a candidate, from where they stand on abortion, foreign policy, or healthcare, to how they take their coffee. In this race it has been little different: we are deluged daily with TV ads from both candidates and read about them in the newspaper and online. Castells reminds us that the vast majority of voters do not actually read candidates' platforms--they make their decision based on how they present themselves to citizens, who in this case become media consumers. The media's power lies not in its inherent characteristics, but in how they are used by others: "the media are not the holders of power, but they constitute by and large the space where power is decided."

Why is this? Politicians try to build up an atmosphere of trust through the media--vote for me! I know what I'm doing! Plus, I'm just more likable than the other guy! Personality becomes extremely important in elections--can voters relate to the candidate as a person? They wouldn't be able to decide without campaign ads, televised debates, and editorials in the paper. Without the media, how would anybody get elected?

The media has shaped the course of this upcoming election in Virginia, not always to the benefit of the candidates. In one ad, Deeds is seen on camera changing his position on tax increases, a subject he'd been asked about--and answered differently--just a few minutes before. In McDonnell's case, the Deeds campaign has focused closely on the master's thesis he wrote in 1989, which stated that working women were "detrimental" to the family. These negative tactics are emphasized through media, which again conveys its political sway. Will the negative ads work in this case? Currently, Deeds is considered to be running a more negative campaign than McDonnell, which could be contributing to his lag in the polls: people often respond more favorably to ads that focus on the candidate and his values, rather than those that attack his opposition. As Castells says, "... character, as portrayed in media, becomes essential; ... politicians are the faces of politics."

How this will translate on Election Day remains to be seen. I'll definitely be watching, neutrally, from the other side of the river in Maryland. Our governor's race is next year.


  1. I have also been paying rather close attention to the VA governors race (even though I reside in Maryland and will continue to vote in Ohio). The campaign attack ads have indeed taken on a nasty undertone. But you pose an excellent point: How would anyone get elected if it wasn't for the media?

    I feel that the media played a huge role in electing Obama as President. (I encourage everyone to watch the documentary Media Malpractice. It is a great discussion of how the media treated the candidates very unfairly). This is where we need to be both media producers and consumers, watching the campaign attack ads and the news coverage of the races, but then researching for ourselves the facts. We really aren't informed voters anymore, we let the media inform our opinion of who we should vote for based on short 25 second soundbites, instead of caring enough to do it ourselves.

  2. As a new Virginia resident (and one not registered in time to vote in this election) I've been a bit overwhelmed by these ads. Since I don't know these politicians' histories (or Virginia's political history) I feel like the only things I actually know about the candidates are through each others' attack ads! McDonnell opposes birth control! Deeds is going to raise taxes! It bothers me that political campaigns always seem to succumb to this level of mudslinging, leaving voters in the dark about key issues, unless they are able to research it themselves (which is generally a good idea anyway).
    I also agree with Leanne. I don't think anyone would get elected if not for the media. There really isn't any other way to get out the word about your message and campaign. However, it would be nice if the intense media manipulation by campaigns, both the clear use of attack ads and the shadowy behind the curtain deals, stopped, or at least were toned down. Castells says that the way media is used (in his article though more on the coverage of political scandal) leads to a cynical public view of politicians. I agree, because they all do seem to use the same attack techniques. I wonder if a candidate would be able to win using only positive ads. It would be an interesting experiment, but one I'm sure no candidate would be willing to bet their election on.