The role of media in an age of political cynicism

By Kevin Avram
web posted June 1999

Most people know that we live in an age of political cynicism. It's not difficult to see why. The media treats politics like a national sport, spotlighting scandals, telling the nation who "won" this week, and reducing political analysis to the thumbs up-thumbs down style used by movie critics. The result is that, so far as the media is concerned, politics has become an extension of the entertainment industry.

One of the results of all this is that the image of politicians has changed dramatically. Candidates are forced to craft their public image while trying to maintain the appearance of sincerity. At the same time, voters feel unable to influence the nation's political machinery, so they journey from helplessness to hopelessness, eventually abandoning politics altogether, content, hoping the government will leave them alone. This leaves the more responsible citizen with a dilemma: how to remain dutiful.

A first step to solving that problem is understanding how we got here. The media environment we now live in had its beginnings in the mid-1800s. With the invention of the telegraph, newspapers were no longer made up solely of local news about places and people within the reader's experience. Pages began to be filled, as they are today, with news of crimes, fires, and floods in other parts of the country - disasters that grabbed attention but had little impact on the reader's affairs. As the photograph became electronically transmittable, stories were given the fictitious appearance of local relevancy. Readers were being informed about events they could do absolutely nothing about.

Politics did not immediately change. National figures such as Laurier and MacKenzie King could still practice the same speech wherever they went. Few people knew that John A. MacDonald had an affection for the bottle, and in the US, President Grover Cleveland had his entire upper left jaw removed due to a malignant growth without the knowledge of the press. This could never happen today.

One historian says it was with the advent of the press conference that the public's trust in their leaders began to wane. Today, with channels like CBC Newsworld and other national newscasts, a candidate campaigning in a small Ontario village can be seen and heard by voters in Victoria.

Consequently, no politician will ever uphold the status of a Lincoln, who gave the Gettysburg Address but also suffered from crippling bouts of depression, or a Jefferson, who left behind a wealth of political writings but had a speech impediment and wrote notes rather than bring forward legislation. We now remember things like Bob Stanfield kicking a football, Trudeau giving people the finger, and John Crosby reciting the words to "Pour Me Another Tequila, Shiela", while across the isle, Ms. Copps bristles in self-righteous rage.

In His book Amusing Ourselves to Death, author Neil Postman says the resulting cynicism about our leaders is best dealt with by being aware of how political coverage has changed. Some advocate going to alternative information sources such as the Internet and books for political analysis rather than the mainstream media, as the author of a book is more likely to give a well thought-out analysis. Either way, few dispute the fact that the overwhelming amount of so-called "news" out there has led to a steep decline in journalistic integrity. At the same time, it's become increasingly evident that just because something is on the news or in the paper, it doesn't make it true, particularly helpful, or even in the national interest.

The media itself is slowly responding. Brill's Content, a magazine devoted to covering how the media covers news is gaining in popularity. It is openly critical of journalistic flubs and shallowness, and, it names names. So while some voters unwisely embrace apathy and cynicism, a discerning citizen, if he or she wants to, can keep things in perspective and remain informed without being discouraged by the exhibitionism and sensationalism which characterizes much of today's political news.

Kevin Avram is a former director of the Prairie Centre/Centre for Prairie Agriculture, and continues to sit as a member of the Prairie Centre's Advisory Board. He currently works as Projects Coordinator for the US organization, Americans in Motion, and makes his home in Grand Island, Nebraska.


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