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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

politics viewed through television « Previous | |Next »
November 18, 2007

Conflict is central to liberal democracy since the legitimacy of democratic outcomes requires that political and policy options be contested and evaluated. And yet liberal democracy also rests on the premise that each side in any given controversy perceives the opposition as having some reasonable foundation for its positions. This underpins the view that liberal democracy requires an informed citizenry who can make rational decisions on political issues.

Given that few people speak directly to political advocates of opposing views, then how do we come to perceive that reasonable people may disagree on any given political controversy? Many hold that mass media, and television in particular, serve this purpose. Many political pundits then hold that television has changed Australian politics in some fundamental way. How so? In what way?

The content of television is both image and words spoken. The effect is for viewers to develop a sense of intimacy with public figures whom they have never met, and with whom they may have emphatic disagreements, strong emotions. This changes the old way the public private distinction has been drawn.

Some more questions:

Does televised political discourse familiarize viewers with rationales for oppositional political perspectives? If so, does it thereby enhance the extent to which oppositional views are perceived as legitimate? What difference does it make that most of what people experience of public discourse in the political world reaches them through television? Does television have the capacity to educate viewers about oppositional positions and to increase the perceived legitimacy of oppositional views? If it has the capacity, then does television emphasis on in-your-face political disagreement ultimately undermine its ability to serve educate viewers about oppositional positions and to increase the perceived legitimacy of oppositional views?

This article in the American Political Science Review has a good go at answering these questions. What does it conclude?

Televised political discourse is undoubtedly serving an important purpose.People do appear to learn from political television, and this includes learning about why others hold the opinions that they do. The ABC's Lateline or Difference of Oinion would be an example of this. However,

...when uncivil discourse and close-up camera perspectives combine to produce the unique “in-your-face” perspective, then the high levels of arousal and attention come at the cost of lowering regard for the other side. The “in-your-face” intimacy of uncivil political discourse on television discourages the kind of mutual respect that might sustain perceptions of a legitimate opposition.

This, which is the house style of Fox News in the US, is unpacked as follows:
...close-up perspectives on uncivil discourse routinely damage perceptions of the candidates and issue arguments that subjects are already prone to dislike; that is, attitudes toward the least-liked candidate, and the perceived legitimacy of rationales for opposing issue positions. The same pattern of effects did not occur for attitudes toward the preferred candidate, nor for perceptions of the legitimacy of arguments for the preferred issue position.

That 's why Fox News does what it does---- aims to increase the magnitude of the difference that is perceived between their own conservative side and the liberal opposition.Thus one of the legacies of political television may be to damage the notion of a “worthy opposition.” To the extent that televised political discourse puts viewers unnaturally close to their political “enemies,” it intensifies negative feelings about the opposition, and does not serve the goals of consensus or compromise.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 07:51 AM | | Comments (6)



There's a similar argument from psychology about affective resonance explaining the strong response, positive and negative, to Pauline Hanson. In her case it worked with radio as well, because her voice sounded as distressed and angry as her facial expression.

can you imagine how the conservatives would represent Gillard as their political enemy, if Murdock ever managed to buy Channel Ten, and then turn it into an Australian Fox News with a hard edged and belligerent in-your-face house style.

Who would be the Australian equivalent of Bill O'Reilly, that self-righteous, pompous, bloviator who stands for decent God-fearing family values?


The more I learn about American politics and the media that covers it, the gladder I am to be Australian, no matter how munted our system seems from time to time.

I think the TV we already have - Chaser, Rove, Clark and Dawe - is about as far as you could go in this country and still get the ratings to sell advertising. For all that's wrong with our perceived mediocrity it protects us from a lot of things, and the kind of extremist stuff you see in American politics is one of them.

I guess Gillard would get the same sort of treatment Family First are trying to give the Greens. Vote for these people and they'll be handing out free heroin in primary schools and training your kids how to be successful homosexual. And banning the family pet.

Lyn, The "Australians for Honest Politics" which Abbott constructed to mire One Nation in legal battles included a former Labor minister. Both parties agreed that One Nation had to go. The Liberals because it ate directly into their constituency, Labor because it fits their view of negative passions driving policy.

We would not have had the Tampa Affair, or the bad legislation of the Migration Act (which is now being used for indefinite detention in terror issues) if it was not for the Liberals panicking that One Nation was an electoral threat to them.


what do you mean by "Labor because it fits their view of negative passions driving policy"?

Of course the big election decision is What stations coverage to watch? They do seem to be battling for bums on seats this year. Myself I am leaning towards one TV on the ABC and another on channel 7 to see Beattie and Kennett go head to head. Could be another Rumble in the Jungle!

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