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Contemporary political campaigns as infomercials 

An “infomercial” (information commercial) is a program on television which essentially consists of a sales message by the program’s commercial sponsor. The argument made here, in the context of changing civilizations, is that today’s political campaigns increasingly resemble infomercials.

In the third epoch of civilization, the institution of government underwent a major change. Heads of state were selected through democratic elections instead of birth into a royal family. The democratization of government reflected the commercial nature of this civilization. The people decided who would represent them in government just as people decided which commercial products would be offered in the market by “voting” for these things with their money - i.e., buying the products.

Newspapers were the primary means of communication in this civilization, otherwise known as the “print culture”. People bought newspapers to learn the news of the day. While they were reading newspaper stories, they would also glance at the paid advertisements which appeared on the same page. Newspapers supported themselves financially by a combination of paid subscriptions and advertising revenues.

In those days, political campaigns were considered a part of the news. Readers, in fact, felt obligated to learn about the candidates and their positions in order to cast an informed vote; it was part of their civic duty. Yet, these campaigns were not entirely dependent upon news coverage because the political parties had their own means of communicating with voters. They had networks of people who would deliver the message.

In the fourth epoch of civilization (which is where we are now), the situation changed. While newspapers continued to function in traditional ways, the most potent media of communication were radio and television broadcasting. In these media, the news were delivered free of charge to anyone who owned a radio or television set. The media organizations now supported themselves entirely by revenues from radio or television commercials.

The basic arrangement remained the same as for newspapers. People would watch the television programs (as they read newspapers) because of their interest in the subjects. They would be exposed to the commercials (as newspaper readers were to paid advertisements) by virtue of these messages appearing in the same space as the programming. Television commercials were an involuntary feature of this experience; viewers could have free programming content if forced to watch the commercials.

How does this relate to political campaigns? First, these campaigns remain an important part of the news. Television viewers are naturally interested in the process by which the leaders of government are selected. And so television networks and stations will include some coverage of the campaigning candidates in their news programs. But their coverage is widely considered to be inadequate.

The candidates need to persuade people to vote for them in the elections. How can they do this? First, the candidates need to receive prominent coverage in the news so that people will perceive them as serious candidates. Second, they need to deliver effective sales messages. They need to adopt a certain set of “issues” representing the programs they would support if elected to office. Third, they need to have a personally appealing image. A candidate who can meet all those conditions will be more likely to be elected.

The new factor is that in the “entertainment age”, which is the fourth civilization, the electronic and print media have a more complete control over the channels of communication with voters. Political parties have become degraded as organizations as both their structures of supporters and volunteers have become weaker and their package of issues has become blurred. The voters now receive most of their information about candidates through the news media.

Candidates for President of the United States are increasingly selected through voting in popular primaries rather than through deals between political power brokers at national conventions. This system, too, tends to favor media approaches to campaigning.

Under the circumstances, then, the news media have become like a fourth branch of government. Besides the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, we have news organizations monopolizing the processes of communication between candidates or government officials and the general public. In some sense, this fourth branch of government is the most powerful because of its role in selecting candidates for electoral office and setting the political agenda.

Among the four branches of government, the news media are the only one which is privately owned. Corporations such as television networks which deliver news and entertainment to the public are, of course, privately owned businesses. As such, they have a divided loyalty. On one hand, they must faithfully report the news. On the other hand, they are in business to make money.

To a certain extent, radio and television news programs continue to report political campaigns as news - in effect, giving free coverage to the candidates. The listeners and viewers expect this of news organizations in order to make democracy work. But there are increasing complaints that the news coverage is slanted. Campaigns are reported as events resembling horse races in which one or another candidate is up while another is down. Instead of reporting issues, the news programs tend to report how much money the various candidates have raised. Or else, there are debates in which journalists are allowed to ask the questions. The candidates, nominally in charge of their own campaigns, have to play by those rules.

If the candidate needs to be given time to deliver an issues-laden message to voters but the news organizations refuse to give them this time, the only way that candidates can get their message out is through the commercials. The networks and stations must allow advertisers to control the message in paid commercials. Upon reflection, this helps explain the poor news coverage. The more sparse or worse the news coverage is, the greater the need for candidates to resort to paid advertising to get their message out to the voters.

One might also observe that the news organizations may focus upon the amounts of money which candidates have raised for campaigns because they, as businesses, stand to become the chief beneficiaries of this money. By far, the greatest expense in campaigns for higher office is for television commercials.

Pushed to a limit, news organizations may decide to suspend reporting of political campaigns and let the candidates depend entirely on paid commercials. These campaigns would then consist of preparing and sponsoring political infomercials.

At this point, however, the public would not stand for such a crass approach. News organizations are expected to do a certain amount of free reporting of campaigns because people recognize this is an integral part of democracy. If the networks delivered no news content, people would stop watching their programs and that would mean a loss of advertising revenue. So it is a choice between the long-term interests of the television news organizations - retaining viewers by offering complete news programming - and their short-term interest of making more money by denying free quality news coverage to political campaigns so that the campaigns will be forced to spend money on paid commercials.

Another factor which might serve to keep news organizations honest to a certain degree is that the government controls the use of the airwaves on which these organizations broadcast. Radio and television stations must be licensed by the government. In effect, they are given a monopoly right to use certain frequencies. Keep in mind that the government does not charge these private businesses for that right. They system, in effect, gives squatters rights to whoever initially applied for the licenses or bought them in the open market.

What the government has given free of charge it can also take away. If coverage of political campaigns gives way entirely to political infomercials, elected officials and the public may demand that something be done to strip the broadcasters of this power to limit news coverage for the sake of profit. But the broadcast industry in the United States is extremely powerful. Any politician who dares threaten its monopoly privilege would be subject to merciless attack by news organizations. And the politicians know this. Therefore, the situation must become much worse before this type of remedy will be considered.

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