This semester, I’m taking a class related to my major, but outside of my major. It’s Political Communication, and I was excited to take it because it focuses on the 2010 campaign. I follow politics for much the same reason everyone living inside the beltway does–that’s all anyone cares about around here. It’s terrible during congressional recesses when we all need to feign interest in foreign policy or the weather. But, the rest of the year, we love it, the politics.
Personally, I don’t have a huge interest in any one party or politician. I know where my ideology fits, and I know who I like. So, I tend to focus on issues. As well, what really fascinates me is how the whole thing works. How does persuasion work in this arena, and why does one piece of information rise above others in attention and favour? Really fascinating stuff.
So, every 3 weeks. we read a bunch of stuff from our text (which is EXCELLENT, btw–by Dan F. Hahn) and some academic articles, and then we choose something from pop culture to examine through the lens of these new ideas. The current topic is lies, sex, and secrecy (oh my!–my professor wrote that, which made me smile). I wrote my paper about lies, and I gave it to my husband to read. I always do that because he knows he’s obligated to tell me I’m brilliant…something I can’t demand from my fellow students or my professor. My husband read my paper and asked me, “Is this a horror story or an analysis paper?” That made me laugh really hard. So, I thought I’d post my paper here. If you read it, consider answering that question in the comments. 🙂
Corporate Personhood’s Far-reaching Effects
Approaching the 2010 election cycle, the body politic will need to contend with much more than political lies in the form of euphemisms, simplifications, generalizations, and the art of saying nothing (Hahn, 2003). In January of 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5 to 4 motion that a corporation has the same First Amendment rights to free speech as an individual (White, 2010). A corporation can use free speech power with anonymity in the financial support of negative campaign attack ads, which are known to be influential (Alvarez, 2010) and create a television spectacle susceptible to the “needs of drama, conflict, and other potentially manipulative narratives that tend to simplify and thus pervert the political discussion, rather than enhance its scope” (Gurevitch & Kavoori, 2007, p. 80).
Corporate personhood legislation is cause for concern because corporations are likely to support candidates who “favor business over the individual, ‘[and] amplify corporate voice in our electoral marketplace’ “ (Heffner, 2010). Without the knowledge of who paid for what campaign ad, the individual voter will likely have more difficulty than ever analyzing political communication to decide who wins their vote.
Gurevitch and Kavoori (2007) describe a television spectacle as a media event and iconic symbol. A television spectacle is viewed by a “unified mass audience” and opens up opportunities for discussion in the public sphere. As such, the features of a television spectacle are the symbolic nature of the message, the unified mass audience viewing the spectacle, and the opportunities for discussion that follow. A video clip from a press event—which is played countless times on television news, talk shows, and late-night comedy—fits the description. As well, a television attack ad can be considered a spectacle for the same reasons.
Consider the television spectacle of House of Representatives minority leader, John Boehner, unveiling his party’s Pledge to America recently during a press event. He and other conservative Representatives appeared on television to present the general intentions of the Republican agenda for the 2010 election cycle –the Pledge to America. Dressed in his everyman clothes instead of his Washington power suit, Boehner appeared at a small family-owned business (Tart Lumber) in Sterling, VA. The “spectacle” part of the television footage comes in the way in which the film clip footage was symbolic of the anger and frustration felt by the minority party, the repetitive display of the film clip on television and the internet, and the discussions surrounding the event (Boehner, 2010). The television spectacle of the event has three dimensions as Gurevitch & Kavoori (2007) discuss, which create a rhetorical exigence and should “open up the public sphere to regenerate democracy” (p. 80).
Adding to the discourse and enlarging the public sphere is the analysis that takes place after the television spectacle. Fact checking is part of the analysis. Factcheck.org reviewed the Pledge to America the day after the Pledge aired on television. Their analysis is part of the discourse helping voters decide on a candidate (Jackson, Fact Checking ‘The Pledge’: Republicans’ “Pledge to America” falls short on some of its facts., 2010).
In comparison, a television attack ad does not have all three dimensions because the ad is missing the chance for bridging the official/political divide through informed discussion. The problem with attack ads is their tendency to begin late in a campaign. A corporation’s vast financial resources can buy up all the airtime just before an election and influence voters by not allowing a full cycle of three dimensions of analysis to take place. By the time the facts are checked, the votes are already tallied (Jackson, False Ads: There Oughta Be A Law! – Or Maybe Not, 2010).
Note that lying in an election campaign is protected under the First Amendment laws of free speech. “As the U.S. Supreme Court said unanimously in a 1971 libel case, ‘It can hardly be doubted that the constitutional guarantee [of free speech] has its fullest and most urgent application precisely to the conduct of campaigns for political office’ “ (Jackson, False Ads: There Oughta Be A Law! – Or Maybe Not, 2010).
An interesting side-effect of the large amount of seemingly questionable information available in political communication is the development of fact checking services. Some fact checking websites, like Factcheck.org, claim to be non-partisan and debunk varying shades of lies from all ideologies—liberal, moderate, and conservative. However, their popularity has spawned offshoots of “fact checking” on both heavily conservative-leaning and heavily liberal-leaning political analysis television shows. In the same way that “As everything becomes inflated and tremendous, the word loses its currency,” (Hahn, 2003) so does fact checking lose currency. As such, the public cannot rely on bias-free fact checking, especially when consuming news from knowlingly partisan sources. And so, in a healthy public sphere, potential voters may rely on fact checking as part of the discussion but not all.
In the end, as usual, informed voting is up to the voters. Hahn says our only hope is to “reform the societal dialog” and “educate those consumers to want a better rhetorical product” (Hahn, 2003, p. 114). As well, Americans are consuming news in growing numbers (The Pew Research Center, 2010), and political communication absolutely must be elevated in quality in order to serve the voting public. It matters not that voters decide based on issues or character/intimacy (Parry-Giles & Parry-Giles, 2007). What matters is that the public sphere has the time and space needed to play out the deliberation and discussion necessary to continue a working democracy. Granting a corporation the same First Amendment rights to free speech as an individual seriously hampers the process.
Alvarez, R. M. (2010, May 27). The Psychology Behind Politica Debate: The Political Attack Ad-Why Threatening the Voters Works. Psychology Today .
Boehner, J. (Producer), & Boehner, J. (Writer). (2010). Pledge to America (Intro only) [Motion Picture]. USA.
Gurevitch, M., & Kavoori, A. P. (2007). Television Spectacles as Politics. In T. F. Sheckels, J. K. Muir, T. Robertson, & L. M. Gring-Pemble, Readings on Political Communication. State College, PA, USA: Strata Publishing, Inc.
Hahn, D. (2003). Political Communication: Rhetoric, Government, and Citizens (Second ed.). State College, PA, USA: Strata.
Heffner, A. (2010, September 23). Greenhouse assesses the direction of the Roberts Court: “The government wins”. Retrieved September 25, 2010, from Harvard Law School: http://www.law.harvard.edu/news/2010/09/23_greenhouse.html
Jackson, B. (2010, September 24). Fact Checking ‘The Pledge’: Republicans’ “Pledge to America” falls short on some of its facts. (L. Robertson, Ed.) Retrieved September 25, 2010, from Factcheck.org: http://www.factcheck.org/2010/09/factchecking-the-pledge/
Jackson, B. (2010, May). False Ads: There Oughta Be A Law! – Or Maybe Not. (L. Robertson, Ed.) Retrieved September 2010, from Factcheck.org: http://www.factcheck.org/2004/06/false-ads-there-oughta-be-a-law-or-maybe-not/
Parry-Giles, T., & Parry-Giles, S. J. (2007). Political Scopophilia, Presidential Campaigning, and the Intimacy of American Politics. In T. F. Sheckels, J. K. Muir, T. Robertson, & L. M. Gring-Pemble, Readings on Political Communication. State College, PA, USA: Strata Publishing.
The Pew Research Center. (2010, September 12). Americans Spend More Time Following the News. Retrieved September 25, 2010, from The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press: http://people-press.org/report/652/
White, M. C. (2010, January 31). Idea of company-as-person originated in late 19th century. (M. Brauchli, Ed.) Washington Post .