Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Fourth Estate

The news media is sometimes referred to as the Fourth Estate of politics. Nineteenth century writers attributed this usage to British parliamentarian Edmund Burke, who used it in a 1787 debate over whether or not to allow press attendance at House of Commons proceedings. In Burke’s reckoning, the other three estates were members of Parliament—Lords Temporal, Lords Spiritual, and Commons—and this framework itself referenced medieval Europe’s “three estates” of clergy, nobles, and commoners. Today, the news media plays a vital role in shaping popular perceptions of events, history, and candidates for public office. Certain politicians have even used their own status as “media darlings” to their advantage when seeking office, while others play off the perceived media antagonism to their campaigns to gain public sympathy.

For an example of the latter, we need look no further than Richard Nixon. His resentful attitude about press coverage of his 1960 presidential race against John F. Kennedy (particularly their televised debates) significantly impacted the rest of his political career. After losing the California gubernatorial race in 1962 to Democratic incumbent Pat Brown he declared, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” When seeking the White House again in 1968, Nixon urged the nation’s “Silent Majority” to stand against liberal elites in the press, the Capitol, and on college campuses. The famous “Enemies List” penned in 1971 included dozens of major media figures at nearly every high-circulation newspaper and magazine. Even while under siege during the Watergate investigation in 1973-74, a beleaguered Nixon continued to push back against mounting allegations with dismissive remarks about the popular press’s motivations, and behind the scenes (as revealed by his infamous white house tapes) he made derisive and sometimes obscene remarks about such personalities as Katharine Graham, editor of The Washington Post.

Another Republican presidential hopeful, John McCain, benefited greatly from media coverage in his 2000 primary campaign against George W. Bush. Running on a “maverick” platform that mixed traditional conservative stances on cultural issues and tax policy with reformist proposals on campaign finance reform and management of the federal budget surplus. McCain traveled in a bus dubbed the Straight Talk Express and was said to use every opportunity for positive publicity, including touring the Sunday talk show circuit throughout 1999 discussing the Kosovo conflict and his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. McCain won a 49-to-30 percent victory over national frontrunner Bush in the New Hampshire primary, earning much of his support from moderate Republicans and crossover Independents. A further surge of press coverage ensued for McCain, whose supporters affectionately dubbed themselves “McCainiacs,” heading into the crucial GOP primary in South Carolina.

After a poll showed McCain leading Bush by five points in the conservative state, Bush allied himself on stage with a veteran’s activist, J. Thomas Burch, who accused McCain of “coming home from Vietnam and forgetting us.” The South Carolina campaign would go down in political history as among the most vicious in modern memory, as a still-unidentified party delivered mail and push polls claiming (variably) that McCain had fathered a child out of wedlock, was a “Manchurian candidate” psychologically broken from his days in Vietnam, or that his wife Cindy was a drug addict. Meanwhile, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh attacked McCain as a favorite of Democrats and the “liberal media.” Bush defeated McCain in the Palmetto State by 53 percent to 42 percent, and despite victories in Michigan and his home state of Arizona, along with continued sympathy in media circles, McCain’s campaign failed to recover. When he again sought the presidency in 2008, McCain found it difficult to revive his erstwhile press adoration with national newcomer Barack Obama in the race.

Many months (even years) into the campaign season for the 2012 presidential race, its interesting to think about how (of if) the press is shaping the way we see potential candidates. Is there a media darling in the Republican race already?

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