Monday, September 8, 2008

Media Wars at the RNC

It wasn't difficult to detect common themes among speeches during the second night of the Republican National Convention when Vice Presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, was scheduled to speak. Sociologist and media theorist Herbert Gans might have pointed out "small-town pastoralism" and "rugged individualism" as two that were repeatedly invoked through anecdotes about down-home family values and moose hunting. The most obvious of these motifs, however, was the repeatedly stated claim that the "elite liberal media" were treating Sarah Palin unfairly in their reports. Evidence of this complaint is clear in statements by Giuliani ("We decide the next president, not the left-wing media"), and Palin herself ("If you're not a member of the ... elite then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone"), among multiple others.

Opposing this perspective, broadcasters countered the claims by citing the obligation of journalists to inform the public. In particular, Chris Matthews of MSNBC noted the importance of providing information on a candidate that the McCain campaign failed to provide. Tom Brokaw also pointed out the strategy involved in attacking the media. From the perspective of Palin and the Republicans he states, "Let's create something called the Eastern Media Elite." The theory is that if the public perceives the media as treating Palin harshly or unfairly, then sympathy will swing public opinion and, ultimately, votes, in favor of the republican ticket.

Beyond this readily apparent tit for tat, though, a less noticeable battle seemed to have been fought between the organizers of the RNC and the media outlets broadcasting its staged spectacle across the world. Chris Matthews noted the decision by the RNC organizers to eliminate breaks between speeches near the end of the night. This had the effect of limiting the amount of media commentary and analysis and kept control of the event firmly in the hands of the convention people. Perhaps in response to this, the MSNBC broadcast contained at least three shots of Sarah Palin speaking wherein the teleprompter from which she was reading was clearly visible over her shoulder. While this was not drastic and each of the shots were brief, they did serve to remind the audience of the fact that Palin required a teleprompter and, thus, potentially served to undermine her credibility.

The purpose in commenting upon this potential struggle for control over representation occurring behind the scenes is to draw attention to the fact that media are capable of shaping perceptions even when an event is highly choreographed. In the case of a political convention, media serve as a meta-spectacle, subsuming the original performance and recreating it through their own channels.

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