Insider's Game: Talking Politics on TV

From By Invitation Only: How the Media Limit Political Debate, by David Croteau and William Hoynes. Common Courage Press, 1994. Edited for Connect Newletter and reprinted with permission.

How political talk on TV is staged as an "insider's debate" open to the privileged few whose differences are often as narrow as a dime.

Absence of diversity has substantial consequences for the way the news depicts the political world. Politics, according to most major news media, is not about broad questions of power — who wields it, in what arenas, under what circumstances, with what consequences — nor is it a forum for wide-ranging debate and controversy about current events.

Instead, politics is framed as an insider's debate, where only a privileged few are invited to the table. Journalists are not unaware of the choices they make; they define news in such a way that such narrow debates become inevitable.

Too often, discussion is not about the substance of a policy but the likelihood of it being passed or defeated. Viewers are often left with the impression that the most important consequence of policy decisions is their impact on the careers of politicians and pundits. This Washington "beltway" mentality trivializes the true significance of policy changes for the citizens and communities impacted by the decision.

It is a political act for the media to ask "who won the week?" That's because, as Jay Rosen notes, a sports-like perspective on political winners and losers, "telescopes our vision downward; it sets a rhythm to politics that permits the media to play timekeeper, umpire, and finally, judge. The question would not occur to an ordinary citizen, but it remains a favorite of pundits and reporters because it appears to place the press on the outside of a process — the shaping of perceptions — that is profoundly affected by what the press itself does."

"By speaking of politics as a weekly contest of winners and losers" Rosen continues, "journalists thus avoid any conscious reckoning with their own influence on politics. They avoid, as well, their troublesome need for a more productive political vision, a way of looking at the world that will render it meaningful for others."

The "insider" nature of the discussions on public affairs programs means that the same analysts appear repeatedly regardless of the wisdom of their previous commentary or prior actions when they occupied positions of power.

To be — or to have been — an insider, with access to powerful circles, makes one a de facto "expert" on most public affairs programs. Thus a troubling dynamic develops: individuals are qualified to comment and analyze insofar as they are or have been "insiders." The resulting "debates" that are orchestrated, therefore, are often between "insiders" who share a common commitment to traditional politics, to the exclusion of those outside the halls of power.

On the rare occasions that those from outside of elite circles do appear in the news media, they are clearly labeled as political partisans. Citizen activists or journalists for alternative publications are not afforded the status of "expert;" instead they are identified as representatives of a particular political position.

Ultimately, attachment to what journalists consider mainstream institutions is a badge of neutrality; those who are connected to institutions outside of the traditional mainstream may merit inclusion under specific circumstances, but the assumption is that these outsiders to the game of politics do not really know the rules of insider politics and have a special agenda that they are pursuing.

...depiction of the political world as a game carries with it a clear message about the rules of the game: insider's are the players and only players can win.

As a result, spokespeople from beyond the boundaries of the consensus are routinely identified in subtle and not-so-subtle ways as individuals who have an axe to grind.

The insider nature of many discussions on television also means that apparent disagreements are often less than meet the eye. The two sides in a television debate, therefore, often agree on more than they disagree. When insiders who share a general policy orientation meet to debate and discuss the finer points of that policy, the result can often be a compelling illusion of political balance.

Contrasting perspectives, then, are frequently the differences, generally quite narrow, between establishment insiders. This reportorial strategy does little to inform the public of positions outside of this limited range of opinion; indeed it implicitly denies that other positions should be taken seriously.

Ultimately, the depiction of the political world as a game carries with it a clear message about the rules of the game: insider's are the players and only players can win.

When government officials appear on the news to defend their policies or to criticize their opponents, seldom do interviewers ask questions that fall outside of the general consensus: perhaps specific policies are questioned but fundamental assumptions are left unchallenged.

In short, the news often becomes, in its zeal for official voices, little more than a press agency for U.S. officials.

[We] want to broaden [this] argument to include the importance of credentials. That is, those with the proper institutional credentials — particularly other journalists, prominent academics, and medical and legal "experts" — can often become regular participants in these discussions.

What is significant is who is excluded: those who lack power and the appropriate credentials are generally not worthy of consideration. This is one of the reasons why citizen activists are so regularly excluded; they lack power and often have the "wrong" credentials.

Instead of members of various communities providing their interpretations of events and policies, public affairs programs turn to pundits who treat viewers to their insight into what Americans are thinking, often reducing public attitudes to straightforward expressions of frustration, pride, or cynicism.

If the media are not performing their job as watchdogs for democracy, if they are not providing a forum for the public debate of widely diverse views, whose views do they transmit? To answer this question it is important to see who is allowed into the media spotlight — and who is left in the dark.

Author Bio: 

David Croteau is a former associate professor (retired) in the Department of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Politics and the Class Divide. William Hoynes is Professor of Sociology at Vassar College and the author of Public Television for Sale. Croteau and Hoynes are co-authors of By Invitation Only: How the Media Limit Political Debate; Media/Society: Industries, Images, and Audiences; and The Business of Media: Corporate Media and the Public Interest. Most recently, they are co-editors, with Charlotte Ryan, of Rhyming Hope and History:Activists, Academics and Social Movement Scholarship.