Up on the Soap Box: How the Media Portrays Politics

Political intrigue abounds; a private argument turns swiftly into a public scandal. By the close of the first scene, a supporting character faces public scrutiny and a career-ending press conference – all of it machinated by a corrupt politician. When seen through the silver screen, politics is chock-full of nail-biting excitement and sensationalized drama. However, the day-to-day grind of political work falls far short of the Machiavellian epics viewers expect from their television shows. For those of us active in the field, the misconceptions regarding our work can be frustrating to fight against, if not downright damaging. Everyone loves a well-made fictional political drama, but what happens when voters forget the “fictional” modifier and take the toxic machinations they see on-screen as representative of real political action?

 

The political arena’s affiliation with cinema stretches back to the films of the early 20th century. Even then, depicted events were dramatized to appeal to mass audiences – and why wouldn’t they be? Consider a truthful medical show. The idea of watching a doctor work frantically to save someone’s life seems exciting…until you realize that doing so means viewing an hours-long tape of a surgeon poking around in the operating room. Film is inherently escapist; we choose to view movies and television episodes because they take us out of the banalities and stresses of day-to-day life and into an delightful (fictional) world where we ourselves have no stake in a story’s outcome. Film is meant to entertain, so it must be made entertaining. Thus, more accurate depictions of a politician reviewing policy documents or sending fundraising emails are set to the side; replaced by scandalous plot twists meant to entice viewers into watching just one more episode.

 

This isn’t to say that movies can’t tell us something about our political reality. The messages these pieces convey, however, are often more subtle than those we expect from direct political dramas. Think back to just before the Reagan era, in the 1970s and early 80s. As the decade turned, films such as Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were released with much public acclaim. But wait, you might say – these aren’t political films at all! They both are and aren’t. In his article “Film, Politics, and Ideology: Reflections on Hollywood Film in the Age of Reagan,” film scholar Douglas Kellnes notes that the films rising to popularity in the years before Reagan’s administration increasingly showcased conservative values such as individual initiative and hard work (Star Wars), as well as a vilification of large, corrupt governments (The Parallex View). Interestingly enough, Kellnes finds that an analytical viewer could have predicted Reagan’s emergence as a conservative leader by noting the increased right-leaning principles expressed in the era’s popular films.

 

Where, then, does this leave us as politically-minded viewers? First, we need to keep the fictionality of the shows we watch in mind in order to combat the negative stereotypes created by politically-inspired shows. That way, we can trust in the professionalism our politicians demonstrate without waiting for the next scandal or paying attention to blatant sensationalism in the media. Then, we need to keep our metaphorical fingers on the pulse of American cinema. What are Americans watching? What does popular content tell us about the ideological leanings of our country? A little beyond-the-polls analysis may provide us with unconventional insight into our country’s ever-shifting political leanings.