In his analysis of how the media treated the new left student movement of the 1960s and 70s, Todd Gitlin observed how the movement was at first trivialised and marginalised through images that emphasised frivolity, youth, outlandishness, militancy and deviance whilst understating numbers, effectiveness and neglecting the content of the movement’s statements and the causes of their protests.
Michael Parenti agreed: “Thus the protesters were made the issue rather than the things they were protesting.” Such media images and symbols are powerful, not only in shaping the public perception of a movement but also the movement’s perception of itself.
Nevertheless the media plays a part in creating mass movements through its ability to present images of protest and alternative lifestyles to masses of people. No matter how negatively it portrays such groups and their leaders, it cannot prevent people from being attracted to the values and lifestyles of those being portrayed. In the 1960s television “might have inadvertently advanced countercultural and radical values.” However this ability of protest movements to reach a mass audience has a price.
The media tends to present images and style not meaning and content: “the media intervene to label these activities as deviant or illegitimate, marginalising them and diverting public attention away from the root causes of social conflict towards its epiphenomenal forms.” Protest actions and events are described as theatre spectacles rather than as “part of a democratic struggle over vital issues.”
It is the style that is copied and multiplied whilst the radical message of the protesters is diluted and ignored. Kellner argues that “when television portrays social change or oppositional movements, it often blunts the radical edge of new social forces, values, or changes. Moreover, it tries to absorb, co-opt, and defuse any challenges to the existing organisation of society.
In seeking to maximise audiences, television stations in particular, find footage of conflict irresistible yet the showing of that footage can sometimes inspire others to get involved in the conflict.
After some of the riots and events of 1968 media executives sought to tone down the coverage. Concerned that their coverage of radicals in the new left and black movements were inflaming the situation they sought to calm the situation by showing the more moderate side of these movements and not giving too much air play to militant actions and protests. For example news staff at CBS were told that “the best coverage is not necessarily the one with the best pictures and most dramatic action”.
As the counterculture movement started to be incorporated into the mainstream in the late 60s the celebrities favoured by the media were the more moderate spokespersons rather than the colourful but obviously deviant characters of previous times.
The events in Vietnam had caused a shift in public opinion that made antiwar activity more respectable. Journalists themselves became more sympathetic to such a stance and began giving more favourable coverage to the more conservative sections of the new left movement as an alternative to the more radical and confrontational parts of the movement.
The slogan was “Clean for Gene,” and the well-publicized students who shaved their faces and dragged their suits out of the closet to slog through the New Hampshire snow were vivid, visible alternatives to the scruffy, bearded, draft-card burning Viet Cong-flag carriers. Having defined the latter as the movement archetype, the media could now introduce the “Clean for Gene” movement as something genuinely new, something different.
Protests continued throughout the 1970s but the media announced a conservative mood had set in by the mid-1970s. Although there was indeed a ‘backlash’ from conservative groups the media exaggerated what was happening by portraying it as a widespread change in public mood. This in turn helped shape public opinion into a conservative mould.
In discovering a “conservative mood,” the news media had to overlook a great deal about the 1970s and 1980s including the various polls conducted during that period—which showed a shift in a progressive direction (even among many who labelled themselves conservative) on issues such as military spending, environmental protection, care for the elderly, tax reform, and race relations....By crediting conservative policies with a popular support they did not have, the press did its part in shifting the political agenda in a rightward direction.
Robert Entman, in his book Democracy Without Citizens agrees that the public’s policy preferences had not changed much but “the media-fed perception that they had swung right influenced politics,” legitimising the conservatism of Reagan’s administration, and allowing him to implement a policy agenda that lacked majority support.
The media can give a distorted impression of public opinion on particular and even general topics. Michael Parenti, in his book Inventing Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media, argues:
Public opinion is not just an expression of sentiment; it is a democratic power resource that sometimes constrains and directs policymakers who otherwise spend their time responding to the demands and enticements of moneyed interests... The media short-circuit the process by which public preference may otherwise be translated into government policy.
Corporate and conservative interests have long recognised this phenomenon. The Heritage Foundation, like other think tanks, conduct public opinion polls as a means of—as a Foundation employee put it—“influencing public opinion, not just reflecting it.” This is done by selecting questions that will influence the results and then getting wide media attention for the supposedly objective poll findings.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s protest activities by environmental and other public interest groups went largely unreported or dismissively reported as a hangover from the past.