Friday, November 20, 2009

Is the Media Biased Against Un-Charismatic Politicians?

When a candidate complains that his charismatic opponent is receiving far more favorable coverage than himself, the media becomes more circumspect. Almost self-conscious. But, there is very little bias if the public is responding to a candidate with great enthusiasm. Professor Drew Westen, psychologist and neuroscientist at Emory University says,"The charge of bias against a charismatic contender can have a chilling effect on coverage, leading to an embargo on visual images that depict the reality of public response or an obligatory snarky comment or caveat following every story that describes something the candidate has done well. I saw the process in action during the primaries when Hillary's charge led to media concerns about airing footage that would seem too positive for Obama. On more than one occasion, a television producer would ask me for suggestions about film clips to illustrate the point I would be making on air a few hours later or a point they wanted to make, and would reject an appropriate clips because it was ‘too positive’ or because it was from a victory speech. But a victory speech is hardly unfair to show simply because it shows the candidate victorious. That's what victory is"(2008 para 3).


Westen, D. (2008 July 27). How should journalists cover a charismatic candidate? When the subjective is objective. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from:

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Friday, November 13, 2009

The Changing Winds of Charisma

History is replete with the vagaries of politicians who are feted and lambasted with the winds of change. "…The British public did not see Winston Churchill as a charismatic leader in 1939, but a year later, his vision, confidence and communications skills made him charismatic in the eyes of the British people, given the anxieties they felt after the fall of France to the Nazis and the Dunkirk evacuation. Yet by 1945, when the public turned from winning the war to building the welfare state, Churchill was voted out of office. His charisma did not predict his defeat. The change in voters' needs was a better predictor (Nye 2008, para 6)." These sentiments are echoed within James Madison's Federalists Papers, # 57. Under this guise, human nature cut both ways. On one hand the people would elect representatives to be stewards for their interests. On the other hand, the ego and self-interest of the politician would keep him aligned with his constituency to gain re-election.

Charisma is effective in connecting a politician to the emotional security of voters, but ultimately, politicians must effectively meet the needs of constituents. This back and forth does make logical sense for public policy in conjunction with the nuance of human nature. It is the astute politician who uses charisma to skew favor to his side. Understandably, there will be times when a principled politician won't be able to satisfy the needs of his collective constituency. Being adroit and adept at saying "no," but allowing it to go down easily is the hallmark of effective politicking. This is the advantage charismatic politicians have over adversaries. The ability to use charisma as a tool to strategically ensconce difficult policies within the soft belly of visceral and practical realities. If played well within the media, such maneuvers suggest that the politician is "getting things done." Even when policies act unfavorably to some constituents, this won't necessarily be a deal- breaker, because constituents know when a line has been drawn between their individual greed and the overarching interests of a collective agenda.


Nye, J. (2008 May 6). The mystery of political charisma. Wall Street Journal.

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Friday, November 6, 2009

Charisma: Its Effect on Politics & Media

The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon Debates ushered in an era of politics that has transformed how politics plays in the media as well as how public policy is formulated. The emergence of candidate-centered politics made individual personalities as important, if not more, than policy platforms. Eminent sociologist Max Weber transformed the concept of charisma from its religious origins to its secular manifestations. Weber asserted that charismatic personalities gained power and significance through sheer will, determination and ambition contrary to inheriting or climbing the corporate hierarchy (Weber 1978). His notion of Charismatic Authority was prescient in that this leadership model would find a place within modern politics. The Celebrity Industrial Complex (Orth 2004)turned celebrities into politicians and politicians into celebrities, which allowed California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to go from film star to governor without any political experience or political platform. The objectivity of the media became skewed, because journalists either fawned over charismatic politicians or were self-conscious about seeming overly positive when a charismatic politician connected with the public viscerally. The effectiveness of proposed public policy considerations were no longer vetted or mulled over, but presented to the public as "focus group" to determine its acceptance. How the proposed initiative resonated in the media would determine how hard politicians fought for legislative passage. Media objectivity has also been called into question when it has to juggle its role as public "truth provider" versus for-profit corporation. Arguably, the media has often opted for the latter with the notion, "If it bleeds, it leads." The bloodletting could be literal or metaphorical.


Orth, M. (2004). The importance of being Famous: Behind the scenes of the celebrity-industrial complex. New York. Henry Holt & Co., LLC.

Weber, M. (1978). Weber: Selections in translations. Runciman, W. (Ed.). United Kingdom. Cambridge. Press.

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