February 12, 2024
Presented by Eunji Kim, assistant professor of political science, Columbia University.
There is a simple and uncomfortable truth about the nation still recovering from the scars of a reality TV presidency: given the dazzling array of media choices, Americans are not watching news. If our media diet primarily consists of entertainment media, how does it shape politics? In this hyper-politicized world full of partisan news media, it might seem implausible that something as frivolous as entertainment media could possibly affect people’s political attitudes. Defying such conventional wisdom, I theorize and describe the unique power of entertainment media in shaping political attitudes and behaviors. In particular, this talk introduces a puzzle in American politics that can be addressed by bringing entertainment media to the table. In this age of intensifying income inequality, the concerns about the fading American Dream from politicians on both sides of the partisan aisle are omnipresent. Nevertheless, many Americans continue to view the United States as the land of opportunity. Why do beliefs in economic mobility persist despite the raft of empirical evidence to the contrary? The ivory-tower academics and pundits alike have largely turned to news media for an answer, only puzzled to find that sobering media coverage about declining mobility has little effect on public opinion.
Instead, what has been attracting millions of viewers in the past two decades are entertainment programs that depict real-life Americans succeeding due to their hard work and talent. Popular shows ranging from America’s Got Talent and Shark Tank—all featuring “rags-to-riches” exemplars—easily attract prime-time audiences seven times larger than those watching Fox News. This narrative from entertainment media that the American Dream is alive and well is directly counter to what news media provides; the former is consumed by the vast majority of Americans every day, while the latter is not. These “rags-to-riches” entertainment programs promote rugged individualism; their meritocratic ideology glorifies the winners in the economic system, increases tolerance for income inequality, and dampens public support for redistributive policies that could help those who are left behind.
This program is sponsored by the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues and the Bruce R. Andrews Fund and co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science.