Richard Lee

605. Pop culture’s influence on media is the subject of a new college course

In the 1960s and 1970s, the voice of activism and protest was Pete Seeger and folk music. For young people in the 2000s, it’s Jon Stewart and social media. 

Pop culture and media have always gone hand-in-hand, but the format has certainly evolved, says Richard Lee, executive director of the Jandoli Institute and a professor in the School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University. This semester, he’s launching a new course looking at the intersection of the two and the role each plays in influencing the other. 

“People are getting their news through entertainment. You may remember when Bill Clinton went on the Arsenio Hall Show during the 1992 campaign,” he says. At the time, that was a first, because it simply hadn’t really been done before, possibly with the exception of Richard Nixon appearing on Laugh In in the 1968. 

“Now we see politicians and elected officials on talk shows all the time. Back then, you went on Face the Nation or Meet the Press. You didn’t go on the Arsenio Hall show and play saxophone with the band,” Lee says. “I think that opened the door to politicians getting their message out not by going through the scrutiny of seasoned reporters; they’re sitting down, having a comfortable conversation with talk show hosts.” 

Another 30 years later, social media is the platform of the day that allows politicians to speak their message and control the spin without having to rely on the press, Lee says. They understand that going directly to young people and young voters will reach a broader audience than more traditional forms of political media. 

“The media is adapting. What’s happening is voters are less informed about where candidates stand on issues,” Lee says. “I worked on the other side of the business for a while, working in PR jobs. This option didn’t exist then. If you can put your candidate on a couch talking about their family, their kids, their favorite TV shows, you’re going to be more comfortable than standing in front of a bank of reporters. That bank of reporters are probably going to be asking questions about policy positions that you really need to know in order to make an informed choice in the voting booth.”

The evolution of political media and how voters are getting their information is also changing how members of Congress and other elected officials are gaining and retaining political power. 

“It used to be if you went to Congress, in order to get a position of power and influence, you’d be there longer, you’d build up seniority. It seems now the people who make the best use of social media and messaging are the ones we read about,” he says.  

Lee is also using various pop culture milestones and events in the class to foster discussion on broader topics.

“We’ll look at the songs that are nominated for Grammys. I did an op-ed a few years ago about what the best song nominees tell us about America,” Lee says. “I’ll ask students to look at the songs nominated for best song and see what they get out of that. We’ll do the same with the Oscars. There’s a Bob Marley movie coming out; we’ll talk about reggae.” 

Access to politicians through social media and comedy talk shows might seem outrageous to older voters, but this is the only world and method younger voters know, so it’s very normal to them, Lee says. “I’m hoping (students) realize that pop culture … (will) have a lot of influence on public policy and who gets into office. I want them to understand (to) take everything with a grain of salt. Just because a singer or actor they’re big fans of says this candidate is great, don’t take their word for it. Research it yourself.” 

Allison Taylor-Levine

625. Community collaboration key to evolving local journalism

Allison Taylor Levine, CEO of Local Journalism Initiative, discusses how LJI’s Delaware Journalism Collaborative, which has brought more than 25 partners throughout the state together to report on polarization and possible solutions, strengthens local journalism in Delaware and our democracy.

Listen »

More Episodes

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

To get all the the latest news about our podcast, including guests and special events, fill out the form below to subscribe to our weekly email newsletter.