Media, Agenda Setting and the Space Race
A SpaceX rocket lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. (Photo: AP) 
By Martand Jha

Media, Agenda Setting and the Space Race

Aug. 14, 2019  |     |  0 comments

Media has played a significant role in generating huge interest in outer space issues during the Cold War Space Race among the masses, most of whom possess either none or very little knowledge about the technicalities of the outer space missions or outer space itself. It is ironical because a lot of research which has been done on the subject has referred to many of the reports in the media but a holistic focus on how media reported the Space Race is missing from many researches done on this subject.

The behavior of media houses tells a lot about the political system existent in that particular country where the media house is based. This is why one finds a lot of difference in the way the US media reported and the way in which the Soviet media did. Right from the start of the Space Race, media on both sides were actively involved in covering the race. This was one of the big reasons behind the intensification of the Cold War itself.

The reason being that media is seen as a voice of the masses by the political class. A report or an opinion piece carried in a reputed newspaper has a big impact on the decision making of the ruling dispensation. For instance, opinion pieces carried by reputed newspapers like New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, etc. had a huge impact on the discourse of the Space Race itself. News in itself affects both the political leaders as well as the masses. The impact is not only on the domestic audience/readers but worldwide. In this case, the impact of both US and Soviet media reached the political class in both the countries.

Sometimes, it is difficult to differentiate between an opinion piece and a propaganda material. This is because “agenda-setting” is one of the principles on which the media works. The Agenda Setting theory is about the “influencing capability” of the media and how much it can affect the issues and topics placed on the public agenda. Not only the “agenda setters” can push an already existing agenda further, they have the ability to create new ones. This can be done by increasing the frequency of articles on the same issue, pushing forward a particular ideology in the name of facts and unbiased reporting, targeting a particular person, group, institution, body or even country continuously for a long period of time. One needs to understand the agenda setting theory because it works behind the scenes and there is no direct way to assess how much media impacted upon the intensification and discourse of the Cold War Space Race.

The Space Race was a highly publicized affair which had an impact on an international scale. The publicity of the successes and failures in this race had very much to do with the sustained interest of the audience in the news. Outer space being an arena which has historically fascinated mankind is bound to attract a larger audience. The media houses knew it very well from the start.

Secondly, any kind of competition has a tendency to grab more eye balls and when the competition was between two superpowers to prove their supremacy in outer space, the path for agenda-setting became clear. What the agenda setting theory highlighted is the fact that media doesn’t tell people “what to think”, but it surely tells people “what to think about”. Same was true with the making of Space Race as an international phenomenon.

The space as an area is a high-end one, though its utility for civilian purposes has grown considerably now. However, back in the 1950s, space was mostly a strategic domain and the governments aimed to utilize its military potential. That was the essence of the Space Race. In this context, for space to become a “newsworthy” item was a difficult task. The technology used in the space sector has always been far from the reach and understanding of the masses, as it required a highly specialized technical knowledge. Therefore, in reality it was a very hard task to make the “International Politics of Outer Space” look appealing to the readers and carry its impact to the leaders.

The Space Race could not have reached the wider imagination of the masses across the world had there been no agenda setting media.

As a result, media tries to create its own reality. It tries to portray this reality as the “truth” which is of high importance to the public. During the Space Race years (1957-1975), the public at large got most of the information about outer space from the media outlets. The media in turn used catchy headlines to attract the readers regarding the Space Rivalry. For instance, “Why did the US lose the Space Race?” Headlines like these didn’t just have a great impact on the psyche of the public but it also added to the pressure on the government. The government in turn started taking steps in order to show the public that it was working the best it could. This is what precisely happened during the Space Race, particularly in the United States.

The Soviet media however was very controlled. Hence, the “agenda setting” in the USSR happened differently than how it happened in the United States. In the US, media was much freer to report, criticize and opinionate on the Space Race and things in general. When space became an arena of national interest, the media started to portray the USSR as a villain in the Space Race which needed to be defeated. Contrarian viewpoints always emerged in the US media regarding the excessive expenditure on space, when the money could be utilized in other areas for developmental purposes. For instance, budgets for space program were cut down by the US government during the Vietnam War. “NASA’s annual budget, which had reached $5 billion in the mid-1960s and stood at almost $4 billion in 1969, was reduced to $3.7 billion in 1970 and just over $3 billion in 1974” (Data from NASA Historical Data Book, Chapter 1).

In the Soviet Union, because of the controlled media, it was used as a tool of propaganda. The media in Soviet Union couldn’t take open stands against the political leadership, their decision making, etc. Not only did the Soviet political class utilized their own media to build a reputation for its own success in the outer space, but the critiques within the US media were given a great mileage by the successive Soviet leaders to prove their point. The US political class couldn’t do the same with the Soviet media because it was mostly state controlled.

The intensity of the Space Race on the global scale couldn’t have been realized without the presence of an agenda setting mass media which included print and broadcast (television and radio) media. The constant flow of information regarding space programs was a key to establish a dedicated class of audience.

This audience when fed constantly with news, reports, opinions, analysis, critiques on space issues, any development related to space program started to have an impact among the public. This in turn led to the formation of “public opinion”. The Public Opinion has a big pressure on governments in a democracy. Public opinion leads to the formation of “public agenda”. This public agenda has much to do with the public perception of reality. This was exactly how the public opinion was formed on space related issues during the Cold War.  

The importance and the role played by the media in the making of a phenomenon is many a times overlooked and not given due credit as it should be. This is because it’s taken as a given that its the media’s job to report the day to day happenings and therefore the media shouldn’t be credited for doing the job which it is expected to do in the first place. The same happened in the case of Cold War Space Race between the United States and Soviet Union where media played a huge role.

The Space Race could not have reached the wider imagination of the masses across the world had there been no agenda setting media. The fast-changing world during the Space Race years had a significant impact on the development of the space programs of both the superpowers. Today, when the space experts are talking about the New Space Race or the Space Race 2.0, the role of media in both covering and uncovering the various facets of this new Space Race to the public would be paramount, at a much bigger and larger scale than ever before.

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