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Chapter 10: The Media

I. Politicians depend of the media for the advancement of their careers and policies but fear its power to
criticize, expose, and destroy. As political parties have declined—especially, strong party organizations—
politicians have become increasingly dependent on the media.
A. At the same time, the media have been changing, especially in regard to the kinds of people who
have been attracted to leading positions in journalism and the attitudes they have brought with
II. The relationships between government and the media in this country are shaped by laws and
understandings that accord the media a degree of freedom greater than that found in almost any other
III. Almost all American radio and television stations are privately owned, though they require government
A. While the federal government does impose rules on American broadcasters, it does not have the
power to censor or dictate the contents of particular stories.
B. In the US, law of libel is loose enough to permit intense and even inaccurate criticism of anybody
in the public eye.
C. The Freedom of Information Act virtually guarantees that very little can be kept secret for very
IV. The freedom from government control that comes with the private ownership of the media of mass
communication has a price: newspapers, magazines, and broadcast stations are businesses that must earn a
profit. Some critics believe that the need for profit leads publishers and station owners to distort the news
coverage of politics to satisfy the desires of advertisers.
Journalism in American Political History
I. Important changes in the nature of American politics have gone hand in hand with major changes in the
organization and technology of the press.
A. It is the nature of politics, being essentially a form of communication, to respond to changes in
how communications are carried on.
The Party Press
I. In the early years of the Republic, politicians of various factions created, sponsored, and controlled
newspapers to further their interests. This was possible because circulation was of necessity small and
newspapers were expensive.
A. These newspapers circulated chiefly among the political elites, who could afford to pay high
subscription prices.
B. Even with high prices, the newspapers often required subsidies. That money frequently came from
the government or from a political party.
C. These newspapers were partisan in their views.
The Popular Press
I. Changes in society and technology made possible the rise of a self-supporting, mass-readership daily
newspaper. These papers could not afford to be partisan because they wanted to attract as many
subscribers as possible.
A. Newspapers no longer needed political patronage to prosper, and soon such subsidies began to dry
up. In 1860 the Government Printing Office was established, thereby putting an end to most of the
printing contracts that Washington newspapers had once enjoyed.
II. The mass-reading was still not nonpartisan, but the partisanship it displayed arose from the convictions of
its publishers and editors rather than from the influence of its party sponsors. These convictions blended
political beliefs with economic interest.
A. Strong-willed publishers could often become powerful political forces.
III. The mass-readership newspapers began to create a common national culture, to establish the feasibility of a
press free of government control or subsidy, and to demonstrate how exciting and profitable could be the
criticism of public policy and the revelation of public scandal.
Magazines and Opinion
I. The growing middle class was often repelled by what it called “yellow journalism” and was developing,
around the turn of the century, a taste for political reform and a belief in the doctrine of the progressive
A. To satisfy this market, a variety of national magazines appeared that discussed issues of public
policy. They provided the means for developing a national constituency for certain issues.
II. The national magazines of opinion provided an opportunity for individual writers to gain a nation-wide
III. Changes in circulation needs, in audience interests, in managerial style, and in the emergence of nationally
known writers, helped increase the power of editors and reporters.
Electronic Journalism
I. Radio became popular in the 1920s, television in the late 1940s. they represented a major change in the
way news was gathered and disseminated.
A. The broadcast allows public officials to speak directly to audiences without their remarks being
filtered through editors and reporters. This was an advantage to politicians, provided they were
skilled enough to use it; they could in theory reach the voters directly on a national scale without
the services of political parties or interest groups.
B. However, people can easily ignore a speech on broadcast radio or television. By contrast, the
views of at least some public figures would receive prominent display in newspapers.
C. Less news can be carried by news or television because it is more expensive, and each news
segment must be quite brief to avoid boring the audience.
II. To obtain advantages of electronic media coverage, public officials must do something sufficiently bold to
gain access to radio or television news. Most officials struggle for access to electronic media by making
controversial statements, acquiring a national reputation, or purchasing expensive time.
A. The rise of the talk show as a political forum has increased politicians’ access to the electronic
B. In the last few decades, the networks’ evening newscasts have changed in ways that have made it
harder for candidates to use them to get their messages across. For instance, the average sound
bite—a video clip of a presidential contender speaking—has dropped from 40 to 7 seconds.
III. Today politicians have sources other than the network news for sustained and personalized television
exposure. Candidates favor participating in lighter, more entertaining shows and making more casual
The Internet
I. The internet is the ultimate free market in political news.
II. The rise of the internet has completed a remarkable transformation in American journalism.
The Structure of the Media
I. The relationship between journalism and politics is a two-way street: though politicians take advantage as
best they can of the communications media available to them, these media in turn attempt to use politics
and politicians as a way of both entertaining and informing their audiences.
A. There is inevitably a process of selection, editing, and of emphasis, and this process reflects, to
some degree, the way in which the media are organized.
Degree of Competition
I. Newspaper circulation has fallen since 1967. Radio and television, by comparison, are intensely
competitive and becoming more so.
II. The American press is made up of mostly locally owned and operated enterprises.
A. The American newspaper is primarily orientated to its local market and local audience, and there
is typically more local than national news
B. This is part due to the regulations created by the FCC. Until the mid 1990s, no one could own and
operate more than one newspaper, one AM radio station, one FM radio station, or one television
station in a given market. The networks still today may not compel a local affiliate to accept any
particular broadcast.
The National Media
I. The local orientation of much of the American communications media is partially offset, however, by the
emergence of certain publications and broadcast services that constitute a kind of national press.
A. The wire services supply most of the national news that local papers publish.
II. The existence of a national press is important for two reasons: first, government officials in Washington
pay great attention to what these media say about them and their programs. Second, reporters and editors
for the national press tend to differ from those who work for the local press. The national press plays the
role of gatekeeper, scorekeeper, and watchdog for the federal government.
A. As gatekeeper it can influence what subjects become national political issues and for how long.
B. As scorekeepers the national media keep track of and help make political reputations, and help
decide who is winning and losing in Washington politics.
C. Once the scorekeepers decide that you are the person to watch, they adopt their watchdog role.
This close scrutiny is natural. The media have an instinctive desire to investigate and expose
Rules Governing the Media
I. The least competitive media outlets are almost entirely free from government regulation, while the most
competitive ones must have government licenses to operate and must adhere to a variety of government
A. Newspapers and magazines need no license to publish, their freedom to publish may not be
restrained in advance, and they are liable for punishment for what they do publish only under
certain highly restricted circumstances.
B. Once something is published, a newspaper or magazine may be sued or prosecuted if the material
is libelous or obscene or if it incites someone to commit an illegal act. These are usually not very
serious restrictions because libelous and obscene are defined very narrowly.
C. There are also laws intended to protect the privacy of citizens, but they do not really inhibit
Confidentiality of Sources
I. Reporters believe that they should have the right to keep confidential the sources of their stories. Most
states and the federal government do not agree, so the courts must decide in each case whether the need of
a journalist to protect confidential sources does or does not outweigh the interest of the government in a
criminal investigation.
A. In general the Supreme Court has upheld the right of the governments to compel reporters to
divulge information as a part of a criminal investigation, if it bears on the commission of the
B. This conflict arises not only between reporters and the law enforcement agencies but also between
reporters and persons accused of committing a crime.
Regulating Broadcasting
I. Broadcasting is regulated by the government. Of late a movement has arisen to deregulate broadcasting, on
the grounds that so many stations are now on the air that competition should be allowed to determine how
each station defines and serves community needs.
II. Radio broadcasting has been deregulated the most.
A. In 1996 the Telecommunications Act allowed one company to own as many as eight stations in
large markets (five in smaller ones) and as many as it wished nationally.
B. This trend has had two results. First, a few large companies now own most of the big-market radio
stations. Second, the looser editorial restrictions that accompanied the deregulation mean that a
greater variety of opinions and shows can be found on the radio.
III. The content of radio and television is still regulated in ways that newspapers and magazines are not. These
include the following:
A. Equal time rule: if a station sells time to one candidate for office, it must be willing to sell time to
opposing candidates.
B. Right-of-reply rule: if a person is attacked on a broadcast, that person has the right to reply over
that same station.
C. Political editorializing rule: if a broadcaster endorses a candidate, the opposing candidate has a
right to reply.
D. For many years there was also the practice of the fairness doctrine, which required broadcasters to
give time to opposing views if they broadcast a program giving one side of a controversial issue.
In 1987 the FCC, believing that the doctrine inhibited the free discussion of issues, abolished it.
I. When candidates wish to campaign on radio or television, the equal time rule applies. A broadcaster must
provide equal access to candidates for office and charge them rates no higher that the cheapest rate
applicable to commercial advertisers for comparable time.
A. At one time this rule meant that a station or network could not broadcast a debate between the
Democratic and Republican candidates for an office without inviting all other candidates as well.
Now stations and networks can themselves sponsor debates limited to major candidates.
II. Though laws guarantee that candidates can buy time at favorable rates on television, not all candidates take
advantage of this. The reason is that television is not always an efficient way to reach voters.
A. A market is an area easily reached by a television signal.
The Effects of the Media on Politics
I. Some research indicates that what appears in print or on the air probably does have an effect on how
citizens think and what they think about, how they attribute responsibility for problems, and what policy
preferences they hold.
A. There is very little evidence that enables us to know precisely how large that effect is or under
what conditions it exists.
B. Television and radio suffer from processes called selective attention (the citizen sees and hears
only what he wants) and mental tune-out (the citizen simply ignores or gets irritated by messages
that are not in accord with existing beliefs). Radio and television may reinforce existing beliefs,
but it is not clear that they can change them.
II. There are some elections in which voters have few sources of information beyond what the media provide.
Primary elections involving political unknowns and general elections of low-visibility offices may make
voters dependent on newspaper and broadcast ads for information.
III. The major effects of the media probably have much less to do with how people vote and more to do with
how politics is conducted, how candidates are perceived, and how policies are formulated.
A. National nominating conventions have been changed to fit the needs of television broadcasters.
Some candidates have found it possible to win their party’s nominating for senator or governor
with expensive advertising campaigns that bypass the parties and ultimately weaken them.
B. Unknown politicians can acquire a national reputation by being at the center of an event covered
by the media.
IV. The issues that citizens believe to be important politically are very similar to the issues that newspapers and
television newscasts feature.
A. Watching television news programs affects the importance people attach to various issues.
B. People are much less likely to take their cues from the media on matters that affect them
V. The media also affect how we perceive certain issues and candidates. Voters who get their information
from television and those who get it chiefly from newspapers often do not view political matters the same
A. Televisions news stories affect the popularity of presidents; television commentary tends to have a
large effect.
Government and the News
I. In a government of separated powers, weak parties, and a decentralized legislature, any government agency
that fails to cultivate public opinion will sooner or later find itself weak, without allies, and in trouble.
Prominence of the President
I. The press secretary heads a large staff that meets with reporters, briefs the president on questions he is
likely to be asked, attempts to control the flow of news from cabinet departments to the press, and arranges
briefings for editors.
A. The result of all this media attention is that the actions of our government are personalized to a
degree not found in other democracies.
Coverage of Congress
I. Congress does not get as much attention as the president. The members of the House are so numerous and
specialized that they generally do not get much attention.
A. The Senate has used television much more fully, heightening the already substantial advantage
that senators have over representatives in the getting the public eye. Senatorial use of televised
committee hearings has helped turned the Senate into the incubator for presidential candidates.
Interpreting Political News
I. News stories, especially those about events of which we have no firsthand knowledge, are apt to be
accepted without question. This may be particularly true of television news stories, since they enable us to
judge not only what is said but how it is said.
II. Americans tell pollsters that they get most of their news from television, and that they regard TV as more
reliable than the printed press. Though in general the public has a favorable view of the media, between
1985 and 1989 there was a sharp increase in the proportion of Americans who thought the media tended to
favor one side of the story.
A. Between 1985 and 1989 there was also a sharp increase in the percentage of those who thought
stories were inaccurate.
B. In general the popular worry is that editors and reporters allow their personal political beliefs to
influence the stories that they choose to run and to color the way in which they report them.
III. In a presidential election it is unlikely that editorial endorsements make any difference. The question today
is whether the liberal views of reporters bias the news.
Are News Stories Slanted?
I. The fact that reporters tend to have liberal views does not mean that their stories will inevitably have a
liberal slant. Other factors influence how stories are written, including the need to meet an urgent deadline,
the desire to attract an audience, a professional obligation to be fair and tell the truth, and the need to
develop sources among people holding different views.
II. There are three kinds of stories:
1. Routine stories: these are public events regularly covered by reporters and involving relatively
simple, easily described acts or statements.
2. Feature stories: these are public events knowable to any reporter who cares to inquire but
involving acts and statements not routinely covered by a group of reporters. Thus a reporter must
take the imitative and select a particular event as newsworthy, decide to write about it, and
persuade an editor to run it.
3. Insider stories: information not usually made public becomes public because someone with inside
knowledge tells a reporter.
A. Routine stories are covered in almost exactly the same way by almost all media. The political
opinions of journalists have the least effect on these stories, especially if several competing
journalists are covering the same story over a long period of time.
B. Feature and insider stories must be selected, and thus someone must do the selecting. The grounds
on which the selections are made include not only the selections are made include not only the
intrinsic interest of a story but also the reporter’s or editor’s beliefs about what ought to be
interesting. Among these beliefs are the political ideologies of the journalists.
C. If a nonroutine story is a major, complex, somewhat unusual event, all the media will cover it, but
each will choose what themes to emphasize and what questions to raise. The very act of selection
usually involves some political perspective.
D. Insider stories raise the most difficult questions of all—those of motive. The motives of those who
leak information are almost never reported.
Why Do We Have So Many News Leaks?
I. The bureaucracy, members of Congress, and the White House staff regularly leak stories favorable to their
II. Because we have separate institutions that must share power, each branch of government competes with the
others to get power.
A. One way to compete is to try to use the press to advance your pet projects and make the other side
look better.
III. The press and the politicians have come to distrust one another. As a result, journalists today are far less
willing to accept at face the statements of elected officials and are far more likely to try to find somebody
who will leak the “real story.”
A. We have come to have an adversarial press—one that is suspicious of officialdom and eager to
break an embarrassing story.
B. This cynicism and distrust of government and elected officials have led to an era of attack
journalism. Many people do not like this type of journalism, and the media’s rising cynicism
about the government is mirrored by the public’s increasing cynicism about the media.
IV. One of the effects of the increasingly adversarial nature of the press is the increased prevalence of negative
campaign advertising. Adversarial media coverage has helped make negative ads more socially acceptable.
A. Negative ads change the preferences of some voters, but also reduce voter turnout.
Sensationalism in the Media
I. Competition in the information industry has increased dramatically since the 1970s and 80s. The result of
this intense competition is that each radio or television network has a small share of the audience. To
attract any audience at all, each program has a big incentive to rely on sensational news stories.
A. Reinforcing this desire to go with sensationalism is the fact that covering such stories is cheaper
than more serious stories.
II. Reporters are more easily manipulated by sources than once was the case.
III. Since the terrorist attack on the United States on 9/11/01, there has been scattered evidence to suggest that
sensationalism in the media has declined a bit, while public interest in national news and trust of news
organizations have increased somewhat.
Government Constraints on Journalists
I. An important factor works against the influence of ideology and antiofficial attitudes on reporters—the
need every reporter has for access to key officials. Thus, Washington reporters must constantly strike a
balance between expressing their own views and keeping a source.
II. The government is not without its means to fight back. The number of press officers in the government has
grown sharply in recent decades.
A. These officers can try to win journalist friends by offering leaks and supplying background
stories. (a background story is one that purportedly explains current policy and is given on
condition that the source not be identified by name.)