The Media

The Media

The History and Structure of the
American News Media

Changes in the organization and technology of
the press have brought major changes in the organization of American
politics. In the era of the party press in the early years
of the Republic, parties established and provided government support
for newspapers. The press was relentlessly partisan and reached the
commercial and political elites. Changes in society and technology
made the popular press possible. Urbanization created large
cities that could support mass circulations, and the invention of the
rotary press made producing papers cheap and quick. In order to
create mass circulation, newspapers-under the leadership of men like
Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst-stressed violence,
romance, patriotism, and exposes of wrongdoing in business and
government. The mass circulation newspaper facilitated the emergence
of mass politics, the mobilization of voters, and the development of
strong party loyalties.

The rising middle class was repelled by the
yellow journalism of the popular press and provided the
market for magazines of opinion. During their peak around the turn of
the century, these magazines promoted the causes of the Progressive
movement: business regulation, the purification of municipal
politics, and civil service reform Muckrackers such as
Lincoln Steffens set the pattern for today’s investigative reporting.
Electronic journalism, which began with the emergence of radio in the
1920s and continued with the spread of television in the late 1940s,
places great stress on the personal characteristics of
politicians-whether they are attractive, speak well, or behave in a
manner sufficiently colorful to justify inclusion in newscasts that
must hold audience attention.

In the contemporary media era, the media’s
structure is characterized by (a) a decline in the number of cities
in which there are competing newspapers; (b) an orientation to the
local market; (c) a decentralized broadcasting industry; (d) three
major national television networks, hundreds of television stations,
and thousands of cable systems and radio stations; (e) national media
consisting of the news magazines, television networks, and newspapers
such as the New York Times, the Washington Post,
and the Wall Street Journal; and (f) a rapidly
expanding Internet.

Selection of Media and Bias in the

The mass media do not simply mirror reality.
The process of selection, editing, and emphasis provides an
opportunity for slanting the news, further enhanced by the general
absence of fast-breaking stories. Thomas Dye estimates that 70
percent of television news stories are preplanned (selected or
insider), with only 30 percent involving spontaneous events.
Additionally, national press is staffed by people who are more
liberal than the public as a whole. The complaint of media bias even
reached Congress in 1995 when the Public Broadcasting System (PBS)
was targeted by conservative Republicans.

The national press not only reports the news
but also fulfills three additional roles for the public:
gatekeeper-passing judgment on who is winning and who is losing; and
watchdog-exposing scandals and intrigues. These multiple functions
suggest that the media have a profound impact on politics. But social
scientists have been unable to determine the extent to which the
media influence public opinion. From a logical standpoint, an
influential press would have converted the American public to
liberalism long ago. Michael Parenti, a critic of the national press,
challenges even the common assumption of media distortion in the
liberal direction. He contends that the objective of the news media
“is not to produce an alert, critical, and informed citizenry but the
kind of people who will accept an opinion universe dominated by
corporate and governmental elites, almost all of whom share the same
ideological perspective about political and economic

The media do influence the political agenda by
determining what issues become prominent. This constitutes an
entirely different sort of influence. In this capacity, the national
press does exhibit a kind of bias. Its stories focus on activities in
Washington D.C. FCC rules, however, have achieved a degree of balance
by forbidding monopoly control of the media, forcing a local
orientation outside the network news programs.

Government Influence on the

A free press is a rarity in the world: one
study of ninety-four nations found that only sixteen had a high
degree of press freedom. Even among democracies that do have a high
degree of press freedom, many have restrictions not found here.
Britain has an Official Secrets Act that can be used to punish any
leak of confidential governmental information. In France,
broadcasting is controlled by a government agency that acts to
protect the image of the government in power.

There are significant governmental restraints
on what the American media can print or broadcast,

1. Libel. To sue a news
organization for libel successfully, one must show that what was
published was not merely untrue but was printed maliciously-that
is, with .reckless disregard” for its truth or falsity. This is
very difficult to do.

2. Obscenity. Governments in the
United States may outlaw obscenity; however, the definition of
obscenity has been steadily narrowed by the federal courts. Laws
against obscenity have no effect on newspapers and magazines
primarily interested in reporting political news.

3. Incitement. Media may not
directly incite someone to commit an illegal act. However, the
mere advocacy of, say, the violent overthrow of the government, is
protected under the First Amendment.

A newspaper may, in theory, be punished for any
of the foregoing, but none of them may be used as a basis for
prior restraint: government action to prevent the
publication of the material. Radio and television face further

1. Licensing. To stay in
business, every broadcaster must have a license from the Federal
Communications Commission (FCC), and the license must be renewed
every seven years for a radio station and every five years for a
television station. This makes broadcasters quite sensitive to the
FCC’s view of what constitutes the informational needs of the
community. Recently, a move to deregulate broadcasting that would
allow each station to define and serve community needs has gained

2. The equal-time rule. If a
broadcaster allows time for one candidate for public office, it
must allow equal time for all other candidates. (Newscasts are
exempt.) Because “all other candidates” include minor party
candidates to whom few people really want to listen, in order to
stage a presidential debate it is necessary either for Congress to
suspend the rule (as it did in 1960) or for a private organization
like the League of Women Voters to sponsor the debate (as in 1976
and 1980). Though laws guarantee that candidates can buy time at
favorable rates on television, television may not always be the
most efficient way of reaching the voters.

Given the weakness of government controls on
the media, it is not surprising that officials devise other
strategies to manipulate the media. These may include the gift of
background stories
with much inside information to favored
reporters, private tongue-lashings administered to reporters who
publish embarrassing stories (a technique used by Kennedy and
Johnson), and public attacks on the press (used by Nixon). In the
long run, the press wins.

The Presidential Press Conference-Manipulation of the

Presidential press conferences, particularly in
the hands of an effective communicator/ image-maker, can be effective
vehicles of distortion rather that realistic channels of information
for the public. Why is this so?

In the third edition of Presidential
Leadership, Politics and Policy Making, by
George C. Edwards III
and Stephen J. Wayne (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), the
reasons for the deficiencies of the modern presidential press
conference become abundantly clear. Edwards and Wayne argue as

1. Presidential press conferences do
not occur frequently enough (averaging once or twice a month), so
when they do occur, the wide range of questions that have
accumulated guarantees the superficiality of coverage by the

2. Presidents’ press conferences are too
biased, inhibiting the “likelihood of follow-up questions to cover
a subject in depth.” Also, the size of the press conference
creates too formal an atmosphere.

3. Presidential rehearsal before the press
conference and total control over which reporter is allowed to ask
a question prevent true spontaneity.

4. Televised press conferences prevent the
informality and candid nature of presidential answers (those of
FDR, for example) that once existed before the days of television.
Presidents must choose their words carefully, so “responses to
questions are often not very enlightening.”

5. Because presidents are in control, they
can evade tough questions or, conversely, call on a friendly
reporter for a “soft” question. The authors quote a scholarly
study of press conferences between 1961 and 1975, which found that
there were “only two occasions in fifteen years when the number of
hostile questions asked by reporters at any press conference
exceeded three.”

The advent of television has further increased
the potential for distortion, since a president’s physical
attractiveness, delivery and flair for the dramatic may leave more of
an impression on the public’s mind than the substance of his

Discussion Questions

1. Does the desire of American newspapers to be
“objective” prevent hard questions from being asked? Is political
debate in the United States less informed for this reason?

2. Does a popular press pander to the lowest
common denominator of interest and taste?

3. Explain how the localism and decentralized
qualities of the American news media contribute to the promotion of

4. The media have much freedom in the selection
and publication of material in the United States. hould the
government have intervened to prevent publication? What standards
should be used in determining when information can be kept from
publication? Should a government agency like the FCC be established
to regulate the press?

5. Freedom of press has greater First Amendment
protection than freedom of broadcasting. To illustrate, cigarette
advertisements are forbidden on radio and television but not in
newspapers and magazines. Are the two forms of media so different to
justify this disparity in treatment? How so? Doesn’t the
decentralization of the broadcast media make enforcement more

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