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Founding Principles: American Governance in Theory and Action (Chapter 7--The Media)

12 minutes

Hi, I'm Andy Rudalevige-- Professor of Government at Bowdoin College. Welcome back to beautiful Brunswick, Maine, to Bowdoin's co-quad, and to Founding Principles. We pick up with one of the key connections between Americans and their government--the media. The principle of a free press is embedded in the First Amendment to the Constitution. That doesn't mean we appreciate it. In 1814, Thomas Jefferson was already lamenting the good old days. "I deplore the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed," he said, "not to mention, the malignity, the vulgarity, the mendacious spirit of those who write for them." Jefferson also said this. "Were it left to me to decide "whether we should have a government without newspapers "or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." Let's see why.

A peer research study found that three-quarters of Americans think news organizations tend to favor one side or the other. In this sense, we've gone back to the future. Most early newspapers in the U.S. were overtly partisan-- operated, in fact, by the political parties themselves. If you were a Federalist, you read a Federalist paper, denouncing the evils of Thomas Jefferson-- one reason Jefferson hated the press, in practice not theory. His papers replied very much in kind, attacking Alexander Hamilton and John Adams instead. The rise of the penny press in the 1830s-- newspapers selling for a penny-- marked the birth of mass media in America-- affordable and technologically capable of reaching most of the population, especially after the invention of the telegraph. As urban centers grew, newspaper advertising grew too. After the Civil War, the press became more independent of political parties, because they could, literally, afford to be. But it's hard to argue that better newspapers resulted immediately. The emphasis in the late 1800s was clearly on sensationalism. The penny press became the yellow press, so-called because they used color for the comics; also in reference to their florid tabloid coverage of major events. The never fully explained explosion that sank the USS Maine in February 1898-- killing 260 American sailors in Havana Harbor-- became a cause for war fever in the press. The headlines accused the Spanish government of cold-blooded murder. They shouted... By April of that year, the Spanish-American War was underway. Even so, a serious profession of independent journalism was on the rise. The early 20th century brought a series of national magazines devoted to discussing public policy-- vehicles for the Progressive Era reformers, often called muckrakers, like Upton Sinclair and Lincoln Steffens. At the same time, newspapers began to consolidate down to two or three in most cities-- reducing the need for competitive sensationalism to attract a readership. Until about 1925, there was a sort of golden age for newspapers. They held a de facto monopoly over mass communications. But that ended as technology changed. First came radio, and very quickly it was in most American homes. Then, of course, came television. By 1955, about half of all households had a TV. Five years later, by 1960, closer to 90%. It's 99% plus these days. The average household has just under three sets-- more than the number of people in that average household. In the 1970s, cable television systems began to expand, ushering in... ...and now, of course, streaming, webcasting, and social media channels. A Nielsen study in 2015 showed Americans were watching electronic media for something like 11 hours a day, about half of which was TV and streaming video. So we love our screens. How much power do they have and what kind? Early studies, starting with research on radio and fascism, were actually pretty dismissive. Their conclusion was one of minimal effects. People were receptive to what they already believed but screened out what they didn't. But as advertising grew gradually more sophisticated, shorter, more visually oriented, more appealing to the gut emotions, this thesis changed somewhat. Over time, ads reached far more people, including those not really interested in politics. Political ads don't always work. We've become more attuned to them. They have a brief impact. Studies suggest they can affect our preferences, temporarily. They affect levels of efficacy, how we feel about our ability to make a difference in public life. Negative ads can drive down voter turnout. There are at least three other ways the media can matter. The first is agenda setting. The media may not tell you what to think, but what to think about. Before things could go viral on the Internet, wall-to-wall TV coverage could affect the popular conversation and sometimes prompt politicians to act on it.

The second is called priming. Priming is about setting or changing the standards by which you evaluate a political actor or issue. Should you judge the president on domestic policy or foreign affairs, for example? By personal scandal or by their public agenda?

Third, and related, is the notion of framing, which is about how an issue is presented. Is a story about higher taxes or better services? Is it about creating jobs, harming the environment, about a sympathetic individual's struggles with poverty or a faceless group of lazy people who don't want to work? People with more information are less susceptible to these media powers, especially to agenda-setting effects. There are issues that those who are informed about public affairs know nothing about. When the problem or event is far away, beyond personal experience, media influence would be greater. It's most powerful when it's reporting on things you don't know about. So does all this lead to bias? Well, yes, but most of the time-- except for media outlets explicitly in the business of selling to a partisan audience-- it's an industrial, more than a partisan, bias. It flows from a competitive media marketplace, from business norms and tight deadlines, more than it does from the personal views of reporters or editors. There will be a bias towards stories that are short, visually striking, quick to research, easy to explain. Pretty people speaking in short sound bites. There's an emphasis on what's new and different. It is called the news, which means the bigger story... ...well sometimes gets overshadowed. It's good to have a dramatic narrative. That means the people and personalities will get more emphasis than institutional behavior or statistical analysis. That's one reason the president gets so much coverage devoted to Washington, DC. It's easier to center on one person than to explore the inner workings of 2 chambers and 535 legislators-- all of whom are funneling bills and amendments through a convoluted subcommittee structure. That's why coverage of Congress is usually of conflict, when legislators disagree with each other in dramatic oratory from the floor, perhaps. Or when they disagree with the president. Maybe a hostile oversight investigation that hauls top administration officials in front of the camera to be grilled by a fierce, but folksy, committee chair. It's nice to have a contest, heroes, and villains. So best yet is scandal, corruption, sex. Or why not, corrupt sex? This can lead to what political scientist, Larry Sabato, dubbed a feeding frenzy-- journalistic packs we've grown used to seeing camped out near their quarry. Sabato suggests the history of American political journalism can be summed up in a shift from lapdog in the pre-Watergate days, to watchdog, and now to junkyard dog.

[dog growling]

Think of the media as a mirror-- showing us to political leaders and political leaders to us. It is not quite an accurate reflection. It's like a fun house mirror-- distorted, but in a consistent way. Politicians know this; they play to it. They have a symbiotic relationship. Both need each other. Some 10,000 government officials in Washington are involved in press or public relations on a daily basis. It's an endless spin cycle. To shift cliches, many of those officials these days are preaching to the choir. There is definitely bias on the demand side of the media equation. One result of the new technologies-- we've moved from a system of broadcasting to one of narrowcasting. Back in my day-- besides having to walk to school uphill both ways and use a phone attached to a wall-- we had a limited number of TV channels. If something was going on, all would cover it. If the president was giving a speech, and you were watching TV, you were watching the president. These days, the national public is tuned into the same thing very rarely. Your niche is in the cable or online universe no matter what your interest. If you're a fan, you can find 24-hour political news. You can also easily spend those 24 hours avoiding politics altogether-- turning to a station devoted to, I don't know, bass fishing or celebrity victims of plastic surgery. As one observer put it in 2012... ...helping avoid views that don't agree with your own. This is the logical result of a consumer-driven media industry. It might be the most troubling media bias. Because when Jefferson was discussing newspapers in government, he stressed that his preference for the former hinged on the hope that... How can we debate and reach decisions about key policy questions without the basis for a common conversation about the issues that face us? The political media provides a forum for open and sometimes contentious deliberations. It keeps a watchful eye on political leaders. It allows us to hold them accountable. We might not always trust the media, but we need it. A free press is not a goal but a means to educate and edify Americans about issues-- not least, choices at the ballot box. It's time to look at that direct connection between the public and government-- the electoral process. You can fill a city with American-elected officials, though I'm not sure you'd want to. See you next time. Accessibility provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

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In this episode, Dr. Andrew Rudalevige discusses the intersection between media and politics. Through a study of foundational documents like the Constitution, specifically the 1st Amendment, students learn about the evolution of media, the impact of political ads on policy and bias in the media. He also discusses the effects of media framing, priming, and agenda setting in the shaping of American government and politics. Part of the "Founding Principles: American Governance in Theory and Action" series.

Media Details

Runtime: 12 minutes

Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 1
13 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12
Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 2
13 minutes
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Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 3
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Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 4
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Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 5
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Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 6
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Episode 7
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Episode 8
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Episode 9
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Founding Principles: American Governance in Action
Episode 10
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Grade Level: 10 - 12