American Government Lecture Seven
Seventh Lecture – The Media
“The media” is probably the most important aspect of political strategy. Voters do not meet candidates personally, and must decide based on how the candidates reach them through the media. The winners of elections are often those who use the media more effectively than opponents.
It is also essential to understand how the influence of the media changes over time. History courses should spend more time on the media than they do; debates about the future should also focus on ways that media influence will change.
What is the Media?
When you want to learn what top officials in the federal government have done recently, then you turn to “the media” for the answer. You are not able to call President Bush and ask him what he is doing. You have to rely on others telling you what he is up to.
Why doesn’t President Bush just tell us directly? He could go on television every day and give us information directly, so that we can avoid distortions (“spin”) when others relay the information. Some politicians act in this manner. Rudy Giuliani, when he was mayor of New York, held news conferences every day to tell the public what he was doing.
However, there are drawbacks to Mayor Giuliani’s approach. First, it consumes a large percentage of time, when he could be doing more important things. If an official is talking to the press, then it’s time away from accomplishing something more meaningful. Terrorism is an example where we might prefer less talk and more action. An official who spent every day talking about terrorism would probably be hurting our economy and encouraging more attacks. It would be preferable for an official to prevent terrorism rather than talk about it.
Second, no one expects an official to tell the public all that he is really doing. Some activities would relate to secret operations against foreign enemies, and few would favor full public disclosure of that. Nor would we expect a politician to admit all his mistakes, and give his opponent ammunition to criticize him. So even if an official spent all day on television, we would still need to look to other sources of information to find the truth.
The media serves that need. When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, newspapers brought all the details to a shocked public. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 22, 1963, television immediately broadcast the news to a distraught nation. JFK’s assassin was then himself murdered on live television.
Television in the 1960s through 1980s
Radio had been very important during the Great Depression and World War II, but it faded in importance as television rose to popularity. By the late 1960s and through the 1980s, television enjoyed more power in influencing the public than all other media combined. Most Americans felt that if something was on TV, then it must be true.
With its enormous power, however, came gradual bias. Network television was not content simply to report to the public. It increasingly wanted to influence the public, and shape its views. It wanted to become more powerful than even the president.
By the late 1960s, the Vietnam War was raging in Southeast Asia and college protests were prominent in America. The media began covering the war as no other war had been seen before. Goring and disturbing pictures of violence and death on the battlefield were piped into millions of American homes. Public opinion shifted because of it.
President Johnson lost his popularity and could not be reelected in 1968, and Richard Nixon won the White House. He knew the power of television, having used it to his advantage in addressing allegations against him in his Checkers speech in 1952. In 1960, Richard Nixon lost his presidential race to JFK largely because JFK looked better in the televised presidential debates.
By 1973, it was time for television to beat Richard Nixon again. Congress instituted hearings about the Watergate scandal, and daily televised coverage gradually turned the public against Richard Nixon. Hours and hours of televised coverage featuring critics of President Nixon eventually forced him to resign. Television proved that it had the power to cause the first presidential resignation in history.
But from the ashes rose a politician who was masterful at communicating his message over television: Ronald Reagan. A former actor, he perfected the art of using short statements (“sound bites”) that could be easily understood in a televised broadcast. He also looked youthful and sincere on television, and his years of experience before cameras served him well. He rode television to the White House 1980 and a landslide reelection in 1984.
While Richard Nixon had been beaten by television in the presidential debates in 1960, Ronald Reagan delivered an unforgivable performance in the final televised presidential debate against his 1984 opponent, Walter Mondale. Ronald Reagan turned every tough question, like a difficult baseball pitch, into his own home run. Asked how he could expect to serve as president at such an old age, Ronald Reagan simply joked that he would not use his opponent’s youthful inexperience against him. Told that he more time to add to his answer, Ronald Reagan said he had nothing further to add to his quip.
Even when Ronald Reagan misjudged his time in his closing remarks, causing the moderator to interrupt him and tell him to stop, Ronald Reagan even used his gaffe in his favor. When another president would likely have insisted on continuing to talk, Ronald Reagan politely thanked the moderator and abided by the rules. Here was a president who was not greedy for control, and played by the rules.
Walter Mondale, like Richard Nixon in 1960, blamed television itself for his loss. Walter Mondale said he never liked the television camera, and never related well to it. In 2002, Walter Mondale was beaten again as he attempted a comeback to become senator of Minnesota.
Some in television still hold a grudge against Ronald Reagan, however. In about a month, CBS will air a “docu-drama” designed to embarrass him with distortions and outright lies. Protests and perhaps a boycott of advertisers are expected from those who support him.
As important as television has been, newspapers remain enormously influential. They were a big cause for the Spanish-American War, and have played a key role in every war ever since. Television news producers look at newspapers to decide what stories to cover and run.
The major newspapers are overwhelming liberal. The only conservative papers in the country are the New York Post, the New York Sun, the Washington Times, and small-town papers. In New Jersey, every single major newspaper endorsed Democrat Jim McGreevey for governor. And he used those endorsements to his great advantage in his campaign ads.
However, the influence of newspapers has been declining. With each passing year, fewer people subscribe to newspapers. In old days, the family breakfast at home with the paper has been replaced with more a less structured schedule. The availability of instantaneous, in-depth news over the internet lessens the demand for newspapers. Why not obtain up-to-date news when you want it, rather than read stale news in the papers?
Prominent newspapers, like the New York Times, are also notorious in filtering news rather than reporting it. “All the News that’s Fit to Print” is the slogan of the NY Times, but in fact it carefully screens news from its subscribers. Its front page will feature stories that are days or weeks old, delayed or even rejected to created a political balance desired by the editors.
Stories about how guns have stopped crime and saved lives, for example, are unlikely ever to appear in major newspapers. Fallacies in theories of evolution or population control or other icons of humanism are screened from major newspapers.
Abortion is an issue subjected to tremendous bias in newspapers and most television programs. Nearly ever single study analyzing abortion has shown it to cause breast cancer, yet that story is withheld by the media. Most in the public, even people who think they are educated, are completely unaware of it.
Newspapers print letters to the editor, though some are careful not to print anything too conservative or embarrassing to the paper. The NY Times is notorious for screening any letters that discredit its own views.
The Rise of Radio
Television reigned supreme for several decades, and by the 1980s had completely eclipsed radio in influence. Most news radio stations had been replaced by sports or rock music. Many were losing money. Some Christian radio stations could be found in the South.
A fellow by the name of Rush Limbaugh, originally from Missouri, had a popular talk show in Florida. He advocated conservative principles in an entertaining manner, frequently mocking his liberal opponents.
Slowly he garnered national attention, and moved his show to New York City. From there, he began to “syndicate” by making his daily talk show available to any station nationwide. In some cities, stations signed up immediately, while others (like Washington, D.C.) initially did not have any stations willing to carry Limbaugh’s conservation message.
But he caught on like wildfire, and by 1992 had an enormous audience. He was considered influential in causing the conservative political victories in 1994, and again in 2000 and 2002. By now, he has many conservative imitators competing against him in certain cities. Sean Hannity and others have similar shows now.
In the process, radio grew immensely in popularity. It is, once again, a major political force.
Ronald Reagan, though a master of television, was pleased by the reemergence of radio. Much of Reagan’s early work was on radio. In fact, he began his career as a baseball announcer over radio. As president, he instituted the weekly Saturday radio address that has been imitated by every president since.
It was, in fact, President Reagan who abolished the fairness doctrine. At the time, many conservatives thought the fairness doctrine was necessary to force the media to give both sides of an issue. But abolishing it allowed the rise of conservative talk radio.
It was in a radio studio before one of Reagan’s weekly addresses that he jokingly said he was bombing the communist Soviet Union. “Testing ... the bombs will be dropping in 10 seconds. “10 ... 9 ... 8 ...” His political opponents obtained a copy of the tape and criticized him harshly for the joke. However, he never backed down from his political humor.
By the late 1990s, an entirely new media emerged: the internet. Matt Drudge was an early pioneer with his “www.drudgereport.com” website. It now receives 4 million visits per day, all hungry for news information.
The internet may still be in its infancy in terms of influence. But its impact has already been immense. The impeachment of President Clinton was due entirely to the internet, as Matt Drudge published the incriminating information to the world after it had been withheld for political reasons by newspapers and television.
By the presidential election in 2000, millions of Americans were obtaining their news from the internet. Even television began taking its cue from the internet, following and repeating stories that first appeared there. When Bush and Gore held their televised presidential debates, polls indicated that almost no voters were influenced by them. Indeed, Gore apparently won the first and last debates, yet lost the election. The internet has taken hold of voters.
While conservatives greatly expanded their influence through the internet in the late 1990s, President Bush appears to be uninterested or even slightly opposed to it. He has not used it to disseminate information or raise money. Rather, President Bush has felt that controlling and withholding information is a better approach for him. Everything from Vice President Cheney’s task force on energy to memoranda connected with 9/11 have been withheld from the public, and litigation is occurring to force disclosures of that information.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is an important tool for the public to force disclosure of government documents, which can then be posted on the internet. The photographs of Vincent Foster, a top aide to President Clinton who surprisingly died in 1993, are being withheld from the government and are the subject of a case before the Supreme Court now. I filed an amicus curiae brief in the case, and media organizations later filed a brief on our side (in favor of disclosure). Oral arguments in the case will be on December 3, 2003, in Washington, D.C.
The candidate who is using the internet the most in running for president is former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. He has amazingly leapt to the head of the pack of Democratic contenders, almost entirely on the strength of his internet-based campaign. He has raised far more campaign contributions than his Democratic competitors through the internet.
Our Founders opposed political parties, feeling that they interfered with the proper operation of government. Congressmen should vote their consciences, not take orders from political bosses. Just as gangs in schools are undesirable, gangs in politics (political parties) were considered detrimental also.
Alexander Hamilton had to start a political party in the first Administration of President George Washington, in order to obtain passage of their economic program in Congress. Party organization seemed to be necessary to bring order to the chaos of many congressmen, senators, and other officials. If everyone thought for himself, then how can anything be accomplished?
Today, political parties are an antidote to the media, a check and balance against the power of the media. The media wanted John McCain to be the Republican nominee for president in 2000. But the Republican Party favored George W. Bush. Guess who won? The political party won.
Only rarely does a candidate win election when he is not favored by his own political party. Arnold Schwarzenegger took advantage of the recall system in California to bypass any party nomination process and win the governorship of California in his first run. The former Republican Party chairman had never even met him. Schwarzenegger simply listed his name with over 100 others, and put “Republican” next to it. That’s not how the system usually works.
Instead, candidates can typically become serious contenders for high public office only after winning the endorsement of a major political party, Democratic or Republican. Only very rarely does a third-party candidate, such as former Governor Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, win high office.
- What role will the internet play in the 2008 election?
- Which part of the media is growing in strength?
- Is the overall influence of television on politics good or bad?
- Do you favor or oppose the power of political parties?