Chapter 12

The Media
This chapter examines the historical evolution and present status of relations between the government
and the news media. After reading and reviewing the material in this chapter, the student should be able
to do each of the following:
Describe the evolution of journalism in U.S. political history and indicate the differences between
the party press and the mass media of today.
Demonstrate how the characteristics of the electronic media have affected the actions of public
officials and candidates for national office.
Describe the impact of the pattern of ownership and control of the media on the dissemination of
news. Show how wire services and TV networks have affected national news coverage. Discuss
the impact of the national press.
Discuss the issue of media bias and how this bias might manifest itself. Assess the impact of such
bias on the electorate.
Assess the impact of the media on public opinion and on the functioning of government
institutions. Explain why a free press is a critical component of the American democratic system
of government.
Changes in American politics have been accompanied by—and influenced by—changes in the mass
media. The rise of strong national political party organizations was facilitated by the emergence of
mass-circulation daily newspapers. Political reform movements depended in part on the development of
national magazines catering to middle-class opinion. The weakening of political parties was accelerated
by the ability of candidates to speak directly to constituents via radio and television.
The role of journalists in a democratic society poses an inevitable dilemma: If they are to serve well as
information gatherers, gatekeepers, scorekeepers, and watchdogs, they must be free of government
controls. But to the extent that they are free of such controls, they are also free to act in their own
political or economic interests. In the United States, a competitive press largely free of government
controls has contributed to a substantial diversity of opinion and a general (though not unanimous)
commitment to the goal of fairness in news reporting. The national media are in general more liberal
than the local media, but the extent to which a reporter’s beliefs affect reporting varies greatly with the
kind of story—routine, feature, or insider.
Journalism in American political history (THEME A: THE HISTORY AND STRUCTURE OF
A. Changing media technology
1. New Media: television, Internet; Old Media: newspapers, magazines
a) The New Media that are challenging the Old Media
Chapter 12: The Media
More television viewers than newspaper readers
More people read web log (blog) postings than read magazine articles
Bloggers showed evidence that CBS documents incriminating President
George W. Bush were forgeries
(4) In 2008, 80 percent of those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine
used the Internet. Fifty percent of that group used it to get news about the
election and participate in the process. Internet is the primary source as
news. Only one-third of young people read newspapers.
B. In Europe, the relationship between government and the media is governed by stricter
regulation of the media by government than the same relationships in the U. S. between
government and the media.
1. Laws governing libel are stricter in Great Britain than those in the United States.
2. Britain also has the Official Secrets Act, which makes it illegal to leak information.
3. European governments have imprisoned people for publicizing false information or
writing offensive articles.
4. Long tradition of private media ownership in United States
a) Radio and television stations require FCC licenses.
b) Potential limits to freedom of privately owned newspapers and broadcast stations:
(1) Profit driven: may need to distort the news to build an audience or satisfy
(2) Media bias: reporters and editors may present only one side of a story
5 The effect of the Internet
a) In 2008, one-third of all Americans watched on-line videos related to the
b) One in ten donated money via the Internet.
c) Challenges to controversial political statements are almost instantaneous.
d) It is noteworthy that one-third of Internet users question its trustworthiness. They
believe that it is full of misinformation and is dominated by political extremists.
C. The Media and Politics
1. The relationship between politicians and the media remains an adversarial one
characterized by mutual mistrust. Both parties in the relationship attempt to manipulate the
process for their own ends.
a) Politicians want the media to support their positions.
b) The media, motivated by controversy, seek to discover problems with the positions
of politicians.
c) Politicians attempt to use the internet to appeal directly to the public. Their efforts
are balanced by their political opponents, who also use the Internet to reach the
public directly.
d) The government can exercise very little control over the media.
D. The party press
1. Parties created, subsidized, and controlled various newspapers.
2. Possible because circulation small, subscriptions expensive
3. Newspapers circulated among political and commercial elites.
4. Government often subsidized the president’s party press.
E. The popular press
1. Changes in society and technology made possible self-supporting, mass readership
daily newspapers.
a) High-speed press
b) Telegraph gave local papers greater access to news.
c) Associated Press established 1848; objective reporting and systematic
distribution of information
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Urbanization concentrated population to support papers, advertisers.
Government Printing Office established 1860—end of most printing contracts to
Washington newspapers
2. Partisanship in mass-readership newspapers reflected the views of publishers and
a) Convictions blended political beliefs with economic interest.
b) Used sensationalism and exposés to attract large readership
c) Publishers’ influence in steering public opinion became powerful political force.
3. Established the feasibility of a press independent of government, demonstrating that
there was profit to be made in criticizing government policies
F. Magazines of opinion
1. Middle class favored new, progressive periodicals.
a) Nation, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s began in 1850s and 1860s.
b) McClure’s, Scribner’s, Cosmopolitan arose later.
2. Individual writers gained national followings through investigative reporting.
3. Number of competing newspapers declined, reducing the need for sensationalism to
sell papers
4. Readers were also becoming more educated and sophisticated.
5. Today, national magazines focused on politics account for a small and declining
fraction of magazines.
G. Electronic journalism
1. Radio arrives in 1920s, television in the late 1940s
2. Politicians could address voters directly, but people could easily ignore them.
3. Fewer politicians could be covered by these media than by newspapers.
a) President routinely covered
b) Others must be controversial or have a national reputation or buy time
4. Shorter sound bites on the nightly news make it more difficult for candidates and
officeholders to convey their messages.
5. Politicians now have more sources—cable, early-morning news, news magazine
shows. Many of these new sources feature lengthy interviews.
6. Politicians continue to seek the media spotlight even after they are elected.
H. The Internet
1. Increasingly important: 50 percent of American households have access to the Internet.
2. Free market in political news: from newspaper/magazine stories to blogs to gossip
3. Playing a larger role in politics
a) In 2004, most of Howard Dean’s money was raised through Internet appeals.
b) Every candidate now has a web site.
4. Facilitates communication between voters and political activists
Some analysts fear the Internet may promote isolation within the public and may
contribute to the promotion of extreme opinions.
a) Stanford and Carnegie Mellon studies support this conclusion.
b) A UCLA study found the opposite effect. Users of the internet also tend to consult
newspapers and magazines and contact others by telephone.
6. The Internet has significantly affected politics. It has been used to:
a) Raise money.
b) Organize people to attend meetings.
c) Sample public opinion
d) Air criticism of opponents
e) Target likely supporters to work on campaigns
The structure of the media
A. Degree of competition
Chapter 12: The Media
a) Number of daily newspapers has declined significantly.
b) Number of cities with multiple papers has declined.
(1) Sixty percent of cities had competing newspapers in 1900.
(2) Four percent in 1972
(3) In some cities, Joint Operating Agreements (JOAs) merge business
operations of two papers, supposedly preserving editorial independence.
c) Subscription rates have fallen, however, as most people get their news from
d) Young people have turned away from political news altogether.
2. Radio and television are intensely competitive and becoming more so.
3. U.S. press is composed mostly of locally owned and managed enterprises, unlike in
a) Oriented to local market
b) FCC regulations dispersed ownership
B. The national media
1. Existence somewhat offsets local orientation
2. Consists of:
a) Wire services (AP, UPI)
b) National magazines
c) Television network evening news broadcasts
e) Newspapers with national readerships (New York Times, Wall Street Journal,
USA Today, Washington Post)
3. Significance of a national press
a) Newspapers have a large readership.
b) Political elites follow them closely.
c) Radio and television stations often decide what to broadcast by looking at the
national press.
d) National reporters and editors are distinctive from those in the local press.
(1) Better paid
(2) From more prestigious universities
(3) More liberal outlook
(4) Do investigative or interpretive stories
4. Roles played by the national press: (THEME B: MEDIA SELECTION AND BIAS IN
a) Gatekeeper: influences what subjects become national political issues and for
how long
b) Scorekeeper: tracks political reputations and candidacies
(1) Elections are covered like horse races rather than as choices among policy
(2) Media momentum during the presidential primary season is crucial
c) Watchdog: investigate personalities and expose scandals
A. Protections for print media
1. Newspapers are almost entirely free from government regulation.
a) Prosecutions only after the fact—no prior restraint
b) After publication, plaintiffs can sue only for libel, obscenity, incitement to illegal
c) Each of these conditions has been defined narrowly by the courts to enhance the
freedom of the press.
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Confidentiality of sources
a) Reporters want right to keep sources confidential.
b) Most states and federal government disagree.
c) Supreme Court allows the government to compel reporters to divulge information
in court if it bears on a crime.
Regulating broadcasting
1. FCC licensing
a) Seven years for radio license renewal
b) Five years for television license renewal
c) Stations must serve “community needs”
2. Recent movement to deregulate
a) License renewal by postcard
b) No hearing unless opposed
c) Relaxation of some rule enforcement
d) Radio has been the most deregulated regarding both ownership and content.
3. Other radio and television regulations
a) Fairness doctrine abolished; has permitted the rise of controversial talk shows.
b) Equal time rule still in effect; stations that sell advertising time to one candidate
must sell equal time to opponent.
1. Equal-time rule applies
a) Equal access for all candidates
b) Rates no higher than the cheapest commercial rate
Debates formerly had to include all candidates.
(1) Therefore, Reagan-Carter debate had to be sponsored by LWV
(2) Now stations and networks can sponsor debates limited to major candidates.
2. Not all candidates use TV because its efficiency in reaching voters varies.
a) Works well only when the market and the district overlap
b) More Senate than House candidates buy television time
3. Scholars are concerned about horse-race journalism.
a) Focus is on which candidate is leading in the campaign rather than on a discussion
of issues within the campaign.
b) In 2008, the media focus was on the narrow nomination fight between Hillary
Clinton and Barack Obama rather than on the varying positions of the respective
candidates on issues.
IV. Are the national media biased?
A. What are the views of members of the national media?
1. Great majority is more liberal than the average citizen
2. Majority is also more secular
3. Conservative media outlets have become more visible in recent years.
a) Desire for big audience ratings; more self-described conservatives than liberals
b) Conservative listeners do not think their views are reflected in big-city media.
c) Liberal audience divided into distinctive racial and ethnic groups that have their
own outlets (e.g., Hispanics listen to Spanish broadcasts).
B. Do the beliefs of the national media affect how they report the news?
1. Journalistic philosophy is that the news should be neutral and objective.
a) Does not apply to editorials
b) Does not apply to talk radio
2. Hard to measure whether commitment to objectivity is actually achieved.
3. News stories differ in opportunity for bias.
Chapter 12: The Media
Does what the media write or say influence how their readers and viewers think?
1. Selective attention: people remember or believe only what they want to.
2. Results of studies examining influence of politics on voting behavior:
a) Newspapers that endorsed incumbents gave them more positive coverage, and
voters had more positive feelings about endorsed incumbents than ones that were
not endorsed.
b) FOX News coverage linked to 3–8 percent increase in Republican vote for
George W. Bush.
c) Washington Post readership linked to increased Democratic support for Virginia
d) Public’s view of policy questions influenced by media coverage.
3. Personal knowledge or experience about a topic mitigates media influence.
Routine stories cover major political events; involve relatively simple matters
with little room for bias
b) Feature stories cover public events that are not routinely covered by the press;
easier to reflect journalistic or editorial biases.
c) Insider stories cover things that are often secret; also easier to reflect journalistic
or editorial biases
Feature and insider stories became more important to newspapers when radio and
television began to cover routine stories.
Studies that look at bias
a) New York Times and Washington Post are more likely to call conservatives
“conservative” than to call liberals “liberal.”
b) Time and Newsweek tended to avoid quoting nuclear scientists and engineers
because they favored nuclear power and the magazines opposed it .
c) Economic headlines tend to have a more positive spin when Democratic
president is in office.
d) Public editor of New York Times admits the paper is liberal.
Ideology of owners (of newspapers) doesn’t correlate with the political slant of
newspaper coverage. Bias tends to reflect the political views of the paper’s readers.
Candidates believe the media are important.
a) Estes Kefauver made strong bid for presidential nomination in 1952 after
chairing televised organized-crime hearings.
b) Sometimes bid for media presence backfires: Howard Dean in 2004.
c) LBJ decided Vietnam was a lost cause after Walter Cronkite turned against the
Government and the news
A. Prominence of the president
1. Theodore Roosevelt: systematic cultivation of the press became an art form.
2. Franklin Roosevelt: press secretary cultivated, managed, informed the press.
3. Press secretary today: large staff, performing many functions focused on White House
press corps
B. Coverage of Congress
1. Never equal to that of president; members resentful
2. House quite restrictive in the past
a) No cameras on the floor until 1978
b) Gavel-to-gavel coverage of proceedings since 1979 (C-SPAN)
3. Senate more open
a) Hearings since Kefauver (1950) have frequently been broadcast
Chapter 12: The Media
TV coverage of sessions initiated by C-SPAN in 1986.
Senatorial use of televised committee hearings has turned the Senate into a
presidential candidate incubator.
Why are there so many news leaks?
1. Constitution: separation of powers
a) Power is decentralized
b) Branches of government compete; press is a weapon in the competition.
c) Not illegal to print most secrets.
2. Adversarial press since Vietnam War, Watergate and Iran-contra scandals
a) Press and politicians distrust each other.
b) A more suspicious, cynical, and adversarial press
(1) Attack journalism: seizing on any bit of information or rumor that might
call into question the qualifications or character of a public official
(2) Most people do not like this kind of news; cynicism about government
mirrors public’s increasing cynicism about media.
Sensationalism in the media
1. Intense competition among many media outlets means that each has a small share of
the audience.
2. Sensationalism draws an audience and is cheaper than investigative reporting.
3. Reporters, meanwhile, may not be checking sources carefully because of pressure to
break news stories first.
4. Public trust of news media increased somewhat after attacks of 9/11, but now public
distrust in accuracy of news media has reached record highs.
Government constraints on journalists
1. Reporters must strike a balance between two competing factors:
a) Expressing critical views, which may alienate sources
b) Retaining sources, and becoming their mouthpiece
2. Abundance of congressional staffers makes it easier, because sources are more
3. Governmental tools to fight back
a) Numerous press officers in legislative and executive branches
b) Press releases—canned news
c) Leaks and background stories to favorite reporters
(1) On the record: reporter can quote official by name
(2) Off the record: what the official says cannot be used
(3) On background: information can be used, but not attributed to source by
(4) On deep background: information can be used, but not attributed to
anybody, including an anonymous source
d) Bypass national press in favor of local press
e) Presidential rewards and punishments for reporters on basis of their stories
The Media
The Internet is becoming a primary source of news and political information for many citizens. A
selection of web addresses for major news outlets (newspapers and newsmagazines, network and cable
television) is provided below.
ABC News:
Chapter 12: The Media
CBS News:
Christian Science Monitor:
FOX News:
Los Angeles Times: /
New York Times:
USA Today:
US News & World Report:
Wall Street Journal:
Washington Post:
Other Resources
Accuracy in Media:
Columbia Journalism Review (periodical):
Daily Kos:
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting:
Media Research Center:
Pew Research Center for the People and the Press:
Power Line:
Pulitzer Prize:
Real Clear Politics:
How informative is the news? Tape one broadcast of the nightly news, either national or local, and ask
students to assess its format and content. Give consideration to tone as well, because news anchors are
often perceived as appealing to different audiences. Encourage students to determine whether there are
differences between network and cable coverage, as well as print, broadcast, and Internet formats.
What is the “news”? The quest for higher ratings has blurred the line between news and entertainment.
Ask students to review for one week the content of news stories featured on network programs, cable
shows, and Internet news sites. Have them document whether leading stories involve political affairs,
entertainment or celebrity gossip, or human interest tales. Using the information on sensationalism
discussed in this chapter, have the students evaluate whether the bulk of information that passes for
news is really news at all.
Are journalists politically biased? Journalists are popularly perceived as liberal, with expectations
that their coverage and analysis will be correspondingly skewed. Ask students to study a variety of
news outlets for evidence of bias by evaluating the framing of stories and the type of coverage. In their
Chapter 12: The Media
analysis of framing, students can look for reporting bias by comparing, among other things, headlines
and bylines, adjectives used to describe people and events, and authoritative sources used to support the
stories. In their evaluation of news coverage, students can look for editorial biases by examining story
placement and depth of analysis. For example, they can examine where in the publication the story was
placed (such as top or bottom of the web page, or above the newspaper “fold” or at the back of the front
page section). They can also evaluate whether the story received in-depth coverage (several columns),
superficial coverage (a few paragraphs), or scant coverage (a few lines).
adversarial press
The tendency of the national media to be suspicious of officials and
eager to reveal unflattering stories about them
A public official’s statement to a reporter that is given on condition that
the official not be named
Series, or log, of discussion items on a page of the World Wide Web
equal time rule
An FCC rule that if a broadcaster sells time to one candidate, it must
sell equal time to other candidates
feature story
Media story about events that, though public, are not regularly covered
by reporters
horse-race journalism
News coverage that emphasizes who is ahead rather than the issues
insider story
Media story about events that are not usually made public
loaded language
Words that imply a value judgment; used to persuade a reader without
having made a serious argument
routine story
Media story about events that are regularly covered by reporters
selective attention
Paying attention only to those news stories with which one already
sound bite
A radio or video clip, usually brief, of someone speaking
trial balloon
Information leaked to the media to test public reaction to a possible
Instructor Resources
R. Douglas Arnold. Congress, the Press, and Political Accountability. New York: Russell Sage
Foundation, 2004.
Steve Michael Barkin. American Television News: The Media Marketplace and the Public Interest.
Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2003.
Gerald R. Baron. Now Is Too Late: Survival in the Era of Instant News. Upper Saddle River, NJ:
Financial Times/Prentice-Hall, 2003.
Maurine Hoffman Beasley. First Ladies and the Press: The Unfinished Partnership of the Media Age.
Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2005.
Chapter 12: The Media
Ronald V. Bettig and Jeanne Lynn Hall. Big Media, Big Money: Cultural Texts and Political
Economics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
Karen Callaghan and Frauke Schnell, eds. Framing American Politics. Pittsburgh: University of
Pittsburgh Press, 2005.
Stephen D. Cooper. Watching the Watchdog: Bloggers as the Fifth Estate. Spokane: Marquette Books,
Leonard Downie, Jr., and Robert G. Kaiser. The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril.
New York: Knopf, 2002.
James M. Fallows. Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine America Democracy. New York:
Vintage Books, 1997.
Stephen J. Farnsworth and S. Robert Lichter. The Nightly News Nightmare: Network Television’s
Coverage of U.S. Presidential Elections, 1988–2004. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield
Publishers, 2007.
Geneva Overholser and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, eds. The Press. New York: Oxford University Press,
Helen Thomas. Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has
Failed the Public. New York: Scribner, 2006.
Jim Willis. The Media Effect: How the News Influences Politics and Government. Westport, CT:
Praeger, 2007.
Changes in the organization and technology of the press have brought major changes in the
organization of United States 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 circulation, and the
invention of the rotary press made producing papers cheap and quick. In order to attract large numbers
of subscribers, newspapers—under the leadership of men such as Joseph Pulitzer and William
Randolph Hearst—stressed violence, romance, and patriotism, and exposed wrongdoing in business and
government. Mass-circulation newspapers 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, however, and
became 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, placed great stress on the personal
characteristics of politicians—whether they were attractive, spoke well, or behaved in a manner
sufficiently colorful to justify inclusion in newscasts that had to hold audience attention.
In the contemporary media era, the media’s structure is characterized by (1) a decline in the number of
cities that have competing newspapers; (2) an orientation to the local market; (3) a decentralized
broadcasting industry; (4) a dramatic increase in the number of national network, cable, and radio
outlets covering news events; (5) numerous news magazines and newspapers providing in-depth
political coverage, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal; and
(6) a rapidly expanding Internet.
Chapter 12: The Media
Discussion Questions
Compare the historical party press with the media of today. Is Americans’ confidence in the media
higher today because outlets are not officially tied to political parties? Should the press remain
impartial? Should journalists try to maintain an objective position? Why or why not?
Does a popular press pander to the lowest common denominator of interest and taste?
Explain the structure of the media before and after the Internet revolution. What has changed?
What has remained the same? Is media coverage of political events better thanks to the Internet?
Or do you think the influence of blogs and the proliferation of web news sources have degraded
the quality of news coverage? What might the implications be for government leaders? For
democracy in general?
Instructor Resources
Eric Alterman. What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News. New York: Basic Books,
Gail Dines. Gender, Race, and Class in Media. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002.
Robert H. Giles and Robert W. Snyder, eds. What’s Next: Problems and Prospects of Journalism. New
Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2001.
Bernard Goldberg. Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News. Washington, D.C.:
Regnery Publishers, 2001.
Stuart Kallen, ed. Media Bias. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2004.
Jim A. Kuypers. Press Bias and Politics: How the Media Frame Controversial Issues. Westport, CT:
Praeger, 2002.
Patricia Moy and Michael Pfau. With Malice Toward All? The Media and Public Confidence in
Democratic Institutions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000.
Pippa Norris, Marion R. Just, and Montague Kern, eds. Framing Terrorism: The News Media, the
Government, and the Public. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Paul Ruschmann, Media Bias. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2006.
Larry J. Sabato, Mark Stencel, and S. Robert Lichter. Peep Show: Media and Politics in an Age of
Scandal. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.
William David Sloan and Jenn Burleson Mackay, eds. Media Bias: Finding It, Fixing It. Jefferson, NC:
McFarland & Co., 2007.
Jan P. Vermeer. The View from Local Newspapers: Editorials and National Politics. Lanham, MD:
Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.
Most journalists, policy makers, and members of the public agree that the news media have a great deal
of influence over political opinion. Many also believe that the personal biases of journalists and editors
affect their coverage of news stories. Although the national press is staffed by people who are more
liberal—and more secular—than the public as a whole, it is not clear that reporters’ personal opinions
significantly affect media coverage of political events. In routine stories, journalists have little
opportunity to insert bias, since these events are covered by many reporters and involve relatively
Chapter 12: The Media
simple matters. However, in feature and investigative stories, reporters have more flexibility in shaping
their stories, which increases the possibility that bias might be introduced. Furthermore, editorial
decisions about whether to run a story and how much attention to give it can steer public opinion in one
direction or another. Even if news media professionals believe that they are keeping their personal
opinions from influencing their coverage of political stories, the public believes otherwise.
Consequently, the public’s desire for alternative points of view has led to an increase in media outlets
featuring a more conservative perspective.
In addition to exerting influence over public opinion, the national media also have a great deal of power
over the functioning of American political institutions and the tenure of elected officials. As
gatekeepers, the media pass judgment on what subjects become national issues and for how long; as
scorekeepers, they track (and make) political reputations; and as watchdogs, they expose scandals and
investigate allegations of wrongdoing. However, in the aftermath of Vietnam, Watergate, and Irancontra, the news media have become increasingly adversarial and suspicious of government leaders.
This distrust, along with pressure for ratings and a desire for personal prominence, has led to attack
journalism, wherein reporters seize upon any bit of information or rumor that might call into question
the qualifications or character of a public official. This has led to shoddy fact checking by some
journalists and decreased public confidence in the quality and objectivity of the news media.
Discussion Questions
How might a reporter’s personal bias affect his or her coverage of the news? How, for example,
might a reporter slant a story about each the following: a congressional ethics probe; a report on
unemployment; an update on the violence in Iraq? How might an editor’s bias also affect the
presentation of these stories?
What are some recent examples of the media’s role as watchdog? Is the watchdog function ever
exercised in a biased way? If so, how?
What type of news stories seem to be routinely covered by media outlets? Do the stories seem to
reflect a similar theme or political agenda? Are there any political issues that you consider to be
important that are superficially covered or not covered at all by the national media? If so, what
might be the explanation for this omission?
On what sorts of issues would we expect the media to have the most impact—whether in setting
the agenda, shaping attitudes, or determining how politics is conducted? Would we expect the
media to have greater influence on:
Domestic issues or foreign-policy issues?
Issues on which the parties have traditional positions or issues that cut across party lines?
New issues or old issues?
National issues or local issues?
Socially divisive issues (such as culture war issues), or majoritarian issues (such as
corruption or the economy), on which almost all Americans share similar notions of what is
right but are not sure which policy or candidate can achieve it?
Young people or old people?
People much exposed to the media, or people little exposed to the media?
Chapter 12: The Media
Instructor Resources
Susan L. Brinson. The Red Scare, Politics, and the Federal Communications Commission, 1941–1960.
Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.
Marjorie Cohn and David Dow. Cameras in the Courtroom: Television and the Pursuit of Justice.
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.
Harold W. Furchtgott-Roth. A Tough Act to Follow? The Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the
Separation of Powers. Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 2006.
Robert W. McChesney, Russell Newman, and Ben Scott, eds. The Future of Media: Resistance and
Reform in the 21st Century. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005.
Andy Opel. Micro Radio and the FCC: Media Activism and the Struggle over Broadcast Policy.
Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.
Paul Seabright and Jurgen von Hagen, eds. The Economic Regulation of Broadcasting Markets:
Evolving Technology and Challenges for Policy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Laura L. Stein. Speech Rights in America: The First Amendment, Democracy, and the Media. Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 2006.
Kimberly Zarkin and Michael J. Zarkin. The Federal Communications Commission: Front Line in the
Culture and Regulation Wars. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.
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 in the United States. 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 some governmental restraints on what the American media can print or broadcast, however.
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.
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.
Incitement. Media may not directly incite someone to commit an illegal act. However, the mere
advocacy of, for example, the violent overthrow of the government is protected under the First
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, that is, government action to prevent the publication of the material.
Given the weakness of government controls on the media, it is not surprising that officials try to
manipulate the media in other ways. Government officials may reward favored reporters by providing
them with background stories or insider information. Reporters who publish embarrassing stories,
however, might be reprimanded in private (a technique used by presidents Kennedy and Johnson) or
attacked publicly (favored by President Nixon). Nonetheless, such responses are rarely effective in
Chapter 12: The Media
deterring journalistic attacks on public figures. Instead, they seem only to exacerbate the adversarial
relationship between the two.
Discussion Questions
In 2006, the New York Times published information about an ongoing undercover operation
designed to root out terror cells in the United States. Some applauded the decision, but others
declared the editorial decision “treasonous.” Should the government have petitioned the federal
courts to prevent the publication of this information? Should government operations—especially
those involving issues of national security—always be off limits? Or should there be different
constitutional standards for times of peace and times of war?
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 as to justify a different constitutional
standard? Does the decentralization of the broadcast media make enforcement more difficult?