Chapter Study Outline


The mass media are an unusual political institution. Although really comprising an industry that exists for communication and entertainment, the media nevertheless play important roles in monitoring the government and informing the public. As an industry, mass media organizations have found that politics is good business, while politicians have found the media a potent tool for reaching out to the mass public. The “marketplace of ideas” that is predominantly shaped by the media industry provides the backdrop and context for many of our political institutions and processes.

1. The Media as a Political Institution

How diverse is the contemporary media industry? What types of media exist and how do they differ? How is the media environment regulated by government policy and protected by the First Amendment? How might patterns of ownership of the media and the nationalization of the news affect the information American citizens receive?

  • Americans obtain their news from three main sources—broadcast media, print media, and the Internet—each of which has distinctive institutional characteristics that are consequential for the character of their coverage of politics.
    • Broadcast media—including radio and television—are among the most prevalent and powerful sources of news for Americans, though they tend to focus more on headlines than details. Television news reaches more Americans than any other news source and several cable news stations provide twenty-four-hour coverage.
    • Print media—newspapers and news magazines—remain an important source of news, particularly because leading newspapers are a dominant influence on the agendas of broadcast media. Still, the newspaper industry is in serious economic trouble, with important consequences for public information and communications more generally.
    • The Internet is becoming one of the primary sources of news. However, the most-viewed content consists of electronic versions of print sources. One great advantage is that they can potentially combine the depth of coverage of print with the frequent updating of broadcast news. The Internet also allows people to get involved directly in creating and interpreting the news.
  • The U.S. media is neither owned nor controlled by the government, though the government regulates media industries in several ways.
    • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) licenses the broadcast industry and regulates both content (especially obscenity, indecency, and profanity) and industry competition.
    • According to the FCC, broadcasters must provide candidates for the same political office equal opportunities to communicate their messages to the public. This is known as the equal time rule. In addition, the right of rebuttal states that individuals must be given opportunity to respond to personal attacks. The fairness doctrine, which has not been enforced since 1985, stated that broadcasters who aired programs on controversial issues were required to provide air time for opposing views.
    • The increased prevalence of Internet media has led to new questions about intellectual property rights, the regulation of domains and Web servers, and the overall advisability of regulating the media world.
  • Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are cherished American political values jealously safeguarded by the media. The print media are not subject to federal regulation; there is, for example, no prior restraint (that is, the government cannot block the publication of material it deems harmful or libelous), although publications may face sanctions afterward.
  • Although many thousands of radio stations, newspapers, and television stations exist, the number of news sources is actually quite small: one wire service, three elite newspapers, three newsmagazines, and a handful of other sources.
    • Changes in media ownership have hastened the trend toward homogenization of news; a small number of corporations own many news organizations nationally.
    • Recently, the FCC loosened prior rules on media ownership, allowing the further concentration of media ownership.
  • The development of radio networks in the 1920s and 1930s and then the development of television networks after the 1950s increased the nationalization of news in America.

2. What Affects News Coverage?

What accounts for the media’s agenda of issues and topics? What explains the character of coverage? What factors determine the interpretation that a particular story will receive?

  • News organizations and the actors within them (publishers and journalists) influence coverage.
    • Although there have been some activist publishers in American history, most contemporary publishers are concerned with the business end of journalism.
    • Charges of liberal bias find evidentiary support in surveys of journalists, although professional norms suggest that reporters should try to provide balanced coverage.
    • Whereas larger newspapers may have a liberal orientation, many smaller newspapers support Republicans; traditionally, Republicans get more newspaper endorsements than Democrats.
    • Two shifts in journalism are eroding professional standards of objectivity: (1) the blurring of the line between editorializing and reporting in traditional media and (2) the emergence of citizen journalism.
  • Politicians, public officials, and other news sources exert their own influence on news coverage.
    • The president and other politicians attempt to control the images and “spin” of news stories, hiring skilled publicists to influence coverage.
    • Whistleblowers and leakers exist throughout government and seek quiet alliances with journalists, who protect them because they value the inside information these sources can provide.
    • Government agencies, politicians, and interest groups issue thousands of press releases that provide information and advocate a certain perspective on a particular news story.
    • Recent revelations that political actors hire journalists and ostensibly neutral columnists and commentators to promote their perspectives suggest innovative (if underhanded) attempts to manipulate news coverage.
  • Because news in America is a business, consumer demand is a powerful determinant of news coverage as well.
    • The profit motive leads news organizations to cater to an upscale audience.
    • Stories of conflict are more likely to be reported than are complex issues because the former appeals to audiences much more than the latter.

3. Media Power and Responsibility

What is the role of the contemporary media in American politics? What should that role be? What are the challenges posed to politicians and citizens in the media age?

  • The media have played a central role in major events in American history, including recent events like the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate affair.
  • Free media is absolutely essential to democratic government; citizens rely on the media to serve as a watchdog over the government.
  • Still, critics suggest that adversarial journalism has contributed to popular cynicism and lower levels of participation.