Lesson 1: The Media and Democracy: Theory and History


This introductory lesson has two components: a brief discussion of the critical role the media play in a democracy such as that we have in the United States and a history of the development of the news media in the United States, including a discussion of why the government has regulated the print media differently from the broadcast media.

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  1. explain why the press has always enjoyed special status in the United States.
  2. list the reasons television is the dominant medium today.
  3. describe the love-hate relationship between the press and U.S. politicians and explain why it exists.
  4. describe the evolution of the print media in the United States from a partisan press to an objective press.
  5. explain why the broadcast media have been much more heavily regulated than the print media in the United States.

Reading Assignment

  • Mass Media and American Politics: Chapter 1 (pages 1–26)

See the Web Sites section at the end of the Commentary for links to Web sites where you can find additional information on this lesson's topics.


Media and Democracy

The news media play a critical role in the American democracy. The press has always been present, and it has a privilege no other industry enjoys: a specific protection in the Constitution. Many journalists see themselves as protectors of our system of government—"watchdogs of democracy"—and in many ways the framers of the Constitution would agree. Of course, when this role is pursued with passion, it is bound to annoy those in power from time to time, and there is often tension between the press and the politicians whom it covers. We, the vast viewing and reading public, are often caught in the middle, sometimes agreeing with the press and other times siding with our elected officials.

The political power of the press is a subject on many peoples' minds. The press is simultaneously blamed and praised for many aspects of American political life. On the one hand, it is accused of a wide array of offenses: endangering national security, oversimplifying important issues of public policy, focusing too much on the negatives and not enough on the achievements of government, and demonstrating some sort of political bias. On the other hand, the same politicians and pundits who criticize the media attempt to influence and control it, trying to get their messages out to the public.

What does this say about the American media? First and foremost, it speaks to the powerful presence the media have in our political process. In many ways, our political system depends on the media, just as the media depend on politics. In this course, we will explore many aspects of the relationship between the press and the political system. We will examine the history of the media in American politics, the regulation of the media by the government, the ways in which the press covers politics, the influences the media have on both the public and elected officials, and the ways the media have shaped political campaigns. Among the questions we will ask are: How broadly does the press actually influence the electoral process? Do the news media set national policy by ignoring or highlighting certain issues? Do they pursue agendas of their own?

The media are more pervasive today than they were even a few decades ago. The expanded availability of and usage of mass media are facts of American life. Television, which spread rapidly across the nation in the 1950s, and the Internet, which is still spreading throughout the country, are primary examples. But print media still have a wide following, particularly with those Americans most likely to influence the political process. In addition, a new niche has been carved with the strong growth of political talk radio over the past two decades. Not only are there many more radio stations than there used to be but also Americans spend more time listening to them as their daily commutes grow longer.

a family watching TV in the 1950sFigure 1.1. Television rapidly swept the nation in the fifties.

Television is the most influential medium in American society and has been for many years. As early as 1960, 87.3 percent of American households had at least one television, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2009, that percentage was 98.2, and the average American home had 2.6 televisions. (You can view the data by following the census link provided in the Web Sites section below.) According to Nielsen Media Research, in 2004–2005 the average American watched television for five hours and eleven minutes each day (see Web Sites below), and this amount has increased each year for the past fifty years. This means that Americans spend about 1,890 hours a year—the equivalent of almost eighty days—watching television. In part, this is due to the increasing number of choices available to viewers. There are now more than 1,800 television stations with broadcast licenses in the United States, according to the Census Bureau, and this doesn't even include the ever-expanding number of stations on cable and satellite.

Americans perceive television primarily as an entertainment medium, but many Americans also depend on it as a source of information about many issues, including politics. In 2004, the American National Election Study found that 86 percent of people said they followed the 2004 presidential campaign on television. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that just about the same percentage of people said TV was their most important source of election news in 2008. That same Pew Report (see the Web Sites section below to access the document in full) also finds an ever-growing number of people who say they rely on the Internet for political information. We will discuss this more in Lessons 11 and 14.

There are many local news programs available and several options for national news, including the traditional network news broadcasts, which have steadily lost viewers over the years, and a variety of newer cable stations such as CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. Those who prefer their information without the interpretations of reporters and anchors can turn to coverage of federal government and other public events on C-SPAN (the Cable and Satellite Public Affairs Network).

Even those who watch television primarily for entertainment are exposed to an explosion of prime-time magazine news shows. The networks rely heavily on these shows for their combination of relatively inexpensive production costs and good ratings. The most successful of these shows remains 60 Minutes, which averages 15 million viewers, compared to 9 million for 20/20 and Dateline NBC (see "Journalism.org: State of the News Media report" in the Web Sites section below). Viewers of these shows encounter many "human interest" stories but are occasionally exposed to hard news as well.

Television is perceived as more credible than print, according to studies by Journalism.org, the Pew Research Center, and others, and this is probably due to the visual nature of the medium. However, the same reports show that trust in both local television and national networks has steadily declined (as has trust in all media sources). At the same time, Americans perceive the media as quite powerful. According to a 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center (see Web Sites below), 46 percent of Americans thought the news media had too much influence on the outcome of the presidential election, and in 2004, 43 percent expressed that opinion. Forty-four percent felt the press had been unfair to John McCain during the 2008 campaign, and 30 percent felt it had been unfair to Barack Obama. This does not change the fact that the public's only source of information about politics is the news media and the majority turn to television as their primary media source.

Politicians' Reliance on the Mass Media

Ronald ReaganFigure 1.2. Ronald Reagan was a master of sound bites and photo opportunities.

While the public relies on the news media as a source of information about politics, politicians also depend on the press, both in elections and in governing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were at least 69,000 working journalists in the United States in 2008 (see the Bureau of Labor and Statistics link in the Web Sites section below), and many of them cover politics. The Washington press corps is not only larger than it used to be but also much more visible. The press demands more time from politicians, who have had to develop skills and strategies to respond to the increased power of the media. Those running for office must learn how to interact with and, if possible, control the press. Once elected, they continue to devote a good deal of time to handling the press. Few politicians in recent memory did a better job at interacting with and using the media than Ronald Reagan, who was a master of sound bites and, more importantly, photo opportunities. While Reagan and his advisors were not the first to devote time, thought, and resources to media relations, they did it better than any presidential administration before them, establishing a model for presidents to come. The most effective media president in the post-Reagan era was Bill Clinton, but the lessons of the Reagan years are reflected in the behavior of many politicians at the national, state, and even local levels.

Politicians believe that the time, money, and energy they devote to press relations will pay off in the form of reelection or support for their policy proposals. This belief was not born in a vacuum—there is plenty of evidence that such efforts pay off, as we will see in this course.

The efforts of elected officials to control the media's message are not without consequences, of course. Since journalists see themselves as watchdogs of democracy, it follows that they would react with suspicion to such attempts. There is a natural tension between the media and politicians, and it seems to have escalated over recent decades. The fact of this tension is important because the news media serve the important function of linking the governors and the governed. Studies and surveys from the 1940s to the present show that while the average American doesn't know much about politics, what he or she does know comes from the mass media. How the media operate and what they report, therefore, greatly influence what Americans know and think about politics.

The Relationship between the Press and Politicians

The news media and our elected officials have a relationship that is less than harmonious. They are, in a very real sense, in competition with each other, and this tension is not new. Theodore Roosevelt, our first truly media-savvy president, tried to use the reporters who covered the White House for his own benefit. He gave them access that they hadn't previously enjoyed, but he also threatened to take away that access if their reporting displeased him. During this time, the press was evolving, moving toward a standard of objective journalism that placed a premium on presenting the news in an accurate, unbiased way. Publishers, editors, and reporters came into their own as watchdogs for democracy, and the tension between politicians and the press has only increased in recent decades.

The evolution of press-politician relations in the United States has been a two-step process. First, politicians became more dependent on the press as the political parties weakened, especially since the 1960s. Then, as politicians tried to use the press for their own benefit, journalists responded by more aggressively defending their status as watchdogs of democracy.

Step 1: The Weakening of the Parties

In the early 1960s, Republican and Democratic leaders still controlled whom their parties would nominate to run for virtually every state and federal office. However, riots during the 1968 Democratic national convention caused first the Democrats and then the Republicans to relinquish this power. The 1968 Democratic National Convention, held in Chicago, was a debacle. Young activists supported antiwar candidates such as Eugene McCarthy and opposed the candidate that the party bosses supported, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Riots broke out in Chicago, and for several days the Democrats were the focus of unwanted national attention. This followed similar, though less violent, protests at the Republican National Convention in Miami, and it became clear that changes in the nominating process were inevitable.

In the early 1970s, the Democratic Party was the first to change its nomination process, and the Republican Party followed suit shortly after. Now candidates are chosen almost exclusively by voters in primary elections and state party caucuses. One consequence of these reforms was to make the process more democratic. Another was to weaken the power of both parties. When party leaders ceded control over who would be nominated for various offices, they lost their ability to discipline members. Leaders could once threaten to prevent members from running for office or at least withhold party support. But politicians no longer needed the blessings of party leaders to run for office. As the parties became weaker, they became less important to the average American. Since the 1970s, Americans have become much more likely to identify themselves as independents rather than as Democrats or Republicans. The weakening of the political parties has made it possible for more individuals to run for office without spending years paying their dues in the parties. But it has also affected the ability of the parties to speak effectively to voters and mobilize them at election time.

Other changes have had a similar weakening effect on the parties. One of the consequences of Richard Nixon's ethically challenged presidency was a new focus on campaign finance practices. This led to more stringent laws that reduced the amount of financial support the parties can give to their candidates. With the parties no longer a vital source of campaign funds, candidates are not obliged to be loyal to party positions. In fact, it has become relatively common for candidates to run against their own party. Politicians often assert that they aren't "career politicians" or "Washington insiders," and candidates assert their independence from the parties, which would have been politically fatal a few decades ago.

As a result of the weakening of the political parties, candidates have to cultivate their own relationships with voters, and the way they do that is through the mass media. We have moved from a party-centered system to a candidate-centered system, and both politicians and the public have become much more dependent on the news media. The public relies on the press for information about the candidates, where it used to be able to count more on cues from the political parties. Meanwhile, politicians rely on the press as a means of speaking to voters, where they used to be able to count on party organizations to help them with this important task.

Step 2: The Increasing Autonomy of the Press
As the institutions and leaders of the American political system have grown increasingly dependent on the news media, the press has emerged as a more autonomous force, driven by its own needs and imperatives. The press is less dependent on political leaders than it was a century ago.

In the early days of the nation, the press was blatantly partisan, as it still is in many other democratic countries. Media outlets in other democracies in Europe and elsewhere are funded by supporters of one political point of view or another. In early America, newspapers were dependent on the political patronage of public officials and wealthy supporters of particular views. As a result, the "news" reports in these papers were simply extended editorials.

Ownership of the media began to change in the mid-1800s, and eventually it ceased to be controlled by advocates of certain positions. Although the press still depends—at least in part—on cooperation from government news sources, it no longer depends on the government or individual political leaders for survival. The survival of media outlets in today's environment is tied to ratings and circulation, not on keeping party bosses and politicians happy.

This means that politicians have to fight to get their message out. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson could assume that his message would get an airing in certain newspapers because he was responsible for their financial survival. Today, politicians compete with each other to get their messages in print and on the air. They must convince skeptical journalists to report their messages in a way that makes them look good to the American people.

The media report about politics in an extremely skeptical way. Many observers accuse the press of having a political bias. Conservatives, for example, typically accuse the press of being overly supportive of liberal politicians and ideals. Bill Clinton, however, to cite a recent example, would beg to differ. He was subjected to harsh treatment from the first days of his administration, and it lasted throughout his presidency and beyond. If the press is, in fact, biased, it is probably more accurate to say that it has an antiauthority bias. Reporters seem to be automatically suspicious of the motives of elected officials and politicians running for office.

Richard Nixon gives a televised address regarding the Watergate scandal.Figure 1.3. Richard Nixon gives a televised address regarding the Watergate scandal.

This suspicion is not a new phenomenon in American politics, but it seems to have grown over the past thirty years. There are some very plausible explanations for this increased skepticism. In the 1960s, President Johnson dramatically escalated America's involvement in Vietnam. As the decade drew to a close, the war had become a volatile political issue—so volatile that Johnson, who had won an overwhelming victory in 1964, chose not to run for reelection in 1968. In the early 1970s, some documents prepared by the military were leaked to the press. The documents, which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, showed that the Johnson administration had regularly deceived the American people about the progress of the war. At around the same time, the Nixon administration became embroiled in the most famous of American political scandals, Watergate. Beginning with a botched break-in at the Democratic Party's national headquarters, the scandal widened as Nixon and others in his administration tried to cover up their involvement.

These two scandals, coming in rapid succession, had a profound impact on Americans, particularly the generation of baby boomers that was coming of age at the time. The evidence suggests that nothing has been the same in American politics since. Trust in politicians and institutions of government decreased dramatically in the early seventies, as many polls, including the National Election Study, clearly show. The polls also show that trust has still not returned to pre-Vietnam and Watergate levels (see the American National Elections Studies link in the Web Sites section below).

Baby boomers have dominated the leadership positions in the United States for thirty years, and many of them still believe that politicians and the government cannot be trusted. As they have had children and as their children begin to have children, this has continued to be a dominant message.

Just as a generation of Americans took the Pentagon Papers and Watergate to heart, a generation of reporters was similarly affected, as typified by the young heroes of Watergate, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Reporters now seem to spend a great deal of time looking for the next scandal and almost always respond to the actions of elected officials with suspicion.

There is, of course, another element at play in the relationship between the press and the public: the press is independent because it no longer relies on politicians for its survival. Instead, media outlets survive or fail based on their ability to sell newspapers or draw viewers. One thing the news media has learned about the American public is that it likes scandal of any sort. The market for scandal has proved to be very fertile. Bad news—when it is about someone else—sells well. The combination of the press's imperative to make money and its perpetual suspicion for the words and deeds of elected officials creates a rather hostile media environment for politicians. Of course, politicians are at least in part responsible for bringing this situation upon themselves. But even those who are pure of heart have to work harder to get their messages out.

When the politicians owned the press in this country, the news was what they said it was. Those days are long gone. Today, the news is what journalists say it is. In this environment, politicians try to convince journalists to see news where they want them to see it. In a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate world, journalists are reluctant to be manipulated, but that doesn't keep the politicians from trying. Photo ops, ceremonial bill signings, summits that execute no substantial business, and other pseudo events are all attempts by political leaders to get their messages out for public consumption. Sometimes these are covered by the press as news events, sometimes they are covered as examples of blatant attempts to use the media, and sometimes they are simply ignored. Politicians often try to go around the press and reach out directly to voters with personal appearances and speeches, but even these events are filtered to a greater or lesser degree by the media. As the press has become more skeptical of politicians' motives, politicians have become more cynical about the press.

This struggle for control shows no signs of letting up anytime soon. Elected officials and candidates for office need to get their views out to the voting public, and the members of the press see their job as screening those views for truth. The result is that the press and politicians have very different imperatives that clash with each other dramatically.

To see how we arrived at this state of affairs, it is necessary to understand the history of the media in American politics.

The Development of the Print Media

A Partisan Press

The framers of our democracy clearly believed in the importance of the press. To reiterate, it is the only industry that has a specific protection built into the Constitution. Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, and many others used the press to disseminate their criticisms of Britain's rule of the colonies, and the British made frequent attempts to prevent the publication of those views. It is not difficult to understand why the founders thought it was important to have the Constitution protect the press.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in his famous book Democracy in America, observed nearly two hundred years ago how important a free press was to American democracy. In short, democracy requires the free flow of information, enabling us to keep in touch with each other and with our leaders and to keep up with important events. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1787, "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," and his view was similar to those of the other framers.

Of course, the framers wanted to make sure that the free press carried their own views. While the press has always been independent in America, it has also always had close ties to the government. Today, the press depends on government officials for stories. In the early days, many newspapers were financially dependent on the government and politicians.

an advertisement for The FederalistFigure 1.4. An advertisement for The Federalist, a compilation of the Federalist Papers


Alexander Hamilton was a critical figure in early American government. Following the Revolutionary War, he helped bring about the constitutional convention, and as the main author of the Federalist Papers, he was largely responsible for the states' ratification of the Constitution. The Federalist Papers are an example of free press in action. The series's eighty-five essays, published in newspapers with the objective of convincing state politicians to support the Constitution, were the equivalent of modern op-ed pieces. As Washington's secretary of the treasury, Hamilton advocated a strong federal government to promote the growth of a national economy. With a Philadelphia publisher, John Fenno, Hamilton created a newspaper, the Gazette of the United States, to spread his message. He supported the paper by granting Fenno the Treasury Department's printing contracts, and the Gazette proved an effective mouthpiece for the administration.

Thomas Jefferson, Washington's secretary of state, was a strong critic of the Gazette, warning that if Hamilton had his way, the government would take too much power from the states and become indistinguishable from the rule of the British. Jefferson combated Hamilton's newspaper with one of his own, the National Gazette, which he helped support by granting its publisher, Philip Freneau, authority to print State Department documents. When Jefferson resigned his post in 1793, Freneau lost his financial base and was forced to close down the newspaper.

This newspaper war led to the creation of America's first political parties. On one side were the Federalists, led by Hamilton and John Adams, and on the other were the Democratic Republicans, led by Jefferson and James Madison. The split centered on a debate that in many ways remains at the core of American politics to this day: how powerful should the federal government be?

However, these newspapers were not intended for a mass audience. Newspapers of the 1790s had circulations of two thousand or less. In part, circulation was limited by a lack of technology. Early newspapers were printed on hand-operated presses, which was expensive and made newspapers too costly for the average citizen. Of course, the average citizen was illiterate and wouldn't have had much use for a newspaper even if he or she could afford one. These factors meant that early newspapers were not published to make money. They were completely dependent on the support of people such as Hamilton and Jefferson for their survival. They therefore tended to support the political agendas of their patrons.

A Profit-Oriented Press

Just as financial considerations were the reason for the press's partisan tendencies, they were also the reason for its becoming nonpartisan. The telegraph and the rotary press, invented in the early 1800s, reduced the time and lowered the cost of printing newspapers, making them available to more people. Newspapers had to appeal to a broader audience, and that meant making them less partisan.

The New York newspapers were the first to capitalize on the new technologies, and the New York Sun led the way. When the Sun cut its price from six cents to a penny, circulation increased by five thousand in four months and by ten thousand within a year. A business can produce something that is expensive and sell a few—such as sports cars—or it can produce something that is inexpensive and sell many—such as newspapers. Increased circulation gave newspapers greater revenue, which gave them greater independence from political patrons. By the late nineteenth century, several American newspapers were printing one hundred thousand or more copies a day.

Increased circulation was important not just for the money made on each copy sold but also because it made newspapers more attractive to advertisers. Higher circulations enabled publishers to charge higher prices for advertising, and newspapers tried to outdo each other in running stories they thought people wanted to read. This period is sometimes referred to as the era of yellow journalism. The name comes from a battle between publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Pulitzer's newspaper, the New York World, launched a color supplement featuring a popular comic strip character who was known as the Yellow Kid because he always wore a yellow nightshirt. When Hearst lured the cartoonist, R. F. Outcault, to his New York Journal, Pulitzer responded by starting a new comic strip with another character who always wore yellow. The competition between Hearst and Pulitzer was emblematic of the intense competition at all levels of the newspaper business.

1901 cover of McClure's MagazineFigure 1.5. McClure's Magazine was a publisher of many muckraker articles.

Hearst and Pulitzer's newspapers featured sensational stories designed to attract as many readers as possible. Perhaps the most famous example of the type of journalism that dominated the era was their coverage of the events leading up to the Spanish-American War. The Journal and World ran daily stories describing the cruelty of the Spanish government's rule in Cuba. The trouble was that the actual situation in Cuba bore little relation to the coverage in the papers. In a famous exchange in 1898, the artist Frederick Remington, employed by the Journal in Cuba, asked to be reassigned someplace where there was something to report. Hearst reportedly cabled back: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." Not long afterward, the U.S. battleship Maine exploded and sank in Havana's harbor. Thanks to the efforts of major newspapers such as Hearst's to incite war fever, the explosion of the Maine, the cause of which has never been completely explained, was assumed to be an act of war by Spain. Shortly after the explosion, the United States declared war on Spain. The papers got a tremendous amount of mileage out of covering the war in the form of increased circulation.

Some journalism of the era was a kind of investigative reporting that came to be known as muckraking, a word coined by Teddy Roosevelt. Muckraking journalists exposed corrupt companies and government officials. Many stories were written about unsafe products, politicians who broke the public trust, and the dangerous working conditions that the poorest Americans were forced to endure. Unlike some yellow journalism that did not contribute anything positive to the public discourse, the stories of the muckrakers often sparked reform.

One of the most famous muckrakers was Upton Sinclair, whose novel The Jungle exposed many atrocious problems in the meatpacking industry. The publication of Sinclair's book grabbed Teddy Roosevelt's attention. He met with Sinclair, who had worked for several weeks as a meatpacker to gather his observations, and this led, in part, to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act, America's first major food safety legislation. To learn more about Sinclair, check out Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century, by Kevin Mattson.

Another famous muckracker was Elizabeth Jane Cochran, who became known by her pen name, Nellie Bly. As a reporter for Pulitzer's New York World in 1887, she spent ten days undercover as a patient at New York City's Women's Lunatic Asylum. Her reports and subsequent book, Ten Days in a Mad House, helped bring about reforms in the asylum, which was embarrassed by the fact that several personnel had examined Bly and declared her insane during her time there. To learn more about Bly, try reading Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist, by Brooke Kroeger.

A New Model of Objectivity

Yellow journalism was often wildly inaccurate, and its excesses led some publishers to consider ways of reporting the news more responsibly. Adolph S. Ochs, who became the publisher of The New York Times in 1896, was a chief advocate of a new model of reporting that came to be known as objective journalism. Times reporters were told to eliminate all traces of partisanship from their stories and to avoid making judgments. They were expected to fairly report all sides of complicated and divisive issues. This approach appealed particularly to well-educated readers, and the Times quickly acquired a reputation as the country's best newspaper. When Ochs bought the Times, it had nine thousand readers; by 1900, circulation had risen to eighty-two thousand.

Another of Ochs's reforms was to separate the newspaper's advertising and news departments. Under the old business model, no such distinction was made, and advertisers had a great deal of influence on the "news" content of newspapers.

As it became clear that these new standards could be profitable as well as socially responsible, journalism began to change across the board. Journalism became not just an occupation but a profession. The first school of journalism was founded at the University of Missouri by Walter Williams in 1908. Similar schools at Columbia University, Northwestern University, and other institutions helped to perpetuate the new standard of objective journalism.

Print Media Today

In theory, objective journalism is still a mainstay of daily news coverage. Although publishers favor one viewpoint or another on their editorial pages, they usually accord the Democratic and Republican parties equal treatment on their news pages. Newspapers make their political preference known by endorsing candidates during election campaigns, but many take pride in supporting the best person for the job and not basing their endorsements on partisan considerations.

In one sense, however, reporting is not as objective as it used to be, thanks to the proliferation of "news analysis" stories. Objective, or descriptive, journalism is typified by the straightforward reporting of facts. But print reporters today are faced with a new reality: they can't compete with the timeliness of television. Newspapers are published only once a day, while television can report breaking news instantly. In order to survive, newspapers have run more human interest stories, more entertainment stories, and longer news stories that aim to do more than simply report who, what, when, and where: they also attempt to explain why events happened as they did and to put them in a larger context. This is interpretative reporting, and it gives reporters greater license. In such stories, they are not required to stick to reporting only what they observe; they can also write what they think about it. This means that newspaper coverage has become increasingly conjectural.

This is not to say that reporters don't strive to be objective anymore. Journalism schools still teach students to be objective. However, anytime a reporter is given the job of interpreting events, there is a much greater chance he or she will introduce personal opinion into the story. News analysis invites this possibility. This is problematic because newspapers still present themselves to the public as purely objective. A reader who consumes a news analysis story with the assumption that it is objective journalism runs the risk of being misled.

Another problem is that reporters are trained to acquire a set of skills necessary for objective reporting, but interpretative reporting requires a much greater level of expertise. Reporters who set out to explain U.S. foreign policy, or the tax code, or stem cell research should be, one would hope, experts in those subjects. Unfortunately, they rarely are. Though a news analysis story may present information in an authoritative fashion, there is no guarantee that the reporter has a firm grasp on the subject. No doubt most newspapers have good intentions in presenting these stories, but good intentions improperly applied can do great harm.

The Development of the Broadcast Media


Broadcasting was revolutionary in that it was the first truly national mass medium. Until the early twentieth century, the print media were the only form of mass communication. But newspapers had local circulation bases, whereas radio could speak to millions of Americans across the country simultaneously.

Electronic communication began with the invention of the telegraph in the 1830s. The telephone was invented in the 1870s. Wireless electronic communication became the next objective. Nicola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi are generally credited as the pioneers of radio, though many other inventors played critical roles. The first AM (amplitude modulation) radio stations appeared in the second decade of the twentieth century. The most famous of the early AM stations was KDKA, established in Pittsburgh in 1920. It was the first commercial broadcasting station in the United States. Another station, WLW, established in Cincinnati in 1922, was important because of the immense strength of its signal. FM (frequency modulation) radio did not become a significant factor until the 1960s, when technology was developed to allow the broadcasting of a signal in stereo.

Roosevelt after giving a fireside chatFigure 1.6. Franklin Roosevelt after giving a fireside chat

The key to the development of radio as a national medium was the creation of broadcast networks. David Sarnoff, an executive at RCA (Radio Corporation of America), understood that if the company was going to sell radios, it had to give people a reason to want them. Sarnoff and RCA created the National Broadcasting Company in 1926. By 1927, NBC had two networks, the Red and the Blue. The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) also began in 1926, though it didn't become known by that name until 1927. Other radio networks established in the 1920s and 1930s included the Mutual Broadcasting System and the DuMont Network. ABC was established in 1943 when Edward Nobel bought the Blue Network from NBC and renamed it the American Broadcasting Company. Hundreds of radio stations appeared throughout the country, many of which were linked to national networks.

President Franklin Roosevelt, like his cousin Teddy Roosevelt, was an important figure in the integration of the media and politics in this country. During the Depression, when business-friendly newspaper editors were critical of his New Deal programs, Roosevelt used radio to promote his policies directly to the people, without having to filter them through the press. Roosevelt's "fireside chats" made him a pioneer in the art of going public, something that has become commonplace not only for presidents but also for officials at all levels of government. One of the most famous political addresses in U.S. history, Roosevelt's speech following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, was broadcast to a stunned nation on December 7, 1941.


In the 1890s and early 1900s, inventors competed to see what they could send across the airwaves. At the same time that they were developing radio technology, they were also at work on television.

Though television followed radio, it quickly eclipsed radio as a medium of the masses. From a political perspective, television became an important factor in the 1950s. Much early programming was experimental, in the sense that certain conventions had been established by radio and the networks were figuring out how to make the transition to a visual medium. The networks carried the Democratic and Republican conventions live for the first time in 1952—in part because they each provided several days of free programming—and seventeen million people tuned in. The 1952 presidential campaign also featured the first televised political commercials. While these ads were somewhat rudimentary, they established conventions we have come to expect from campaign ads to this day. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first president to have his press conferences televised. Unlike his successor, John F. Kennedy, however, he did not have them carried live; they were filmed and then broadcast.

Two congressional investigations in the 1950s demonstrated the ability of televised images to capture Americans' attention. In 1951, a special committee chaired by Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver toured the country to hold hearings on organized crime, compelling well-known crime figures to testify. After a local television station broadcast part of the committee's hearing in New Orleans, stations throughout the country began broadcasting the hearings at each stop. When New York crime leader Frank Costello testified before the committee, he refused to have his face appear on television. The camera was instead trained on his hands, which fidgeted throughout his testimony. It was an image that had a powerful impact on viewers, who saw Costello as untrustworthy. An estimated thirty million people watched the committee's hearings.

The Army-McCarthy hearings had an even higher national profile. Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations and leading crusader against communism, had gained national attention from his many televised press conferences and speeches. He became embroiled in a dispute with the army when an aide of his was drafted. McCarthy and his legal counsel, Roy Cohn, accused the army of drafting the aide to keep McCarthy from looking for communists in the military. The army made countercharges against McCarthy, and hearings were scheduled to sort everything out. The hearings ran for a total of thirty-six days between April 22 and June 17, 1954, and were televised live in their entirety on ABC and the DuMont Network. CBS and NBC opted not to carry the hearings live because they didn't want to preempt their regular, and more lucrative, daytime programming. Instead, they aired nightly recaps using kinescopes, or films, of ABC's coverage.

The hearings were ultimately McCarthy's downfall, as he came across as a man who would say or do anything in order to further his agenda. He was not helped by the fact that he had become the target of America's most famous broadcast journalist, Edward R. Murrow. Murrow made the transition from radio to television with a CBS documentary program called See It Now (1951–1958). Murrow was deeply offended by what he felt were McCarthy's unfair and unfounded accusations against a wide variety of Americans, and in March 1954, just before the Army-McCarthy hearings began, he aired an installment of See It Now that was highly critical of the senator. The program used McCarthy's own words and actions to portray him as an extremist, starting a shift in Americans' opinions that were exacerbated by the hearings.

For more on Murrow and McCarthy, you may want to check out Good Night and Good Luck (2005), which was an Academy Award Best Picture nominee in 2006. For a deeper look at the Army-McCarthy hearings, check out the documentary Point of Order (1964).

The See It Now episode and the hearings demonstrated the power of television to shape people's perceptions and created a model for the coverage of hearings to come, on such topics as the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals, the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, and the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

Kennedy debates Nixon in the first televised debate, 1960.Figure 1.7. Kennedy and Nixon in the first televised debate, 1960

The Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates of 1960 were another important series of events in the emergence of television as a political medium. Senator Kennedy and his advisors took the trouble to familiarize themselves with the medium before these first televised debates. At the first debate, Kennedy wore makeup and a suit that looked good on camera, even under the harsh, bright lights. Vice president Richard Nixon, on the other hand, demonstrated little interest in adapting to television. Recently sick and suffering from a knee injury, he sweated profusely throughout the debate and his five o'clock shadow was highlighted by the camera. It all added up to one candidate who looked healthy, energetic, and confident and another who looked nervous and ill at ease. Polls taken after the debate revealed a stark difference between those who watched on television and those who listened on the radio. A majority of radio listeners felt Nixon had won, while most television viewers saw Kennedy as the winner. Scholars pinpoint this debate as the moment that image became more important than substance in American politics. Significantly, presidential debates were not televised again until 1976, because candidates believed that television could only hurt them.

Television news programming was slow to develop. National newscasts of the 1950s were only fifteen minutes long and did not feature original reporting. Anchormen simply read stories from the newspapers and wire services. In the early 1960s, the three commercial networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—expanded their evening newscasts to thirty minutes and increased the size and funding of their news divisions. As a result, audience ratings increased, and television became the principal news medium of national politics.

If there was a specific moment when television became the dominant medium in America, it was the assassination of President Kennedy. Before this, people depended primarily on newspapers for accurate information about current events. It was even said that people didn't believe something until they saw it in print. In the days following the Kennedy assassination, however, newspapers couldn't keep up with the rapidly developing events. As soon as the latest edition of a newspaper came out, it was already out of date, whereas television was able to provide continuous updates. America watched the manhunt for Lee Harvey Oswald, Oswald's own assassination on live television, and the state funeral for the president. Much of the reporting was inaccurate and had to be corrected, as in television coverage of breaking news today. But television gave people the chance to come together as a community and mourn the death of a president in a way that newspapers just couldn't. Many print reporters realized that a major shift had occurred—television had replaced newspapers as the primary source of information for most Americans.

Not surprisingly, there are some negative aspects to this development. First, while television news is now available twenty-four hours a day, it is not of the same high quality as it once was. In the golden age of television news, from the mid-1960s through the 1970s, the three main networks invested a great deal of money in their news divisions, posting correspondents around the world. These divisions didn't make money, but because they had no competition, the networks could afford to look on them as a public service. They also acted as a loss-leader, drawing audiences to the networks' other programming, which did make money. In the late 1970s, however, the networks began to feel pressure from cable television. With many more channels competing for audience share, simple economics forced them to reconsider their willingness to lose money on news. The networks cut the size of their news divisions and required them to contribute to profits. Inevitably, the quality of news programming suffered.

Another downside is that when television news programs stopped relying on wire service and newspaper articles and began doing their own reporting, the stories inevitably became more interpretive. From the early days, television correspondents have used a narrative mode in order to appeal to an audience accustomed to entertainment programming. They strive to tell stories rather than simply report the facts. Each report is like a minidrama with a beginning, middle, and end—a crisis and resolution, all wrapped up in sixty seconds. This is not to say that television reports are inaccurate, but when everything is presented in this format, it influences people's perceptions of reality and of what is and isn't important. Clearly, some stories lend themselves to this format better than others, which means that some kinds of stories are more likely to appear on television than others. We therefore must wonder whether we are really getting an accurate picture of the world when we watch a television news broadcast. The situation has only gotten worse as the market has become more competitive. Network news broadcasts have far less hard news than they once did and many more human interest stories of the kind featured on newsmagazine shows such as Dateline NBC.

Third, there is a great deal of truth in the accusations made by critics of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate. Television really has changed the way politics are conducted in the United States, and in many ways, appearance and style are more important than substance. Candidates who present themselves well on television have an advantage over those who do not, regardless of which candidate is more qualified. We will pursue this theme in greater detail when we examine the campaign process in Lesson 11.

New Orleans shortly after Hurricane KatrinaFigure 1.8. After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, the Internet was the last news medium standing.
The Internet

Today, thanks to the development of cable and satellite technology, television provides a twenty-four-hour forum of political news and information. This generation's equivalent of the Kennedy assassination is clearly 9/11. When the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred, cable news networks such as Fox, CNN, and MSNBC were ready. Most Americans spent several days glued to their television sets around the clock, seeking information about what had happened and what would happen next. There were also many who, for the first time, relied on the Internet for instant updates.

It remains to be seen whether 9/11 marked the emergence of the next dominant medium for breaking news. The Internet was not new in 2001, but 9/11 was the first major crisis of the Internet age. Will we look back in forty years and say that 9/11 did for the Internet what the Kennedy assassination did for television news? It is too early to answer this question with any certainty, but we do know that when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck in the late summer of 2005, the Internet was the last medium left standing in the areas that were hardest hit. In New Orleans and other regions, newspapers were unable to publish, and radio and television stations were unable to broadcast. The only outlet was the Internet, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, for example, became an Internet-only newspaper for a number of weeks.

Government Licensing and Regulation of Broadcasters

Broadcasters are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to air their programming on a given radio or television frequency. Radio broadcasters must renew their license every seven years, and television broadcasters must renew every five years. In principle, licensing is a means of controlling broadcasting. If a station fails to comply with federal broadcast regulations, the FCC can withdraw its license. In reality, this rarely happens. The FCC seldom even threatens to revoke a license, for fear of being accused of restricting freedom of the press. A broadcast station can apply for renewal of its license by postcard and is virtually guaranteed FCC approval. This does not mean, however, that the FCC has no control over broadcasters. One way the FCC disciplines broadcasters is with fines, and if the fines are big enough, it gets the attention of rule breakers.

How much to regulate broadcasters has always been a debated issue. This is so, in part, because the government does very little to regulate print media, which raises the question of why it should be regulating broadcasters. There is one critical difference between the print media and broadcast media: there is no limit on the number of newspapers and magazines that can be published. While we may one day find that we don't have an endless supply of trees and run out of paper, that isn't going to happen anytime soon. There are, however, a limited number of frequencies available in the broadcast spectrum. As technology has advanced, broadcasters have been able to take advantage of more frequencies, but there are a finite number of them.

This has two implications. First, some regulation of broadcasting is necessary. Initially, the government did not carefully regulate broadcasting. The result was chaos. Nearby stations often used the same or adjacent radio frequencies, interfering with each other's transmissions. Stations with sufficient resources built transmitters strong enough to block out their competition. WLW in Cincinnati had a signal strong enough to block most of the radio stations in the Midwest, and it could be heard for hundreds of miles, especially at night. To deal with this situation, Congress passed the Radio Act of 1927, aimed specifically at preventing radio stations from transmitting over each other's signals. The Radio Act was superseded by the Communications Act of 1934, which required broadcasters to be licensed and meet certain performance standards. It also gave the government power to regulate other forms of electronic communication, such as the telegraph and telephone. Congress created the Federal Communications Commission to enforce the new law through regulations pertaining to such matters as signal strength, advertising, and political coverage. This law remains the core of broadcasting regulation in America. We will discuss both the Radio Act and the Communications Act further in Lesson 2.

The second reason for regulating broadcasting is that because broadcast frequencies are limited, they are seen as a depletable natural resource that belongs to all Americans. Broadcasters who have won the exclusive right to use a frequency should, in theory, be obligated to serve the public good as well as their own.

It is the FCC's job to create the rules and regulations that govern broadcasting, and traditionally, one of the areas that these rules have addressed is content. In terms of content, two concerns that the FCC has had over the years are obscenity—the regulation of which we will discuss in Lesson 2—and the question of who has access to the airwaves to disseminate their point of view. The FCC had made two major regulations concerning this question, one that is still in effect and one that has been taken off the books.

The Equal Time Provision

The equal time rule originated in the Radio Act of 1927, and it can also be found in Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1934. It requires that stations provide all political candidates the opportunity to appear. If a station sells or gives advertising time to one candidate, it must offer the same opportunity to the other candidates in that race. The law was created, obviously, to prevent broadcasters from influencing the outcome of elections by favoring one candidate over the others. In response to many legal claims filed over the years, there are now four exceptions to the equal-time rule, all of which apply to newsgathering: broadcasters aren't required to give equal time to all of the candidates in a race just because one of them happens to appear on (1) regularly scheduled news broadcasts, (2) interview shows, or (3) documentaries, or in (4) reports of breaking events. Section 315 also addresses the rates broadcasters may charge candidates for advertisements. An amendment added in 1971 requires broadcasters to charge candidates the same rate they offer their most favored advertisers. In other words, if a station has a client who advertises enough to receive a bulk discount, that is the rate it must offer to candidates.

The Fairness Doctrine

While the equal-time provision deals with candidates for office, the Fairness Doctrine dealt with issues. The Fairness Doctrine was adopted by the FCC in 1949, following the passage of an amendment to the Communications Act which stated that broadcasters, as public trustees, were obligated to facilitate the discussion of controversial public issues by offering reasonable opportunity for contrasting views to be expressed. Broadcasters retained the right to decide how this obligation would be fulfilled. A broadcaster that offered an editorial opinion on an issue, for example, was required to offer time to persons who wished to present a contrary view. Similarly, broadcasters were required to identify issues of community importance and invite people to discuss them on the air.

Broadcasters were never enthusiastic about the Fairness Doctrine, for a number of reasons. First, some argued that the FCC was impinging on the First Amendment guarantee of a free press by mandating that they discuss certain issues. They felt they were being treated unequally because the print media weren't obliged to offer the same kind of equal access. Second, there were financial considerations associated with giving up airtime for discussion of issues. By the mid-1980s, the FCC began to change its opinion about the need for the Fairness Doctrine and even to agree with broadcasters who said it violated the First Amendment. When the Supreme Court found, in the case Meredith v. FCC in 1987, that the FCC did not have to enforce the Fairness Doctrine, the agency did away with it. There was much protest about this decision, and Congress even passed legislation reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, but President Reagan vetoed the bill. Congress made several subsequent attempts that were countered by the vehement opposition of the broadcast industry. No bills have been proposed since 2000, and it would appear that the Fairness Doctrine is now a thing of the past.

The Fairness Doctrine was based on the existence of a limited number of broadcast frequencies and thus a limited number of opportunities to express diverse opinions. By the mid-1980s, however, cable television afforded many more outlets for expression, and the FCC no longer felt it was imperative, or fair, to require every broadcaster to provide these opportunities. One might wonder why the same line of thinking doesn't apply to the equal-time provision. The difference is that candidates who wish to broadcast their message to voters have specific demographics in mind. It is not enough to say that there are plenty of channels for candidates on which to buy time. Candidates want to reach certain types of voters, at certain times of day, and competing candidates want to reach the same voters. One of the most sought-after times for campaign ads is during the local evening news and the half-hour that follows, before prime time begins. Many senior citizens watch television at this time, and they are the group of people most likely to vote. If a station sold this time to one candidate and denied it to others, it would clearly confer an unfair advantage.

Web Sites

You may wish to visit the Web sites listed below for additional reading on the topics discussed in this lesson.

Note: These sites are not maintained by Mizzou Online or the University of Missouri. Sites linked below are included only as additional sources of information about the topics covered in this lesson, not required reading. Progress evaluations and examinations will cover only the material contained in the textbook, the lesson commentaries, and the assigned readings. Also, links to these sites should not be construed as an endorsement, either implicit or explicit, of their content by the course author, Mizzou Online, or the University of Missouri.

Some links require you to use your MU PawPrint. If you have difficulties using these proxy server links, please follow the directions from MU Libraries.

Key Words

You should be able to define the following terms and identify these names and legislative acts, all of which are discussed in the commentary and readings for this lesson:

  • antiauthority bias
  • Communications Act of 1934
  • dominant medium
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • equal-time provision
  • Fairness Doctrine
  • Federal Communications Commission
  • fireside chats
  • Alexander Hamilton
  • William Randolph Hearst
  • interpretative reporting
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Estes Kefauver
  • John F. Kennedy
  • Joseph McCarthy
  • muckraking
  • Edward R. Murrow
  • national medium
  • networks
  • 1960 presidential debates
  • Richard Nixon
  • objective journalism
  • Adolph Ochs
  • partisan press
  • profit-oriented press
  • Joseph Pulitzer
  • Radio Act of 1927
  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • Franklin Roosevelt
  • watchdogs
  • yellow journalism

Study Questions

These following questions are designed to reinforce the concepts discussed in this lesson. They are for your practice only and will not count toward your course grade. Do not send your responses to your instructor.

  1. Why did the framers of our government feel that a free press was critical in a democracy?

    The framers felt that a free press was essential because it allowed the exchange of ideas. Remember that the foundation for the Revolution was laid by people writing opinion pieces in newspapers.
  2. How has the role of the press changed over the course of our country's history, and what is the medium to which most people now turn for information?

    The press used to be very partisan, with parties and political officials sponsoring their own newspapers. At around the turn of the twentieth century, the press began to strive for a new, objective standard. While there will always be debate about how objective reporters are, that is the standard. The other big change is that television has replaced newspapers as the dominant medium.
  3. What has happened to objectiveness in journalism over the past twenty years or so, and what problems has this caused?

    Objective reporting has given way to interpretive reporting, or news analysis. Because the print media can't compete with the broadcast media in the reporting of breaking news, they no longer simply explain what happened but also why it happened. There are two problems with this: (1) this model invites reporters to express opinions, which means news stories are no longer as objective; (2) explaining the reasons behind complicated events isn't the strength of reporters, who are trained to report. This doesn't stop them from doing so, however, and they sometimes give explanations that are wrong or misleading to an unsuspecting public.
  4. At what point did image become more important than substance in American politics? At what point did Americans become more dependent on television than newspapers for information?

    Most scholars point to the 1960 presidential debates between Kennedy and Nixon as the event that made people focus more on how candidates look than on what they say. The event that made people switch to television as their main source of information was Kennedy's assassination.
  5. Why are the broadcast media more heavily regulated than the print media in this country, and in what ways are they regulated?

    The broadcast media are more heavily regulated because of the sense that the airwaves are a public resource and that broadcasters have an obligation to serve the public. The government therefore created agencies to regulate the broadcast media on technical matters, to make sure that stations don't broadcast over each other, and to regulate content. The government requires that candidates have equal opportunity to advertise on broadcast outlets. Regulation has decreased, however, as the rising number of media outlets has lessened the sense of the broadcast media as a limited resource.