After reading this section, you should be able to answer the following questions:
- What are communication, information, and mass and new media?
- How do economics, government and politics, and technology shape the media and their contents?
- What are the main criticisms directed at the media industry?
- What are the types of mass media?
Communication is a central activity of everyone engaged in politics—people asserting, arguing, deliberating, and contacting public officials; candidates seeking to win votes; lobbyists pressuring policymakers; presidents appealing to the public, cajoling Congress, addressing the leaders and people of other countries. All this communication sparks more communication, actions, and reactions.
What people communicate is information about subjects and events, people and processes. It can be true or false, fiction or nonfiction, believable or not. We define it broadly to encompass entertainment, news, opinion, and commentary.
The bulk of information that Americans obtain about politics and government comes through the mass and new media. Mass media are well-established communication formats, such as newspapers and magazines, network television and radio stations, designed to reach large audiences. Mass media also encompass entertainment fare, such as studio films, best-selling books, and hit music.
New media are forms of electronic communication made possible by computer and digital technologies. They include the Internet, the World Wide Web, digital video cameras, cellular telephones, and cable and satellite television and radio. They enable quick, interactive, targeted, and potentially democratic communication, such as social media, blogs, podcasts, websites, wikis, instant messaging, and e-mail.
The media, old and new, are central to American politics and government in three ways that we highlight throughout this book. First, they depict the people, institutions, processes, issues, and policies involved in politics and government. Second, the way in which participants in government and politics interact with the media influences the way in which the media depict them. Third, the media’s depictions can have effects.
Economics, Government and Politics, and Technology
Three interrelated factors are central to the development of the US media industry and its political contents. They are economics, government and politics, and technology.
We start with economics. Journalist A. J. Liebling wrote, “The function of the press…is to inform, but its role is to make money” (Liebling, 1964). Even when profit is not the motive, the media need financing to survive. The commercial media rely on advertising, sales, and subscriptions, and so the content of their diverse products is aimed at attracting audiences desirable to advertisers. Unlike other countries, the United States has no media primarily financed by government.
Government is involved with the media as a regulator, censor, and enabler. Regulation often involves decisions on technology: the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has given away approximately $70 billion worth of digital spectrum, the wireless airwaves that carry television and radio broadcasts, to major media companies. Government censors by restricting content it deems obscene or by punishing media for producing such content. Government enables when, for example, it waives the antitrust laws for media companies or subsidizes and thus lowers the postage costs for mailing newspapers and magazines.
Technological innovation can change media economics, relations with politicians and government, and the media’s political contents. Thus the development of television made it easier for candidates to communicate directly with voters and temporarily reduced the importance of political parties in elections.
Economics, government, and technology interact. The degree to which a technology influences politics depends on the way in which the technology is used. This in turn is shaped by the economic realities of the marketplace and by government policies concerning who can use a medium and for what purpose. Although the technology of television, even before cable, could have allowed for multiple and diverse channels, the economic search for a big audience to attract advertising revenue, paired with government regulation that favored private for-profit ownership, created the “three-network system” that endured until the 1980s. This system provided airtime for presidents to present their programs to a huge national audience. When cable television offered more alternatives for viewers, it became harder for presidents to be heard above the clamor of competing programs—a difficulty furthered by the emergence of new media.
The Media Industry
A few multinational conglomerates dominate the mass media; indeed, they are global media empires. Between them, they own the main television networks and production companies, most of the popular cable channels, the major movie studios, magazines, book publishers, and the top recording companies, and they have significant ownership interests in Internet media. Other large corporations own the vast majority of newspapers, major magazines, television and radio stations, and cable systems. Many people live in places that have one newspaper, one cable-system owner, few radio formats, and one bookstore selling mainly best sellers (Baker, 2007). Furthering consolidation, in January 2011 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the merger of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable and home Internet provider, with NBC Universal, one of the major producers of television shows and movies and the owner of several local stations as well as such lucrative cable channels as MSNBC, CNBC, USA, Bravo, and SyFy.
Some scholars criticize the media industry for pursuing profits and focusing on the bottom line. They accuse it of failing to cover government and public affairs in depth and of not presenting a wide range of views on policy issues (Bagdikian, 2004).
The reliance of most of the mass media on advertising as their main source of revenue and profit can discourage them from giving prominence to challenging social and political issues and critical views. Advertisers usually want cheery contexts for their messages.
Nonetheless, the mass media contain abundant information about politics, government, and public policies. Here is the essential information about the main types of mass media and their political contents.
The core of the mass media of the departed twentieth century was the newspaper. Even now, newspapers originate the overwhelming majority of domestic and foreign news.
During recent years, sales have plummeted as many people have given up or, as with the young, never acquired the newspaper habit. Further cutting into sales are newspapers’ free online versions. Revenue from advertising (automotive, employment, and real estate) has also drastically declined, with classified ads moving to Craigslist and specialist job-search sites. As a result, newspapers have slashed staff, closed foreign and domestic bureaus (including in Washington, DC), reduced reporting, and shrunk in size.
Nonetheless, there are still around 1,400 daily newspapers in the United States with estimated combined daily circulations of roughly forty million; many more millions read the news online. Chains of newspapers owned by corporations account for over 80 percent of circulation.
A few newspapers, notably the Wall Street Journal (2.1 million), USA Today (1.8 million), and the New York Times (877,000), are available nationwide.
The Wall Street Journal, although it has erected a pay wall around its Internet content, claims an electronic readership of 450,000. Its success suggests that in the future some newspapers may go completely online—thus reducing much of their production and distribution costs.
Most newspapers, including thousands of weeklies, are aimed at local communities. But after losing advertising revenue, their coverage is less comprehensive. They are being challenged by digital versions of local newspapers, such as AOL’s Patch.com (Kopytoff, 2011). It has seven hundred sites, each in an affluent community, in nineteen states and the District of Columbia. AOL has hired journalists and equipped each of them with a laptop computer, digital camera, cell phone, and police scanner to publish up to five items of community news daily. Some of their stories have achieved prominence, as, for example, a 2009 report about the hazing of high school freshmen in Millburn, New Jersey. But the most popular posts are about the police, schools, and local sports; and “often the sites are like digital Yellow Pages” (Auletta, 2011).
There are roughly five thousand magazines published on every conceivable subject. Five publishers account for around one-third of the total revenue generated. Political and social issues are commonly covered in news weeklies such as Time and also appear in popular magazines such as People and Vanity Fair.
To survive, journals of political opinion usually depend on subsidies from wealthy individuals who support their views. The Weekly Standard, the voice of Republican neoconservatives and one of the most influential publications in Washington, with a circulation of approximately 75,000, loses around $5 million annually. It was initially owned and funded by media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which makes big profits elsewhere through its diverse holdings, such as Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. In 2009, it sold the Weekly Standard to the conservative Clarity Media Group.
People watch an average of thirty-four hours of television weekly. Over one thousand commercial, for-profit television stations in the United States broadcast over the airwaves; they also are carried, as required by federal law, by local cable providers. Most of them are affiliated with or, in fewer cases, owned by one of the networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox), which provide the bulk of their programming. These networks produce news, public affairs, and sports programs.
They commission and finance from production companies, many of which they own, the bulk of the entertainment programming shown on their stations and affiliates. The most desired viewers are between eighteen and forty-nine because advertisements are directed at them. So the shows often follow standard formats with recurring characters: situation comedies, dramas about police officers and investigators, and doctors and lawyers, as well as romance, dance, singing, and other competitions. Sometimes they are spin-offs from programs that have done well in the audience ratings or copies of successful shows from the United Kingdom. “Reality” programming, heavily edited and sometimes scripted, of real people put into staged situations or caught unaware, has become common because it draws an audience and usually costs less to make than written shows. The highest-rated telecasts are usually football games, exceeded only by the Academy Awards.
Unusual and risky programs are put on the air by networks and channels that may be doing poorly in the ratings and are willing to try something out of the ordinary to attract viewers. Executives at the relatively new Fox network commissioned The Simpsons. Matt Groening, its creator, has identified the show’s political message this way: “Figures of authority might not always have your best interests at heart.…Entertain and subvert, that’s my motto” (Bhattacharya, 2000). The show, satirizing American family life, government, politics, and the media, has become one of television’s longest running and most popular series worldwide.
Cable is mainly a niche medium. Of the ninety or so ad-supported cable channels, ten (including USA, TNT, Fox News, A&E, and ESPN) have almost a third of all the viewers. Other channels occasionally attract audiences through programs that are notable (Mad Men on American Movie Classics) or notorious (Jersey Shore on MTV). Cable channels thrive (or at least survive) financially because they receive subscriber fees from cable companies such as Comcast and Time-Warner.
The networks still have the biggest audiences—the smallest of them (NBC) had more than twice as many viewers as the largest basic cable channel, USA. The networks’ evening news programs have an audience of 23 million per night compared with the 2.6 million of cable news.
Politics and government appear not only on television in news and public-affairs programs but also in courtroom dramas and cop shows. In the long-running and top-rated television show (with an audience of 21.93 million viewers on January 11, 2011), NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service), a team of attractive special agents conduct criminal investigations. The show features technology, sex, villains, and suspense. The investigators and their institutions are usually portrayed positively.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was created by the federal government in 1967 as a private, nonprofit corporation to oversee the development of public television and radio (Hoynes, 1994; Lashley, 1992). CPB receives an annual allocation from Congress. Most of the funds are funneled to the more than three hundred public television stations of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and to over six hundred public radio stations, most affiliated with National Public Radio (NPR), to cover operating costs and the production and purchase of programs.
CPB’s board members are appointed by the president, making public television and radio vulnerable or at least sensitive to the expectations of the incumbent administration. Congress sometimes charges the CPB to review programs for objectivity, balance, or fairness and to fund additional programs to correct alleged imbalances in views expressed (Twentieth-Century Fund Task Force, 1993). Conservatives charge public broadcasting with a liberal bias. In 2011 the Republican majority in the House of Representatives sought to withdraw its federal government funding.
About half of public broadcasting stations’ budgets come from viewers and listeners, usually responding to unremitting on-air appeals. Other funding comes from state and local governments, from state colleges and universities housing many of the stations, and from foundations.
Corporations and local businesses underwrite programs in return for on-air acknowledgments akin to advertisements for their image and products. Their decisions on whether or not to underwrite a show tend to favor politically innocuous over provocative programs. Public television and radio thus face similar pressure from advertisers as their for-profit counterparts.
Public broadcasting delves into politics, particularly with its evening news programs and documentaries in its Frontline series. National Public Radio, with an audience of around twenty-seven million listeners weekly, broadcasts lengthy news programs during the morning and evening with reports from domestic and foreign bureaus. NPR has several call-in current-events programs, such as The Diane Rehm Show. Guests from a spectrum of cultural life are interviewed by Terry Gross on her program Fresh Air. On the Media analyzes the news business in all its aspects; and Ira Glass’s This American Life features distinctive individuals delving into important issues and quirky subjects. Most of these programs are available via podcast from iTunes. Public Radio Exchange, PRX.org, has an abundance of programs from independent producers and local NPR stations.
Around ten thousand commercial FM and AM radio stations in the United States broadcast over the airwaves. During the 1990s, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) dropped many restrictions on ownership and essentially abandoned the requirement that stations must serve the “public interest.” This led to the demise of much public affairs programming and to a frenzy of mergers and acquisitions. Clear Channel Communications, then the nation’s largest owner, bought the second largest company, increasing its ownership to roughly 1,150 stations. The company was sold in 2008 to two private equity firms.
Most radio programming is aimed at an audience based on musical preference, racial or ethnic background and language, and interests (e.g., sports). Much of the news programming is supplied by a single company, Westwood One, a subsidiary of media conglomerate Viacom. Even on all-news stations, the reports are usually limited to headlines and brief details. Talk radio, dominated by conservative hosts, reaches large audiences. We discuss it in more detail in Section 1.3 “Opinion and Commentary”.
Four major companies produce, package, publicize, advertise, promote, and merchandise roughly 5,000 singles and 2,500 compact discs (CDs) each year. A key to success is getting a music video on MTV or similar stations. Around twelve million CDs used to be sold nationwide every week. This number has significantly decreased. The companies and performers now make music that is cheaply available online through services such as Apple’s iTunes store. Many people, especially students, download music from the Internet or burn CDs for themselves and others.
Music often contains political content. Contrast Green Day’s scathing 2005 hit song “American Idiot” and its lyric “One nation controlled by the media” with Lee Greenwood’s patriotic “God Bless the USA.” Some rap lyrics celebrate capitalism and consumerism, promote violence against women, and endorse—or even advocate—attacks on the police and other authority figures.
The movie business is dominated by six major studios, which finance and distribute around 130 feature films each year. Mass-market logic usually pushes them to seek stories that “are sufficiently original that the audience will not feel it has already seen the movie, yet similar enough to past hits not to be too far out” (Litwak, 1986). Superheroes, science fiction and fantasy, sophomoric comedies, and animation dominate. Sequels are frequent. Special effects are common. In Robert Altman’s satire The Player, the protagonist says that the “certain elements” he needs to market a film successfully are violence, suspense, laughter, hope, heart, nudity, sex, and a happy ending.
It can cost well over $100 million to produce, advertise, and distribute a film to theaters. These costs are more or less recouped by US and overseas box office sales, DVD sales (declining) and rentals, revenue from selling broadcast rights to television, subscription cable, video on demand, and funds received from promoting products in the films (product placement). Increasingly important are Netflix and its competitors, which for a monthly charge make movies available by mail or streaming.
Many independent films are made, but few of them are distributed to theaters and even fewer seen by audiences. This situation is being changed by companies, such as Snag Films, that specialize in digital distribution and video on demand (including over the iPad) (Cieply, 2011).
It is said in Hollywood that “politics is box office poison.” The financial failure of films concerned with US involvement in Iraq, such as In the Valley of Elah, appears to confirm this axiom. Nonetheless, the major studios and independents do sometimes make politically relevant movies. We refer to many of them in this book and provide a list at the end of each chapter. The five nominees for the 2005 Oscar for best picture all contained political content—Brokeback Mountain (homosexuality), Capote (a fiction writer’s complex relationship to two murderers he befriends and writes about), Crash (racial tension in Los Angeles), Good Night and Good Luck (CBS’s response to the Red Scare of the early 1950s), and Munich (Israeli–Palestinian relations).
Some 100,000 books are published annually. About “seventy percent of them will not earn back the money that their authors have been advanced” (Auletta, 2010). There are literally hundreds of publishers, but six produce 60 percent of all books sold in the United States. Publishers’ income comes mainly from sales. A few famous authors command multimillion-dollar advances: President Bill Clinton received more than $10 million and President Bush around $7 million to write their memoirs.
E-books are beginning to boom. The advantage for readers is obtaining the book cheaper and quicker than by mail or from a bookstore. For publishers, there are no more costs for printing, shipping, warehousing, and returns. But digital books could destroy bookstores if, for example, publishers sold them directly to the iPad. Indeed, publishers themselves could be eliminated if authors sold their rights to (say) Amazon.
Books featuring political revelations often receive widespread coverage in the rest of the media. They are excerpted in magazines and newspapers. Their authors appear on television and radio programs. An example is President George W. Bush’s former press secretary Scott McClellan, who, while praising the president in his memoir as authentic and sincere, also accused him of lacking in candor and competence (McClellan, 2008).
The subjects of this section are communication, information, and the media. We have explained how economics, government and politics, and technology shape the media and their contents. Market domination by a few conglomerates limits competition and, arguably, the wide availability and range of media contents. The main types of mass media are newspapers, magazines, television, public broadcasting, commercial radio, music, films, and books. Their contents relevant to politics and government are entertainment, news, and opinion. They are largely aimed at a vast, undifferentiated audience.
- Where do you get most of your information? How do you think the type of media you consume affects the kind of information you get?
- How does the need to attract a large audience for advertisements influence media content?
Auletta, K., “Publish or Perish,” The New Yorker, April 26, 2010, 24–31, is the source for much of this discussion; the quotation is on p. 30.
Auletta, K., “You’ve Got News,” The New Yorker, January 24, 2011, 33.
Bagdikian, B. H., The New Media Monopoly (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004).
Baker, C. E., argues for the importance of media diversity in Media Concentration and Democracy: Why Ownership Matters (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
Bhattacharya, S., “Homer’s Odyssey,” Observer Magazine, August 6, 2000, 19.
Cieply, M., “A Digital Niche for Indie Film,” New York Times, January 17, 2011, B5.
Hoynes, W., Public Television for Sale (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994)
Kopytoff, V. G., “AOL Bets on Hyperlocal News, Finding Progress Where Many Have Failed,” New York Times, January 17, 2011, B3.
Lashley, M., Public Television (New York: Greenwood, 1992).
Liebling, A. J., The Press (New York: Ballantine, 1964), 7.
Litwak, M., Reel Power (New York: Morrow, 1986), 74.
McClellan, S., What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception (New York: Public Affairs, 2008).
Twentieth-Century Fund Task Force on Public Television, Quality Time (New York: Twentieth-Century Fund Press, 1993), 36.
- This section draws on Bruce Bimber, Information and American Democracy: Technology in the Evolution of Political Power (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), especially 9–12. ↵