1.3 Opinion and Commentary
After reading this section, you should be able to answer the following questions:
- Where in the media can you find opinion and commentary?
- What are the leading conservative and liberal cable news channels?
- What are the leading comedy programs about the media and politics?
- What are the four leading influences of the media on politics and government?
The media do far more than report the news. They are full of pundits, talking heads, and partisans who are busy expressing opinions and commenting on the news. These reactions and responses can contribute to a marketplace of ideas, informed public discussion, and greater understanding of politics, government, and public policies. Often, however, they result in conflict and cacophony: topics are broached too briefly in too little time, assertions dominate analysis, and shouting and squabbling drown out thought.
In this section, we tell you where to find opinion and commentary in the media about politics, government, and public policies.
Most newspapers contain editorials expressing opinions about the events of the day. The New York Times’s stance is liberal; the Wall Street Journal’s is conservative. They supplement their editorials with opinion columns from regular contributors. A few newspapers add op-eds. These are opinions from people unaffiliated with the paper. Some newspapers carry a range of opinions, others are ideologically monolithic. Cartoons, when the newspaper features them, often comment critically on public officials, policies, and current events. Comic strips are sometimes politically provocative, for example Gary Trudeau’s sardonic Doonesbury and Aaron McGruder’s scathing The Boondocks. These strip writers first published their work in their campus newspapers at Yale and the University of Maryland, respectively.
The nonpartisan magazines National Journal and Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report cover government and politics focusing on Washington, DC. Other magazines provide a spectrum of analysis and opinion, ranging from the conservative National Review and Weekly Standard, through the New Republic, to the liberal Nation and Progressive. All have relatively small readerships.
After much debate among members of Congress, televised coverage of floor proceedings via the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN) was established in the US House of Representatives in 1979 and in the Senate in 1986 (C-SPAN2) to transmit gavel-to-gavel coverage of floor action. These channels plus C-SPAN3 also air an array of political events, including election debates, political advertisements, press conferences, discussion forums, and interviews with news makers, journalists, and authors.
The television networks’ Sunday morning interview programs usually feature prominent policymakers, including government officials and well-known politicians. There is Meet the Press, Face the Nation, and This Week. In the face of sometimes aggressive questioning by the host and interview panelists, guests strive to set the news agenda and get their messages across to viewers. The programs, which have small audiences, are influential because they are widely watched in Washington, DC, otherwise known as “inside the beltway,” and by people interested in government and politics.
There are also shows featuring journalists discussing current events among themselves, whether more combatively (The McLaughlin Group) or less (Washington Week).
Twenty-four-hour cable-television news channels report the news. For example, CNN has The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer. But they have a lot of time to fill and only a limited number of reporters and news-gathering resources. So they employ opinionated anchors and fill their news programs with commentary and opinion, often from pundits, political consultants, party strategists, and people from interest groups and ideological think tanks. These guests, many of whom appear regularly (no matter how wrong their past observations), disagree forcefully with each other, speak in sound bites, and are adept at memorizing and delivering “spontaneous” quips (Brooks, 2000). Even though these shows have relatively small audiences, the people watching “are the news junkies, the ones who get the buzz going” (Fitzwater, 2007).
For a mainly conservative, pro-Republican, anti-Democrat perspective there is cable’s most popular news channel, Fox Cable News. Despite its claims to separate news from opinion, the two often blend together. The channel features partisan, opinionated talk-show hosts and commentators, notably the combative Sean Hannity, the sophistic Glenn Beck, and the pugilistic populist Bill O’Reilly. Stating his opinions bluntly and skewering some of his guests, O’Reilly has made his Fox show cable television’s most popular public affairs program. All three use multiple media platforms in addition to the Fox News Channel—radio talk shows, books, and websites—to spread their messages. Media Matters for America attacks the programs and positions of Fox News, especially Glenn Beck, and is attacked in return.
MSNBC is cable’s liberal opposition to the conservative Fox News. Its leading programs are Hardball with the disputatious Chris Matthews and The Rachel Maddow Show.
Over two thousand radio stations employ a news-talk format. Hosts have ample time to vent their opinions and cultivate, cajole, and castigate their callers and listeners (Brewer, 1993). The bulk of the talk-radio audience listens to hosts who express conservative opinions, are pro-Republican and hostile to liberals, Democrats, and feminists. The most conspicuous is Rush Limbaugh. This caustic conservative is the most widely heard (on more than six hundred stations with an estimated weekly audience of more than 13.5 million) and influential of all radio commentators. Promoting the conservative side, he castigates liberals with humor, often sliding into insult, sneer, and exaggeration.
From a countervailing, liberal-radical perspective, there is the Pacifica Network, particularly its evening news program Democracy Now, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez and heard on approximately nine hundred stations. It reports stories and interviews people rarely hear on mainstream, let alone conservative, media.
There are approximately 1,500 Christian programming stations. In addition to their inspirational religious content and music, they broadcast programs on marriage and family issues and advice for the troubled. Some of their content is relevant to politics and public policy, especially their espousal of and support for traditional views and values.
Comedy can venture where other entertainment forms fear to tread. Comedy has a point of view, presents an argument, and often lacerates, usually from a liberal perspective (as, for example, Saturday Night Live’s fake news segment).
Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart satirizes the news media and the politics and government they depict, especially the president. Jon Stewart, the acerbic yet charming host, confronts and analyzes the dissembling pronouncements of people in government. The show’s fake correspondents parody the behavior of real reporters to reveal the limitations of news formats and of objectivity. The show’s effects are achieved through Stewart’s comments and interjections, the incisive writing, and the clever editing of videos (Baymn, 2005; Jones, 2005).
On rare occasions, Stewart has tried to influence public policy. In December 2010, he effectively pushed (embarrassed, shamed) congressional Republicans to pass a bill they had been blocking that would approve funding for medical benefits to firefighters, police officers, and health workers who had become sick from working at Ground Zero on and after 9/11. In one program he interviewed four of the first responders who had become ill.
The most irreverent and cogent critique of newspapers appears in the weekly The Onion (Paletz, 2004; Dickens, 1999). January 2011 saw the debut on the IFC cable channel of the television version titled Onion News Network.
As headlines from The Onion show, this fake newspaper can produce an audacious commentary on the news media and American government and politics.
Learn more about The Onion and the Onion News Network:
Comedy focusing on government and politics also comes from The Colbert Report on Comedy Central and Bill Maher’s Real Time on HBO. These two cable channels, although owned by a media conglomerate, are known for their edgy content. Bolstering these shows’ impact, as with The Daily Show, are their appeal to young adults.
Media Influences on Politics, Government, and Public Policies
The media, old and new, influence politics, government, and public policies in five important ways, all of which we will apply throughout our book. We now introduce them.
A series of experiments has demonstrated that when television news places more attention and emphasis on certain issues, such as crime, the public tends to see those issues as more important problems requiring government action. The public then judges politicians according to how well they respond to the issues (Iyenger & Kinder, 1987).
Consider the television show 24. It told its viewers that terrorists were a constant threat to the United States and likely to strike with horrible destructiveness anywhere at any time. At its peak, the show had a weekly audience of approximately fifteen million viewers and reached millions more through DVD sales.
This agenda-setting power of the media, in effect, tells people what to think about. The flip side of agenda setting is that when the media ignore issues or policy areas, so too does the public. Thus for people involved in government or politics, getting an issue in the media, or keeping it out of the media, is important; the agenda influences the public’s understandings of what should be done by policymakers.
The media are not simply important in getting people to think about an issue; they influence how people think about it. Scholars refer to this media power as framing (Schaffner & Sellers, 2010).
Journalists bring a perspective to bear on events, highlight certain aspects at the expense of others, to create a coherent narrative (Reese, Gandy Jr., & Grant, 2001). Such a narrative names protagonists and antagonists, identifies some of the causes of the event described, outlines moral judgments, and may suggest solutions. Framing is inherent in the process of selecting, editing, organizing, and presenting stories. It is often expressed in the television anchorperson’s introduction and in newspaper headlines and opening paragraphs.
The meaning of an event can change dramatically based on how it is framed by and in the media. For example, the public understands a demonstration quite differently depending on whether the news frames it as an exercise of freedom of speech or as a threat to law and order.
Of course, some frames are more convincing than others. A frame’s impact may depend on who is promoting it, what other frames it is competing against, and how frequently it is repeated.
Often, though, news frames are predictable (Hallin, 1986). They express widely shared assumptions and values. The news media framed the events of 9/11 as terrorist attacks on the United States with a response from Americans of national heroism, horror, and mourning.
Out of habit and to simplify complex subjects, journalists tend to cover government and politics with a relatively small repertoire of familiar frames. Relations within and between the branches of government are typically framed as conflicts. Stories often frame politicians as motivated by partisanship and the desire for reelection. Stories about government agencies are frequently framed around bureaucratic incompetence, waste, and corruption.
Framing influences politics by reinforcing or changing what people think of an issue. Different frames call for different policy solutions. Thus 24 told its viewers that in the grim choice between security and liberty, coercion must prevail, that torture is essential to extract information from terrorists to forestall (usually just in time) their lethal schemes. According to Human Rights First, the number of acts of torture on prime-time television increased from fewer than four before 9/11 to more than a hundred. It used to be the villains who tortured, now it is the heroes (Mayer, 2007).
Media frames can provide criteria that audience members use to make judgments about government institutions, public officials, and issues. This is called priming. It can occur when news stories identify the person or institution to blame for an event, such as the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. The president is often held responsible for the nation’s problems. Priming effects are strongest “when the news frames a problem as if it were the president’s business, when viewers are prepared to regard the problem as important, and when they see the problem as entangled in the duties and obligation of the presidency” (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987).
Because of its intrinsic importance, reemphasized by the news and entertainment media, fighting terrorism continues as a prominent issue. The president is seen as primarily responsible. Presidential candidates’ competence to combat terrorism thus becomes an important criterion by which the electorate judges them. Note, in this respect, that some of 24’s presidents could not be trusted to execute that duty and obligation effectively.
The media affect what people think about in politics and how they think about it. They also influence what, if anything, people do about politics, problems, and policies.
Media contents can mobilize individuals to engage in political behavior, from contacting public officials, to voting, to protesting, to committing violence. In the 1960s, television coverage increased participation in the nonviolent protests of the civil rights movement against segregation in the South (Lee, 2002). Continuous coverage of the 2009 health care legislation contributed to generating a wide range of participation by the public. Partisan media particularly foster citizen engagement in politics, as Fox News did for the Tea Party.
The media can influence people in politics without the public being involved at all. Politicians are far more voracious consumers of the news than is the average American. When issues are heavily covered in the media, officials take such prominence as a sign that they may well be called to account for their actions, even if the public has not yet spoken out. And they speak and behave differently than they did when the issues were obscure. Media attention tends to encourage action and speed up the policy process, if only for politicians to get the issue off the table.
In this section, we have identified the incidence of opinion and commentary in the media. They are prevalent in newspapers and magazines, on television and radio, and in comedy. We then described four leading influences of the media on politics, government, and public policies. These are agenda setting, framing, priming, and mobilizing.
- What is the value of having opinion and commentary in the media? Do you think it makes it easier or harder for people to develop their own opinions about politics?
- How do media set the political agenda by choosing what issues to focus on? What do you think the media treat as the most important political issues right now?
- How can humor be used to influence public opinion? Why might satire be more effective than straight opinion in making political points?
Baym, G., “The Daily Show: Discursive Integration and the Reinvention of Political Journalism,” Political Communication 22, no. 3 (July–September 2005): 259–76
Brewer, A. M., Talk Shows & Hosts on Radio, 2nd ed. (Dearborn, MI: Whitefoord Press, 1993).
Brooks, D., “Live from 400,” The New Yorker, November 13, 2000, 122.
Dickens, S., ed., The Onion Presents Our Dumb Century (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999).
Fitzwater, M. quoted in Martha Joynt Kumar, Managing the President’s Message: The White House Communications Operation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 197.
Hallin, D. C., The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 116–17.
Iyengar, S. and Donald R. Kinder, News That Matters: Television and American Opinion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
Jones, J. P., Entertaining Politics: New Political Television and Civic Culture (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).
Lee, T., Mobilizing Public Opinion: Black Insurgency and Racial Attitudes in the Civil Rights Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
Mayer, J., “Whatever It Takes,” The New Yorker, February 19 & 26, 2007, 66–82, esp. 66 and 68.
Paletz, S. B. F., “The Irreverent Onion,” Political Communication 21, no. 1 (January–March 2004): 131–34.
Reese, S. D., Oscar H. Gandy Jr., and August E. Grant, eds., Framing Public Life: Perspectives on Media and Our Understanding of the Social World (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001).
Schaffner, B. F. and Patrick J. Sellers, Winning with Words: The Origins and Impact of Political Framing (New York: Routledge, 2010).
- A documentary film exposing what it sees as the pro–Republican and Bush administration coverage by the Fox News Channel is Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. ↵
- For a study of the similarities and relationships of Limbaugh, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, see Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph N. Cappella, Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). ↵