After reading this section, you should be able to answer the following questions:
- What are the four ways the new media are changing the relationship between communication on the one hand and government and politics on the other?
- What is WikiLeaks.org?
- What limits the ability of the new media to improve citizen education and enhance public life?
- What is the political potential of the new media?
The early 1980s saw the development of what we call the new media: new technologies and old technologies in new combinations. They are muddying if not eliminating the differences between media. On the iPad, newspapers, television, and radio stations look similar: they all have text, pictures, video, and links.
Increasingly, Americans, particularly students, are obtaining information on tablets and from websites, blogs, discussion boards, video-sharing sites, such as YouTube, and social networking sites, like Facebook, podcasts, and Twitter. And of course, there is the marvel of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia to which so many people (four hundred million every month) go to for useful, if not always reliable, information.
New media are changing the relationship between communication and government and politics in four significant ways.
Making More Information Available and Accessible
Julian Paul Assange founded WikiLeaks.org in 2007 to expose the secrets of governments, corporations, and other institutions. In 2010 he released a classified video showing a US helicopter killing civilians, including two journalists, in Baghdad—an edited version was viewed several million times on YouTube (Khatchadourian, 2010). He has since released thousands of intelligence and military field reports from the war in Afghanistan and from the front lines of the conflict in Iraq.
Assange followed up in November 2010 with a dump of classified cables sent by US diplomats from their embassies during the last three years. The cables detailed the diplomats’ dealings with and honest assessments of both the foreign countries where they were stationed and their leaders, revealing the reality beneath the rhetoric: that Saudi Arabia has urged that Iran be bombed, that Shell dominates the government of Nigeria, that China launched a cyber attack on Google, and that the US State Department urged its employees to collect biometrical information on foreign diplomats serving at the United Nations.
WikiLeaks released the material to selected leading newspapers in the United States (New York Times), the United Kingdom (Guardian), and elsewhere, deferring to the journalists to decide which ones were news, which could be made public, and whether to redact names from them. Nonetheless, their release could damage the careers of some US diplomats and discloses the names of informants, thereby endangering them. The cables could be subject to foreign governments’ and private companies’ data-mining and pattern-analysis programs. Consequently, the US Justice and Defense Departments and other organizations tried to stop Assange, to avoid further leaks, and to punish the leakers.
News organizations, with their legitimacy and experienced journalists, have gone online. They often add details and links missing from their broadcast or published versions of their stories. Their sophisticated technology keeps their sites fresh with the latest news, photos, and real-time audio and video. In February 2011, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation announced the arrival of The Daily, a general-interest publication for tablet computers. It will cost ninety-nine cents weekly or forty dollars for a year (Peters & Stelter, 2011).
Journalists incorporate the Internet into their reporting. They read the sites of other news organizations, get story ideas, background information, check facts, search for and receive press releases, and download data.
The nonprofit investigative site Pro-Publica—which has exposed the involvement of doctors in torture, the contamination of drinking water through gas drilling, and other outrages—is generating and sharing content with many print publications that have cut back their investigative reporting.
Talking Points Memo was primarily responsible for tenacious investigative journalism, pursuing and publicizing the firing of eight US attorneys by the Bush administration’s Justice Department. The result was a scandal that sparked interest by the mainstream media and led to the resignation of President Bush’s attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, in 2008. The ideologically conservative Drudge Report came to fame when Matt Drudge used his web portal to spread the latest news and rumors about the relationship between President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. The site is now looked to by television producers, radio talk-show hosts, and reporters, for scoops, the latest leaks, gossip, and innuendo.
Andrew Breithbart, a former colleague of Matt Drudge, founded his site in 2005. It aggregates news from the wire services and is viewed by an average of 2.4 million people monthly. He is also responsible for the websites Big Hollywood, Big Government, and Big Journalism, which provide some original reporting and commentary from a conservative perspective by unpaid bloggers, as well as references to articles on other sites.
Breithbart made a splash with videos posted on Big Government in September 2009 regarding ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). Since 2006, conservatives had attacked ACORN, accusing it of voter fraud. This became the dominant frame and set the agenda for media coverage of the organization. Now the hidden-camera, heavily edited footage (the complete original video footage has never been fully disclosed) showed ACORN employees offering advice to a man and woman, who were posing as a pimp and a prostitute, proposing to bring underage Salvadoran girls into the United States to be sexually enslaved. The footage became a top story on the Glenn Beck Show, the rest of Fox News, and conservative talk radio. In December 2009, the Congressional Research Service issued a report exonerating ACORN of any wrongdoing. A few months later, ACORN went out of business (Dreier & Martin, 2010).
The new media can aim at more discrete, specialized audiences, narrowcasting rather than broadcasting. Often controlled by individual communicators, their content is usually aimed at smaller and more socially, economically, and perhaps politically distinct audiences than the mass media. This fragmentation of the mass audience means that the old mass-media pursuit of lowest-common-denominator content may no longer be financially necessary or viable.
There are cable channels devoted to women, African Americans, and Hispanics, as well as for buffs of news, weather, history, and sports. DVDs and CDs enable the cheap reproduction of a wide range of films and recordings that no longer have to find a mass market to break even. Although the recording industry is selling fewer and fewer CDs and is phasing out music formats with small audiences (e.g., classical, jazz), artists can produce their own CDs and find a far-flung audience, particularly through web-based commerce such as Amazon.
Satellite radio is the fastest growing radio market. It uses technology that broadcasts a clear signal from space to receivers anywhere in the world. Providers XM and Sirius offer uninterrupted programming for a subscription fee. Listeners have hundreds of program options. Broadcast radio stations are no longer limited by the range of a signal across terrain but through the web can reach listeners who make up an audience that is less bounded by geography than by shared cultural, social, and political interests.
As major news organizations have gone online, they have hired technologically skilled young people. At first, these people would primarily reprocess content. Now they create it, as they know how to take advantage of the technology. Thanks to cell-phone cameras, webcams, and social networks, ordinary people can create, store, sort, share, and show digital videos. YouTube is the go-to website for finding obscure and topical streaming video clips. Home videos, remixes, and television excerpts are posted by users (also by the television networks). YouTube has millions of videos and daily viewers.
People can use video clips to hold politicians accountable by revealing their gaffes, showing the contradictions in their statements and behavior, and thereby exposing their dissembling, their exaggerations, and even their falsehoods. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had to say that she had misremembered when her claim that she had been under sniper fire at the airport during her 1996 visit to Bosnia as First Lady was refuted by videos shown on YouTube that attained millions of views.
People can become citizen journalists and create contents by reporting on subjects usually ignored by the news media. Examples include OneWorldTV’s human rights and development site and short videos on subjects such as land expropriation in Kenya, gang reform in Ecuador, and LiveLeak’s coverage of executions in Saudi Arabia.
People can become citizen journalists as eyewitnesses to events. Examples of their reporting include the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, Hurricane Katrina that hit the US Gulf Coast in 2005, and the massacre of students at Virginia Tech University in 2006. They showed some of what happened and documented the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the authorities’ responses. Mainstream media have incorporated citizen journalism into their news products. CNN’s “iReport,” in which “you take control of the news,” encourages average people to submit stories with accompanying images. Reports span numerous topics, including candidates on the campaign and pet stories.
The Free Press now has a site called MediaFail where people can post egregious examples of media derelictions and failures.
Blogs are online diaries whose authors post information, including ideas and opinions. Blogs may permit feedback from readers and provide hyperlinks to other online contents that may enrich the discussion. Many people blog; the most popular political blog sites, Instapundit and DailyKos, claim over 75,000 visitors per day, but few are widely read. Nonetheless, there are thousands of political blogs on the web: the Huffington Post, a news aggregator with some original material, claims more than eighteen hundred bloggers—none of them paid.
Blogging can be seen as a new form of journalism without deadlines or broadcast schedules. But it does not replace reporting. Most bloggers rely on material issued elsewhere for their information: domestic and foreign newspapers, government documents, academic papers, and other media.
Nonetheless, the “blogosphere” can hold public officials accountable by amplifying and spreading information, especially when many bloggers cover the same subject, a phenomenon known as “blogswarm.” For example, Mississippi Republican senator Trent Lott, at a reception honoring his South Carolina colleague Strom Thurmond’s hundredth birthday, spoke approvingly of the latter’s prosegregationist 1948 presidential campaign: “When Strom Thurmond ran for president we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all of these years either.” The journalists in attendance little noted his comment. Bloggers saw the quote in a story on ABC News’s daily online comment “The Note.” They highlighted and linked it to previous statements on racial issues by Thurmond and Lott. The bloggers’ comments were picked up by the news media. As a result, Lott subsequently resigned as Senate Majority Leader.
Bloggers can hold the news media accountable. One important way is by challenging the media’s framing of a story. For example, conservative bloggers criticize reporters for framing stories about abortion, gay rights, and religion from a liberal perspective.
Bloggers also challenge the media’s stories themselves. On the 60 Minutes Wednesday segment of September 8, 2005, anchor Dan Rather presented documents purportedly showing that President George W. Bush had received preferential treatment in joining the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970s and thus avoided military service in Vietnam. The report was a scoop that had been rushed onto the air. Conservative Internet forums and bloggers immediately pointed out that, because of their format and typography, the documents were forged. The accusation quickly gained national attention by the news media and was soon corroborated. Rather’s long career at CBS was ended sooner than he and the network had planned.
The ability of new media to realize their potential and promise for improving citizen education and enhancing public life is limited in five ways.
First, political websites and bloggers generally lack the resources of the news media and the knowledge and expertise of journalists to cover and investigate government, politics, and public policies in depth. They react to rather than originate the news.
Second, the new media encourage people to expose themselves to contents (people and perspectives) they already agree with. The audience for Fox News is overwhelmingly Republican, while Democrats gravitate to MSNBC and Comedy Central. Liberals find stories that support their views on the Huffington Post, conservatives on the National Review Online. Liberal blogs link to other liberal blogs, conservative blogs to other conservative blogs.
Third, the new media are rife with muddle and nonsense, distortion and error. When the journalist Hunter S. Thompson died, an Internet site reported President Nixon’s opinion that Thompson “represented the dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character.” In fact, Thompson said that about Nixon.
Worse, the new media are a fount of rumor, innuendo, invective, and lies. The Indian wire service Press Trust quoted an anonymous Indian provincial official stating that President Obama’s official state visit to India would cost $2 billion ($200 million a day). The story was picked up by the Drudge Report, other online sites, and conservative talk-radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage. Glenn Beck presented the trip as a vacation accompanied by thirty-four warships and three thousand people. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) repeated the claim to Anderson Cooper on his CNN program. This inspired him to track it down, reveal its falsity, and show how it had been perpetuated (Friedman, 2010).
Even worse, the new media can promote and express anger, hatred, rage, and fanaticism. When American journalist Daniel Pearl was beheaded by his Al Qaeda captors in Pakistan in May 2002, the action was videotaped and distributed over the Internet on a grainy video titled “The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl.”
Fourth is the possibility of the new media falling increasingly under the control of media conglomerates and giant corporations. Google has purchased YouTube. This could eventually subject them to the same demands placed on the mass media: how to finance the production of content and make a profit. Indeed, advertising has become far more prevalent in and on the new media. Of course acquisitions don’t always succeed: Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation bought and then sold MySpace after failing to make it a financial or social networking success.
Fifth, the new media are a threat to privacy. Google logs all the searches made on it and stores the information indefinitely. Relatedly, the new media tend to defer to government. AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo, but not Google, have complied with requests from the US Justice Department for website addresses and search terms. Google in China omits links to sites that the Chinese government does not want its citizens to see.
In the United States there are Gawker and its network, including the gossip sites Jezebel and Deadspin. They have no compunctions about breaching people’s privacy—even if it means violating journalistic norms by paying for information, as they did in the case of the sex diary written in the form of a thesis of a recent Duke University graduate and also a story concerning quarterback Brett Favre’s sexual behavior.
Relatively few Internet users attend to politics or government or public policies (Hindman, 2008). Nonetheless, the new media are rife with political potential. They can convey a wide range of information and views. There are sites for people of every political persuasion interested in any policy issue (e.g., drugs, education, health, environment, immigration). These sites can encourage discussion and debate, stimulate political participation, raise funds, mobilize voters, and inspire civic engagement.
The new media allow politicians, political parties, interest and advocacy groups, as well as individuals to bypass the traditional media and reach the public. They can try to control their image by deciding what information to release and selecting congenial media through which to communicate it—to their benefit but not necessarily our enlightenment. Sarah Palin, for example, uses Twitter, Facebook, appearances on Fox News (the network paid for a television studio in her home), a reality television show, newspaper columns, and two best-selling books to communicate her message. She usually avoids appearing on shows whose hosts may be hostile to or even critical of her. (The belief that public figures, including Palin, personally write everything issued in their names is questionable; President Obama has admitted that he doesn’t write his Twitter feeds).
The new media offer people the potential opportunity to transcend the mass media. As newspaper columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote rather hyperbolically, “When everyone has a blog, a MySpace page or Facebook entry, everyone is a publisher. When everyone has a cell phone with a camera in it, everyone is a paparazzo. When everyone can upload video on YouTube, everyone is a filmmaker. When everyone is a publisher, paparazzo or filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure” (Friedman, 2007).
In this section we have seen how the new media are changing the relationship between communication on the one hand and government and politics on the other. They make more information than ever before accessible and available. They facilitate narrowcasting, the creation of content, and blogging. Despite limitations on their ability to improve citizen education and enhance public life, the new media are rife with political potential, particularly for civic education (Levine, 2007).
- How do new media make it difficult for governments to keep secrets? What effect do you think that will have on politics?
- How does blogging differ from traditional journalism? What are the advantages of blogging as a form of journalism? What are the disadvantages?
- In what sense do new media make everyone potentially a journalist? Do you agree that this also makes everyone potentially a public figure?
You Can Be a Journalist
The emerging communications system in the United States, with its heady mix of traditional mass media and new media, offers a startling array of opportunities for citizens to intervene and get something done in politics and government. The opportunities are especially rich for young people who are well versed in new technologies, and they are charting new paths in political discourse.
Scoop08.com, the “first-ever daily national student newspaper,” was launched on November 4, 2007—a year before the presidential election. The goal of the paper was to bring a youthful focus to campaign news and political issues, as well as to cover topics and political personalities that escaped mainstream media attention. There were almost fifty beats covering aspects of the 2008 election including major and minor political parties, gender and sexuality, the environment, technology, and even sports.
Reporters and editors came from over four hundred high schools and colleges nationwide. Their backgrounds were ethnically and socially diverse. All volunteers, students who wanted to become involved responded to an open invitation on the website’s homepage: “This is your newsroom—Get involved.” Scoop08’s web-based platform allowed its young reporters to file conventional stories as well as to post videos, blog entries, cartoons, and instant polls.
The online newspaper was founded by coeditors Alexander Heffner, seventeen, a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and Andrew Mangino, twenty, a junior at Yale University. The two met when they were interns on Senator Hillary Clinton’s Senate reelection campaign. With people aged eighteen to twenty-nine making up 25 percent of the 2008 electorate, Heffner and Magino wanted to provide a mechanism for generating student interest and activity during the election. “We noticed there was a void when it came to national, grassroots, student journalism that really could have an impact on issues of importance. This is an increasingly politically engaged generation that is able to network online and to work professionally, academically, and socially in this venue,” stated Heffner (Smith-Spark, 2007).
Contributors to Scoop08 found the experience fulfilling. Hadley Nagel, a correspondent from Nightengale-Bamford School, stated, “If our generation is the future, we who write for Scoop08 will be shaping history.” A comment by Zoe Baker from Kennebunk High School reflected the ideals expressed by many of the young reporters: “Scoop08 has the opportunity to reassert journalistic integrity.”
Dreier, P. and Christopher R. Martin, “How ACORN Was Framed: Political Controversy and Media Agenda Setting,” Perspectives on Politics 8, no. 3 (September 2010): 761–92; the statement that the complete original video has “never been fully disclosed” is on p. 780.
Friedman , T. L., in “Too Good to Check,” his column in the New York Times, October 17, 2010, A27.
Friedman, T. L., “The World Is Watching,” International Herald Tribune, June 28, 2007, 6.
Hindman, M., The Myth of Digital Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
Khatchadourian, R., “No Secrets,” The New Yorker, June 7, 2010, 40–51.
Levine, P., The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of American Citizens (Medford, MA: Tufts University Press, 2007).
Peters, J. W. and Brian Stelter, “News Corp Heralds Debut of The Daily, an iPad-Only Newspaper,” New York Times, February 3, 2011, B1 and 4.
Smith-Spark, L., “Young US Voters May Get Scoop in 2008,” BBC News, November 4, 2007.
- Mariane Pearl’s memoir of her husband, A Mighty Heart (New York: Scribner, 2004), was made into a film released in 2007. ↵