3.4 Federalism in the Information Age

Learning Objectives

After reading this section, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  1. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the media in covering federalism?
  2. How are some public officials in the federal system able to use the media to advance their political agendas?
  3. What effects could the new media have on people’s knowledge of and commitment to federalism?

Federalism gives the American political system additional complexity and dynamism. The number of governments involved in a wide sweep of issues creates many ways for people in politics to be heard. These processes are facilitated by a media system that resembles federalism by its own merging and mingling of national, state, and local content and audiences.

Media Interactions

National, state, and local news and entertainment outlets all depict federalism. Now they are joined by new technologies that communicate across geographical boundaries.

National News Outlets

News on network television, cable news channels, and public broadcasting is aimed at a national audience. A few newspapers are also national. Reporters for these national outlets are largely based in New York and Washington, DC, and in a smattering of bureaus here and there across the country.

Local News Outlets

Local television stations transmit the news programs of the national networks to which they are affiliated. They broadcast local news on their own news shows. These shows are not devoid of substance, although it is easy to make fun of them as vapid and delivered by airheads, like Will Ferrell’s character Ron Burgundy in the 2004 comic film Anchorman. But they have only scattered national and international coverage, and attention to local and state government policies and politics is overshadowed by stories about isolated incidents such as crimes, car chases, and fires.

Almost all newspapers are local. Stories from the wire services enable them to include national and international highlights and some state items in their news, but most of their news is local. As their staff shrinks, they increasingly defer to powerful official sources in city hall or the police station for the substance of news. The news media serving smaller communities are even more vulnerable to pressure from local officials for favorable coverage and from advertisers who want a “feel-good” context for their paid messages.

From National to Local

Local newspapers and television stations sometimes have their own correspondents in Washington, DC. They can add a local angle by soliciting information and quotes from home-state members of Congress. Or, pooling of resources lets local television broadcasts make it look as though they have sent a reporter to Washington; a single reporter can send a feed to many stations by ending with an anonymous, “Now back to you.”

From Local to National

Some local stories become prominent and gain saturation coverage in the national news. Examples are the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999; the murder of pregnant Laci Peterson in California on Christmas Eve 2002; the kidnapping in Utah of Elizabeth Smart in 2003; and the 2005 battle over the fate of the comatose Terri Schiavo in Florida. The cozy relationships of local officials and local reporters are dislodged when national reporters from the networks parachute in to cover the event.

In 2011, federalism took center stage with the efforts of Republican governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and related steps by the Republican governors of Indiana and Ohio, to save funds by stripping most of the collective bargaining power of the state’s public employee unions. Stories reported on the proposed policies, Democratic legislators’ efforts to thwart them, and the workers’ and supporters’ sit-ins and demonstrations.

Such stories expand amid attention from local and national news outlets and discussion about their meaning and import. National, state, and local officials alike find they have to respond to the problems evoked by the dramatic event (Page, 1996).

State News and State Politics

Except for certain governors and attorneys general, the local media give little space in their news to state governments and their policies. One reason is that there are only a few truly statewide news outlets like New Hampshire’s Manchester UnionLeader or Iowa’s Des Moines Register. Another reason is that most state capitals are far from the state’s main metropolitan area. Examples such as Boston and Atlanta, where the state capital is the largest city, are unusual. The four largest states are more typical: their capitals (Sacramento, Austin, Tallahassee, and Albany) are far (and in separate media markets) from Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, and New York City.

Capital cities’ local news outlets do give emphasis to state government. But those cities are relatively small, so that news about state government usually goes to people involved with state government more than to the public in the state as a whole.

State officials do not always mind the lack of scrutiny of state government. It allows some of them to get their views into the media. Governors, for example, have full-time press officers as key advisors and routinely give interviews and hold news conferences. According to governors’ press secretaries, their press releases are often printed word-for-word across the state; and the governors also gain positive coverage when they travel to other cities for press events such as signing legislation (Layton & Dorroh, 2002).

Media Consequences

The variety and range of national and local media offer opportunities for people in politics to gain leverage and influence. National policymakers, notably the president, use national news and entertainment media to reach a national public. But because local news media serve as a more unfiltered and thus less critical conduit to the public, they also seek and obtain positive publicity from them.

State governors and big-city mayors, especially when they have few formal powers or when they face a state legislature or city council filled with opponents, can parlay favorable media attention into political power (Beyle & Muchmore, 1983; Rosenthal, 1990; Kaniss, 1991). At best, a governor (as one wrote in the 1960s) “sets the agenda for public debate; frames the issues; decides the timing; and can blanket the state with good ideas by using access to the mass media” (Sanford, 1967).

Some state attorneys general are particularly adept and adroit at attracting positive media coverage through the causes they pursue, the (sometimes) outrageous accusations they announce, and the people they prosecute. One result is to put intolerable pressure on their targets to settle before trial. Another is reams of favorable publicity that they can parlay into a successful campaign for higher office, as Eliot Spitzer did in becoming governor of New York in 2006, and Andrew Cuomo in 2010.

But to live by the media sword is sometimes to die by it, as Governor Spitzer discovered when the media indulged in a feeding frenzy of stories about his engaging the services of prostitutes. He resigned from office in disgrace in March 2008. (See the documentary Client 9, listed in our “Recommended Viewing.”) Indeed, news attention can be unwanted and destructive. After he was arrested in December 2008 for corruption, the widespread negative coverage Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich received in the national, state, and local media contributed to his speedy impeachment and removal from office by the state legislature the next month.

The media are also important because officials are news consumers in their own right. State legislators value news exposure to communicate to other legislators, the governor, and interest groups and to set the policy agenda (Cooper, 2002). Thus legislative staffers in Illinois conclude that news coverage is a better indicator of public opinion than polls (Herbst, 1998). The news may more heavily and quickly influence officials’ views of problems and policy issues than the public’s.

New Media and Federalism

New technologies that enable far-flung individuals quickly to obtain news from many locales can help people understand the many dimensions of federalism. People in politics in one state can, with a few keystrokes, find out how an issue is being dealt with in all fifty states, thus providing a boost for ideas and issues to travel more quickly than ever across state lines. The National Conference of State Legislatures, as part of its mission to “offer a variety of services to help lawmakers tailor policies that will work for their state and their constituents,” maintains a website, http://www.ncsl.org, with a motto “Where Policy Clicks!” allowing web surfers to search the latest information from a whole range of states about “state and federal issues A to Z.”

But new media create a challenge for federalism. They erode the once-close connection of media to geographically defined communities. Consumers can tune in to distant satellite and cable outlets as easily as local television stations. Cell phones make it as convenient (and cheap) to call across the country as across the street. The Internet and the web, with their listservs, websites, weblogs, chat rooms, and podcasts, permit ready and ongoing connections to groups and communities that can displace individuals’ commitment to and involvement in their physical surroundings.

In one sense, new technologies simply speed up a development launched in the 1960s, when, as one scholar writes, “one type of group—the place-based group that federalism had honored—yielded to groups otherwise defined, as by race, age, disability, or orientation to an issue or cause” (Derthick, 2001).

Yet the vitality of state and local governments, presenting so many opportunities for people in politics to intervene, reminds us that federalism is not about to wither and die. In the end, the new technologies may enable individuals and groups more efficiently to manage the potentially overwhelming amount of information about what is going on in policymaking—and to navigate quickly and adroitly the dazzling and bemusing complexity of American federalism.

Key Takeaways

The US media system blends national, state, and local outlets. Issues and stories move from one level to another. This enables people in politics to gain influence but can undermine them. New media technologies, fostering quick communication across vast expanses, allows people to learn and understand more about federalism but challenge federalism’s geographical foundation. Federalism seems like a daunting obstacle course, but it also opens up many opportunities for political action.


  1. How do the perspectives of the national and local media differ? Why is there relatively little coverage of state politics in the national and local media?
  2. Do you get any of your news from new media? How does such news differ from the news you get from the traditional media?

Civic Education

Michael Barker versus the School Board

As Hamilton predicted in Federalist No. 28, if the people are frustrated at one level of government, they can make their voice heard and win policy battles at another. Federalism looks like a daunting obstacle course, yet it opens up a vast array of opportunities for political action.

Michael Barker did not set out to push the Louisiana state legislature for a new law. In 2003, Barker, a seventeen-year-old high school junior from the town of Jena, had wondered if his school district might save money on computer equipment by making smarter purchases. He sent four letters to the LaSalle Parish School Board requesting information about computer expenditures. He was rebuffed by the superintendent of schools, who notified him that a state law allowed public officials to deny requests for public records from anyone under the age of eighteen.

Barker did not understand why minors—including student journalists—had no right to access public information. Stymied locally, he aimed at the state government. He conducted an Internet search and discovered a statewide nonprofit organization, the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR), that promotes public access. Barker contacted PAR, which helped him develop a strategy to research the issue thoroughly and contact Jena’s state representative, Democrat Thomas Wright. Wright agreed to introduce House Bill 492 to strike the “age of majority” provision from the books. Barker testified in the state capital of Baton Rouge at legislative hearings on behalf of the bill, saying, “Our education system strives daily to improve upon people’s involvement in the democratic process. This bill would allow young people all over the state of Louisiana to be involved with the day-to-day operations of our state government.”

But Barker’s crusade had just begun. A state senator who had a personal beef with Representative Wright tried to block passage of the bill. Barker contacted a newspaper reporter who wrote a story about the controversy. The ensuing media spotlight caused the opposition to back down. After the bill was passed and signed into law by Governor Kathleen Blanco, Barker set up a website to share his experiences and to provide advice to young people who want to influence government.This information comes from Jan Moller, “Teen’s Curiosity Spurs Open-Records Bill,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 14, 2004; and Wendy Scahetzel Lesko, “Teen Changes Open-Records Law,” Youth Activism Project, E-News, July 2004, http://www.youthactivism.com/newsletter-archives/YA-July04.html.


Beyle, T. L. and Lynn R. Muchmore, eds., “The Governor and the Public,” in Being Governor: The View from the Office (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1983), 52–66.

Cooper, C. A., “Media Tactics in the State Legislature,” State Politics and Policy Quarterly 2 (2002): 353–71.

Derthick, M., Keeping the Compound Republic: Essays on American Federalism (Washington, DC: Brookings, 2001), 152.

Herbst, S., Reading Public Opinion: How Political Actors View the Democratic Process (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), chap. 2.

Kaniss, P., Making Local News (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), chap. 6.

Layton, C. and Jennifer Dorroh, “Sad State,” American Journalism Review, June 2002, http://www.ajr.org/article_printable.asp?id=2562.

Page, B. I., Who Deliberates? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

Rosenthal, A., Governors and Legislatures: Contending Powers (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 1990), 24–27.

Sanford, T., Storm over the States (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), 184–85, quoted in Thad L. Beyle and Lynn R. Muchmore, eds., “The Governor and the Public,” in Being Governor: The View from the Office (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1983), 52.


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