Technological advances and market competition have shaped efforts to gather, package, and transmit political news. In the early Republic, high unit costs limited the production of news to a few weeklies that were heavily subsidized by political parties. The adoption of steam-powered printing facilitated the rise of the penny press and the modern newspaper chains in the 19th century. The invention of radio and television ended newspapers’ monopoly on political communication. In recent years, the proliferation of cable television and the digital revolution have changed how most citizens receive political information.
The First Amendment protects the freedom of the press, making it difficult for government to censor information, even when disclosure impacts national security. Nonetheless, public officials are actively involved in creating the news. Indeed, political news is the joint product of two independent actors—politicians and the news media. Politicians seek favorable coverage in order to influence other politicians and the public. Whether through strategic leaks of information or elaborate events choreographed for television, politicians who lack the resources to engage in direct communication find it advantageous to chase media attention.
Unlike the public officials they cover, news organizations are driven primarily by profits. Some media outlets incorporate political bias into their business strategy. Others pursue infotainment or sensationalism to attract attention. Stories that involve controversy or that report bad news are more likely to be published.
With too few resources to cover every government agency or political event, news organizations rely on reporters and editors to assemble news that will appeal to their various audiences. Today, they do so under heavy time pressure, sometimes with disastrous results for accuracy.
Relations between politicians and the media have always involved a healthy dose of both strategy and mutual distrust. The president receives more coverage than members of Congress, due to the former’s greater status and authority. Both need the media to publicize their plans and policies, but must adapt communications to the preferences of news organizations and the technologies they use. Presidents, for example, have become masters of the mediums available to them—be it the press conference or shrinking sound bite. Successful manipulation of the media, however, only adds to the tension between government and the Fourth Branch.
- How do market forces make political news more “democratic?” Have market forces played the same role in press coverage throughout U.S. history?
- Why did newspaper editors accept party subsidies in the early Republic? What motivated these same editors to give up the subsidies later? Why didn’t they give them up earlier?
- How did the rise of newspaper chains affect the political influence of the press? What ultimately eroded the political power of these chains? How and why has the influence of newspapers continued to decline today?
- Why are broadcast media outlets generally more regulated than print media? What are some examples of this regulation, and what consequences do they have for political news? How has the rising popularity of Internet, cable, and satellite news affected the rationale for more broadcast regulation?
- How do differences in factors such as carrying capacity and target audiences lead to differences in the substance and style of news in different media?
- How and why do politicians seek to manipulate the news? What strategies do they use to generate beneficial coverage?
- What resources do politicians have that might allow them to “go around” the press and communicate with the public directly? In general, how successful are these attempts?
- How well does the media fulfill its role as the “Fourth Branch” of American government? How has the answer to this question changed over time?
- Does more access to news sources lead to a better informed electorate? Why or why not?