Contrary to the assertion that the news is simply a mirror-image reflection of what happens, we have shown that news content reflects a complex set of interactions between the imperatives of the marketplace and the professional aspirations of journalists. The economic model is by far the more straightforward account: the news is simply what sells. Although there is considerable evidence that economic pressures leave their imprint on the news, there is more to news than the desire to protect the bottom line. No matter what they might say to the contrary, journalists have an agenda; they strive to cover campaigns in ways that maximize their autonomy and, happily for them, increase their own professional visibility. No one who watches television
No one who watches television talk shows will be surprised at the revolving door between the regularly invited guests and the list of reporters covering the campaign. Interpretive coverage is defended on the grounds that journalists have a responsibility to protect the public from the machinations of campaign strategists, but it provides considerable side benefits as well. Campaign journalists who project their voices into the news every day not only appear on Washington Week or The Situation Room; they also command significant book advances from publishers. One factor conspicuously
One factor conspicuously absent from the commercial account of news is partisan intent. Politicians, interest groups, and commentators—especially those employed by Fox News—regularly allege that there is ideological bias in news coverage. Conservatives claim that the mainstream media—print and broadcast—are staffed by Democrats whose reporting reflects their personal politics. The fact that most journalists and editors at the prestigious news outlets identify themselves as Democrats lends credence to the charges of liberal bias. Some scholars have suggested that the sourcing patterns of the mainstream media demonstrate a preference for liberal over conservative experts (Groseclose, 2011). The media’s relentless
The media’s relentless pursuit of the Watergate scandal led many Republicans to suggest that journalists were motivated by their hostility to the Nixon administration. Nixon’s vice president (Spiro Agnew), for instance, attacked broadcast journalists as “nattering nabobs of negativity” who were out of touch with the “silent majority.” Twenty-five years later, when journalists pursued President Clinton with equal vigor in the course of the Lewinsky scandal, Democrats made much the same argument. In 2017, as the Mueller investigation into possible collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign dragged on, increasing numbers of Republicans began to complain not only about media bias, but also anti-Trump bias at the FBI.
For their part, liberal critics see American journalists as captives of their conglomerate owners. The overriding financial interests of corporate owners, in this account, act as disincentives for journalists to write stories exposing questionable business practices, even when these practices harm consumers. Thus, the American media were reluctant to publicize the public health consequences of smoking for fear of offending an industry that was a major source of advertising revenue. And in some cases, these critics allege, the conservative views of corporate owners also affect coverage of political issues and candidates. In 2004, for instance, the Sinclair Broadcast Group—a company that owns some 60 local television stations—ordered their ABC affiliates not to broadcast a special issue of Nightline produced by the ABC network in which the show’s anchor, Ted Koppel, read the names of American servicemen and servicewomen killed in Iraq. In 2017, when NBC News did not publish an exposé detailing the extent of Harvey Weinstein’s harassment of women, critics claimed the network was responding to corporate pressure. The investigative journalist who wrote the report suggested that NBC killed the story because of Weinstein’s political and legal clout. NBC’s claims that “the story wasn’t ready to go” were undermined when the New Yorker published it with no changes, resulting in a tidal wave of negative publicity and the downfall of Mr. Weinstein.
Notwithstanding the hue and cry over allegations of ideological or selfinterested bias in the news, the fact remains that political motives are less important determinants of news content than are commercial and organizational pressures. The evidence indicates that the American media have performed quite well according to the criterion of balanced political coverage. Issues and events are typically covered in point-counterpoint fashion so that the audience invariably gains exposure to the Democratic and Republican perspective on any given story (see D’Alessio & Allen, 2000). Newspaper coverage of American governors, for example, treats incumbents of both parties similarly, providing favorable coverage during periods of falling unemployment and crime rates but turning critical when real-world conditions deteriorate.
In the current era, however, there are clear signs of a revival of partisan journalism. As the number of online news sources increases, offering news coverage with an overt partisan slant may be an effective strategy for getting ahead in a competitive market. The conservative Fox News Channel consistently ranks as the most watched cable news channel, the conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh hosts the highest-rated talk radio show in the United States, and liberal-oriented programs on MSNBC (such as the Rachel Maddow Show) have dramatically increased their ratings in the aftermath of the 2016 election. News coverage of politics on cable news is very much polarized. Despite the steady stream of controversies and infighting from within the White House during the early months of the Trump presidency (including leaks of the president’s less than civil conversations with foreign leaders), Fox News coverage presented equal numbers of reports reflecting favorably and unfavorably on the president. In contrast, the mainstream news outlets responded to the apparent chaos within the White House with coverage that was more unfavorable than favorable (Patterson, 2017). And during the 2016 campaign, while most media outlets covered the Clinton campaign more critically than favorably (by about a 60-to-40 margin), in the case of Fox News, the ratio of negative to positive coverage was considerably higher—81-to-19 (data from Patterson, 2017).
In addition to the growth of partisan commentary on cable TV, online news sources offer similarly biased offerings. The liberal Huffington Post is among the most popular online news sites. The Drudge Report and Breitbart .com offer commentary with a distinctly conservative slant. As we discuss in Chapter 5, the growing reach of cable and online sources that deliver partisan news is testimony to the importance of consumers’ political views as a determinant of who they turn to for information. Given their increased ability to select from multiple providers, consumers with strong partisan preferences will form “echo chambers” by gravitating to the news source that provides coverage and commentary they find agreeable rather than disagreeable.
As the country has polarized along party lines, the ongoing debate over media bias has become more heated. We will take up the question of bias— perceived and real—in later chapters and also consider the possible effects of weakened media credibility on the prospects for informed citizenship. Nonetheless, despite the controversies surrounding questions of media bias, the fact remains that the real problem facing mainstream American journalism today is less the intrusion of political motives into editorial decisions and more the clash between economic pressures and the ability to deliver serious public affairs programming. There is no shortage of compelling factoids on the extent to which the media shirk their public service obligations. Nationwide, broadcast media offerings in 2013 included less than 1 percent that could be considered (even by a generous definition) public affairs programming. In the case of local news—admittedly the most deficient outlet—the results are mind-boggling. In the 2004 congressional elections, the amount of time taken up by campaign ads in local newscasts exceeded the amount of political news coverage by a ratio of more than 10 to 1 (Kaplan, Goldstein, & Hale, 2005). And while both Trump and Clinton focused their efforts on debating the issues before the American people, horse-race news of the 2016 campaign exceeded issueoriented news by a factor of more than 4 to 1.
The fixation on the horse race and strategy catches the attention of the audience while simultaneously providing journalists an edge in their continuing clash with the campaigns to shape the content of the news. In the end, the new style of reporting presents the campaign as theatrics rather than as a genuine clash of ideas. When candidates make major speeches on policy issues, they find themselves ignored altogether by news organizations with significant market share. Thus, by any stretch of the imagination, modern journalism does not deliver the marketplace of ideas that is so vital to the exercise of informed and engaged citizenship. Unfortunately, the verdict is equally pessimistic when we turn to journalism’s second potential contribution to the democratic process—namely, serving as a watchdog over the actions of government officials.
1. Historically, where Americans get their news has depended on the development of new technologies for transmitting information. In the 1920s, radio began to supplant newspapers as the main source of news for most Americans, and radio was itself supplanted by television in the 1950s.
2. The spread of cable television—and more recently the Internet—has transformed the news landscape, but the most serious threat to network news today is local news.
3. The credibility of the media in the eyes of the American public has declined sharply in recent decades, especially in the aftermath of party polarization.
4. Market forces influence the form and content of news. Market pressures are especially intense in the world of broadcast news, where soft news, sitcoms, and reality television shows attract much larger audiences than serious news does. News producers adapt to the competition from soft news, sitcoms, and cable talk shows by making their own news programs more entertaining and less serious. The current 24-hour news cycle has also increased pressure, as news organizations strive to deliver the news faster than their competitors do.
5. Organizational processes and the professional principles of journalists also influence what is reported. Modern political journalism rests on two dominant values: objectivity and autonomy. In attempting to protect their autonomy, reporters tend toward a more analytic form of news coverage centered on interpretation and analysis. Ad watches, candidate strategy, the horse race, and scandal stories feature prominently in this kind of coverage.
6. Accessibility and appropriateness also shape news coverage. In terms of everyday news, Washington, DC, is the center of the universe for most major news organizations, and that’s where most of their correspondents are stationed (and hence have access to stories). The appropriateness of a story for a particular news outlet also determines whether it will receive coverage; a car crash in Dallas is not news for the New York Times, for example. In addition, a story is more likely to be covered by a television news outlet if it generates compelling visual imagery.
7. Finally, the routines and procedures followed by news organizations have substantial impact on the content and form of the news. The pace of the news cycle means that events are more likely to be covered if they occur at some times of the day than at others. Assigning reporters to news beats ensures a steady flow of stories on those beats. And in covering an event, reporters gravitate to sources that can provide authoritative accounts of the event, which means that they rely on government officials for their information.