The Structure of the Mass Media and politics in America
For the most part, the mass media in the United States are privately owned. Public radio and public television, which receive part of their revenues from the federal government through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), represent a comparatively small share of the market.
The press has always played an important role in American society and government. Recently, however, some people have begun to feel that this role has expanded into areas where perhaps it has no place. How has this change come about? How have the Internet and other technological advances affected the way information is presented to the public? Editor of Slate magazine and political pundit Michael Kinsley explores these issues in the following article.
The press in America is sometimes referred to as the Fourth Estate. This term dates back to 18th-century Britain. It was meant to suggest that the press was a force in society and government equal to the three recognized “estates” of the time—the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners. Today the term still signifies that the press plays a special role in our system of government.
That role, however, is both ambiguous and controversial. Journalists, after all, are not elected by the people. They are not even appointed or confirmed by elected officials. What gives these private citizens, working mostly for private corporations, the right to an influential role in how the country is governed? One answer some journalists like to give is that their profession is actually mentioned in the Constitution. The First Amendment guarantees “freedom of speech and of the press.” This freedom, they say, reflects the Founding Fathers’ recognition of the special role of the press.
It is not clear, though, whether the authors of the First Amendment intended “the press” to refer to journalism as a profession (or an “estate”), or whether they simply meant to indicate that freedom of speech includes the printed as well as the spoken word. A better defense of journalism’s influence on government may be that the only power journalists have is the power of persuasion. They cannot cause any government policy to change without convincing the people or the people’s representatives that it ought to change. Therefore it doesn’t matter that they themselves are not elected by anybody.
These days the press is often referred to as the media. Like “Fourth Estate,” the term “media” reflects a certain understanding about the role of the press in society. Media, the plural of medium, literally means the various technologies that convey information—from ink on paper to telephones and television to the Internet. Despite its literal meaning, however, the word has come to imply information itself, and those who deal in it, more than actual newsprint and copper wires. In what is rightly called the Age of Information, purveyors of information are an inevitable influence on society and government.
What kind of influence? A good influence, most journalists would say. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put the journalists’ case succinctly in his famous remark that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” In other words the press, by exposing flaws in government (or business or academia or the other powerful “estates” of modern democratic capitalist society), helps to correct those flaws.
But this view is not widely shared outside the media itself. Polls consistently show that the press is unpopular. While complaints vary, many of them can be distilled into two basic ideas. One is that journalists are biased and their reports are not balanced or objective. The other is that journalists, by exposing matters that ought to be nobody else’s business, trample other citizens’ right to privacy.
Are these accusations fair? People who complain about press bias often misunderstand a key point, which is this: there is a difference between being biased and having an opinion. Journalists who cover politics and government spend their days learning and thinking about the issues and personalities involved. It is only natural that they develop opinions. Those who charge the press with bias almost invariably have strong political opinions of their own. But they rarely perceive their own opinions as biased. Often an accusation of bias means only that “this journalist disagrees with me.” But actual bias is when a journalist lets his or her opinion get in the way of fair and accurate reporting.
Journalists themselves have contributed to this confusion by sometimes suggesting that they, unlike ordinary people, have a special duty and a special gift to draw no conclusions and have no opinions about the matters they cover. Of course they do not have such a gift—and therefore they cannot have such a duty. In many European countries, journalists and journalistic institutions have overt political labels. In a way, this is more honest. It doesn’t relieve the journalist of the duty to be fair and objective. But it does relieve him or her of the pretense of having no opinion. And it allows the reader or viewer to know what predisposition the journalist brings to the story.
The issue of privacy and the press became central in 1998, a year dominated by one news story: President Clinton’s affair with a White House intern. The public apparently decided overwhelmingly that most sexual behavior—even adultery—should not be reported by the press, even when this behavior involves the highest elected official in the land. What matters, many said, is a politician’s beliefs on issues and record of performance in office, not private sexual behavior.
Here too, the press deserves more sympathy than it gets. Until recently, journalists did not report sexual behavior. In the most famous example, White House correspondents knew and never reported about the sexual adventures of President John F. Kennedy. In hindsight, many journalists concluded that not reporting these activities was elitist: they were keeping information from voters not because it wasn’t important, but because they feared voters might consider it too important.
By 1998 the assumption that voters would care too much appeared to have been proven wrong. This was a big surprise to many journalists. No one would have predicted, before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, that the public would be lessmoralistic than the media.
Is a politician’s adulterous affair relevant enough to his or her official duties that it should be investigated and reported by the media? That is a matter of dispute. Many people, if not a majority, believe that a politician’s moral character is a legitimate issue and that adultery is an issue of moral character.
There is also the question of honesty. Most politicians do make some version of their private lives public, even if this version only involves campaigning with their spouses and children. If this version is a sham, then perhaps that fact says something worth knowing about the politician’s willingness to deceive the public about other matters. On the other hand, many people argue that lying about sex or lying to protect one’s privacy differs from lying about political issues. And they say it is unfair for the press to intrude on a politician’s private life and then to justify that intrusion because the politician lied as a result of the intrusion. Surely, these people argue, even journalists have something they would lie about to keep private.
But it is not only the politicians and the press who can be charged with hypocrisy on this issue. The public itself, while claiming to be repulsed or uninterested by stories like the Lewinsky affair, invariably rewards media outlets that pursue such stories with higher circulation and bigger ratings.
Issues of press responsibility, bias, and invasion of privacy have all been sharpened by the arrival of the Internet as a new force in the media. The Internet has changed things in at least two ways. First, it has speeded up the so-called news cycle—the time it takes for new developments to be reported. Second, it has lowered the barriers to entry: anyone with a computer and a modem can be a media mogul.
These developments have increased competition in the press and, some argue, have lowered standards of reporting. Accuracy suffers from the rush to beat the competition, especially when beating the competition is a matter of minutes or seconds rather than hours or days. Increased competitive pressure also makes it harder for the media to maintain traditional taboos on subjects like the sex lives of politicians. New arrivals may not have the same standards of accuracy or discretion as traditional news media have had. Yet, once a piece of information is out on the Internet, it becomes hard for the media to ignore it.
There is some truth to these concerns. But they also echo alarms that have accompanied advances in the media since the arrival of the printing press. Each innovation has produced worries about lower standards and the dangers of making mass communication too easy. Yet each has promoted democracy by making people better informed and making it easier for them to express their views.
The theory behind the First Amendment is that truth has a natural advantage over falsehood, provided that information and argument are as freely available as possible. The more information and argument—whether true or false, wise or stupid—the more likely it is that truth and wisdom will float to the surface while falsehood and stupidity will sink. The Internet, as the newest powerful Fourth Estate in our society, is making information and argument more plentiful than ever.