Scholars of U.S. politics and government have often emphasized the importance of a free press in a representative democracy. They stress that skilled journalists play a key role as the communications link between elected officials, candidates for office and the general public. A recent article by syndicated columnist E. J. Dionne on Donald Trump and the media prompted me to consider the current relationship between journalists and the political process. How has this relationship changed over time, and how have the changes impacted the health of both politics and the news media?
Considerable evidence indicates that professional journalism and politics today have both reached unhealthy stages. Print journalism has experienced a steady decline, and most cities consider themselves lucky to have one daily newspaper. The emergence of weekly and biweekly newspapers such as CityBeat and Streetvibes strive to fill the news gap caused by the loss of so many dailies.
From the 1950s onward, television became a major vehicle for delivering the news. For years, the ABC, CBS, and NBC evening news hours competed with Time Magazine, News Week and U.S. News and World Report as sources people relied on for national and international news. For a period of time, people of all political persuasions read and heard basically the same set of facts about the country and the world. Even if they could not resolve their different political views, they could at least accept the same set of factual information.
Next came the rise of Cable TV. This opened up a new array of specialized news sources to compete with the three networks. Suddenly, viewers could opt for news programs that matched their political opinions such as Fox News and then MSNBC. Many people are no longer sharing the same set of facts.
Finally, the internet has brought about a whole new and confusing dimension in terms of how people receive information. With the click of a few keys, someone can connect to a vast number of data bases, news, and political opinion links. Although thousands of these internet sources provide fact-based and enlightening information, an equal number of them offer opinions often based on skewed or false information. Now a person with a particular political opinion need never come in contact with facts or reasonable editorials that might moderate, change or challenge his or her views.
Another negative trend has been the commercialization of the news media. In recent decades, news venues, especially TV news productions, have been influenced by the goal of higher viewer ratings. More and more the news has become synonymous with entertainment. This fact means that a colorful politician’s rants or sexual scandals will usually get more coverage than a complicated social or economic issue. If the news is entertainment, the producer doesn’t want to bore the audience with a lot of tedious facts and complexity.
At the same time these changes have evolved in terms of presenting the news, politicians and political groups have also transformed the ways they communicate with people. As late as the 1970s, elected officials often relied on speech writers and aides who specialized in dealing with the press to assist them in presenting their positions and views to the news media. The goal was to get free press coverage for the candidate or official, but the press releases and briefings also needed to possess some serious issue content in order to justify the attention of newspaper and TV journalists. In this process, politicians knew that good reporters would not just print the contents of a press release, but they would often check facts and add other perspectives to their final stories. These informal, symbiotic relationships between journalists and public officials created a steady diet of news stories that kept readers and viewers (citizens) well informed.
Since the 1970s, raising money for campaigns has become the central focus of both politicians and political groups, and advertising professionals have replaced press aides as the key people that public officials turn to for communications expertise. This evolution of an ad-based communications system for politicians has come at the same time the news media became less print oriented, more entertainment based, and also more diverse and confusing in terms of venues.
The old links between journalists, politicians, and citizens that scholars find important for democracy are either broken or badly in need of repair. No simple answers seem to exist in terms of reforming politics or the news media. As citizens who desire a healthy democracy protected by a healthy free press, we must support good and effective journalism at the community, state and national levels. We need to insure that daily newspapers do not disappear, and that weekly and biweekly publications like CityBeat and Streetvibes thrive. NPR and Public Television need support as well as icons like The New York Times and The Washington Post. Meanwhile, the worlds of the internet and Social Media must be utilized creatively by a new generation of journalists in order to create the free press of the future.
[Editor’s note: I highly recommend noncommercial media outlets like democracynow.org. Thank you for supporting Streetvibes.]