Class notes for Thursday, February 24, 2000
Press and politics
The purpose of this lecture is to give you a sense of several things: (a) the mutual dependence between government/politicians and the media (b) the ways in which politicians manage news and (c) the ways in which changes in media technology and economics have influenced news coverage.
1. Mutual Dependence
The mutual dependence is based on two things: politicians need the media; the media in turn need to cover government and political issues. They need one another.
(a) The Power of media. Several articles in the course readings talk about media power in political life, and the role of media in forming public opinion.
(The articles include: Iyengar and Simon, "News Coverage of the Gulf Crisis," 248-257; Miller and Krosnic, "Anatomy of News Media Priming," 258-275 and Iyengar "Framing Responsibility for Political Issues: Poverty," 276-282)
As these articles note, there are three key media effects in terms of politics:
Agenda setting: News media define key issues of the day.
Priming: Media’s choice to focus on one issue and not others influences the standards by which the American public evaluates leaders. [News influences how people evaluate leaders. During the Gulf War, Bush was judged much more on foreign affairs that he had been before. Later, in the autumn of 1992, when the media paid a great deal of attention to the economy, people evaluated the president more in terms of the economy than foreign affairs.]
Framing. How issues are defined. Issues framed either as episodic or thematic. Thematic frames provide context; episodes do not. In terms of poverty, for instance (Iyengar), when poverty defined in thematic terms -- with context -- news viewers have a stronger sense of societal responsibility (poverty is a complex problem and society bears some of the blame and therefore needs to help with a solution). Episodic frames, lacking broader context, engenders sense of individual responsibility (e.g., it’s their own fault for being poor; if they would work harder, they wouldn’t be poor).
Baumgartner, Jones and Leech ( in "Media Attention and Congressional Agendas," 349-363) also talk about the influence of news. p. 362: "Media attention often precedes congressional attention and then itself increases again in reaction to increased congressional attention. The more successful proponents or opponents of an issue are in generating news coverage, the more likely that there will be a congressional hearing on the issue. The more congressional hearings there are, the more publicity there is likely to be."
(b) High stakes for politicians. They need media to get message across to public. They also need to be sure they have a good media image. Successful presidents in the 20th century have been those with the most emphasis on media strategies, and thus with a strong or positive media image: Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan.
Weakest presidents: those with poor media strategy, poor media image: Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter.
Iyengar writes(319-322): "Put simply, elected officials who enjoy a high level of public approval are more powerful. The president who attracts and maintains favorable press coverage enjoys a higher level of public popularity; the higher his popularity, the more likely Congress to defer to his administration’s legislative priorities. Conversely, the more controversial the message emanating from Washington (or the state capitol for that matter), the less likely the chief executive the enjoy legislative success. In effect, politicians now must continuously vie for public approval; media campaigns are permanent affairs.
Iyengar continues: "The new style of governing -- what Sam Kernell has called ‘going public’ -- is also a consequence of the gradual erosion of traditional methods of leadership... Power in government became more a function of public image and less dependent on seniority, rank, or expertise."
(c) High stakes for media.
Media need news about key issues. Public attends closely to these issues and expect media organizations to cover the news. The networks and advertisers track the ratings of individual TV news shows; shows need to cover some aspects of political life if they are to draw audiences.
2. The News Process
There are some parts of the news process that make media particularly susceptible to management or control by political leaders. The key components are:
(a) No media agenda. The media are not supposed to have any agenda of their own. Reporters are not supposed to put their own views into stories (unless a story is marked as "analysis" or "commentary).
(b) Reliance on sources; power of sources. Reporters rely on key players in events (e.g., those who are knowledgeable about what occurred) to be the "sources" of information in their stories. Reporters rely on sources to tell them what occurred. Sources have a great deal of power, given that they have the "facts" or "information" that reporters need for their stories. A source who is knowledgeable about the news process and accessible to reporters can have great influence in defining the news.
(c) Need to be interesting. Drama. Personalized news.
News is, after all, a commercial commodity. TV news shows are subject to ratings (which in turn set ad rates) and newspapers are a product sold each day. So there is some emphasis on making the news interesting for the public.
Drama in the news. Robert Darnton, a former reporter for NY Times, tells of his early problems as a journalist at his first job. Small town newspaper; he wrote a story about a bike stolen from a paperboy. The story was rejected by the editor. A colleague suggested a much more dramatic version involving the boy’s love for the bike, his trauma following the theft and his Horatio Alger-like scheme to pay for a new one. Upon checking the new plot against the facts, Darnton decided that reality was close enough to the dramatized version of the story -- a story that was published in his paper. Stories with drama are far more likely to be published that those without drama.
Personalized News. In personalized news, the media give preference to individuals and human interest angles in events while downplaying broad institutional and political considerations. In the current Republican presidential primary races, for instance, the coverage of Senator John McCain and Governor George W. Bush tends to focus on their personal competition -- their dislike of one another, rather than on how the differ (or don’t differ) on the issues.
Early in first Clinton term, a major crime bill that Clinton supported was voted down in a procedural maneuver in the House. Although a slightly revised version of the bill passed two weeks later, every major news organization played the original vote as a huge personal defeat for Clinton. This personal line drowned out more analytical coverage of party election strategies and lobbying by interest groups that clearly explained the situation better than did the focus on the president. Headlines: "Stunning defeat," "Staggering defeat," But that wasn’t really the issue here. But that played well.
Another example of personalized news is the emphasis placed on the president, especially compared to the other branches of government. There are 535 members of Congress and 9 Supreme Court justices, but none of them get as much coverage as the President (who is constitutionally their equal, not their superior). Senators (of whom there are just 100) get more attention from the media than do members of the House of Representatives (of whom there are 435). Why? Personalizing the news means there’s a propensity to focus on invididuals; it is much easier to talk about the government by focusing on the President (and his personality) than trying to deal with the 535 people in Congress and 9 on the Court.
One of the problems with personalized news, at least in a political context, is that we begin to think that one person really can effect massive institutional change. We lose sight of the fact that the presidency, for example, is part of a much larger political system (head of the Executive Branch but coequal with the other two branches). So we have situations in which people honestly believe that just one person could fix government. Ross Perot 1992, got 18%, promised to go to DC and personally straighten out the mess in government. It’s a fantasy to believe that one person could do it all.
(d) Competition. A key element of the news process is the idea of competition -- of getting the news first. Media vie with one another to get the story first ("scooping" the competition. Hence the phrase: getting a "Scoop").
3. News management by politicians
Political leaders have had a high degree of success in managing the news in the past century. In the U.S., political leaders don’t try to censor the press (as some political leaders do elsewhere in the world); instead, they try to manipulate it so that it reports on them favorably.
High Level of success in managing the news. Petrocik (on Campaigning and the Press, 181-194) wrotes that a study of media coverage of candidates, 1952-92, shows that candidates have had a major role in defining their own coverage and issues related to them. In 1992, George H. Bush reframed drug issue as a "family" issue to deflect criticism of his record and to attract independents and Democrats. Bush campaign worked hard to make sure GOP issues were the most salient issues in the campaigns. Parties "own" issues and thus pragmatic voters can switch allegiances according to whatever issues are most salient.
How do political leaders manage the news?
(a) Sources. First, and foremost, political leaders who are knowledgeable (about issues, about how the press operates) and who are accessible to the media have great influence because they are key sources of news.
During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy got better coverage from the media than did his opponent Richard M. Nixon. Why? Not because the media were "liberal " -- indeed, over 66 percent of newspapers endorsed Mr. Nixon. Rather, Kennedy got good coverage because his campaign went out of its way to provide information to the press corps. Within a half or so of any Kennedy speech, reporters had a copy of that speech (produced by a professional stenographer working for the campaign). Kennedy’s campaign also provided background papers and other ideas for stories to reporters. In contrast, the Nixon campaign ignored reporters and refused to be cooperative. On a human level, it was thus hard for reporters to like Nixon. But more importantly, the Kennedy campaign provided a vast amount of material for stories to the press -- and that was a successful strategy for generating news.
Government officials/politicians are the key sources for news about politics in the United States. Part of that makes sense, for these people are at the heart of the poltical process. But note, too, that they then put their own definition or spin on the news.
Lance Bennett ("Cracking the News Code," 103-117) writes that government officials and authorities most often serve as sources. Grass roots groups, reformers are less likely to be sources. Bennett notes the "indexing rule" -- which means the coverage of events is tied to the views that prominent people have on a subject. During the Gulf War, media relied heavily on the White House, State Department and the Pentagon for news. What impact on content of news? President Bush dominated the news; the U.S. perspective on the war dominated the news. Bennett notes that Gulf War coverage in other nations was very different. In that case, the sources clearly influenced U.S. coverage of the war. (Note: there were few other sources, given the lack of access for the press in the Gulf War area itself).
Iyengar and Simon (News Coverage of the Gulf Crisis, 248-257) also write about this issue, noting that during the Persian Gulf war, US officials were the key sources of information for the press. They write that news coverage thus focused on some aspects of the war that American leaders wanted stressed (successes of American technology, evils of the Iraqis). Other issues were simply not covered (e.g., devastation on a third world country, huge civilian casualties, deliberate burial of live Iraqi troops in trenches).
Dorman (Press Theory and Journalistic Practice: the Gulf War, 118-125) writes that the Gulf War "was the most closely managed news operation in contemporary memory." Access to the war itself was restricted; press pools were closely monitored and controlled. The press played into the hands of political leaders who wanted to control the image of the war. Press accepted the Bush administration’s definition of Saddam Hussein as a modern Hitler (perhaps this was true; the point is that alternative views were ignored; the press just took the Bush administration’s point of view uncritically). The press also ignored some stories entirely (including the fact that the U.S. had long supported Hussein and indeed supplied him with much of his military power in the 1970s and 1980s).
Government sources, in one study of political news, constituted about 75% of all sources.
b. Cultivating the media.
Some political leaders woo the press.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt (president from 1933 to 1945) had great charisma. He asked journalists about their families, invited them to the White House for barbecues, etc. One New York Times reporter stopped going to Roosevelt’s press conferences altogether, preferring to read the transcript of the press conferences the next day. That reporter found himself falling under Roosevelt’s charismatic spell, and thus losing his ability to be detached or independent.
John F. Kennedy, another highly charismatic president, also wooed the press: he invited reporters to state dinners, to small family dinner parties and to the Kennedy family compound on Cape Cod (barbecues, touch football games, etc.).
Murray Kempton: "It is a fundamental fact about journalism, and might even be a rule if it had the attention it deserves, that it is next to impossible to judge any public figure with the proper detachment once you begin calling him by his first name."
This leads to what is called the insider syndrome. Lance Bennett writes: "In addition to developing work habits that favor officials views, reporters are also human beings. Behind the occupational roles are people who sometimes identify with the newsmakers they cover. Because reporters have regular contact with officials under stressful conditions, it becomes easy for them to see these officials as sympathetic characters faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their efforts to do the right thing -- not the least of those obstacles begin a hostile pack of reporters. Of course, when officials go out of their way to antagonize the press, as the Nixon administration did in the early 1970s, and as the Clinton administration did in its early days, it is more difficult for reporters to feel sympathy for or to identify with the officials. When officials court the favor and understanding of reporters, they are often paid back with sympathetic coverage that sticks close to the official’s political line."
Bennett adds; "Yet another aspect of the subtle working relations between reporters and officials is that journalists who cooperate with powerful officials often receive recognition and flattery and are taken into the confidence of those officials."
Tom Bethell writes: "To be on close terms with elite news sources is to be an ‘insider’ -- which is what everyone in Washington wants to be."
c. Press Briefings (Iyengar, 319-322): "The day-to-day activities that make up the new media-based forms of governance occur in Washington. The most regular of such activities is the White House briefing. ....the [president’s] press secretary has considerable influence over what gets reported. By getting the press to focus on the administration’s perspective on issues, the president’s image as an effective leader is bolstered."
d. Media Events. (Iyengar, 319-322): "A more direct form of opinion leadership occurs through the scheduling of media events at which the president or other high officials speak directly to the public." These are also known as pseudo events. A pseudo event uses careful stage setting, scripting and acting to create convincing images that often have little to do with underlying reality of the situation.
In 1970, President Nixon’s staff staged a carefully planned media event designed to show the President as a warm human being (at a time when many thought him cold and detached). The plan was for the President to share Thanksgiving dinner with a group of wounded Vietnam veterans. Many of the soldiers invited declined, so on the day itself, the dining room empty spots filled with staff members from the local naval hospital. TV cameras appeared, taking in the entire event. It lead the evening news that night.
The idea of the "media event" or "pseudo event" is an event that is planned primarily for media consumption (and thus to get on the evening news, into newspapers). During one battle with Congress over so-called "partial birth abortion," President Clinton held a news conference with 2 women who had had such procedures. They appeared to be warm, good people -- and the press coverage of the event was substantial, and probably far more substantial than just having the President speak.
e. Go directly to the public. Going directly to the people allows politicians to escape media scrutiny, tough questions -- and thus any semblance of media analysis or gatekeeping. Schorr (Who Uses Whom?, 132-137) writes about Clinton doing this through his town meetings, MTV appearance, Larry King appearances (where he got easy questions). This leaves the politician more or less in control of his own image.
f. Image making. Theme/line of the day. Visuals. Politicians are very active in thinking about how to influence the media. During the Reagan administration, for instance, there were daily meetings of the White House public relations staff to decide, as one member put it "What do we want the press to cover today, and how?" According to Michael Deaver, one of the masterminds of the press operation in the Reagan years, "We would take a theme, which we usually worked on for six weeks -- say , the economy. The President would say the same thing, but we had a different visual for every one of the regularly scheduled media events."
Repetition. Deaver says: "It used to drive the President crazy because the repetition was so important. He’d get on that airplane and look at that speech and say, ‘Mike, I’m not going to give this same speech on education again, am I?’ I said, ‘Yeah, trust me, it’s going to work. and it did.’"
Line of the day.All other potential newsmakers in the Executive branch were told about the theme (or "line") of the day. The goal: make sure we are all saying the same thing. During the Reagan years, the line of the day was sent out over a computer network to all administrative offices. All that any official had to do was call it up on his or her screen before meeting with reports.
Work with the press. White House staffers were highly accessible -- but also seeking to influence the way reporters framed news events. These staffers constantly called reporters and editors, offering to give information or offering to clarify a position.
Visuals. Bennett writes: "The classic case of news management operating even on a critical press involves CBS news correspondent Lesley Stahl, who put together a long report showing the gaps between Ronald Reagan’s carefully styled news images and his actual policies in office. Stahl was nervous about the piece, because of its critical tone and the practice of the White House Communications Office to call reporters and their employers about negative coverage. The phone rang after the report was aired, and it was a ‘senior White House official." Stahl prepared herself for the worst. In her own words, here is what happened:
And the voice said: Great piece.
I said: What?
And he said: Great piece!
I said: Did you listen to what I said?
He said: Lesley, when you’re showing four and a half minutes of great pictures of Ronald Reagan, no one listens to what you say. Don’t you know that the pictures are overriding your message because they conflict with your message? The public sees those pictures and they block your message. They didn’t even hear what you said. So, in our minds, it was a four-and-a-half minute free ad for the Ronald Reagan campaign for re-election.
I sat there numb. I began to feel dumb because I’d covered him four years and I hadn’t figured it out. Somebody had to explain it to me. Well none of us had figured it out. I called the executive producer of the Evening News...and he went dead on the phone. And he said, Oh My God.
4. News all the Time
Technological and economic changes in the news media in the past 10-15 years have added further complexities to news about politics. The key technological change has been the rise of cable television and of cable news networks (such as CNN or Fox News). There is more of everything on television, including more news. Between 7 a.m. and midnight on a typical weekday in Washington DC, there are 146 hours of news, information and talk available to viewers on the local cable TV system.
We now live in an era of news-all-the-time. 20 or 30 years ago, the news cycle for newspapers was a 24-hour day; if something didn’t go in to today’s newspaper, it might go in tomorrow’s paper. If a story didn’t go into the national TV news (usually at 6 p.m.), it would wait at least until tomorrow.
With the rise of 24-hour news channels (such as Fox or CNN), we have news all of the time. And newspapers have created web pages that can be updated at any time during the day. There’s some benefit to that, of course; we can get news when we are interested in it. There’s also a downside to news-all-the-time: there’s more pressure to get the news out now. The 24-hour cycle allowed time for further reporting and thinking; the eclipse of the 24-hour news cycle means that there’s a rush to judgment on things. Media are often right, but the pressure to push into the news now (to beat others -- to get the scoop) means that less reporting is going on.
Audience segmentation has followed this trend, with news outlets not seeking a broad over-all audience, but many seeking a more politically oriented viewership. Fox News, for instance, carries more conservative views and clearly is targeted toward a more conservative audience than, say, NBC Nightly News, which attempts to provide a very broad overview to the news.
a. Economics of News all the Time
Reporting is expensive and time-consuming. Many of the new "news" shows don’t have an extensive infrastructure of reporting behind them, because that would be too expensive. The NBC Nightly News, a traditional news show, has a reportorial staff of hundreds. A new news channel , such as Fox, may have only dozens (at the most) of reporters. The new "news" channels increasingly rely on discussion and commentary about the news (in the way that talk radio does).
So we’ve seen a rise in news commentary, in which various pundits (some qualified, some clearly not) give their view on what’s going on. The key thing here to note is that there is little reporting done on some of these shows -- there are few hard facts nailed down to report. Rather, people talk about what they’ve heard, and comment on the news. Some of these discussions can be pretty broad.
Kovach and Rosenstiel write in Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media: "In the continuous news cycle, the press is increasingly oriented toward presenting allegations rather than first ferreting out the truth. Chaos ensues, as parts of stories emerge, countered by denial or speculation. This gives the reporting a more chaotic, unsettled and even numbing quality. It can make tuning in to the news seem inefficient. It also makes it more difficult to separate fact from spin, argument or innuendo."
Kovach and Rosenstiel note, there has been a rise of a new class of pundits: loosely credentialed personalities who often thrive on being provocateurs. These people are treated as authorities, but they actually are neither news sources nor journalists. "Former prosecutor" or "senate aide" disguise their real function: TV personalities.
Kovach and Rosenstiel: "It was in the talk show arena that many of the rumors and unsubstantiated suspicions found their way into the mainstream media."
b. Ratings and non-news
When new information does break, there is a genuine surge in interest by the public to assimilate it. When the information flow slows, news organizations—trying to hold that audience – tend to overestimate how long the interest lasts and then tend to manufacture material to pass on. "The effect is that of an aircraft carrier at full speed. Its sheer momentum propels it long after engines have been put to full stop."
5. Impact of news all the time: Reporting the Clinton Scandal
Note: none of this is meant as a commentary on the charges against President Clinton. The key point here is to get a sense of how the media dealt with the issues of the Clinton scandal.
a. No gatekeepers
The idea of the media as a "gatekeeper" means that the media tell us (based on the professional knowledge of reporters) what the key issues are and how to make sense of them. In the Clinton scandal, news-all-the-time meant news organizations never quite got on top of the story. As Kovach and Rosenstiel write: "Information is moving so fast, news outlets are caught between trying to gather new information and playing catch-up with what others have delivered ahead of them." The result is chaos, with parts of a story presented here and there, rumor and fact mixed together. There is no over-all gatekeeping going on.
Ted Koppel says that the incredibly competitive media environment today means that there’s intense pressure to run stories even if they have not been well verified. Intense competition, particularly the 24-hour news networks, "lends itself to people putting material on the air before they have gone through the discipline of reporting. And it is, when it’s properly done, it’s a discipline. And it requires some discipline to have, you know, two or three monitors sitting up there and you see your competitors on the air with a story that is one hell of a good story and you don’t have it yet. It takes far more to hold back and say, we don’t have it yet, we can’t go on with it yet, than to rush on the air with something."
b. Commentary instead of fact
In the first full week of the Clinton-Lewinsky story, fully 41 percent of the statements that came from journalists, either in print or broadcast, were commentary rather than reporting. And the high level of commentary remained -- staying as high as 25% most of the time -- even when there were "facts" to report.
Charlie Rose, Inside Washington, Washington Week in Review, Fox News Sunday, CNN’s Capital Gang, Crossfire, Rivera Live!, Equal Time, Chris Matthew’s Hardball
Chris Matthews’ Hardball a good example. Matthews likes to think of Hardball as "a conversation over the diner table." Guests get to say whatever is on their mind, often without questioning the facts or asking for substantiation. Matthews’ guests have included Mark Fuhrman, former presidential advisor Dick Morris and Linda Tripp’s book agent, Lucianne Goldberg. As Kovach and Rosenstiel write: "With guests like that, and a very loose format, Hardball became one of the top launching pads for anti-Clinton trial balloons."
Some have referred to this as the Journalism of Assertion. (Compare to the Journalism of Exposure).
c. Second hand sources
In the rush to cover the news, many reporters relied on "second hand sources." Their source was not someone who had direct, first-hand or personal knowledge of an event. Instead the source was someone who said they knew someone who had that first hand information. An example of this: "A friend of mine told me she SAW the President meeting with Monica Lewinsky late at night at the White House."
The use of second hand sources is clearly not very professional. It often led to errors in reporting in the Clinton scandal -- and to retractions by major news organizations (such as the Wall Street Journal and the Dallas Morning News) that simply should have known better than to use such unsubstantiated "information."
Some examples of 2nd-hand source stories that turned out not to be true -- when further reporting was done.
-----Monica Lewinsky was given a set of instructions of what to say to the grand jury.
-----Clinton was seen engaged in sexual activity with Lewinsky.
-----Vernon Jordan directed Lewinsky to lie before the grand jury. Lewinsky purportedly had said this on taped conversation to Tripp.
d. Anonymous sources.
During the Clinton scandal, we saw an increase in the rise of anonymous sources used by the press. There are trade offs in the use of anonymous sources. In some instances, when a reporter promises to keep a source’s name secret, the reporter gets more information that he/she would have obtained without the secrecy. Some sources or potential sources are simply afraid (often correctly) that they might get into trouble if they disclose information.
That was certainly the case in the Washington Post’s investigation into the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were able to follow the story in large part because of the help of one very important anonymous source -- "Deep Throat." Deep Throat had extensive information on the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP) and on White House operations. Had "Deep Throat" been identified, he would have lost his access to top levels of government and not been able to provide substantial information to the press. (To this day, the identity of "Deep Throat" is not known publicly).
So using anonymous sources may mean that reporters get information -- and that sources are more candid than they would have been without the confidentiality or secrecy.
On the other hand, using anonymous sources can also mean that people don’t have to take responsibility for what they say to reporters. There’s no real chance for the reading/viewing public to evaluate the source’s claims, either, or to place them into some sort of context. In addition, some in journalism are uncomfortable with the idea of using anonymous sources, believing that the job of journalism is full disclosure on everything -- and no hiding anything.
Regarding context. For example: imagine that an anonymous source says he/she has reason to believe that Clinton tried to tamper with a grand jury (a felony, an impeachable offense). Knowing who the source is might help us evaluate that charge. Is it Clinton’s wife and long-time supporter, Hillary Clinton? Or is it conservative radio-talk commentator Rush Limbaugh, a long-time and virulent opponent of Clinton? We would evaluate the information quite differently depending on the source.
e. Just one anonymous sources
We’ve long had anonymous sources in the news. But before the Clinton Scandal -- and before the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the rush to get stuff out into the news -- there were somewhat stricter norms about how anonymous sources were used. Kovach and Rosenstiel note that during Watergate, the Washington Post was quite careful about how they used anonymous sources. The Washington Post’s rule on the use of anonymous sources was to treat them as if they were merely a tip that had to be confirmed by someone else. Thus was solidified the idea that if sources were to be anonymous, the story had to have at least 2 independent sources. Kovach and Rosenstiel write: "Nothing could be used from an anonymous source unless it was confirmed by a second, independent anonymous source."
During the Clinton scandal, the press moved away from this. The second-source tradition did not die, but in the rush to push things into the news, the media used a single anonymous source in about half of "breaking news."
What’s the impact of that? There was no independent corroboration for the charges; therefore a much greater likelihood of error. But this satisfied the demand for all-news, all the time.
Furthermore, the media seldom gave any indication of how readers/viewers might frame this source (e.g., was this someone on the left? right? ). The media often resorted to phrases such as "sources say" or "sources close to the investigation say" or "sources familiar with the investigation."
f. Echo Effect
Some reporters tried to be careful in their stories, stipulating quite clearly what they were saying and what they were not saying.
One ABC reporter did a story on Kathleen Willey, another woman who had alleged that President Clinton had pursued her sexually. The ABC story reported that Willey claimed she had been pressured by a Clinton friend to deny that Clinton groped her. The story did NOT report that Willey had been pressured -- only that Willey was claiming to have been pressured. The story also noted that the Clinton friend denied the pressure.
Then came the ECHO effect. As the story got repeated by others, the nuance was dropped. The story became simply that Willey had been pressured by the President’s friends.
The Wall Street Journal and the Dallas Morning News both reported that there were witnesses who had seen Clinton engaged in sexual acts with Monica Lewinsky. The DMN put this on its web page; soon retracted it. But before the retraction came out, the story was repeated by ABC, N.Y. Post, and the NY Daily News, Larry King, MSNBC and Nightline.
g. Repeating Rumors
In the past decade or so, the news media have increasingly repeated rumors.
If a charge is made, some news organizations -- especially those with less of a reporting infrastructure -- will repeat them. The Fox news organization is among the most notorious for these sorts of things.
When a rumor surfaced -- primarily just at cocktail parties in DC -- that there was a second intern involved sexually with Clinton, most news organizations ignored the story. Then, on the DC Fox News show "Beltway Boys," Fred Barnes said: "The second intern. Politicians, newspaper reporters, TV people, all around town, were talking about the possibility that there’s a second intern who was sexually involved with the president. If there is, that will certainly be dynamite."
Not fact, just rumor.
Then it went into echo effect, as others picked it up and repeated it.
h. Television: unedited news
Many figures in news events spend increasing amounts of energy on spinning things their own way. During the Clinton scandal, we saw many figures making their charges directly on television. The consequence is that the news is edited little. Prior to all-news-all-the-time, reporters would do further reporting and the public eventually would get a broad overview of what was going on. In the Clinton scandal we got charge, reaction, charge, reaction, etc. The ability of the news media to provide some perspective (primarily through somewhat time consuming reporting) was pushed to the margins. As a consequence, the public was inundated with material that had no context and couldn’t really be understood. Eventually, the public became sick of the entire thing.
6. The enduring problem.
Kovach and Rosenstiel: "As it has grown larger and more diverse, the press has become less a cohesive force in society and more a force of fragmentation...... it has lost its ability to point out for people the common ground in society, to note the points of potential compromise, and in that sense to be the forum for bringing the culture together to address and solve problems"
"This is partly a function of the economics of news, with its proliferating outlets and even narrower targeting of audience. It is in part also a function of the traditional norms of news, which tend to build stories around conflict and change. Finding the common ground may also be more difficult because the culture is simply more fragmented.
Lance Bennett refers to news and the "Politics of Illusion." He notes that people call for the media to be less biased; some believe reporters are too liberal and others believe they are too conservative. "The more serious information problem...is that the news is often too fragmentary and superficial in its focus on personalities and their power struggles to be of much use to citizens....the public receives a too timid and politically limited picture of events along with too little serious analysis to support critical political thought and action."
"As long as the distribution of power is narrow and decision processes are closed, journalists will never be free of their dependence on the public relations experts, official spokespersons, and powerful leaders whose pronouncements have become firmly established as the bulk of the daily news."
The real problem, says Bennett, is not that reporters are politically biased (liberal or conservative) but that news is heavily determined by a process/system that gives great power to politicians and limited power to reporters.