Module 13 Sections
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1787 that, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
It is clear that in a representative republic such as the one found in the United States, a regime in which the people hold the ultimate power and govern in their own name, an independent press is essential. It is essential because the people require a good deal of information if they are to meet the challenge of self-governance. And this information simply cannot come from the government itself, as it must be unbiased. The press is, in the end, a mechanism through which the government can be held accountable. It is a sort of extra-constitutional check on the power of the government. Indeed, it is such an important check that the right of a free press, a press not controlled by the government, was secured in the First Amendment. Read the First Amendment here:
Watch the following to learn more about how the freedom of the press in the First Amendment is applied today:
The “Fourth Estate”
The press has been known as the “fourth estate” since Thomas Carlyle wrote about a debate in the English Parliament in 1787, in which Edmund Burke said “there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.” And the press is more important than the government itself because of its ultimate and essential role in liberal society as both a disseminator of information and a watchdog over government. In many respects, a free and independent press serves as an indicator of a country’s freedom.
Learn more about how governments try to control the press by listening to the following from 60-Second Civics:
Since the American Founding, the media has provided an integral link between citizens and politicians. It has, at various points in American history, been a means for communicating ideas and relevant news, a mechanism by which opinion has been disseminated and advocacy of virtually every stripe has been pursued, and, without question a way in which the American public has been entertained.
The media is often compared to a two-way street. On one side politicians vie for positive attention; on the other, reporters work to inform and entertain an audience. Notwithstanding claims of unbiased coverage, the media uses a process of selection, framing, and editing that attracts a certain audience, and plays to a specific set of preferences and opinions. The media is at times adversarial to the government, at others it seems to share an agenda with the government. Regardless of the immediate pressures of the day, it is always interesting. That the media, broadly construed, is a business is often lost in the consideration. As such, it disseminates information to the public according to, among other things, a profit motive. Consumer demand has resulted in industry slogans like “if it bleeds it leads,” in which violent, fear-inducing stories that increase viewership are prioritized over less dramatic pieces. In the end, the people use the press to keep an eye on government, but also have to keep their own eyes on the press.
The Media, Then to Now
Print media was the main vehicle for information from the American Revolution until technologies such as radio, television, and the internet emerged over time. Supporters of the Revolution distributed pamphlets and broadsides written to gain political support for independence and the proposed Constitution. Pamphlets like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and the Federalist essays, all of which appeared as newspaper articles in New York in 1787 and 1788 before appearing in book form, serve as two prominent examples of early, politically-motivated print media in American history. Early print media was expensive and targeted at political elites. Over time, though, news became increasingly less expensive to produce, and became ever more tailored to a broader audience. Advertisements came to generate revenue, which rendered the press more independent over time.
Advances in communication technology set the stage for the evolution of mass media. From the rotary press to the internet, the mass media has utilized technology to reach larger audiences and communicate stories more rapidly. As the Canadian scholar and intellectual Marshal McLuhan foresaw in the middle of the 20th century, we now live in an increasingly interconnected “global village.” The internet has resulted in a decentralization of news sources the world over, and has brought images of political upheaval such as the Arab Spring abroad, and footage of police brutality at home, more immediately to the public. It has also led to the creation of blogs and web sites that rival multinational media conglomerates in what they can cover and present to a waiting world.
The Party Press
In the early days of the republic, there was little expectation of objectivity in media. Political parties printed leaflets and newspapers with overt political objectives, with harsh language often directed toward political opponents. The Federalists commissioned editors of the Gazette of the United States, while the Democratic-Republicans used the National Gazette to endorse their political objectives. Political parties often paid newspapers to publish favorable pieces on their candidates and policies. This patronage helped ensure the long-term stability of newspapers, which were expensive to produce. Newspaper articles in this era were not typically written for a general audience, but rather for building support among the social elite, politically powerful, and voters.
The partisan press was especially pronounced in the early 19th century. Working for a newspaper financially supported by Thomas Jefferson, James Callender, a well-known polemicist, published a pamphlet titled The Prospect Before Us. While supporting Jefferson for the election of 1800, the pamphlet referenced Adams’ “hideous hermaphroditical character, which [had] neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
The name calling eventually ended up in court. Adams accused Callender of sedition under the Alien and Sedition Act for publishing The Prospect Before Us, which, in addition to attacking Adams personally presented his administration as corrupt. Subsequently, the US Circuit Court for the District of Virginia indicted Callender. After serving time in prison, Callender received a pardon from a newly-elected President Jefferson, and immediately requested an appointment to a local postmaster position as compensation for his imprisonment. When Jefferson refused his request, Callender disclosed details about Jefferson’s rumored affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings. This is one of the earliest examples of the press acting as a two-way street. Jefferson used the press to undermine a political opponent, but ultimately, the alliance sparked a political controversy that plagued his presidency, and even undermined his legacy.
The Penny Press
Print media production was automated during the Industrial Revolution when the moveable type press and the newly invented steam engine were combined. This drove production costs down, and the penny press was born. Distinct from the party press, the penny press was inexpensive, tailored to a broader audience, and written in a tabloid-style.
In the 1830s, Benjamin Day began circulating copies of the New York Sun, one of the first papers to gain a mass readership. Costing only one cent per issue, the daily, street-sold newspapers quickly began to replace expensive subscription services, which cost up to six times as much. Instead of relying on patronage from political elites, advertising provided the main source of revenue for the penny press. And while penny press content was more accessible to the working class, it was frequently sensationalized to gain broader readership.
Costs continued to decline as the years passed, and by 1840, the telegraph, which had been invented less than a decade before, was helping reporters transmit news from remote locations, both inexpensively and immediately. Inventor Samuel Morse sent his first telegraph from Washington, DC to Baltimore, Maryland in 1844, and by 1860 a telegraph line crossed the Atlantic Ocean, which allowed for quick information transmission between the United States and Europe. Use of the rotary press in 1848 reduced publishing costs further, and increased the volume of printable materials. Around the same time, a consortium of news outlets created the Associate Press to share the costs of gathering, producing, and transmitting news. They also established a standard of professionalism in reporting.
Newspapers with direct ties to political parties continued to decline as the popular press evolved, and advocacy gave way to sensationalism as “yellow journalism” became the norm. Competition for readers was fierce, and newspaper tycoons like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst published highly sensationalized stories designed to capture the most important thing: the market. Their over-the-top style quickly spread to other newspapers, and came to define news in the latter part of the 19th century. Hearst went so far as to use his New York Journal to blame Spain for sinking the USS Maine in 1898, which sparked the Spanish-American War. When one of Hearst’s reporters in Cuba asked to return to America citing a lack of evidence justifying the conflict, Hearst replied, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Hearst’s dramatic story drove public opinion leading up to the war, despite a lack of conclusive evidence of Spain’s involvement. By the end of the century, the media was quickly becoming part of the story.
The Professionalization of the Press
As a reaction to yellow journalism, and building on the goals of the Associated Press, a move to a more professional brand of journalism gained ground at the close of the 19th century. This move was heightened when Adolph Ochs, already principal owner and publisher of the Chattanooga Time purchased the New York Times, formed the New York Times Company, and became the paper’s publisher and majority shareholder. His goal, as he put it, was “to give news impartially, without fear or favor.” Instead of selling distortions and exaggerations, Ochs hoped to “capture a high-toned readership, and to set the standards of journalistic integrity.” Driving this point home, he included a motto on the paper’s masthead: All the News That’s Fit to Print.
This standard evolved into the tradition now upheld by the nation’s largest and most important newspapers.
To learn about the standards of professional journalism today, read the following:
During the Progressive Era, investigative journalism unearthed corruption in both industry and government. Theodore Roosevelt coined the term “muckraker” to describe Progressive Era investigative journalists who crusaded for political reforms by unearthing unsavory stories about politicians, bureaucrats, and private industry practices. Among the most famous investigative stories was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which directly attacked appalling sanitary and safety conditions in the meat-packing industry.
Politicians responded to the public outcry over progressive exposés by imposing tighter legislative controls on business, which resulted in heightened regulation. Sinclair’s writing alone led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act (1906) and the Meat Inspection Act (1906). Investigative stories on corruption and scandal found a home in early opinion magazines such as The Atlantic, The Nation, and Harpers, three of the nation’s earliest opinion magazines.
Electronic Journalism and the Radio
In 1899, Britain’s National Telephone Company built a wire system through the London and Bournemouth telephone exchanges that broadcasted music and entertainment. Consumers could access the content of the “Electrophone” for a small subscription fee. Within a few years, governments across Europe, from France to Hungary, built similar networks.
In 1901, Guglielmo Marconi liberated communication from wires by transmitting three dots of Morse code to St. John’s, Newfoundland via electromagnetic radio waves. Marconi’s “crossing” of the Atlantic was the product of over thirty years of research and competition with his chief rival, Thomas Edison. By 1903, the British Army Corps was using Marconi’s radio technology, and in 1907 The New York Times became the first publisher to use radio waves for journalism.
After the commercialization of the radio, people no longer had to wait for the publication of a newspaper. Radio broadcast news was running hours before daily papers could be printed and distributed. With broadcast media available seemingly at a moment’s notice, politicians suddenly had a new means for reaching the public.
The first half of the 20th century was the golden era of radio broadcasting. President Coolidge’s pre-election speech was broadcasted to more than 20 million people via radio. Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the radio during his “fireside chats” to communicate with the American people directly and gain support for his New Deal agenda. By 1960, nearly every American home owned a radio that allowed people to listen to music, stories, plays, and news. Newspapers had blanketed the country, but radio came right into the home. And a new era in mass communications was underway.
Early Radio Regulation
In 1909, a small group of boys in New York City headed by an eleven-year old started the world’s first amateur radio group. They called themselves the Junior Wireless Club. Almost as soon as they took to the air, Senator Chauncey Depew spearheaded the government’s fight against amateur activity in radio. The boys of the Junior Wireless Club, however, took the lead in lobbying against Depew’s bill and won. Their need to defend their amateur broadcasting against government incursion foreshadowed one of the central tensions of the 20th century, and one that has remained important since: the tenuous balance between individuals and government for control of the communications revolution.
Starting in 1912, Congress gave the power to regulate the airwaves to the Secretary of Commerce and Labor. By 1926 the task had grown too large for the Secretary to handle, so Congress formed the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) to oversee it. The FRC was in turn replaced by, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which was created by the Communications Act of 1934. The FCC was given power over all forms of communication in the United States. As communications technology expanded over the 20th century, the jurisdictional reach of the FCC expanded to include television, the internet, and cell phone services.
Much of the work of the FCC over the last century has been to ensure that radio and television channels do not interfere with each other. To accomplish this, organizations and individuals must purchase the rights to use a certain frequency and pay annual fees that constitute part of the FCC’s budget. The FCC’s regulation of broadcasting in the United States, however, has extended past the broadcasts themselves into the content being broadcasted. In 1949, the FCC enacted the Fairness Doctrine, which held that licensed stations are “public trustees” and as such, had an obligation to share contrasting viewpoints on controversial public issues. This doctrine lasted until 1987.
The equal time provision was another rule mandated by the FCC. This required broadcasters to allow equal air-time for candidates when their opponents had been on air, if requested. Much of the national discourse about broadcasting in the last seventy years has centered around whether these sorts of rules violate the First Amendment.
To learn more about media regulation, check out the following video:
Telecommunications Act of 1996
On February 8, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law. The Act marked the first significant change of U.S. telecommunication law since the Communications Act of 1934. Critics of the Communications Act of 1934, which was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, believed that it led to the formation of monopolies in the telecommunications industry. One of the stated goals of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was to foster greater competition in the media than was allowed under the Communications Act of 1934. This competition was created by loosening many of the regulations instituted in 1934, including the removal of a cap on ownership of radio stations.
The deregulation following the Telecommunications Act of 1996 led to a mass consolidation of media ownership. With no cap on the number of stations one could own, and fewer regulatory burdens, large media industries were able to use their resources to absorb smaller media entities. In 1983, 50 companies owned 90% of media outlets in the United States. By 2012, 90% of U.S. media outlets were owned by only six companies.
On September 7, 1927, 21 year old inventor Philo Farnsworth’s image dissector camera tube transmitted images from one room to another for the first time. This technology directly preceded the television. From the Nixon-Kennedy debates, to live coverage of events such as the invasion of Iraq, the Arab Spring, and racially fueled riots in Missouri, television has transformed the way political information is disseminated and digested. Marshall McLuhan, a prominent Canadian philosopher and public intellectual, has written extensively about the importance of emerging media technologies, such as television. As McLuhan said, the “medium is the message,” meaning the content of a message was less significant than the method of transmission. This was clearly the case with television.
FDR was the first president to appear on television, at the opening ceremonies of the 1939 World’s Fair. But it would be another 40 years before television would impact American politics in the most meaningful of ways. If there were any doubt regarding television’s importance, it was laid to rest in the first Nixon-Kennedy debate in September of 1960. That night, Nixon aggravated a knee injury on his way into the studio, and was suffering from the flu. He looked drained and drawn on television. He also, at his aides’ urging, allowed a coat of makeup called Lazy Shave to be applied to cover his persistent 5 o’clock shadow. When the debate began, a combination of the heat from the lights, his injury, and his illness brought Nixon into a significant sweat, which, in turn, had the pancake makeup rolling off his face. Needless to say, Nixon did not look good that night. Kennedy, on the other hand, had prepared for the debate and rested well. He looked fantastic. The majority of the people who listened to the debate on the radio declared it a draw, or believed Nixon had won. But those who watched it on television thought Kennedy had won. And a lot of people watched the debate on television. After narrowly winning the election, Kennedy said, “It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide.”
The tradition of the televised evening news also emerged in the 1960s. Walter Cronkite pioneered the role of anchorman for nearly 20 years, covering stories from the assassination of President Kennedy to the Vietnam War. In the process he became America’s anchorman, bringing an honest, businesslike approach to the evening news. He became the voice of the nation in many respects, especially during the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal.
By the end of the 1960s, the importance of television in American politics was undeniable, but things were just getting started.
To meet the demand for around-the-clock coverage, networks resorted to narrowcasting, which is broadcasting stories or news items to boutique audiences, sensational headlines, and interviews largely designed to end in shouting matches. With the addition of Fox News and MSNBC, a distinctly partisan flavor returned to the news, with Fox News currently serving the conservative market, and MSNBC serving liberals. This marked a return, of sorts, to the earliest print media in the United States, which was controlled by political parties. The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.
The 24-hour news cycle, ironically, moved broadcast journalism toward an MTV model, in which live programming was largely reduced to the coverage of scandals and wars, using visuals, sound bites, and attractive hosts, all at the expense of more scholarly, investigative journalism. This occurred even though the amount of time that could be dedicated to in-depth reporting skyrocketed.
The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 opened the door to all manner of partisan broadcasting, and conservatives took advantage of the opening almost immediately. The Fairness Doctrine had mandated that stations present a diversity of viewpoints over the airwaves they occupied, but with the removal of that requirement, a new market thrived. By the early 1990s, a host of long-form talk radio programs were on the air, and Rush Limbaugh very quickly became their king.
The Rush Limbaugh Show pioneered a polemic approach to conservative-style radio news, and it opened the door to countless imitators on the local, regional, and national levels. Three decades after the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, talk radio remains a conservative (and occasionally libertarian) stronghold.
The Internet and Democratization of the Media
When Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “Global Village” in the 1960s, he predicted an electronically interdependent world that would trend away from individualism and toward a new form of tribalism. People, he thought, would move toward homogenous world-views because of the commonality of media available in real time. Geographic divisions and social boundaries would be reduced during a retribalization caused by digitally shared experiences. Even though he wrote long before the internet became a global force, he was remarkably prescient regarding the direction the world would take in light of trends that were already evident during his time.
The internet has not only revolutionized how traditional print and broadcast media are presented, but it has created entirely new forms of media, many of which are readily available to anyone with a little bit of time and patience. Vlogs, blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, and social networks have taken their place alongside conventional media outlets. As they did, the line between these new, more democratic forms of media and the “old media” have blurred, with virtually every news source of consequence, not to mention nearly every politician, participating in the new media on a regular basis.
The blending of old and new media has made news reporting nearly instantaneous. Cell phone audio and video, Skype interviews, and local reports posted on social media are immediately picked up by major network and cable news outlets. To keep up with the internet, many newspapers and magazines reduced or even eliminated their physical circulation and began relying more heavily on online subscriptions and advertisements.
Following the mass consolidation of ownership of for-profit news outlets brought about by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the internet came to provide the public with a forum for analyzing any topic. For better or worse, the internet gives virtually everyone a platform to express opinions, commentary, and criticism.
This open participation in the media through the internet is sometimes referred to as media democracy. Media democracy takes place when citizens act as a check on traditional news sources and government institutions by openly and publicly expressing their criticisms, opinions, and research. As people share their ideas and investigate the claims of both politicians and old media actors, media sources are forced to respond or lose credibility.
For a review of the role the media plays as an institution in American politics, watch the following:
- Party Press
- Penny Press
- Yellow Journalism
- Media technologies
- FCC Regulations
- Internet and media democratization