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News on Politics

The press and the government have become entangled in a symbiotic web of manipulation, mythmaking, and self-aggrandizing deceit. Journalists demand drama and conflict, and officials manufacture crises to serve their own interests.

In this environment where perceptions can rapidly change policy, officials and interest groups need to be alert to any innuendo or allegation.

Joseph Pulitzer’s Dramatic Journalism

Joseph Pulitzer, who died in 1911, a few years before the birth of radio and television, is the father of American journalism as it exists today. He is credited with turning newspapers from publications that were geared toward a specific group of readers into mass media enterprises that assumed political influence all their own. His New York World newspaper was an example of the kind of paper that is characterized by the sort of crime and other sensational stories that are featured in the many TV shows that specialize in these subjects.

Pulitzer is a fascinating figure to study because of his many talents and contradictions. He was the most skillful newspaper publisher of his day, a tireless crusader against government corruption, and an innovator who introduced a number of new techniques to make his newspaper successful in the competitive business of New York City daily news reporting. He was also a philanthropist who richly endowed Columbia University’s school of journalism and established national prizes for journalism, literature, music, and drama.

Hearst and Pulitzer were indissolubly linked as purveyors of yellow journalism, and they engaged in a fierce circulation war over their aggressive coverage of political scandals and dramatically reported events such as the sinking of the US ship Maine during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Historians have criticized both of these publishers for their profit-driven approach to the news that led them to gloss over details and misinform the public.

As Pulitzer began to gain success with his World newspaper, he became involved in community crusades that promoted social and municipal reform. He also promoted the Liberal Republican party cause and was a staunch opponent of public lotteries. The World’s emphasis on community crusading, however, made it a newspaper that was read by people of all political parties.

When the World began to lose money, Pulitzer turned the paper around through innovations such as introducing dramatic headlines and stories about police investigations of murders. He also diversified the newspaper’s content to include sports and other topics that were popular with New Yorkers at that time. These efforts helped the World remain a leader in its industry.

The Media’s Focus on Facades

In a culture in which perceptions can quickly become reality, government officials and companies need to be as aggressive as politicians and interest groups in ensuring that their positions are favorably represented in the news. Fortunately, new technology often helps. A few years ago, when I managed communications for a major global bank, one of its senior executives was contacted by the Wall Street Journal about a sensitive issue. The reporter asked him to respond immediately to a specific allegation, and the executive did so by arranging for a televised press conference.

The media’s focus on facades reflects several cultural factors. Personalities are more compelling than institutions, facts are often uncertain, attention spans (and television sound bites) are short, and simplification—often oversimplification—is the norm. The news media also suffers from a lack of resources and time. It is unrealistic to expect that journalists will return to the Pulitzer-era days of reporting only on scandals and public policy issues. The world moves too fast, and the pressures of deadlines are intense.

What is perhaps more damaging than this partisan manipulation is the media’s inability to focus on systemic problems. For example, the media’s fixation on the Gramm-Rudman debt ceiling battles masked the fact that for complex institutional reasons, government spending and deficits were continuing to rise.

Weaver argues that the news media corrupts itself, the public policy process, and the public’s perceptions when it seeks out and propagates dueling cover stories with their drama, conflict, and quotable advocates but fails to discover or report the underlying realities. This self-defeating behavior undermines democracy. The book suggests ways to remedy it, such as by reorienting the news media toward readers and away from advertisers and breaking up media monopolies.

The Public’s Blindness to Systemic Issues

In fact, focusing on crises and conflicts distracts both journalists and the public from the issues that really matter. For example, the rash of savings-and-loan failures triggered front-page attention to the government’s deficits and spending problems, but this neglect obscured the legislative mistakes that caused them.

Weaver argues that news media and government officials are ensnared in a vicious circle of mutual manipulation and mythmaking—journalists need drama to make their stories, and government officials need to appear responsive to crises that often do not exist. This inextricable linkage makes it impossible for journalists to tell the truth and governments to govern effectively.

The resulting crisis of credibility is damaging to democracy and the public. As Weaver explains, the public “needs to have confidence in its democratic institutions, including those responsible for creating and disseminating news.” But in this climate of distrust and mistrust, citizens have difficulty discerning what is real from what is not—in part because the press focuses on the facades, not the issues that need to be addressed.

The answer, Weaver suggests, is for the media to abandon its quest for dramatic storytelling and return to reporting on underlying political issues in an institutional format. But he acknowledges that this would be difficult and unlikely, given the press’s drive for audience attention and the public’s inability to concentrate for long on any one topic. He also urges the breakup of media monopolies and recommends that news organizations be held accountable to readers rather than to advertisers and that they establish a culture of responsibility and deliberation.

The News Media’s Self-Aggrandizing Manipulation

When news media is used as a collective noun, it evokes images of a relatively uniform body of institutions: newspapers, magazines, books, radio, over-the-air and cable television, and the Internet. But what distinguishes these institutions are their different values, goals, and ways of delivering information.

A key issue that emerges from News on Politics is the extent to which different news media are influenced by and attempt to manipulate the public in their pursuit of profit. It’s important to keep in mind that the framers of the United States Constitution envisioned media as an essential external check on government power, and not simply as a channel for advertising. However, most news media today are owned by private business enterprises whose primary goal is to generate profit for their shareholders. As a result, news media’s commitment to serving the public’s interests may sometimes yield to profit concerns, especially when they compete with one another for viewers.

This conflict between profit and public service is especially acute in the context of political coverage. As a result, it is increasingly common for the news media to highlight the most dramatic and salacious aspects of a political story. This practice can undermine the public’s ability to understand complex issues and make informed decisions about their political choices.

It is also dangerous to the health of democracy for the news media to focus on partisan manipulation. The most glaring example occurred last week when the Pentagon blocked CNN’s pool reporters from covering an American bombing in Afghanistan that killed four U.S. soldiers. The groans of dismay that followed this episode of skewed news coverage reveal the extent to which the press has become a source of propaganda in our times.

In fact, the most effective means of controlling government is not through the manipulation of the news media but through direct engagement by citizens with their representatives and with local officials. Regardless of the extent to which the news media is able to influence the public through its reporting, totalitarian regimes have always failed to translate their control and expert manipulation of the news media into lasting support from their constituents. When readily observable events contradict government-inspired media stories, the public’s allegiance to the real world trumps the illusion of power exerted by the propaganda channels.

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