The Evolution of the Mass Media

Mass media organizations are not part of the American political structure. Voters do not elect journalists, nor do journalists hold any formal powers or privileges (aside from those stemming from the First Amendment right to a free press). Research also shows that the mass media do not exercise direct influence over people, either officials or regular voters. Neither endorsements nor bias in news coverage sways individuals into accepting the views of reporters or publishers.

Nevertheless, media organizations (and in particular the journalistic profession) do enjoy various means of indirect influence over political decisions. They shape how Americans view candidates early in an election process and frame the terms of political debate. They focus the attention of regular Americans on particular social problems, influencing which issues politicians consider worthy of attention. And members of the bureaucracy often use news articles as an indirect means to communicate with each other or to learn what is going on in other parts of the government. For these reasons and others, the mass media are critical players in the American political system.

Mass media fall into two types: the print media of newspapers and magazines and the broadcast media of radio and television. Although most Americans got their news from newspapers and magazines in the 19th and early 20th centuries, electronic journalism, particularly TV journalism, has become dominant in the last 50 years. Today, advances in technology are blurring the distinction between the print and broadcast media. The Internet makes information available that is also published in newspapers and magazines or presented over the radio and TV. It also provides political parties and their candidates, interest groups, and individuals an outlet for their own political content.

Newspapers and magazines

The earliest newspapers in the United States were tied to political groups or parties. The Federalist Papers, which urged the ratification of the Constitution, were first published in New York newspapers. During George Washington's administration, the Gazette of the United States represented Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists, while the National Gazette supported Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic Republicans. The development of high-speed presses, growing literacy rates, and the invention of the telegraph led to the rise of independent, mass-circulation newspapers in the first half of the 19th century. Competition for readers and advertisers became intense, so papers increasingly emphasized the sensational side of news in the second half of that century. This style of reporting became known as yellow journalism, and the most well-known practitioner was William Randolph Hearst in his New York Journal. Its stories and reports on Cuba, particularly the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, helped build support for the war against Spain in 1898. Although there was a decided shift to objective and balanced reporting in reaction to Hearst's style, this type of journalism continues in the tabloid press, which includes some mainstream newspapers and the "supermarket papers" such as National Enquirer and Star.

Weekly and monthly magazines like McClure's and Collier's published in-depth articles on national issues and gained a large, middle-class audience by the late 19th century. They became an outlet for the muckrakers, a group of writers whose exposés on political corruption in the cities and on the practices of the Standard Oil Company were a factor in the political reforms of the Progressive Era (1900-1920). The investigative reporting that brought the Watergate scandal to the public's attention is part of the muckraking tradition in print journalism.

Radio and television

From the 1920s through the end of World War II, radio was a popular source of news and political analysis. President Franklin Roosevelt used his radio "fireside chats" (1933-1944) to speak directly to the American people about issues facing the country. Both before and during the war, radio — particularly Edward R. Murrow's broadcasts from London — was an important source of information on developments in Europe and the Pacific. The medium has gone through a resurgence in recent years with both commercial and public (National Public Radio) all-news stations, radio talk shows, and the president's weekly radio address to the nation.

In addition to giving people news and information programming, television has allowed Americans insight into the political process and has actually become part of the process. The Democratic and Republican national conventions were televised for the first time in 1952. Dwight Eisenhower ran the first political TV ads during his campaign. It is generally believed that John Kennedy "won" the 1960 presidential debate because he looked better than Richard Nixon on television. By bringing the Vietnam War into our homes every evening, television certainly influenced the attitudes of Americans toward the conflict and increased support for withdrawal. The advent of cable and satellite TV has also provided a means for Americans to see how their government operates. In many communities, local educational stations broadcast school board and city council proceedings. Congressional hearings and debates are available on C-SPAN, while truTV covers major trials.