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Media and Governance

The Fourth Estate
The term "Fourth Estate" has been used to characaterize the press since shortly after the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. In Europe, the "Estates" referred to the stratafication of power in society. The Clergy was the First Estate, and held the most power; the Nobility was the second estate; the "people" or the masses, made up the Third Estate. Historian Thomas Carlyle used the term "Fourth Estate"in 1841 to describe the reporters who covered the activites of the English Parliament. In the United States, the term "Fourth Estate" has come to take on the meaning of a fourth "branch" of government - The Executive, the Legislative, the Judicial and the Press as the fourth - emphasizing the watchdog nature of the press in this country. As Kovich and Rosenstiel said:

The purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Media & 2004 Election
The 2004 election is a particularly interesting case study of how media influences governance, and vice-versa, because so many new and tried-and-true techniques of media messages and media manipulation were brought in to play by the press, by politicians, by special interest groups. The 2004 election was a media frenzy perhaps because of the nature of the hotly contested 2000 presidential election. The media elements that came out included:

  • Documentaries like Fahrenheit 911

  • Books like Unfit for Command

  • Blogs and Bloggers - The 2004 Republican and Democratic National Conventions were the first to allow bloggers to register and attend as members of the press.

  • Negative Ads and Attack Ads

  • Internet Memes

  • Fahrenheit 911

    Michael Moore's documentary, released in June, 2004, was a scathing account of George W. Bush's actions just before and after the attacks on September 11, 2001.

    Click here to view clips from Fahrenheit 911

    Unfit for Command

    In August, 2004, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth responded by publishing a book, Unfit for Command, a scathing attack on the war record of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in September, 2004.

    Kerry, who skippered two Swift Boats in the Mekong Delta from Dec. 6, 1968, to March 17, 1969, often sported a home-movie camera to record his exploits for later viewing. Fellow "Swiftees" report that Kerry would revisit ambush locations for re-enacting combat scenes where he would portray the hero. Kerry would take movies of himself in combat gear, sometimes dressed as an infantryman walking resolutely through the terrain. He even filmed mock interviews of himself narrating his exploits. A joke circulated among Swiftees was that Kerry left Vietnam early not because he received three Purple Hearts, but because he had recorded enough film of himself to take home for his planned political campaigns.


    The 2004 Republican and Democratic National Conventions were the first conventions to invite bloggers to participate as part of the press corps covering the events. See an interview with the RedState.org bloggers at the Republican National Convention here. However, perhaps the most important blogging incident was what became known as Rathergate, where Dan Rather and CBS News' Sixty Minutes aired a segment on September 8, 2004, featuring memos that criticized George W. Bush's service in the Texas National Guard during the Vietnam Era. The memos were supposedly written by the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, Bush's supervisor in the Texas National Guard. CBS aired the story and released the documents on the Web. Within hours, politically conservative blogs like PowerLine and Little Green Footballs had declared that the memos were fake, based on the use of typographical elements, such as footnotes, that would not have been available on typewriters in the 1970s.

    This animation compares the memos as published by CBS with the same text typed using the default settings of Microsoft Word's 2004 edition. The text is identical, which would be impossible if MS Word 2004 had not been used to create the CBS memos.

    Negative Ads and Attack Ads

    Negative ads are any political advertisements that focus on the negative qualities of a candidate for office, and encourage viewers to vote for the opponent by virtue of the fact that he or she does not have the qualities shown in the negative ads.Attack ads, in contrast, attack the personal or political background of political candidates, and do not directly associate the opposing candidate with the ad. While the 2004 election featured a great many negative and attack ads, negative ads have been with us for a long time. The most famous of the earlier ads is known as the Daisy Ad.

    Click here to watch the Daisy ad.

    The Daisy Ad was aired only once during the 1964 election campaign between President Lyndon B. Johnson and his opponent, Republican Senator Barry Goldwater. In 1964 the US was still in the grips of the Cold War, and average citizens were worried about the possibility of a nuclear war. The purpose of the ad was to imply that Barry Goldwater was such a "war hawk" that the nation could not trust him *not* to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union. Although the ad was only aired once, it was so controversial that it is considered to have been a factor in Johnson's defeat of Goldwater.

    Ads from the 2004 Presidential Campaign

    Both sides engaged in negative and attack ad campaigns in 2004. Ads by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attempted to discredit John Kerry's Vietnam War record. Ads created by Moveon.org criticzed the Bush Administration on several levels.

    Click here to see the Swift Boat ads Click here to see the Bush in 30 seconds ads commissed by moveon.org

    Internet Memes

    The number of media pieces created about the 2004 election that made the rounds on the Internet were almost too numerous to count. Here's one of the best ones.

    Click here to see Jib-Jab's This Land!


    So What's the Bottom Line? Media Influence on Governance

    The Media do not tell people what to think, the media tell people what to think about.
    This is called Agenda Setting.

    There have been several movies about the role of the press as government watchdog that led the American public to change the issues that they talked about. The most famous are:

  • Good Night and Good Luck - Edward R. Murrow takes on Joseph McCarthy
  • All the President's Men - The Washington Post takes on the Nixon Administration

    In recent years, the press has played an important role in putting stories like these on the national agenda:
  • The Civil Rights movement
  • The Iran-Contra hearings
  • The Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal
  • The Enron scandal

    Emphasis of Media Coverage
  • The President - The public likes stories about people. The press uses the President as a way to talk about national stories.
  • Conflict - The public likes conflict. Conflict illustrates issues that Society is reevaluating.
  • Scandals - In 1972 policy stories outweighed scandal stories 13:1. In 1992 it was 3:1.
  • Polls - Public opinion polls position everything in defined categories.
  • Brevity - Limited time and space reduce depth of coverage.

    Government Manipulation of Media
  • Timing - Release of major events on slow news days, or to distract attention from other news
  • Leaks - A deliberate disclosure of confidential or classified information by someone who wants to advance public interest, embarrass someone, or disclose incompetence and skullduggery.
  • Trial Balloons - A deliberate leak of a potential policy to test public opinion.
  • Stonewalling - Refusing to answer questions or meet the press.
  • News Blackout - Policy forbidding news coverage of an event.

    News Coverage of National Government
  • White House - Most frequently covered. The President stands in as the focus of many stories about the Federal government.
  • Congress - Focuses mostly on House and Senate leadership. Coverage of hearings and testimonies. Reliance on press releases from Committees. Regional reporters focus on issues of interest to their state.
  • Agencies - Little regular coverage by popular press. Good trade press coverage. Ex: Broadcasting & Cable covers FCC.
  • Courts - Only 14 news organizations with full-time reporters.

    News Coverage of State and Local Government
  • New Federalism - More social services and more Federal money now controlled at state level. Ex: Education, prisons, welfare.
  • Increase in State & Local Government power over citizen lives has not resulted in an increase in news coverage
  • Lobbying efforts have greatly increased at State and Local level.
  • Newspapers cover local and state governments more completely than other media.
  • Readers generally respect local newspaper coverage more than local radio or TV coverage of state & local government.

    Media-Government Issues
  • Conflict of Interest - Conglomerates and other high-profile businesses influence policy, and individual government workers may receive benefits from businesses. Ex: Enron and Energy Policy.
  • Campaign Advertising - While outspending rivals on ads does not guarantee victory, ad campaigns do make a difference in elections.
  • Free Airtime - Candidate appearances on local or national talk shows. Media coverage of Photo Opportunities and Pseudo Events.

    Regulation of Political Content
  • Broadcasting - Equal Time Rule. Fairness Doctrine (now defunct)
  • Print - Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that government could potentially make a case to suppress information (prior restraint) on the grounds of national security.
  • Internet - Unregulated. Still subject to civil suits for libel and invasion of privacy.
  • Comments

    July 2007

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