220 American Government and Politics
Spring, 2000

Kenneth Janda, Instructor

Week 4:The Political Nature of the Masses
Lecture 2: The Mass Media

April 18


The mass media as a tool of opinion formation:

  • The opening vignette in COD deals with media coverage of presidential sex lives
  • Chapter on the Mass Media in the previous edition opened with my experience in Budapest, in October 1993.
    • Was there on a Fulbright as John Marshall Chair.
    • Had cable TV and could watch English-language stations.
    • Saw the body of an American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu
    • Stressed the international implications of the broadcast media.

The mass media's role in communicating from government to people

  • The mass media are in business to make money, which they do by selling advertising through their major function of entertainment.
  • The mass media also perform specific functions for the political system:
    • REPORTING the news
    • INTERPRETING the news
    • SOCIALIZING citizens about politics
    • INFLUENCING citizens' attitudes and behavior
    • SETTING THE AGENDA for government action
  • Where do people get their news?
    • Virtually all citizens must rely on the mass media for their political news.
    • A 1998 survey about sources of news asked which of these news sources you use regularly:
      • 68% - Local Newspapers
      • 64 - regularly watch local news
      • 40 - Cable TV news
      • 38 - regularly watch a network evening news programs (60% in 1993)
      • 28 - read USAToday; 10% read the New York Times
      • 20 - Online sources
        • "Online" sources are less "mass media" than "group media."
    • Despite the public's regular use of various news sources, most people report that they get most of their news from television
      • Since the 1960s, most people report getting most of their news from television.
      • Television is also rated as the most trustworthy news source.

The mass media are privately owned in the United States.

  • Private ownership of the mass media gives the news industry more political freedom in the U.S. than in most other countries.
  • But private ownership also makes the media more dependent on advertising profits.
    • Potential news stories are judged for NEWSWORTHINESS by their audience appeal -- which means high impact, sensationalism, familiarity, close-to-home character, and timeliness.
    • Media in the US particularly television, are more likely to color the news as they report it.
      • Report on Somalia--pouring money into a "Hell-Hole"
      • "In an effort to appeal to the party's right-wing, Senator Dole announced support for . . . ."
      • Media in other countries are less likely to editorialize on the news as they report it.

What's the media's role in promoting the values of freedom, order, and equality?

  • Media's role in promoting order
    • Once media was more controlled and functioned more to maintain order than it does now.
      • Franklin D. Roosevelt paralysis
      • World War II: military helping Hollywood
      • Blacklisting leftist writers in the 1950s
    • Now it functions more to stimulate disorder--which makes for good "visuals"
      • Publicizing protests
      • Exposing politicians
      • Publicizing criticisms of government
        • Nosy census questions
        • Faulty consumer protection
        • High taxes
  • Media's role in promoting equality--different results from different programming
    • In news programming, promoting equality makes for good news by tugging at emotions
      • Civil rights movement
      • Plight of the poor
      • Help for the sick
    • In entertainment programing, promoting inequality appeals to material wants
      • Lifestyles of the rich and famous
      • So you want to be a Millionnaire
      • MasterCharge, I'm bored!