The Role of Media in Government

In a democracy, the free flow of information, ideas, and opinions is critical. To this end, the media has three primary responsibilities: setting the agenda, investigating the institutions of government, and facilitating the exchange of ideas and opinions.

Setting the Agenda

Who determines the news? The answer, to some extent, is that the media determines the news. Every day, hundreds of decisions, activities, and events take place in Congress, the executive branch, and the courts that could potentially have an impact upon millions of Americans. It's the job of the media — print, television, radio, and the Internet — to determine which actions merit coverage and which do not. This is part of the news-gathering process. After all, print and broadcast media have a finite amount of time and space to dedicate to news coverage. Therefore, news editors and producers use their discretion in determining what receives coverage.

The process of determining the news — setting the agenda — is not a perfect science. What one editor considers “hard news” might not be viewed as newsworthy at all by another. It's a highly subjective process that leaves many news-gathering organizations open to criticism from groups dissatisfied with their coverage. For years, political conservatives have complained that “elite” media institutions such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and the three broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) were biased toward liberal causes.

Many on the right contend that the issue of homelessness was prominently covered by the media during the Reagan and Bush administrations and then suddenly dropped from the radar while President Clinton was in office, only to reappear after George W. Bush was sworn in. Liberal advocates hold the opposite view, contending that because large corporate conglomerates own the major news organizations, they have a vested interest in preserving the status quo.

Liberal lawmakers and activists have singled out Fox News Channel as being biased toward conservative causes, even though the channel purports to have “fair and balanced” news coverage. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, Fox News has enjoyed a ratings bonanza, surpassing CNN as the most watched cable news network. In 2003, former vice president Al Gore announced that he was forming a “progressive” news channel as an alternative voice to Fox News.

Editors and producers typically take several factors into consideration when determining the news value of an event, ruling, decision, or trend, such as the number of people affected by it, the impact, the long-term consequences, and the effect on future actions or decisions. Prior to September 11, 2001, the threat of domestic terrorism received virtually no news coverage, because news decision-makers — and many others — believed that there was little likelihood of such an attack. Since then, however, it has overshadowed every other issue, and will likely continue to do so for some time.

Serving the Public Trust

As we have learned, the framers of the Constitution established multiple checks and balances to guard against tyranny. Their biggest fear was that one branch of government would monopolize power and rule against the will of the people. One of the checks they established is the First Amendment, which guarantees a free press.

Investigative journalism dates back to the 1800s, when a new breed of reporters dubbed “muckrakers” sought to expose public corruption and social injustices. Author Upton Sinclair is considered the “grand-father” of muckraking because of his book The Jungle, which was a groundbreaking depiction of the unsanitary conditions of the meat-packing industry. The Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drugs Act were passed a year after the book's publication.

In this regard, the media serves as a kind of “super-check” on all three branches of government. For more than two centuries, the press has called attention to corruption, deception, incompetence, fraud, abuse, and the misuse of power at every level and branch of government.

It was a vigilant press that exposed massive corruption in the Grant administration, brought attention to unsanitary working conditions in factories and the misuse of child labor around the turn of the twentieth century, and uncovered government deception and lying during the Vietnam War, among other things. Perhaps most famously, it was Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two novice Washington Post reporters, who conducted an investigation of the Watergate burglary that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon — the only time in history that a president has resigned from office.

With the proliferation of cable television, talk radio, and the Internet, the media is more active than ever in serving as a public watchdog. Entire publications, news programs, and Web sites are dedicated to exposing government malfeasance, corruption, and waste. In the past decade, enterprising journalists have exposed scores of crooked politicians, government officials, and corporations.

Opinion Journalism

It's almost impossible to turn on the television or radio and not be bombarded with the sights and sounds of political pundits — sometimes referred to as “talking heads” — screaming at one another. Although this may not seem like a service to democracy, opinion journalism plays an important role in our system of government, because it gives lawmakers, activists, interest groups, academics, and concerned citizens a forum in which to discuss and debate the pressing issues of the day.

Every day, tens of millions of Americans listen to talk-radio personalities such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Don Imus, and others to get their perspective on the day's news and events. Audiences do not listen to these programs to receive objective information or dispassionate analysis; quite the opposite, they usually share the host's political point of view.

In recent years, liberal lawmakers and interest groups have complained that a majority of radio talk-show personalities are political conservatives. To some extent, this observation is accurate, because right-wing commentators have dominated radio for more than a decade. In the marketplace of ideas, however, all points of view have equal access to the airwaves.

The cable news landscape is equally saturated with opinion journalism. Stations such as MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, and CNBC provide lawmakers and opinion leaders with nearly endless opportunities to debate pressing issues and ideas. It's not unusual to see a talking head appear on multiple programs (on different stations, no less) during the same evening.

Lawmakers use programs such as Crossfire, Hardball with Chris Matthews, and The O'Reilly Factor as a way to increase their visibility and develop a national profile. Prior to embarking on his bid for the Democratic nomination for president, little-known freshman senator John Edwards made frequent appearances on the “big four” cable networks — Fox, MSNBC, CNBC, and CNN — in an effort to develop a national following.

During the Congressional election of 1994, right-wing radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh railed against the Congressional Democrats and was a forceful advocate for the Republicans' “Contract with America.” Limbaugh was made an honorary member of the “Class of '94” after the Republicans swept both houses of Congress, and was the keynote speaker at the Congressional Republicans freshman orientation session.

Serious lawmakers and opinion leaders use the Sunday morning shows — Face the Nation, Meet the Press, Fox News Sunday, This Week, and Late Edition — to influence the debate, shape policy, and make headlines. A strong appearance on one of these programs can sometimes change the discourse surrounding a political issue, and catapult a personality to national prominence. During the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Lewinsky's lawyer William Ginsburg set a “talking head” record when he appeared on all five Sunday shows in one morning. It was the first time this rhetorical feat had been accomplished.

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