Podium: Whitewash at the White House

Grace Norton From an address on American government and the media given by the politics lecturer at West Virginia College
The invention of the printing press in Europe in the mid-1400s set the stage for the first really widespread dissemination of information to the general population. By 1539, there was a printing press in Mexico City. By 1639, there was a press in Boston, Massachusetts, a town established in 1630. The printing press made a fairly early appearance in other towns and cities of New England. By 1700, the printers of Boston were printing more material than those anywhere in the British empire except London; the printers of Philadelphia were running a close third.

For most of American history, the newspaper was the only medium other than books for communicating over time and space. By the 1920s, newspaper chains - groups of newspapers owned by the same person or company - made their appearance. The national news and editorial perspective of the papers within a chain were generally pretty much the same. As the trend of forming newspaper chains continued, the viewpoints reflected were those of fewer and fewer people. After World War II, television and its news coverage did even more to homogenise and nationalise news coverage and political perspectives.

Media content and news coverage are inevitably affected by the views, ideals, interests, and biases of the journalists who get and write the stories, and the editors and producers who decide what stories are published or broadcast, and how much space or coverage each story gets.

During some periods, journalists, editors and producers have worked diligently to present high-quality and objective coverage of news. Editors and producers such as William S Paley and Fred Friendly, and reporters such as Edward R Murrow set an incredibly high standard for fair and accurate reporting and fair and objective presentation of broadcast news in the 1940s and 1950s that journalists and political analysts today see as a sort of "golden age" of broadcast journalism.

The very fact that some period is looked to as a "golden age" is an indication that people perceive some reduction in the quality of some phenomenon. That is certainly true of the media. There are several reasons why.

The team who ran the Reagan White House were probably the most media- savvy group of White House operatives in presidential history. The chief of staff was an advertising executive before he joined Reagan's White House. Commentator David Gergen, also a part of the Reagan White House team, has said that he had the following rule: before any event could be placed on the President's calendar, the person proposing that Reagan participate in the event had to be able to tell what the headline would be, what the first sentence of the news story would be, and what picture would accompany the story. Unless all of these were coherent, and portrayed Reagan and his policies in a positive light, the event would not be put on Reagan's calendar.

Thus, they conveyed to the public a sort of storybook presidency via manipulated and managed news, rather than an accurate picture of the real Reagan presidency.

As important as manipulation of the media is, the nature of the mass media themselves is probably a more important source of its qualitative decline from its "golden era."

In order to try to increase audience, broadcast media not only use sex, sensationalism, and hyperbole, they also try to package news more like entertainment. Many television news operations are now, in fact, part of the corporation's entertainment division.

ABC moved earlier than most to merge news and entertainment. When its morning show, Good Morning America, a competitor with NBC and CBS morning news shows, first aired, it was a product of the entertainment division and its host, David Hartman, was an actor, not a journalist. Within a very short period of time, NBC and CBS dramatically increased "soft" news content and added a variety of entertainment segments.

To give another example, from the standpoint of actually operating the government and getting things done, the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky matters were not important. However, between them, they dominated news coverage for over a year.

Because these stories were getting covered, others were not. So Jones/Lewinsky was on the agenda while social security and Medicare restructuring were not. Both houses of Congress spent enormous amounts of time - far more than usually gets devoted to a major bill - on Jones/ Lewinsky.

Whatever else, we are not living through a media "golden age".