The Mass Media as Political Actors

PS: Political Science & Politics, March 1996, volume 29, no. 1, pages 20-24

One can imagine several ways in which media organizations – that is, individual media outlets, chains, networks, or umbrella corporations – might pursue policy objectives. One way could involve standard interest-group techniques for influencing political candidates and public officials. Media organizations (e.g., Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation) and their executives might seek public policies of particular concern to themselves (e.g., relaxation of limits on foreign ownership of U.S. TV stations), by making campaign contributions, doing favors for politicians, or lobbying, just like other interest groups. Journalists and scholars have come upon a number of examples of such influence attempts. A closer look, particularly at possible connections between what media firms lobby for and what they air or print could be valuable. (Devereux 1993, for example, has found evidence that some newspapers’ endorsements of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 were linked with policy payoffs.)
I want to focus, however, on a different way in which media organizations might seek to influence policy: the indirect approach of using their publications or broadcasts to try and change the beliefs and policy preferences of mass and/or elite audiences, which would presumably affect subsequent policy decisions.(1) This indirect approach might be especially attractive to media organizations because of their special positions as key disseminators of political information. Its use could have important implications for the nature of democratic deliberation.
The concept of “political actor,” applied to the media or anyone else, implies observable action that is purposive (though perhaps functional rather than consciously intended) and sufficiently unified so that it makes sense to speak of a single actor. A critical question, therefore, concerns whether – or to what extent – media outlets do in fact use their publications and broadcasts in a purposive and unified fashion to pursue policy objectives.
Subsidiary but important research questions concern what kinds of media act in this way, under what circumstances, concerning what sorts of issues. Also, who drives the process (owners? managers? journalists?), acting upon what motives (economic self-interest? values? ideology? professional norms?), with what degree of consciousness? By what mechanisms could the actions of many individual coworkers be coordinated (ownership interference? managerial hierarchy? selective recruitment? internalized norms and routines?) In what formats are attempts at policy persuasion made? (In editorials and commentary only? Also in news stories? Entertainment?) What persuasive techniques are used? (Framing? Manipulation of salience? Selective quotation? Value-laden language? Evidence and argumentation? Striking anecdotes? False or misleading assertions?) Finally, what effects, if any, do such influence attempts have upon audiences and upon public deliberation?
Do Media Organizations Pursue Policy Objectives Through Their Publications or Broadcasts?
On this fundamental question there is a curious disjuncture between the communications literature and common sense. Most sophisticated observers of the media, at least most nonacademic observers, would say, “of course.” They speak with casual certainty of how the New York Times worked to pass NAFTA, or how the Wall Street Journal crusades for cuts in government spending.
But communications scholars tend to dismiss such possibilities out of hand, burying them under a flurry of doubts. How could such a thing be managed? Journalists take pride in their independence and in professional norms of objectivity. Surely media owners do not influence what journalists say or print! As an anonymous reviewer of one of my own manuscripts succinctly and correctly put it: most specialists on the news media do not take this possibility very seriously.
In order to make any headway on researching this subject it is necessary to break the global question down into smaller, more manageable pieces.
Do media argue for particular policies in editorials? Here we are on fairly solid ground. Yes, obviously, media editorials often take stands on the issues of the day; that is one of their declared purposes. Many newspapers, magazines (especially journals of opinion), and broadcasts carry such editorials. Moreover, practically all observers of the media would agree that different media tend to take distinctive stands, and that those stands often remain consistent over many years. The Nation leans left, and the National Review tilts right. The Washington Post and New York Times are socially (and, to a lesser extent, economically) liberal, while Wall Street Journal editorials thunder with conservatism; other publications line up at various points along the ideological continuum or continua.
Even on this point, however, more research is needed: careful documentation of which media take editorial stands (presumably print media editorialize more than electronic ones), precisely what editorial positions different media outlets take on various issues, and how those positions do or do not change over time. The lesser newspapers, general-purpose magazines, and TV programs have been especially little studied.
What about commentary and Op-Eds? This is less clear. Many publications and programs aim for at least an appearance of diversity in the comments and opinions they carry; some may even aspire to create miniature “public spheres” in which all (all?) views freely contend. The extent of such diversity has impressed some observers.
On the other hand, my study of New York Times Op-Eds concerning whether or not to go to war with Iraq suggests that the Times’s apparently free-wheeling discourse was actually constructed so as to further the Times’s own position as manifested in its unsigned editorials. Guest as well as regular columns came from limited kinds of sources, expressed a limited range of viewpoints, and were arranged with almost perfect symmetry on both sides of the Times’s own stand (Page 1996, chapter 2).
More research is needed concerning what views are expressed on Op-Ed pages and on pundit and interview shows, how diverse or uniform they are, and how they relate to the explicit editorial stands (if any) of the media outlet or to other factors like audience preferences. Does CNN tend toward mostly conservative commentary? Are the (somewhat regulated) electronic media more open to contending views than print media? Are there differences between corporate and family ownership, with press barons or newspaper families perhaps more prone than profit-seeking conglomerates to indulge in ideological crusades?
Do media further their own policy stands through news stories? This is hotly disputed. Communications research has, I believe, thoroughly demolished the idea that news is or can be “value free.” The canons of bland, “objective” reporting are perfectly consistent with the selection of quotes and facts, the framing of interpretations, and the attribution of importance (through repeated front page headlines, for example), all so as to support or oppose a particular policy position. Moreover, the canons of objectivity themselves seem to have eroded. Even the formerly grey New York Times, now sometimes runs news (or unobtrusively labelled “analysis”) stories full of the colorful, value-laden adjectives and adverbs once found only in journals of opinion or Time magazine.
Curiously, however, many communications researchers tend to resist the possibility that the values conveyed in news stories might tend systematically to reflect the policy preferences of media organizations themselves. Scholars seem particularly skeptical of the idea that multiple news stories, written at different times by different (presumably independent) reporters, and based on different sources, could share a common political thrust, or that the “wall of separation” between news and editorial departments could somehow be breached so that news stories would tend to mirror editorial views.
Nonetheless, there is some evidence to suggest that the predominant political values expressed in news stories do in fact sometimes correspond closely to the political stands that are taken in overt editorials. Rowse (1957), for example, found a very close fit between 31 different newspapers’ handling of the 1952 Nixon and Stevenson “fund” stories and their editorial endorsements of candidates. My study of media reactions to the Los Angeles riots found a similar correspondence between news and editorials, and dissected a number of techniques by which news stories can be deployed to advance policy objectives (Page 1995; 1996, chapter 3).
More research is needed on whether consistent policy stands tend to show up in media outlets’ news stories; how those stands vary (does CBS news differ from ABC?); and just how closely such stands do or do not correspond with overt editorials or other indicators of media’s own positions. Does the extent of news-editorial correspondence vary between print and electronic media, or with form of ownership (e.g., family or corporate), or by type of issue, or in other ways? (Do Wall Street Journal news stories and editorials sometimes clash with each other? If so, is the Journal unusual?)
Who Controls the Policy Stands that Media Take, How, and to What Ends?
Official government sources? A major, quite important finding from communications research is that government officials serve as the chief sources of many kinds of political news and tend to constrain the range of debate found in the media (Sigal 1973; Gans 1980; Hallin 1986; Bennett 1990; Soley 1992). Media dependence upon officials is often said to result largely from the nature of newsgathering routines and the need for regular, easy access to legitimate sources who possess valuable information. Such dependence implies that policy stands expressed by media outlets might simply reflect whatever stands are taken by officials in power (some media perhaps echoing mostly Democratic officials, while others echo mostly Republicans).
This view, carried in one direction, could support a hegemony theory of the media, in which newspapers, magazines, and TV programs mostly pass along official propaganda, especially in foreign affairs (Herman and Chomsky 1988). Taken in another direction, the same findings suggest that policy stands in the media may reflect whatever political forces are dominant in society as a whole – whether those are primarily large, capitalist corporations (Parenti 1993) or a more pluralistic mix of voters, interest groups, and party activists that get officials elected. Either way, the dependence-on-officials view casts the media as passive transmission belts, feeding their audiences whatever other actors (officials themselves or broader societal forces behind officials) want to serve up. It casts serious doubt upon the importance of the media as independent political actors.
Although the evidence of heavy media dependence upon government officials is quite convincing, I think more research is needed concerning precisely how it works and how far it extends. For example, the logic of newsgathering (involving time pressure and dependence on narrow, accessible sources) does not apply so well to the production of Op-Ed pages or TV discussion shows, which often have months or years in which to solicit the views of anyone they please on enduring policy questions. Do the boundaries of official, two-party debate tend to constrain opinions and commentary as well as news? If so (and the evidence suggests they do – Reese, Grant, and Danielian 1994), how and why do they do so? Might closeness to officials suit the policy preferences of media organizations themselves? More broadly, is there room for a view of media organizations as somewhat autonomous political actors, sometimes agreeing with official views but sometimes going their own way?
Do owners or managers do it? Now we approach the forbidden fruit of media studies. The suggestion that the owners and/or managers of media organizations might influence the policy stands that media outlets take sometimes triggers cries of “Marxism” or “conspiracy theory.” Surely, however, this is a possibility that serious social scientists of various theoretical stripes ought to be willing to investigate. Surprisingly few have done so.
The chief empirically based reason for doubting ownership or management influence seems to be the finding, by a number of excellent sociology-of-newsmaking studies (e.g., Gans 1980), that journalists often have subjective feelings of substantial autonomy and that they are not treated as mere hirelings but engage in complex bargaining relationships with their editors. Moreover, nearly all practicing journalists and editors vehemently deny that owners interfere with what they do.
But does this dispose of the possibility of ownership or managerial influence? Certainly not. For one thing, the job description of editors includes the hiring, promotion, supervision, and firing of journalists. Editors assign (and sometimes take away) stories. They read copy and accept, alter, or reject what is written. They decide upon story placement and salience.
It should not be shocking to suggest that editors might consciously or unconsciously tend to hire and promote reporters who share their policy preferences, or that they might tend to assign, edit, and place stories in such a way as to advance policy views that they themselves hold. Such influence could be entirely consistent with journalists’ sense of autonomy, especially if the journalists were chosen for political compatibility in the first place or if they quickly learned and internalized what was expected of them.
Similar reasoning applies to influence by higher-level media managers and owners. Owners and managers pick their editors; little wonder if they do so carefully, with some regard to political compatibility. There may, therefore, be little need for day-to-day interference. (To be sure, some startling accounts of such interference can be found; see Bagdikian 1992.) The extent that owners do supervise or interfere with their editors would be very difficult for observers – even sociologists or reporters hanging around the newsroom – to detect. A low-key, private note or phone call from a Sulzberger to a Times editor might accomplish quite a lot, and both parties might have reason to keep such a contact very private. Furthermore, selective recruitment of editors plus quiet supervision by owners or top-level managers could account for political uniformity between news and editorial departments, even if they never talked to each other and the “wall of separation” stayed intact.
To my great surprise, I have found few systematic efforts to investigate possible mechanisms of owner or manager control of media’s political stands. (A striking recent exception is D. Chomsky (1996), who has uncovered remarkable evidence of how the owners of the New York Times have influenced the content of news stories.) This topic seems to deserve high priority for future research.
To be sure, it would be difficult or impossible to gather a random sample of influence attempts and observe their results. The subtle nature of processes like selective recruitment and internalized expectations, together with the highly confidential nature of overt interventions, affects what research designs are feasible. The use of memoirs, participant-observation, and interviews can be helpful, but most promising is archival research into the confidential memos or diaries of media owners and managers (e.g., Chomsky 1996). A complementary, outside strategy is to analyze patterns in which news and editorial stands may vary according to ownership characteristics, e.g., industrial sectors (Devereux 1993).
What Effects Does Media Bias Have?
The days of belief in “minimal effects” by the media are over. A large body of evidence now indicates that what appears in print or on the air has a substantial impact upon how citizens think and what they think about: e.g., what they cite as “important problems” (McCombs and Shaw 1972; Iyengar and Kinder 1987), how they attribute responsibility for policy problems (Iyengar 1991), and what policy preferences they hold (Page, Shapiro, and Dempsey 1987). Further, what the media say often has direct effects upon what policymakers do (Protess, Cook, Doppelt, Ettema, Gordon, Leff, and Miller 1991).
I want to highlight two sets of questions that go beyond the issue of micro-level impact. First, to what extent are the media themselves the ultimate causes of these effects, and to what extent are they merely transmission belts for more fundamental forces? Do “the media,” as relatively autonomous actors, shape opinions? Or do they just pass on what comes from official news sources or other powerful elements in society? These questions matter for how we place the mass media in a general model of public opinion and policy formation. They take us back to our earlier questions about who or what determines the policy stands taken by media.
Second, when the many media in a large, complex society like the United States are all taken together, how do they affect the quality of public deliberation? Do they present sufficiently diverse and helpful political information and interpretations so that citizens can figure out what kinds of public policies would best satisfy their values and interests? Does the “marketplace of ideas” work in the way liberal theorists have hoped? Or do the media tend to lead people astray from the opinions they would hold if fully and accurately informed?
These are large and difficult questions which I have tried to address at length elsewhere (Page 1996, chapter 1, 5; see also Page and Shapiro 1992, chapter 9, 10.) Here I want to suggest that the overall impact of media as political actors may depend heavily upon how persuasive power is distributed among them (especially how concentrated or dispersed the distribution is), and how political stands are distributed among media outlets (with how much diversity, and how close or far they are from the values and interests of ordinary citizens).
Media outlets’ promotion of their own policy agendas might not matter much, for example, if those agendas were highly diverse and competed vigorously with each other, and if at least some significant media voices provided accurate information and offered interpretations that resonated well with the values and interests of ordinary citizens. Then citizens could presumably sort out the true from the false, the useful from the useless or misleading, and come to sensible conclusions. On the other hand, however, if most or all influential media promoted the same policy views, and if those views were badly out of touch with the values and interests of ordinary citizens, public deliberation might be stifled and the citizenry misled.
I believe it should be a high priority for political communications research to examine the policy views advocated in or by all accessible media – not just the most-studied newspapers and TV networks – in order to ascertain how diverse those views are, how broad or narrow a range of ideas and interpretations is presented, and how they relate to the values and interests of the citizenry as a whole. Because the amount of media-transmitted verbiage is vast – yen on a single, narrowly delimited issue-such examination must probably proceed on an issue-by-issue, case study basis, but it should do so in such a way as to ensure comparability across issues. Variations by type of issue may prove quite interesting.
Is it true, for example, (perhaps because of official control of information and lack of disagreement between the two major parties) that media-presented debates on foreign policy issues are often narrow and distant from the views of ordinary citizens? Do fundamental features of our economic system generally go unchallenged, perhaps because of the private (mostly corporate) ownership of media outlets? On class-related issues, do the high economic positions of media owners, officials, and leading journalists sometimes lead the media nearly unanimously to take positions that are out of touch with the citizenry as a whole? (The Zoe Baird incident suggests that the answer may be yes; populistic uprisings in response may be rare [Page 1996, chapter 4; Page and Tannenbaum 1996.]) Is debate on other kinds of issues likely to be more open and enlightening?
Plenty of observers have opinions about such matters, and they sometimes defend them with great energy, but concrete evidence remains fragmentary. Only a large-scale, continuing research effort can answer some of the most important questions about the quality of democratic deliberation.

  1. Different, and perhaps very important, indirect means by which media political actors might seek policy goals include using their pages and airwaves to build up political candidates or officials who agree with their policy aims, while trying to destroy those who do not; or seeking to enhance or undermine the legitimacy of government itself. The highly negative media content documented by Jamieson (1992), Patterson (1993), and others could reflect such strategies. Many of the research questions outlined here could be applied to those topics as well as to the shaping of policy preferences.
    Bagdikian, Ben H. 1992. The Media Monopoly. 4th ed. Boston: Beacon.
    Bennett, W. Lance. 1990. “Toward a Theory of Press-State Relations in the United States.” Journal of Communication 40(2): 103-25.
    Chomsky, Daniel. 1996. “Constructing the Cold War.” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Northwestern University.
    Devereux, Erik August. 1993. “The Partisan Press Revisited: Newspapers and Politics in the United States, 1964-1968.” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Texas, Austin.
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    Hallin, Daniel C. 1986. The “Uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press.
    Herman, Edward S., and Noam Chomsky. 1988. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon.
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    Page, Benjamin I., and Jason Tannenbaum. 1996. “Populistic Deliberation and Talk Radio.” Journal of Communication. Forthcoming.
    Parenti, Michael. 1993. Inventing Reality: The Politics of News Media. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin’s.
    Patterson, Thomas E. 1993. Out of Order. New York: Knopf.
    Protess, David L., Fay Lomax Cook, Jack C. Doppelt, James S. Ettema, Margaret T. Gordon, Donna R. Left, and Peter Miller. 1991. The Journalism of Outrage: Investigative Reporting and Agenda Building in America. New York: Guilford Press.
    Reese, Stephen D., August Grant, and Lucig H. Danielian. 1994. “The Structure of News Sources on Television: A Network Analysis of ‘CBS News,’ ‘Night-line,’ ‘MacNeill-Lehrer,’ and ‘This Week with David Brinkley.'” Journal of Communication 44(2):84-107.
    Rowse, Arthur Edward. 1957. Slanted News: A Case Study of the Nixon and Stevenson Fund Stories. Boston: Beacon.
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    About the Author
    Benjamin I. Page is Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making at Northwestern University, and is the author of numerous books and articles on American politics.

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