The Nationalization of News
The Newsification of Politics
I appreciate your inviting me to be with you today. There's a national conference on volunteerism in Philadelphia this weekend. Former President Jimmy Carter and General Colin Powell and President Clinton will undoubtedly call for more volunteers to do more work as a substitute for government funds. But that conference should also highlight the vital role of volunteers in organizations like the League of Women Voters that have working steadfastly and often thanklessly during these very hard times. So perhaps the first point is to thank the League of Women voters just for being the League for being there so constantly and for doing such important civic work for the entire community.
In addition, the timing for this talk couldn't be better from my standpoint. The community and media organizations that in 1988 helped to enact Hawaii's superb public records law is being re-born. The League provided very important input on that 1988 law. These community groups called themselves the Sunshine Law Coalition using Justice Brandeis' concept that sunshine through an open door was the best disinfectant to kill the germs of bad government. After 1988, we thought our work was done. But now we see that law is being chipped away at I suspect Peter [Olsen] will be giving us a play-by-play of a part of this chipping-away process.
The timing is important for another reason. This summer we are supposed to have public hearings on the rules that will set more details of how the public records law is to be implemented. One question will be how much will the public be charged for government officials to track down records or to black out a few names so that the entire record is not treated as confidential. How much are citizens going to have to pay for the government records that are theirs in the first place that is the real question.
Besides public records, the legislature last year has just about gutted the public meetings law, in my view. Closed-door meetings and private chitchats by government officials about the public's business prevent citizens' scrutiny needed to make government accountable. Closed-door meetings are also self-defeating for the government officials themselves and illustrate how far behind these officials are in recognizing this new information age. Suppressing accurate, authentic information allows rumors, gossip pure fiction to blossom. A prime example nationally was suppression of official records about the assassination of President Kennedy. Such suppression means that Oliver Stone's movie has shaped the public's perception of that historic event; a fictionalized version has displaced the facts.
Thus, the first job of this re-born coalition is to educate the public and the government officials about the importance of open government. The second job is to make more open government a reality. I'll give more details about this coalition later.
I thought I might share with you some reading I've done recently that underscored the FACT that the stakes for Freedom of Information have escalated so drastically. These stakes have become so big yet happened so gradually that they are hard to see. It's a little bit like trying to view the skyscrapers of New York if you are too close you can't really see them. To experience the wonder of them, you have to view them from afar.
One of the big trends has been called THE NATIONALIZATION OF NEWS by Michael Schudson. He is a sociologist who has made a career of studying the news media. Little by little, Schudson explains, the news media have helped to touch off a cultural transformation in the county within the last 30 years.
Part of this transformation shows up in our new vocabulary. The word the press was too limiting to define both print and broadcast journalism. As so often happens, it was the enemies of the press Nixon and Agnew who began using the media as a form of derision. The name has stuck. Now people are aware of a media omni-presence or what Schudson calls the sharp, visible presence of the media as a institution. Besides omni-presence, there is the greater speed and reach of the news media. But, if journalists can not get routine access to important government information, then the public will miss out being informed. And if journalists can not get access to records and meetings, I'm sure the League of Women Voters or individual citizens can NOT get access either.
The centerpiece of this trend toward nationalization of news was the expansion of the national television news system, Schudson says. In 1963, network news programming shifted from the 15-minute format to 30 minutes. That same year, more citizens claimed to rely on television than on the newspapers as their primary source of news. In Hawaii, that big shift to television news came in 1976, when satellites eliminated the delayed network coverage.
Also in the early 1960s, President Kennedy began holding the first live televised press conferences and thus gave his stamp of approval on television as a regular news source. But Schudson says:
It was not until the Vietnam War that television news coverage took on a centrality, both for Washington elites and the public at large. Then the evening news became the symbolic center of national agenda and the national consciousness. ... presidents notably Johnson and Nixon became obsessed with the television screen.
Then came the snowball effect: "60 Minutes" became the most highly rated program in the country, local news began to turn big profits, the Pentagon Papers case and the Watergate spotlighted the power of the media. In 1979, ABC began a late-night news program called "America Held Hostage". But when the Iranian hostage crisis ended, the program remained and is now "Nightline".
Also in 1979. the cable industry began C-SPAN as a public-service gesture that influenced the conduct of public affairs in the House and later the Senate. In 1980, CNN began operations, providing round-the-clock domestic coverage. A decade later, it was going global. delivering instant, on-the-scenes news of the Gulf War to diplomats, government leaders and military commanders worldwide.
As television expanded nationally, radio also took on a rebirth. National Public Radio began in 1970 and launched its national network news program. Then came "talk radio" and Larry King's national radio and television program and so-called "reality programming" became a cultural experience.
To keep up with broadcasters, the print side also expanded. Satellite communication technology and computerized printing systems have made the regional and national newspaper a reality. A prime example is USA Today, which is printed in 32 different sites. We see the results of this high-speed printing in the newspaper's vending boxes on street corners all over town.
Schudson says that a important corollary of the nationalization of news has been the newsification of popular culture. He turned on its head the oft-heard criticism that news has been transformed into entertainment. Instead, he views the "Donohue" program and the "Oprah Winfrey Show" as forums for letting the people discuss the nation's problems. Thus, these programs are models for making entertainment that feeds on the news.
I'd like to extend Schudson's wording to another area what I've labeled as the Newsification of National Politics.
Since the 1960s, national politics have been steadily shaped by the news media. This shaping is most clearly seen with the timing and the scripting during the national conventions, which are aimed at projecting at prime time the right messages across the television screens.
But even beyond the conventions, the media agenda dominates news coverage of the entire electoral campaign, according to a new edition of a book by political scientist Richard Davis. The book title The Press and American Politics: The New Mediator sums up the growing role of the press. Davis says the growing press role parallels two other significant changes:
- the political parties nationally have declined in importance;
- parents seem to have a diminished role in how youth learn about politics and what youth do learn is coming increasingly from the media.
Davis says in the early 1970 TV was called "the new parent". More evidence shows that mass media exposure does affect awareness and knowledge of politics. Children pick up their political vocabulary from the media. But what youth do with the information is still largely unknown.
But what we do know, Davis says, is that the media play a major perhaps even the primary role in awareness and knowledge about politics and this fact alone suggests the potential effect that the media may have on attitude and behavior. The three areas where this potential might he realized are: 1. voter choices in election campaigns which we've just discussed and 2. political participation and 3. agenda setting.
Agenda-setting means spotlighting the issues the public should think about not necessarily which side of the issue they should adopt. Since the 1960s numerous public-interest groups have built up expertise on complex issues and have become agenda-setters for the media. These groups issue periodic reports and assessments: I suspect they will grow in influence with the Internet.
So what we have is:
- NATIONALIZATION OF THE NEWS AND
- THE NEWSIFICATION OF BOTH POPULAR CULTURE AND NATIONAL POLITICS.
What this means is FOIA is more important than ever before; there's more chance news will create a ripple-effect across geography, across culture and maybe across politics.
But, if the media as a national institution are denied big chunks of government information or have a haggle over every little crumb they get the public is denied systematic coverage of what may be important issues. The flip side, however, is that public-interest groups such as the League should also do what they can to ensure the media are covering substantive issues.
What else does this all mean for the League? It means more that ever before the hard work of the League is essential. If possible, do more. For example, both nationally and in Hawaii, the league has sponsored primary and general election debates. We desperately need these again, in my view.
Also perhaps, the monitoring of government meetings that the League does, especially at the city level can be written up and shared with the public via the Internet if nothing else.
Lastly, we truly need and want the participation of the League in the new coalition that is being re-born to insist upon more open government in Hawaii and to educate more people about the necessity of open government.
Our next meeting is Saturday, June 7 at 9:30 a.m. at The News Building first floor conference room. We hope to have by then the drafts of bylaws and the language for new brochures.
The UH journalism department has also reproduced copies of a booklet I've compiled and I invite you to take. I thank you for being one of the most constant civic organizations in Hawaii; I can't imagine what government in Hawaii would be without you.
Beverly Ann Deepe Keever
League of Women Voters [Annual Meeting]
April 26, 1997