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The Media in Politics: "The FourthBranchof Government"? 1 Edwin R.Bayley.Joe McCarthy and the Press. Madison andLondon:University of Wisconsin Press, 1981.270 + x pp. Robert C.Hilderbrand. Power and the People: Executive Managementof Public Opinion in Foreign Affairs, 1897-1921. Chapel Hill:Universityof North Carolina Press, 1981.262 +viii pp. PaulS.Holbo. Tarnished Expansion: The Alaska Scandal, thePress.and Congress, 1867-187I. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983.145+ xix pp. George Juergens.News from the White House: The P,esidential-Press Relationship in the Progressive Era. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1981.338 + x pp. Montague Kern, Patricia W.Levering, and Ralph B.Levering. The KennedyCrises: The Press, the Presidency, and Foreign Policy. Chapel Hill andLondon:University of North Carolina Press, 1983.290 + xiiipp. Gladys EngelLangand Kurt Lang. The Battle for Public Opinion:The President, the Press, and the Polls during Watergate. New York:ColumbiaUniversity Press, 1983.353+ xivpp. Graham J. White.FDR and the Press. Madison and London: Universityof Wisconsin Press, 1979, 186+ viii pp. John Braernan The founding text of modern-day analyses of the role of the media in American politics is Walter Lippmann's 1922 classic, Public Opinion.2 Traditionaldemocratic theory, he pointed out, assumed "that a reasoned righteousnesswelled up spontaneously out of the mass of men." But men's opinions were not the product of pure rational calculus; their comprehension oftheworldwas shaped by unconscious drives and hidden assumptions. And asthat world has become increasingly complicated, the average citizen has increasingly to make judgments about matters outside his first-hand personal experience.The locus of political decision-making has shifted from the local communityto the national and even international levels; the individual voter hasaccordingly become more and more dependent for information upon outsidesources. ''... the real environment," Lippmann wrote, "is altogether toobig,too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance .... what each mandoes isnot based on direct and certain knowledge, but on pictures made byhimself or given him." The mass media exert a crucial influence in this processvia "the insertion between man and his environment of a pseudoenvironment .To that pseudo-environment his behavior is a response. "3 Contemporary communications researchers are more dubious about the influenceupon people's attitudes-at least in the short run-of what they readin the newspaper, hear on radio or see on television. People do have a CanadianReview of American Studies, Volume 16, Number 3, Fall 1985,353-372 354 John Braeman remarkable immunity against dissonant ideas, and can even assimilate apparently contradictory information into their established mental outlooks.4 At a minimum, however, the media play a major agenda-setting role-that is, they determine what issues people think about if not what they think about those issues.5 That function alone would be of sufficient importance to attract the interest of politicians. More important, most politicians, rightly or wrongly, remain convinced of the media's opinion-shaping power. That belief is hardly new. From the earliest days of the Republic, political leaders vied to present their personae and policies in a favorable light through the press. The difference between then and now was the close ties that existed between newspapers and the parties. In pre-Civil War America, each partyeven each faction within a party-had its loyal newspaper supporters. There was no pretence of objectivity or impartiality; journalism was a matter of direct and open advocacy. The beginnings of the breakdown of the party-newspaper alliance canbe traced to the appearance of the "penny press" in the 1830s and 1840s.Bythe late nineteenth century, a mass-circulation daily press had come into being with an independent readership base that cut across party lines. Although partisanship was not exorcised from the editorial page, a new journalistic ethos emerged that called for the separation of news and opinion. 6 At the same time, the political realignment of the 1890s ushered in a gradual atrophy of the parties as an alternative mechanism for rallying popular support. The Al Smith campaign of 1928 and the New Deal brought abouta temporary reversal of this trend: millions of new voters were mobilized and their party identifications fixed. Since the 1950s,however, party disintegration has proceeded at an accelerating pace...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 353-372
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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