Memo - Nov. 15-17 - What's News

What is the relationship between politics and the media? This is not a simple question. On the one hand, the media is supposed to be an independent, impartial observer of politics, following stories as they develop and passing them on to the public. On the other hand, for reporters to gain access to politicians to get those stories, reporters must cultivate good relationships with their sources. If they report stories that are too critical, their sources won't want to talk to them again. Then there's the fact that the news is a business--a big business, in fact, deeply enmeshed in large multimedia conglomerates. This is not to say that all they ever report is lies and that's all they're capable of. For better or worse, the reality is considerably more complex than that.

The first reading comes from Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1986), by Neil Postman, who was a media studies scholar and cultural critic. In this book, Postman aruges that there's nothing wrong with television, as long as we don't take it seriously. It's fine for entertainment, he maintains, but as a society, we get in trouble when we allow what is essentially an entertainment medium to shape our political discourrse. The excerpt you will read focuses, first, on television's inherent entertainment "bias" and, then, on how television news is structured to fit that bias.

The second reading, an excerpt from On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency, by the journalist Mark Hertsgaard, examines the new techniques that Ronald Reagan's administration developed to control and shape how the news media reported the news. Indeed, it was during the 1980s that the term "spin" came into common usage to refer to how information was "massaged" to give it a particular appearance. Undoubtedly, debates have raged about the relationship between politics adn the news media ever since the earliest days of the republic, but according to Hertsgaard, what developed in the 1980s was qualitatively different from any other major transitional period--the 1890s, World War One, the 1960s, etc.

  • Why does Postman argue that television has an inherent bias towards entertainment? Do you agree or disagree?
  • In what ways is the television news organized as entertainment? Can you imagine another kind of television news, within the commercial broadcasting system?
  • Postman's book was published in 1986--before the Internet. Is television news different today than what Postman describes?
  • Has the internet changed political discourse? How?
  • Hertsgaard is concerned not only with television but with news media in general. Is there any significant difference between how the print media and the electronic media operated during the Reagan years?
  • How did Reagan--whose nicknamed was "the great communicator"--exploit television to his particular advantage? How did this differ from other presidents, before and after?
  • Reagan was well known for his misstatements and errors in his public statements, yet these never tarnished his reputation permanently--not even the Iran-Contra scandal could bring him down. In fact, there were so many incidents that didn't stick to him that he became known as "the Teflon president." How are we, as students, of history to understand this? Who was responsible--Reagan? his advisors and "handlers? the press? the public?
  • Are any of the major issues in the readings still applicable today? Are they more applicable today than in the 1980s? Please prepare some examples to support your views.