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Volume 12, 2008

  
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Jeffrey E. Cohen, The Presidency in the Era of 24-Hour News (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008. $27.95 / 17.95 paperback; $61.00 / 39.95 cloth). Pp xiv + 256. ISBN 978-0-691-13717-9.

 

A statement by or about a chief of state or high governmental official is news regardless of its importance or validity.

Murray Edelman, Constructing the Political Spectacle

 

 

These days, the American presidency is front and center of American and world public attention. This situation is highlighted by a world recession induced by the carelessness and selfishness of financial tycoons abetted by an era of governmental abnegation of its regulatory obligations, two foreign wars – Iraq and Afghanistan – and the threat of Islamofascism, global warming and a myriad of insistent environmental concerns, human rights issues at home and abroad, questions concerning dependence on fossil fuels and expensive and unreliable foreign sources of energy, immigration issues, and a pervasive global confusion, if not cynicism, regarding what is to be done. No doubt Barack Obama is currently enjoying a widespread well-spring of goodwill as the first African-American president and for his engaging leadership style and “audacity of hope.” Jeffrey Cohen’s new book, The Presidency in the Era of 24-Hour News, written just before the election of Obama, is provocative to suggest that the American presidency in the “age of the new media” receives relatively less public attention than it has historically and that recent changes in the structure of mass media have undermined the president’s ability to lead in the public interest. One might wonder if there are a few revisions buzzing about in Jeffrey Cohen’s bonnet.

          Cohen surveys extensive data honestly and with sophistication and his book is methodical, articulate, clear, informative and thought-provoking. His chief intellectual construct is what he calls the “presidential news system,” by which he means the dynamic interrelationships among the presidency, the news media and the mass public. His principal argument is that there has been a significant historical change in the presidential news system beginning in the late 1970s as the “golden age of television” – the era of broadcast television – was gradually supplanted by the “age of the new media.” The news media affect the relationship between the president and the public, an essential “democratic linkage,” and with the introduction of cable news channels offering news and entertainment programming 24/7, along with the mass appearance of the internet in the 1990s, the public’s attention to the news – and presidential news in particular – has declined; “soft” news has increased its share of the “news hole,” and news about the president has become increasingly negative and cynical.

          Cohen’s argument runs as follows: The structure of the news industry in the golden age of television affected the presentation of the news, the public’s reception of the news and the president’s relationship to the mass public. Economic concentration in the three major television networks (CBS, NBC, ABC), and the dominance of television and the influence of the “prestige press” (New York Times, Washington Post, inter alia) over the definition of the news, led to a relatively uniform “news product” consumed by the American public. Broadcast news was largely deferential to the president but if real problems arose with presidential leadership, they often damaged the president’s reputation and capacity to lead – viz. Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal. With the mass introduction of cable television in particular, “new media age” viewers had opportunities to choose entertainment programs over the news which in turn exerted economic pressure on the traditional broadcast networks to respond by reducing the amount of “hard” political news (news about the president almost always fits this bill) in order to retain market shares and remain profitable corporate enterprises.

          Regarding the new media (cable television, internet, deregulated AM talk radio), “because of greater competition [compared to the oligopolistic broadcast age]…[news] became increasingly negative toward the president…. The norm of negative or critical news had important implications for the public. It meant that the public could no longer tell, when faced with negative news, if that news was truly bad or if it was just typical journalistic reporting. In other words, the news signal to the public became noisy and unreliable” (15). The result has been a precipitous decline in the public trust in the “institution” of the news media over the last 30 years or so. Cohen concludes, “News in general [has] a smaller impact on public opinion.”

          With increasing public inattention and distrust of the news media and the change in the competitive structure of the media industry and its reliance on “soft news” and a negative tone, the presidents’ leadership style has been transformed as well: “As a consequence, to some degree, presidents have turned away from the mass public and toward narrower, specialized publics as targets of their leadership efforts…. [This] may also buttress the political disengagement of the broad mass from politics, as the public feels left out of the political conversation” (203).

          Cohen’s arguments are nuanced and multi-layered and there are a number of promising paths to further inquiry that emerge from his book. But his ultimate concern is the impact of the age of the new media on presidential leadership (read: presidential power) and consequent “important implications for our democracy” (15). “The president may be the only actor in the political system capable of attracting or focusing public attention; the fact that the office is unitary also makes the president more intellectually accessible for the public” (206).

          Many other leading American political scientists see things rather differently. While they might agree with Cohen that presidential power galvanizes public opinion in politically important ways, they disagree with his positive assessments of that power and its role in American democracy. Cohen’s “presidential news system” bears a striking resemblance to Murray Edelman’s “political spectacle” in which news accounts typically focus on “a partly illusory parade of threats and reassurances, most of which have little bearing on the successes or ordeals people encounter in their everyday lives, and some of which create problems that would not otherwise occur” (96).[i] The political spectacle of presidential news coverage most often diverts public attention away from the effects of public policies and ultimately serves to boost political authority and reinforce the current distribution of social and economic inequalities. Similarly, Theodore Lowi, in his James Madison Lecture presented to a plenary session at the recent American Political Science Association meeting in Boston, warns of a “bend sinister,” a presidency with far too much authority, a surfeit of leadership capacity – what he calls an American republic of “presidential transcendence,” rationalizing if not promulgating a timeless “war footing.”[ii] Such a presidency (no doubt he is thinking of George W. Bush, but a presidency Barack Obama will inherit) has its theorists as well, those who make the case for a “unitary executive,” who believe the president has the rightful power to interpret the constitution, and who “denigrate the separation of powers” (7). Some political analysts worry about the expanding and often unconstitutional power of the modern presidency while Cohen more often opines the factors that stymie “presidential leadership.”[iii]

          Also one might point out that Cohen’s analysis of the age of the new media focuses too much on the waning influence of information transmitted by the traditional news media, when he might have cast a wider net to capture political communication or political culture in order to understand something more fundamental, what we might call “civic literacy.” Cohen is right to say that democracy requires reliable and trustworthy political information, but the norms and mores of its distribution and exchange are every bit as important (maybe more so). A deeper understanding of the political significance of the age of the new media for democratic societies might begin with less exclusive attention paid to mainstream media sources and the “hard” v. “soft” news distinction, and more to “a repertoire of news services, in which the main aim of the popular news might well be that of catching attention and stimulating interest.”[iv] Communications scholar John Fiske continues, “If this interest appears to be relevant to the social situation of the viewer-reader, he or she may then turn to other forms of news to satisfy the desire for further information” (192). Fiske’s argument is important because what Cohen leaves out of his analysis of the age of the new media in the United States are elements of a broader frame of reference, political culture. What are we to make of the huge popularity of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and the “Colbert Report” on cable television’s Comedy Central? The political satire in the on-and-offline newspaper, The Onion? The uncommonly politically sophisticated fictional (mainstream) network television series, “West Wing”? Even the long-running animated television program on FOX Network, “The Simpsons,” has an undeniable political sophistication. Also requiring consideration would be Hollywood films, independent films, photography, plays, novels, songs and music videos, art exhibitions, as well as a more rigorous understanding of the multitude of sites for the provision of political news about the president on the internet. (It is not satisfying when Cohen notes, “The internet as a mass public phenomenon comes relatively late in the development of the new media age” [46]. And “…there is little indication that people have been substituting new media age news sources, such as 24/7 cable news networks and internet news sites for traditional media such as newspapers and broadcast television” [157].)

          Finally, to return to the question at the beginning of this review, one wonders what Cohen would make of the recent election and governing style of President Barack Obama. Obama appears to be an exception to Cohen’s conclusion that in the new media age, presidential leadership style involves turning to “special interests, narrower publics and/or their own partisan base” (207) as well as taking more extreme positions at the expense of appealing to the broad American public. Obama appeals to a broad mass of public support and to a plethora of special constituencies. One need only witness what CNN recently labeled Obama – “Politician-in-Chief” – to wonder if Cohen might want to revise some of his assessments of the new presidency, at least by way of more forcefully pointing out that the change in the “presidential news system” as we move from the golden age of broadcast TV to the new media age is not simply a unilinear trajectory, but also may involve reversals, standstills, cycles and exceptions.

          Recently President Obama has initiated a blitz of media appearances to reach out to the public (and to influence Congress) regarding his economic “stimulus package,” new foreign policy initiatives, national security and so on. This has included prime time television addresses, presidential news conferences (when, on one recent occasion, he largely bypassed the major media and opened the floor to questions from non-mainstream media like Ebony Magazine, Politico.com and the Spanish language television network Univision), and a variety of high-visibility forms of political communication including the first appearance by an elected American president on a major network late night television talk show, “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” two appearances as president on the venerable television newsmagazine, “60 Minutes,” an appearance on the sports TV network ESPN with his predictions for the final four contestants in college basketball’s “March Madness” championship tournament, and his recent “electronic town hall meeting” (compared to Franklin Roosevelt’s live radio broadcasts or “fireside chats”) which was screened live over the internet, for which 104,000 online questions were submitted and 3 million came on line to help select (along with the president’s staff) which questions would be posed to the president, garnering a viewing audience of 12.8 million. Regarding this latter form of presidential political communication, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, media scholar at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, remarked, “This new communication strategy…is appealing to an online audience that looks increasingly like the American public as a whole” (PBS, “Jim Lehrer News Hour,” 3/26/09). Jamieson further noted that the president not only took questions directly from the online public and that they were encouraged to interact with each other (perhaps “twitter”), but that we might also take into account the “echo effect” – many others who did not participate in this “electronic town meeting,” who did not see it, know about it and will want to talk about it.

          Jeffrey E. Cohen’s The Presidency in the Era of 24-Hour News is an important contribution to the political communications and information literature and to the literature on the modern American presidency. But his analysis is still haunted by nostalgia for the golden age of broadcast television, which, on closer examination and with enough historical hindsight, may come to be regarded as a form of regimentation of American public opinion and not a high point in civic literacy.

 

WILLIAM STEARNS

Independent Scholar

Notes


[i] Murray Edelman, Constructing the Political Spectacle (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988). See esp. Ch. 5 “The Ambiguities of Political News.”

[ii] Theodore J. Lowi, “Bend Sinister: How the Constitution Saved the Republic and Lost Itself.” James Madison Lecture, presented at the American Political Science Association, Boston, Massachusetts, August 29, 2008. Reprinted in PS: Political Science & Politics Volume 42, Number 1 (January 2009).

[iii] To be fair Cohen also warns that presidential leadership style in the age of the new media forces the president to appeal to narrower segments of the public, his partisan base, and thus he is inclined to support more extreme positions that are out of touch with the opinions of the public-at-large.

[iv] John Fiske, Reading the Popular (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989). See esp. Ch. 8 “Popular News.”

 

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