The news media, like government officials, corrupt themselves and the public by fabricating and reporting innuendos, rumors, and crises. They focus on drama and conflict but ignore the underlying realities of political affairs.
Joseph Pulitzer changed all that by adding blaring headlines and colorful pictures to his news stories. He turned events that once resembled the minutes of a board meeting into a stage on which the actions of government became a series of dramas.
Pulitzer’s Dramatic Journalism
Joseph Pulitzer midwifed modern journalism. He reshaped newspaper reporting to make it more sensational, and he elevated the craft from mere pecuniary pursuit into a powerful source of political influence. The Hungarian immigrant, whose first New York Worldfront-page headline read Bench Show of Dogs, was a skillful publisher and a passionate crusader against dishonest government. He viewed his newspaper as a “handmaiden of reform,” and it was his mission to raise social consciousness and promote progressive—almost radical-—political agenda items, such as taxing luxuries and large incomes, and cracking down on corrupt officials.
Pulitzer infused drama into news reports by turning them into stories with a plot, actors in conflict, and colorful details. In contrast, most newspaper accounts of government actions in the late nineteenth century were couched in institutional formats that resembled the minutes of a board meeting and aroused little interest from readers. Pulitzer’s approach fueled a circulation war between his New York World and William Randolph Hearst, who also used a highly sensational style of news coverage to gain an edge in the battle for readers. Hearst and his rivals found that the more outrageous a story was, the more it sold, regardless of whether or not the information was accurate.
In addition to sensational crime and corruption stories, Hearst and his newspapers ran innuendo, sex, and fabrication to capture the attention of readers, and he employed a strategy known as yellow journalism. This strategy was intended to sway public opinion and push government into action. For example, when the USS Maine sank in 1898, Hearst and his papers used false articles to suggest that the sinking was the result of a plot by a rival power, which ultimately helped sway public opinion toward a declaration of war.
Hearst and Pulitzer likewise embraced a grandiose vision for their newspapers, looking beyond the North American continent to spread what they saw as Judeo-Christian values and democratic political systems to the “less developed” people of the world. This “White Man’s Burden” stance would lead to the United States’ involvement in the Spanish-American War and set the stage for imperialistic conflicts that would be fought with other nations over territory, oil, and resources.
An important aspect of democracy is that citizens can advocate–try to influence the decisions within political, economic, and social institutions. But when the news media manipulates fear-driven crisis policymaking, a company’s ability to advocate is undermined. The organization may decide that it is better not to speak to the media about a crisis and instead let other people do so on its behalf, hoping that the media will present a more balanced picture of events. This is a mistake. It also takes away the company’s opportunity to be seen as a credible source of initial information.
The most serious consequence of the press’s obsession with crises and conflicts is that it blinds both journalists and the public to more systemic problems. For example, the savings-and-loan scandal obscured the fact that, for complex institutional reasons, government spending and deficits were continuing to rise. It was only when the banking crisis brought on a rash of bank failures that the public could focus on these issues.
In a vicious circle of manipulation, the news media and the government are entangled in a web of self-aggrandizing mythmaking. Journalists need drama to enliven their work and the government needs to appear to be responding to crises. As a result, officials fabricate stories and reporters dutifully report them. The result is a charade that serves their interests but misleads the public. Paul H. Weaver argues this point in his book News and the Culture of Lying: How Journalism Really Works. Mort Rosenblum makes a similar argument in his Tainted Truth: The Manipulation of Reality in America (John Wiley & Sons, 1993). These books and others like them suggest that many reforms–such as the line item veto, restructuring congressional committees and staffs, and devolution of some powers to states–would tend to offset the dynamics of Pulitzerian journalism and return the development of public policy to a more constitutional path.
Dueling Cover Stories
A duel is a combat between people, often armed with pistols, that is held under prearranged rules to settle a quarrel or point of honor. In the 1700s and 1800s, dueling was a significant part of social life in many countries—and it was also illegal in some places.
In the era of moral panics, JSTOR Daily has a fascinating article on dueling that examines how these face-to-face confrontations could fuel a broader sense of mistrust. Jen recommends Pistols at Dawn by Richard Hopton and The Duel: A History of Duelling by Robert Baldick for further reading.
In this inaugural episode of Cover Stories, Suzanne Kelly and Bill Harlow—both former intelligence correspondents and government spokespersons—take turns grilling each other about spies and the media. It’s a conversation you won’t want to miss.
Many of the tactics that are now used to upend democratic systems can, at first glance, appear to be nothing more than hard-nosed political jockeying. But in the aggregate, they can cross a line into something much more dangerous to democracy. Journalists can play a critical role in helping the public understand the nature of these threats by providing rich context about how individual pieces from the authoritarian playbook fit together to create a bigger picture.
Sadly, today’s news organizations can often get caught up reporting on facades instead of the machinations that are the hallmark of these new types of authoritarian threat. This may be partly due to the fact that reporters themselves are being replaced by people who see their jobs as government public information officers and seek to control the narrative around their bosses’ actions, rather than elevating access to it.
A growing body of research suggests that the relationship between incidental exposure to politics and political knowledge is moderated by an individual’s need for orientation (NFO). This psychological variable has been linked to both issue-specific agenda setting and the amount of uncertainty surrounding a particular public problem – and it is also related to how individuals process information during this type of unintentional news use.