A new edition of a highly regarded book examines how newsmakers and political actors manipulate the public and shape policy.
Paul Weaver argues that journalists and government officials are trapped in a mutually manipulative charade of fabrications, mythmaking, and self-interest. Officials supply the press’s need for drama by fabricating crises, and the press obliges them by reporting these fabrications as news.
Pulitzer’s Dramatic Journalism
In his book, Rosenblum describes how Pulitzer transformed his paper into what he called a “theater of conflict.” He sent reporters out to pester politicians, manufacturers, and bankers. “Vagueness was a sin,” he instructed them, and they were expected to return with specific observations. The paper would then publish them in full.
In doing so, he created an entire genre of journalism. This type of news reporting was not only highly entertaining, but it helped bring about real political change.
Pulitzer also understood that people longed for information about themselves and the world around them, which could help them better understand the complicated issues facing their society. By reporting on human interest stories and sensational events derived from urban life, he gave his newspaper a new appeal and made it the dominant publication of its time.
By contrast, most newspaper accounts of government action were couched in institutional formats, which often looked like the minutes of a board meeting and were about as interesting. Hearst and his competitors embraced yellow journalism to satisfy this demand.
Yellow journalism was not always accurate, but it could be so lurid that people read it as the truth. Pulitzer, however, believed that he was serving a higher purpose with his newspaper. “Journalism was a sacred pillar of democracy,” he once said. By reporting on frightful events, the journalist was helping to educate the masses and thus strengthen the democratic system.
During his heyday, Pulitzer was also involved in politics. He served as an elected state legislator and was a leader of the short-lived Liberal Republican Party, a reform-minded faction in the Republican party. In 1883, he bought the sleepy New York World and turned it into what was then America’s most powerful daily newspaper.
It is a measure of his success that no one has ever duplicated the phenomenal reach and power of his newspaper. Even today, it is difficult to imagine a media outlet with the ability to attract the same amount of paid readers as the World did in its day. Moreover, it would be impossible to impose the sort of centralized authority that would allow a newspaper to operate in this way.
Acadia Insurance, a Berkley Company, offers a new line of business that helps policyholders cover expenses associated with communicating during and after a media crisis. The Crisis Event Communication Expense Reimbursement coverage is designed to help businesses manage the unforeseen costs of communications that can occur during a crisis, such as fees paid for public relations and legal counsel.
News on Politics analyzes the struggle between journalists, political actors, and citizens for control of the news in democratic societies. In examining the ways that political news is made, this book diagnoses problems in existing democracies and generates ideas for reform. By focusing on how politics shapes the news, this book adds an important dimension to existing studies of journalism.
Dueling Cover Stories
When former New York reporters Suzanne Kelly and Bill Harlow sat down to talk about spies and the media, they knew the conversation would be interesting. But they didn’t expect the pair to end up on opposite sides of the same table! This week on Cover Stories, Kelly and Harlow discuss the limits of sharing information with spies. Plus, Executive Producer Alex Cary of the new show A Spy Among Friends tells Kelly about his real-life inspiration for one of the series’ characters – Kim Philby, the most damaging double agent to infiltrate MI6.
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Over nine months and five separate surveys, the Pew Research Center’s American News Pathways project has looked closely at Americans’ news habits and their knowledge of major events and issues. One of the many findings is that Americans who primarily turn to social media for political news tend to be less knowledgeable than those who rely on other pathways for their news – including local TV, cable and network TV, radio and print.
A notable example was the COVID-19 conspiracy theory, which spread rapidly among some social media users following a viral video. Those who get their news mainly on social media were far more likely to hear this theory than those who get their news mainly through other channels.
This tendency to focus on the manipulation of the powerful reflects many aspects of our culture, in which personalities are more compelling than institutions, facts can be uncertain and attention spans (and television sound bites) short. But it also undermines the news’ ability to help people understand and make sense of their complicated world.