Governing with... the News?

The American news media are a political institution.  Really? Does this seem easy or difficult to accept? Rather than being a "Fourth Branch" checking up on government, are our news media so entangled and intertwined in politics as to be a political institution themselves? Former LSU professor Timothy Cook set out to answer that question in his book "Governing with the News."

The following is an original student paper written for a mass communications course at LSU.

The main point of “Governing with the News” is to set forth a model of the news media “as a coherent intermediary institution without which the three branches established by the Constitution could not act and could not work” (p. 2). Timothy Cook demonstrates that the news media and government coproduce the news. Newspersons and political actors coproduce policy through collaboration and conflict. Cook develops “an empirical theory of the news media as a political institution,” (p. 3) suggesting that the American news media act as a part of government.

Cook shows how the politics and policy of the early American republic shaped news organizations, practices, formats and content. Although technological and economic pressures helped shape news media, the media’s evolution “has always been and continues to be intimately tied to political sponsorship, subsidization, and protection” (p. 17). Reliance on government-provided content, printing licenses and laws forbidding seditious libel tied newspapers with government in colonial America. The American Revolution further “tightened rather than loosened” (p. 24) these ties as politicians directly supported and guided the assembly of newspapers.

Mass circulation and commercialization of the press contributed to a changing definition of news, away from politics and toward human interest. Newspapers in the 1890s became enormous enterprises “free of political and financial sponsorship by government” (p. 36). However, political subsidies replaced direct sponsorship. A public relations infrastructure, beneficial postal rates and policies restricting entry of new enterprises gave the news media greater ability “to crank out their products” (p. 39).  Officials, seeing the news media as useful to governance, “designed policies and practices of publicity” (p. 45) to help journalists disseminate the news. However, journalism’s hallmark “routines, roles, rules, norms, values, and self-concepts” (p. 81) and the news media’s current role as a political institution contribute to negotiations of newsworthiness between sources and newspersons that “favor only certain authoritative allocations of values” (p. 87). While politicians dictate event conditions and access, reporters make final decisions on newsworthiness and narrative based on work routines and institutional criteria.

Cook addresses the role of the news media as a political institution. He establishes the definition of institutions as social patterns of behavior valued in and of themselves, “identifiable across the organizations that are generally seen within a society to preside over a particular social sphere” (p. 70). Cook applies the idea of institutional procedures to the news media, pointing to the “unspoken and uncritically accepted routines, procedures, and rules of who and what make news” (p. 75-76). Cook establishes the media as a political institution and reporters as political actors. The governmental nature of the news media resides in its gravitation toward officialdom in the form of “concentration on the events, ideas, preoccupations, strategies, and politics of powerful officials” (p. 111).

Cook addresses the use of newsmaking in policymaking, developing three general areas of government by publicity. These include where making news is action, where publicity focuses the attention of other policymakers and sets the agenda, and where publicity helps persuade others into action. Cook suggests that “media strategies become increasingly useful means for political actors to pursue governance […] as the disjuncture between the power of those actors and the expectations placed on them grows” (p. 118). Political actors use the news media to counter the weaknesses of their own institutions and indirectly accomplish policy goals. The U.S. separation-of-powers political system encourages government officials to communicate strategically within and across branches through the news media. While the news media bring their own priorities and routines to the process, newsmaking is instrumental to officials in focusing attention on their preferred issues and alternatives, publicizing particular facts, persuading other officials, helping to frame issues and even enacting policy directly through words.

Cook explores the benefits of newsmaking for modern presidents, revealing “a continuing preoccupation with the news media” in the process of “identifying problems, setting agendas, and formulating policy responses” (p. 131). The increasingly rhetorical nature of presidential activities contributed to the rise of the news media’s role in presidential leadership. Political executives and their press secretaries embraced mass-mediated strategies of governance. Congress also shifted toward more media-related activities and national publicity efforts in and after the 1960s, with the advent and rise of broadcasting of legislative processes and roles for press secretaries. Even the Supreme Court now engages in publicity in the form of giving off-the-record interviews and maintaining a mass-mediated image of authority and political aloofness. However, strategic public relations and publicity efforts must anticipate news values and meet the demands of the news media. Cook writes, “it may be that newsmaking helps political actors in the short run but pushes them toward particular issues, concerns, and events and away from others, to the point that news values become political values” in both news media and government (p. 140).

Cook concludes that the news media “may well be an ‘unwitting adjunct’” (p. 165) to political power. Problems reside in the capacity of the news media to perform its political role and its accountability in doing so, given journalistic criteria that favor simple, concrete, dramatic and event-centered news. Cook explores “possible ways to make American politics less beholden to the current biases of the news media” (p. 169). Cook suggests a revised national policy toward the news unless changing communications technology fosters greater democratization and diversity or journalists themselves adopt more ethical standards and method in choosing the news.

See a review of Cook's book here.

Tim Cook - Governing with the news