Today we can get political news from an array of sources that didn't exist 25 years ago: 24-hour cable news stations, talk radio, satirical shows like "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" or "Saturday Night Live," to say nothing of the seemingly infinite sources available online.
That proliferation of sources is one of the reasons for the declining influence of network TV news and daily newspapers, which ruled our media world from the 1950s through the 1980s – an era called "the Age of Broadcast News" in a new book, "After Broadcast News: Media Regimes, Democracy, and the New Information Environment," co-written by Bruce Williams, a professor of media studies in the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences, and Michael X. Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
Today's unstable and rapidly evolving media landscape is deeply troubling to many, especially those who see the Age of Broadcast News as the standard against which to judge new developments, Williams said. But if we take a broader look back – all the way back to the earliest days of the Republic – we can see how many of the assumptions and conventions of the past 50 years were actually an anomaly in the longer history of our media.
Some of those anomalies – like assuming there should be boundaries between news and entertainment, or between news and opinion – have not served us particularly well, Williams said.
By taking the longer view, we can set aside some of our assumptions to more fundamentally consider how the media can best support and enhance the healthy functioning of our democracy, Williams said.
"We need to think more broadly and creatively, considering the lessons of past media regimes and the possibilities for entirely new ways of thinking about how to structure the relationship between media and democracy," Williams explained.
"We are at a critical moment when the old media regime of the second half of the 20th century has been dismantled, but a new one has not yet formed – a moment that is rare and that is a tremendous opportunity to get things right."
To get a better sense of how "to get things right," U.Va. Today sat down with Williams.
Q. What are 'media regimes?' How and why have they changed periodically?
A. Driven by economic, political, cultural and technological changes throughout American history, distinct "media regimes" have appeared, forged from political struggle and with different rules and norms for the relationship between media and democracy.
Party-controlled papers in the early Federalist era, the emergence of the penny press in the 1830s and then the development of broadcast media – first radio and then television – are all media regimes that reshuffled the relationship between citizens, political elites and the media.
Q. What are some examples to support your contention that the Age of Broadcast News was not a golden age, as some argue, but actually had serious shortcomings?
A. While there was much that the Age of Broadcast News got right when it comes to enriching democratic life, it also failed in many serious and systematic ways. Most fundamentally, from the 1950s through the 1980s, the political knowledge of American citizens did not improve and political participation declined dramatically – especially voting.
In the book, we identify several media qualities that succor and sustain democracy, including transparency, a plurality of voices and verisimilitude. Perhaps the most important quality is what we term "practice," by which we mean the measureable impact on actual political and democratic practice. That's the real bottom line: how well does the media actually prepare, encourage and model civic and political engagement? And practice is the criterion against which the Age of Broadcast News most clearly falls short.
The very rules employed by professional journalists – a reliance on elite sources, the assumption that objectivity means telling two sides to every story – and the limited space and time for "news" in newspapers and the network news led to serious and repeated press failures during the Age of Broadcast News.
In the wake of 9/11 and the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the mainstream press failed to challenge the claims of the Bush Administration. Coverage of global climate change – arguably the biggest challenge facing humanity today – has been limited and deeply flawed.
Well-funded efforts, especially by the fossil fuel industry, gamed the rules of professional journalism to create the illusion of scientific uncertainty and disagreement, obscuring the actually growing consensus among experts that climate change is occurring and human activities play a significant role. As a result the public remains poorly informed and vulnerable to the false claims we continue to hear in so much current political discourse.
Our point is not that the Age of Broadcast News was without merit, but rather that it had serious flaws and we should not limit our focus to its norms as we struggle over the contours of a new media regime.
Q: What can we learn from the destruction of previous media regimes? How can they guide the formation of our own?
A. There are some very positive qualities of past media regimes that the new information environment, rightly understood and used, is particularly well-suited to reintroducing – qualities such as greater voice for citizens; a better balance of fact, opinion and context; a more healthy and engaging mix of art and politics; a more conversational, even deliberative notion of politics; and less hierarchical distinctions between producers and consumers of political information. Making the most out of the democratic potential of new information technologies will not happen automatically, but instead will be the result of a conscious effort to maximize this potential.
If history is any guide, any new media regime that emerges will have winners and losers, and so necessarily involves political struggle. Those who were most advantaged by what came before – the media, political and socioeconomic elites – will not cede control easily.