the press loses its leverage

(Dayton, OH) Traditionally, politicians have spoken directly to relatively small numbers of people, and the press has reported their speeches to much larger publics. The intermediary role of the press has given it leverage that it can use for good (to enlighten and hold accountable) or for ill (to distort and influence).

For instance, at the end of the first contested US presidential election, John Adams gave a conciliatory inaugural address to a few score dignitaries assembled in a room, and the partisan opposition newspaper, the Aurora, decided to praise it. Adams, a Federalist, reached many thousands of Republican readers via a Republican publication, although the Aurora quickly turned against him.

The current election is very different. Donald Trump has five million Twitter followers, and Hillary Clinton has 4.83 million. They can reach those people directly. Meanwhile, the single most popular US newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, has 3.78 million subscribers; the most popular cable TV news show, “O’Reilly Factor,” has 2.67 million viewers. Politicians who have millions of followers exchange Tweets, and then newspapers and TV shows report what they have said to smaller numbers of people.

The change in leverage is palpable. Reporters cannot demand access and no longer have much effect when they call out errors, inconsistencies, or even lies.

Certain exceptions just reinforce the rule. For instance, the televised debates have been drawing on the order of 15 million viewers. Trump threatened to boycott the CNN debate unless CNN gave $5 million to charity–showing off his leverage. But then he realized that 15 million viewers are more than 5 million Twitter followers, and he backed down. “‘When you’re leading in the polls, I think it’s too big of a risk to not do the debate,’ [he said.] ‘I don’t think I have the kind of leverage I’d like to have in a deal and I don’t want to take the chance of hurting my campaign. So I’ll do the debate.'”

Still, if any candidate lies flagrantly to the 15 million viewers of the debate, and the next day’s cable news host reveals that lie to an audience of just 2 million, it’s still a win for the candidate.

It’s good that citizens get direct access to politicians’ speech–it’s as if we were right there in the hall with John Adams. And it’s good that presidential primary candidates feel that they must participate in debates, even if they don’t like the host network. But it’s not so great that the press no longer has enough leverage to make candidates pay a serious price for speech that violates basic norms.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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