NRJ books — The power of news by Michael Schudson

NRJ books — The power of news by Michael Schudson

Salwen, Michael

The power of news by Michael Schudson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.), 272 pages $29.95 (hardback)

Schudson, a professor of communication and sociology at the University of California, San Diego, has written an important and intriguing book for journalism scholars and practitioners concerned about the power of the press. In the original introductory chapter and the 10 other chapters that have been published elsewhere, he synthesizes his ideas about the cultural role of the press in the United States.

The power of the press mantra is often invoked by critics from all political persuasions. Schudson, however, minimizes ideological interpretations in favor of cultural analysis of the press. He baldly dismisses the leftist media hegemony criticisms of the liberal press put forward Robert and Linda Lichter and Stanley Rothman.

Schudson contends that the press is both more powerful (in a cultural sense) and less powerful (in a political sense) than commonly believed.

Among the myths of media power, the media were responsible for: getting the United States into the Spanish-American War, getting the United States out of Vietnam, bringing down Richard Nixon, deciding the outcome of the Kennedy-Nixon debates and promoting an informed electorate.

Before disparaging the myths, Schudson reviews practices that have come to signify the news media’s cultural form. Early in the book he examines the historical development of the summary news lead and the news interview.

When Horace Greeley interviewed Mormon leader Brigham Young in 1859, it was so unusual that Greeley had to explain to readers what he was doing. The interview was more than just a technical development — it was also “a vital, characteristic cultural invention and cultural force.”

In chapter 2, Schudson extends his cultural analysis of news by treating news as a narrative form. To this end, he reviews press coverage of the State of the Union and traces the press’ role from stenographers to recorders to interpreters of the news.

Noting the changes in the State of the Union coverage over the years, Schudson argues not for the power of the press in shaping the political culture, persuasions. Reagan’s success, Schudson contends, was in convincing these elites of his communication skills.

But, in a roundabout way, there is some truth to the power of television, just as Schudson notes there are some truths to all the myths. He refers to social science research on the third-person effect to suggest that politicians and pundits have constructed the myth of television power, and the myth becomes reality.

The third-person effect proposes that most people attribute greater media influence to gullible others than themselves. “If the belief in television power is a large part of what makes television powerful, it may be not television but our beliefs about it that help undo a vital politics.”

In the last chapter, The News Media and the Democratic Process, Schudson addresses the myth of the press’ role in contributing to an informed electorate.

Schudson offers small, practical suggestions that include, among other things, improving public opinion poll reporting; standardizing news coverage of local elections like box scores in the sports pages; providing time for journalists to reflect on their profession, perhaps with newspapers and television stations establishing sabbatical policies at universities; and tracking progress on key legislative matters to keep the public informed and lobbyists in check.

Although the role of the press in advancing an informed electorate, as espoused in classical democratic theory, is unrealistic, Schudson argues that the press should nonetheless aspire toward this goal: “I propose that the news media should be self-consciously schizophrenic in their efforts to perform a democratic political function. They should both champion the kind of democracy that the political scientists say we have little chance of achieving and, at the same time, they should imaginatively respond to the realities of contemporary politics that the scholars have observed.”

A word of warning about Schudson’s methods. While he provokes and challenges, he offers few answers. Indeed, it is impossible to provide answers regarding such sweeping matters as the role and power of the press in society. Journalists, who as a group relish debate and armchair discourse, will probably not be annoyed.

Schudson convincingly challenges the lore of the power of the press, wisdom passed down by dubious stories told by slightly inebriated journalists at sleazy bars. The stories were based on selective anecdotes, and each telling no doubt colored the acts a shade and endowed the press with greater power. But Schudson’s alternative explanations are just as selective and anecdotal in a reasoned academic, rather than journalistic, manner.

Schudson forewarns readers of the cryptic nature of cultural analysis in the introduction. He tells the Yiddish story of two women with a dispute going to the village rabbi for advice and, frustratingly, the rabbi sees good points in both arguments. After the first woman tells the rabbi her story, the rabbi responds, “You are right.” Then the other woman tells the rabbi her side, to which the rabbi responds, “You are right.” The rabbi’s wife, listening in, interjects: “But they both can’t be right.” The rabbi responds, “You are right, too.”

Michael Salwen is associate professor at the School of Communication, University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida.

Copyright Ohio University Spring 1995

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved