United States Government: Democracy in Action
Mass Media and the Internet
[logo] Essential Question
How do the media affect our political life, and how has the Internet opened up new paths of communication for citizens, government, and interest groups?
Section 1 How Media Impact Government
The mass media includes print media and broadcast media. The Internet has emerged as a powerful new interactive medium. The relationship between the media and U.S. government officials is complex. They need to work together, but their jobs often place them in adversarial positions.
The president and television have a mutually beneficial relationship. The president is a great source of news, and television offers presidents the best way to "sell" their ideas and policies to the public. White House staff media advisers control the daily flow of information through news releases and briefings, press conferences, background stories, leaks, and media events. Television greatly influences who runs for office, how candidates are nominated, and campaign advertising. Candidates are less dependent on their political party organization because television lets candidates appeal directly to the people.
Congress gets less media coverage than the president because most work takes place in committees and subcommittees over long periods of time. When Congress is in the news, reporters tend to focus on controversial issues such as confirmation hearings, oversight activities, or the personal lives of members. C-SPAN broadcasts floor proceedings of the House and Senate.
The mass media decides which issues are brought to the attention of the public and government. The media have an even more basic effect on political attitudes and values. Much of a person's political socialization comes from the media, especially television.
Section 2 Regulating Print and Broadcast Media
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press, and print media are free from prior restraint. The federal government does have regulatory powers over the media, however, and freedom of the press is not absolute. The goal of government regulations is to provide order, fairness, and access to the mass media.
The press has gone to court many times to fight for access to government information. At the same time, the press and government have fought many battles over the media's right to keep its sources secret. Tension often arises between the government's need for secrecy in national security matters and citizens' need for information. The government classifies many documents as "secret," although its restrictions on media coverage during wartime have varied.
Broadcast media (radio, television, telephone, telegraph, cable, and satellite) is more heavily regulated than print media because broadcast media use limited public airwaves. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) makes rules that require stations to operate in the public interest. Although the FCC cannot censor broadcasts, it can fine a rule-breaking station or not renew its license. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 relaxed many FCC regulations and limits on media ownership. Although it was intended to create competition, it instead led to an even greater concentration of media ownership.
Section 3 The Internet and Democracy
The Internet offers several benefits for politics and government. It has a widespread audience, with about 80 percent of Americans reportedly using the Internet. The global nature of the Internet represents a wide range of diverse content and opinions. The Internet allows for interactive communications, allowing people to quickly find like-minded users and organize a campaign or an interest group.
Thousands of Web sites are devoted to politics, government agencies, Congress, political parties, and various interest groups. Electronic mailing lists provide subscribers with current information on a range of topics. E-mail has become the most widely used Internet tool for contacting officials. Bloggers express their opinions about candidates and issues, evaluate government performance, and uncover stories missed by the major media. The growth of the Internet has led to calls for online voting.
Although the Internet has led to greater civic participation, it also raises legal issues about obscene content posted online. Congress has struggled with how to protect children from online pornography while at the same time upholding constitutional protections of free speech. Another challenge is whether to tax e-commerce. A group of states supports a plan to use the same tax rate for all e-commerce sales, but online retailers, technology companies, and Congress have resisted any such plan.