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Paul Starr on the Media in the Age of Fox News

The current issue of The Atlantic has a brilliant piece by Paul Starr on the history of political journalism in the united States. Here is how the piece begins:
The fight between
the Obama White House and Fox News may look like a replay of previous presidential conflicts with the media. After all, antagonism between presidents and elements of the press is a fine American tradition. But the Fox News phenomenon is different, and its development reflects a deeper change in the public itself that presents a new challenge for presidential leadership.

What was once an expansive mass public has lost some of its old breadth and, at its core, become more intense and combative. A growing percentage of people, especially among the young, no longer regularly follow the news in any medium, while those who remain the most attentive and engaged tend to be sharply polarized along ideological lines. On both ends of the political spectrum, people interested in politics increasingly view national leadership through the prism of the partisan media that dominate cable news, talk radio, and the blogosphere.

Before cable and the Internet, the way for a president to reach the national public was through national media that sought to appeal to audiences spanning the partisan divide. The major newspapers, wire services, and broadcast networks controlled the flow of news from Washington and the president’s access to the channels of persuasion, yet they operated more or less according to the standards of professional journalism, and the White House could exercise plenty of leverage in its media relations by selectively leaking news and granting exclusive interviews. So despite sometimes antagonistic relations with the press, presidents were able to use it to reach a broad and relatively coherent national public.

But now that the old behemoths of the news are in decline, the unified public they assembled is fading too. Neither the broadcast networks nor the newspapers have the reach they once did, raising concerns about whether the press will be able to serve its classic function as a watchdog over government. That problem also has a flip side. Precisely because the press is often critical of political leaders, it provides them legitimacy when it validates the grounds for their decisions. A press that is widely trusted by the public for its independence and integrity is also a resource for building consensus. Thus when the public sorts itself according to hostile, ideologically separate media—when the world of Walter Cronkite gives way to the world of Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann—political leadership loses a consensus-building partner. This is the problem that faces Barack Obama. It is not, however, an unprecedented one.

The author sets store by his erudition, good sense, and clarity of writing and thought. For the rest of the article, click here.

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