The New American Presidency and the Emerging Role of Political Journalism
| 2011 Sidey Essay Winner
When Hugh Sidey said, "The cauldron of the presidency reveals unknown strengths in a person, just as it exposes hidden weaknesses," he was describing the nature of the President of the United States, an office of which he developed an intimate relationship over nearly half a decade of reporting. Hugh Sidey was a forerunner of modern American journalism who helped lift the office of the president to one of its highest levels of prestige and honor since the days of the founding fathers. Sidey was one of the most influential journalists in the history of American politics. He is among some of the greatest Iowans who have the honor of calling Iowa State their alma mater and makes anyone who aspires to follow in his footsteps honored to strive for his example of integrity and commitment to excellence in journalism. Sidey established a relationship and understanding with the office of the president that set a precedent for anyone who hopes to take up the responsibility of political journalism. However, this relationship is in danger because of rapid advancements in communication technology and the changing nature of American politics.
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Modern politics are a far cry from the original model for which our democratic republic is based. The world has changed much more rapidly in the twenty-first century than any other time period, and the president's role has had to evolve accordingly. As of the 2010 census, the country broke the 300 million mark in population, but its incumbency as the world economic superpower is increasingly being threatened by rising rival nations. Therefore, the office of the president is seeing challenges unparalleled in its history and is being forced to adapt to a rapidly changing atmosphere both domestically and abroad. Unfortunately, the office has not changed entirely for the better. It's difficult to pinpoint a single reason, but a significant portion of the responsibility for the image of the president rests on the shoulders of the American news media.
One of the most important aspects of reporting on the office of the president is the necessity of facilitating communication between the president and the American public. Communication isn't simply broadcasting ideas or information; it necessarily means literal interaction between publics. Due to media convergence and unprecedented advancements in communication technology, the president is able to regularly address the nation. Unfortunately, this is a form of mass communication from the president to the American public, which by definition, is a one-way transmission of information. Despite these advances in technology, the quality of interaction between the president and the American public has suffered significantly. The days of railway campaigns have disappeared, and presidential candidates build their relationships with the nation through indirect interaction through television and the Internet. The conveniences of mass media tempt politicians to govern from their press office in lieu of standing among their own people and working alongside them. This creates a disconnect that inhibits their abilities to understand the needs of the country. Instead of serving as a loudspeaker for politicians, mass media needs to function as a medium through which the people can speak to their leaders.
Historically, the era of mass communication from the executive office began with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his famous Fireside Chats. Hugh Sidey praised Roosevelt in his Profiles of the Presidents stating that, "As Radio networks matured, they became the hand maiden of a President who understood the new power of bringing his voice inside each home and talking as if among friends…Americans had never been closer together." FDR initiated an entirely new and irreversible age of policy accountability and information sharing. The American people allowed him into their home and President Roosevelt forged a new bond between Americans and their president. However, by contemporary standards, FDR's relationship with the American public could be described as little more than lukewarm. He delivered only 37 Fireside Chats in his 12 years as commander in chief—roughly one address every four months.
However, FDR set a precedent for communication that has continued to evolve and has become a regular formality of the office. Each president has delivered a weekly address to the American people nearly every week since the Regan presidency, and the president continues to utilize advancements in media technology to speak to the nation. For example, President Barack Obama has been one of the most tech-savvy presidents utilizing the social media like Facebook and Youtube, and he delivers his weekly Saturday morning video address through Whitehouse.gov and Youtube.
Constant up-to-date information has significantly improved coverage of the actions on Capitol Hill, but has also served to reinforce the president's celebrity status in modern America. Being a celebrity has become a full-time position. Struggling to maintain good press and approval ratings can prevent the president from focusing his energy and expertise toward politicking. Political journalist Henry Fairlie explored this phenomenon in his essay The Politician's Art, in which he foresaw the evolution of the office of the president and how it has taken on the role of a "media star." This position has elevated the president to celebrity status and served to ruin the connection between the leader and the public. For example, election coverage is significantly more politicized than the policies and actions of the president himself.
Even since the early days of campaigning, the president spends a significantly greater amount of time speaking with the American people before inauguration than after. As a matter of fact, election campaigns are news media juggernauts, consuming more than almost every other topic in American news. At the most pivotal point in the election campaign of 2008 from October 27th to November 3rd, the campaign consumed 54 percent of the news hole, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. Even in 2010, the election itself got far more media coverage than anything in the news at 10 percent of news stories for the entire year, second only to coverage of the economy at 13.7 percent, according to the Pew Center's research.
Although the elections promote interaction between politicians and the people, they do not ensure that politicians will maintain a personal relationship with their constituents, "Less and less are they won by politicians acting as politicians," Fairlie says with regards to elections. "They are won by politicians acting as media stars, with the help of personal bodyguards of centurions whose political experience is slight." In other words, politicians focus on maintaining their popular image rather than being a part of the interactive process of politics. As soon as they are elected, it's as if the public is no longer an influential constituent and it is more important to broadcast an image of politics than to listen to the American people. It is the responsibility of coming generations of journalists to reject contemporary practices of sensational journalism and to allow the president to be an instrument of his people. A respite from demanding paparazzi will allow the president to focus on his duties and obligations to the American public.
It is the social responsibility of the news media to reject the mass audience convention and no longer corral the American people into an undifferentiated herd. News media can help to group the nation into one mass audience or a mob, which is another issue articulated Fairlie, in his essay. "Unlike the journalism of the past, the media are the enemy of politics. The media make their appeal to a popular audience which is counted only by its numbers. But the business—and the genius—of politics is that it does not just count votes, it weighs them. It sifts through the mass to find what is individual and significant, and election campaigns used to reflect this." Journalists must appreciate every person as an individual by guaranteeing Americans information to give them a voice and ensure they have the ability to exercise their rights. Accordingly, the news media must act as the liaison between the public and the president.
Contemporary media still have the potential to return American politics to the true democratic design of our forefathers. Not only in the sense of exercising and upholding constitutional rights, but to allow the American people to use the government as it was originally intended. Journalists must inform Americans of their rights and ensure that the president is held accountable for them as well. Inversely, newsrooms must also focus their attention on voicing the needs of the people and ensure that lawmakers and the executive branch are sensitive to the needs of their countrymen. The news media can't be leaders or actors, or even a powerful branch of government; they instead have to facilitate an avenue for American discourse—they must be the implements of democracy.
There is no simple solution to the communication disconnect because so many factors work against the news media. In order to survive and fulfill their duties, journalists and the news media must take advantage of the information revolution. One of the largest threats to journalism is the emergence of the Blogosphere. The Blogosphere is the community of blogs, or online journals that people maintain in order to speak their mind and interact with their fellow bloggers. Although it is difficult to measure the breadth of the blogosphere, estimates from online news outlets like Technorati point somewhere between the 200 and 400 million range in 2010 for just the English-Speaking blogosphere, an explosion from the estimated 50 million in 2006. This massive community of discussion poses a significant threat to journalism because information bypasses the television and print media by going directly from individual to individual. The blog movement and information revolution represents a renaissance of communication that is superseding the legacy of mass communication. The American public has outgrown the convention of mass communication and is demanding discussion and interaction. The traditional press has a significantly smaller role in disseminating news in this model and therefore must adapt in order to survive. Instead of being overwhelmed and outmoded by the blogosphere and Internet, journalists must lead the movement and function as the editors and resources for blogging, amateur journalists. They also have to sift through the crowd in order to understand the true needs and grievances of the American people and help to promote democracy through discussion. There are far too many individuals in the country for politicians to accommodate, and therefore, journalists must understand and filter this information to give a comprehensible voice to the American forum. The information revolution is the greatest thing to happen to democracy since the American Constitution and the news media must help it live up to its fullest potential.
As a journalist, one needs to take it upon oneself not only to set the public agenda, but also to compel the American public and elected officials to fulfill their civic and moral duties to their country. The news media can't take the bait from politicians and broadcast it to the masses or act only a whistleblower when something goes awry. They must be a transparent entity that facilitates communication between the president and diverse American publics, and prevent injustice within the American political sphere through facilitating communication instead of reacting ex post facto.
Even as the world changes the American presidency remains, "the most sought-after, analyzed and scrutinized political office" on Earth, and it is exhilarating to play an integral part of the exciting world of American politics and the presidency as a journalist. However, there are many obstacles that journalists must overcome in order to fulfill their covenant with truth. Although few are willing to take up the burden, those who choose to accept the responsibility of a journalist must understand that it is their duty to the American people to maintain the self-evident truths for which the country is founded. We must continue to be optimistic and idealistic; it's what holds us true to our words and sets us apart form any other profession on Earth.