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Federalism & News: Media to Government: Drop Dead

Stephen Hess

The delicate balance of levels at which government performs in the United States, which we call federalism, is not something to which newspaper editors and TV producers give much thought as they arrange the diet of information that is served up daily to the American people. Yet coverage of the three divisions of government—city, state, and national—provides a useful way of examining changes in the news media over the two-plus decades I’ve been looking over journalists’ shoulders.

The most obvious change in governmental and political news since I started studying it in the late 1970s is that a lot less of it reaches the mainstream press. This is not coincidence or a reaction to external events, as when the end of the Cold War gave news organizations an excuse to save money running foreign bureaus. A 1980 report by pollster Ruth Clark for the American Newspaper Publishers Association, as well as work by TV consultants, helped create what became known as “consumer-driven” journalism. Self-help information was in. Celebrity features were in. Hard news about government was out.

A statistical measure of this trend, prepared by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and reporting on 3,760 stories from the front pages of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, the ABC, CBS, and NBC nightly news programs, and Time and Newsweek, showed that from 1977 to 1997, while the number of stories about government dropped from one in three to one in five, “the number of stories about celebrity tripled, from one in every fifty stories to one out of every fourteen.” By 1992 University of Maryland professor Carl Sessions Stepp would write, “Journalists clearly believe that the public’s eyes glaze over when the topic is government and politics.”

Supporting evidence of the public’s inattention to major political events comes from the Pew Research Center’s list of most closely followed stories during 1986-99. The stories of greatest interest tend to be plane crashes, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes. In 1987, for instance, 69 percent of Americans were very interested in the story of the rescue of a little girl in Texas who had fallen into a well, while only 33 percent closely followed the congressional hearings on the Iran-Contra affair. The counter argument of circularity, of course, is that the public can hardly be expected to be interested in what is not adequately reported.

Dateline: Washington

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What has happened to media coverage of news from each of the three federal levels of government over the past two decades? “What is most immediately apparent,” I wrote in 1978, “is that news of Washington dominates the media’s attention [throughout the United States].” That is no longer true. The newspapers I then examined averaged 12 Washington stories a day; my resurvey in 1998 cut this number in half. The biggest gainer over the 20-year period is local news, as illustrated by the datelines of front-page lead stories:


Front Page Lead Stories (percent)
Datelines 1978 1998
Washington 45 36
Local (city/state) 37 54
International 11 7
Another state 7 4

Every other indicator showed declining attention to news from Washington, especially on the network TV evening news programs, where lead stories from Washington went from 12 of 15 in 1978 to 7 of 15 in 1998. Meanwhile, local TV news programs became the most popular source of information in the United States. Their rigid formula of crime and fire reports, weather, sports, consumer news, and national headlines, however, left little room for stories about municipal government or elections. One survey of 13 cities drawn from the top 23 markets during the month before the 1996 elections reported 22 percent of the stories were about crime and 7 percent about politics.

The stepchild of government coverage has always been the state. Often state governments make themselves difficult to observe. Only 19 of the 50 states have their capitals in their major cities. Some capitals were deliberately placed at the center of the state in deference to the rutted roads of frontier America. The history of siting the seats of government has a certain charm. Tallahassee was chosen, in part, because it was as far away from Indians and swampland as possible. No state capital was chosen so as to be close to journalists. Still, the situation has deteriorated, as noted in the most comprehensive investigation of state capital news, published by the American Journalism Review in mid-1998. “Coverage of state government is in steep decline. In capital press rooms around the country, there are more and more empty desks and silent phones. Bureaus are shrinking, reporters are younger and less experienced, stories get less space and poorer play, and all too frequently editors just don’t care.” The article, by Charles Layton and Mary Walton, was accompanied by a state-by-state (and paper-by-paper) survey. A year later a resurvey found some improvement: reporting commitment up in 24 states, unchanged in 13 states, slipping in 13 others.

Author

Washington as Theme Park

Major changes in the newspaper business in the past two decades have affected what and who in Washington are considered newsworthy. According to Robert Rankin of the Washington bureau of Knight Ridder, whose papers include the Philadelphia Inquirer and Miami Herald, “As the ’90s evolved, our papers showed less and less interest in any news from Washington. In response we changed our beat structure. In addition to traditional beats such as the White House and Congress, we added theme specialties such as science and technology, religion and ethics, and consumer affairs beats. . . . As time went on we shifted our mission to be less a Washington bureau and more a national bureau.” The Newhouse Newspapers reached the same conclusion. Washington bureau chief Deborah Howell moved a third of her reporters to assignments with labels like “race and ethnicity,” “family and children,” and “doing good.” News sources in government increasingly moved to such outer ring agencies as the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the National Science Foundation. Reporters’ sources also expanded to experts in universities, advocacy groups, and think tanks. During 1991-97, according to tabulations of Kent Weaver, Washington-based think tanks were quoted 20,958 times in the combined pages of the Washington Post, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Times.

Most notably, the Washington press corps expanded to cover business and finance. My 1981 Brookings book, The Washington Reporters, compared the prestige of Washington newsbeats and found that, out of 13 possible assignments, economics ranked 11th. Why was it so low in the pecking order? “Partly because Washington reporters define power in political terms, not economic terms.” But by 1999 Diana Henriques of the New York Times would tell a Harvard conference in Washington, “Business now dominates the world we cover, our values, our priorities, our agenda, our allocation of resources, to a degree that would have been unthinkable just two generations ago.”

A less innovative but common way for a paper’s bureau to deal with the public’s loss of appetite for Washington news was to downplay what one reporter called the “turn of the screw daily developments” and another called “he said, she said daily stories.” In 1978 newspaper reportage from Congress mirrored the textbook treatment of how a bill works its way through the legislative process, rightly giving special attention to the key committee stage. By 1998 the emphasis was overwhelmingly on final floor action rather than the complicated bargaining that preceded it.

Here the newfound editorial distaste for “process” has created a palpable distortion. Coverage that relies mainly on final passage of a bill is likely to ignore what was added and subtracted along the way and which special interests were doing the arithmetic.


Newspaper Stories (percent)
Legislative Stage in Story

Introduction of legislation

Subcommittees

Committees

Floor action

Conference committees

1978

3

20

37

35

5

1998

8

12

16

60

4


Smaller newspapers or groups increasingly took their “hard news” from the wire services (Associated Press and Reuters), added special features from supplemental services (New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times), and more and more concentrated their limited Washington resources on producing regional news, stories that revolve around local issues and people from their circulation area. That cut down on the redundancy evident in 1978, when, as Robert S. Boyd, then bureau chief of Knight Ridder, told me, “All reporters want to play at the center of the field,” and editors often got three or four versions of the same event.

Beaming Washington Home

As newspapers’ Washington coverage was going from national to local, TV stations’ Washington bureaus were going from local to national. In the early 1980s technology dramatically altered local TV news operations. Relatively inexpensive lightweight video cameras became available, tape replaced film, and, most important, commercial satellites could instantly transmit edited or live pictures to ground stations. News directors were fascinated by the idea of their own correspondents reporting nightly from the nation’s capital, and smaller stations commissioned stories from a growing cadre of freelancers. It was a golden age for regional TV news. And it lasted almost a decade—until station managers concluded the stories didn’t excite viewers and were an added cost.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act expanded TV and radio ownership and once again changed the configuration of news from Washington. The bureaus of companies like Hearst-Argyle (26 TV stations), Belo (17 stations), Tribune (17 stations), and Cox (8 stations) began emphasizing stories that could be used by all their outlets. When they were smaller entities, according to veteran correspondents, the ratio had been 4:1, four stories geared to individual markets for every national story; now the ratio was reversed, national over local. The irony, of course, is that an appropriate media coverage of federalism would allocate local angle stories to the stations and national stories to the networks.

Yet somewhere in the past 20 years the networks abdicated their responsibility as serious conveyors of news about national governance. Compare the story packages of the CBS Evening News on two Tuesdays (see table 1). (CBS, it should be noted, is considered the network with the most traditional news value.)


Table 1. Two Nights on the CBS Evening News
APRIL 11, 1978 APRIL 21, 1998
(Washington) President Carter’s speech, anti-inflation proposals. (Washington) Government rules on juice products that can make you sick.
(Washington, Kansas) Reactions to proposals; energy bill to Congress. (Los Angeles) Government sues Microsoft for introduction of Windows 98.
(Washington) Top USSR UN official Shevchenko disappears (Washington) Auto engineers try to find ways to make sport utility vehicles safer
(South Lebanon) Israel plans for partial withdrawal. (New York) Viagra produces record profit for drug company.
(North Carolina) Profile of 103-year-old woman (Washington) Accusation of shoddy work at FBI crime lab.
(Boston) Tale of man abducting daughters.
(Florida) Series on dangerous drivers.

The final element of the current media mix is cable TV. (Internet journalists are not yet significant players in Washington.) The major impact of CNN, which made its debut in 1980, was to change the time frame of reporting. As a 24-hour conveyor belt of information, and one beamed to the Washington journalists’ bosses, its presence created a rush to judgment. Or in the words of the AP’s Walter Mears, “There’s not much time to think.” CNN, which now has more overseas bureaus than the three broadcast networks combined, also reminds us that there is still a world out there. The contribution of MSNBC and the Fox News Channel, both launched in 1996, was endless opinionating, blurring the line between journalists and politicians, reducing complexity to attack-counterattack, and, in the opinion of Wall Street Journal columnist Albert Hunt, having “an insidious impact, despite small audiences, in setting the tone for [Washington] coverage.”

How It All Adds Up

After my two decades of media watching, are there blessings to be counted? The abundance of the media continues to amaze me. A rich menu of newspapers, magazines, radio, and television can satisfy the needs and prejudices of any person who has sufficient time and money. Magazines of opinion are reviving, as are magazines of niche interests. If I can’t stand Bill O’Reilly on Fox, my nonpremium cable service offers 56 other channels to surf. And the Internet will overwhelm us all if we don’t watch out.

The presentation of information is more engaging today. Given television’s technological advances, especially in video editing facilities, Andrew Tyndall is probably right in claiming that “to a modern eye an evening of CBS coverage from 1968 looks like an edited C-SPAN highlight reel.” And the stunning graphic design and color introduced into daily newspapering in 1982 by USA Today is not to be sneered at. There is nothing holy about being boring. And luring citizens into public affairs is a worthy objective.

Journalism in Washington continues to attract bright people. According to the Pew Research Center, a third of journalists today have graduate degrees and nearly two-thirds did their undergraduate work at the nation’s most highly selective colleges and universities. Advances in bringing minorities into the national press corps have not been adequate, but the share of women has doubled, from 20 percent in 1978 to 40 percent today.

Rearranging Washington assignments from the traditional mode of “covering buildings” to theme journalism is a mixed blessing. Covering national security as opposed to the Pentagon, economics rather than Treasury—and doing it well—takes more time, talent, and money than news organizations are usually willing to commit. When the end-product of this new journalism is good, it wins prizes, but more often it’s simply superficial.

The news media may never get the balance of political news exactly right. Among other things, political boundaries usually do not coincide with media boundaries. Newspapers and TV stations slip over city lines into suburban jurisdictions and sometimes even cross state lines. Northern New Hampshire gets its TV from Maine, southern New Hampshire from Boston. Yet something interesting has been happening in newspaper ownership. According to journalism educator Jack Bass, major companies “are swapping properties like baseball cards, unloading papers that don’t fit their geographic strategies and acquiring ones that do.” A tighter concentration of papers, grouped around a state or region, provides the opportunity for more rational political coverage. At the moment, TV owners are on a buying spree, but they too may ultimately seek concentration. (Unfortunately, the motivation for tighter geographic groups is to cut costs, not produce better information.)

During a course that veteran journalist Richard Reeves was teaching at the University of Southern California, he was asked to define “real news.” “The news you and I need to keep our freedom,” he replied. But for most Americans, whose news comes from local and network television, less often from local newspapers, it is news that pays little attention to municipal government other than the fire and police departments, that turns its back on state government, and that increasingly finds the margins of national government more interesting than the core. How then to grade the media’s coverage of our federal system of government? Incomplete would be a generous grade.