Welcome back to The Monkey Cage’s weekly presentation of Founding Principles, short videos designed to explain American government and how it works — in theory, and in practice. We’re up to episode seven, in the midst of thinking about the American public’s interaction with politics and the political system.
Last week we looked at the role of public opinion. As President Dwight Eisenhower argued in 1960, public opinion “is the only force that has any validity in democracy.” But, Ike added, since it is so important, “it must be an informed public opinion.” James Madison put it even more bluntly: “A popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”
That means we have to look at the news media — one of the key ways information flows between Americans and their government.
The principle of a free press is a cornerstone of the Bill of Rights — embedded in the very first amendment to the Constitution. That doesn’t mean we always appreciate it. Google the phrase “media bias” and you get more than 400,000 results. President Trump has used attacks on what he calls “fake news” as a political weapon. Indeed, he has dubbed most media outlets the “enemy of the American people.”
Many presidents have resented their media coverage. Thomas Jefferson, back in 1814, was already lamenting the good old days, saying, “I deplore … the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed,” not to mention “the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them.” And yet Jefferson also said this: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
This episode explores why that is, and what the media can — and can’t — do. It looks at the role of agenda setting and framing — as well as the polarization that both drives and reflects the important shift in recent decades from an era of broadcasting to one dominated by social media and “narrowcasting.” Finally, it tries to decipher what biases media outlets really have.
A free press is not a goal in itself but a means to educate and edify Americans about the issues that face them — not least, the choices they have at the ballot box. So stay tuned for next week, when we move to that most direct connection between the public and the government: the electoral process.