Senators' Television Visibility and Political Legitimacy

By Wafai, Mohamed | Journalism Quarterly, Summer 1989 | Go to article overview
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Senators' Television Visibility and Political Legitimacy


Wafai, Mohamed, Journalism Quarterly


Amount of coverage of senator on TV news is function of both power and stance.

Legitimacy is necessary for the survival of a government, a regime, an idea, or a leadership. In ancient history, the "Godly origin" of the king provided legitimacy, and in early human society, "close association with a charismatic leader often conferred charisma and legitimacy to others."1 In modern society, legitimacy is obtained through other means. Bureaucracy gains legitimacy simply because "people accept the fact that complex tasks need to be done in large-scale societies."2 Public elections are a source of legitimacy for political leaders, as are revolutions, if they succeed.

The mass media are also important legitimizing and delegitimizing agencies in modern society, especially in the political arena. The media have the ability to "bestow prestige and enhance the authority of individuals ... by legitimizing their status."3 The inherent prestige of the media is "sufficient to allow them (the media) to build media personalities into symbols of charisma to which the public frequently responds."4 Similarly, the media can discredit and censure individuals to the extent that they are cast out of public favor and completely delegitimized. Both processes-legitimation and delegitimation-are powerful forms of social control in which the media frequently participate. A large body of literature on the study of mass media has established beyond doubt the role of the media in such forms of social control.5

Most studies about how the media cover members of the U.S. Senate have focused on the role various structural variables like committee chairmanship, Senate seniority, and state size play in determining media coverage of senators. Nonetheless, such studies have yielded different and inconsistent results. For example, Matthews6 found senatorial seniority to be the most important variable in determining the type of news coverage received by senators. Wilhoit and Sherrill7 examined the wire service visibility of U.S. senators and found a correlation between coverage and some aspects of power such as state size and seniority. Weaver and Wilhoit,8 on the other hand, reported a different set of findings which suggest that a senator's political power does not necessarily lead to coverage. In another study,9 researchers found that "each Congress study ... showed different patterns of relationships of structural variables to mass media elite visibility." In only one study did researchers examine ideology,10 and in that case they concluded that it made no difference in coverage.

The perceived power of senators has also been found to be a strong predictor of media coverage. Hess" examined national media coverage of U.S. senators from 1953 to 1983 and concluded that "national news media focus on those senators who seem to wield institutional power ... definable leaders at the expense of the nonleaders, mavericks and others."

This study examines the role of media coverage in providing political legitimacy for U.S. senators and introduces new variables and combinations of variables to the study of how the media cover members of the U.S. Senate. These new variables include:

1) Senators' attitudes toward an issue;

2) Senators' voting behavior regarding that issue;

3) An index of senators' power (i.e., a combination of seniority, committee chairmanship, state size, and membership in particular committees). Although these variables have been studied individually in other studies, the combination of them in this type of index is new.

Thus, in addition to examining two completely new variables (variables 1 and 2 above), this study also examines previously studied structural variables by combining them into a single "power" index (variable 3 above).

The main assumption of this study is that media coverage of U.S. senators and their statements relative to a particular issue is a function of a senator's power status and his/her stance on the issue.

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