Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Changing Presidential Media Environment

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Changing Presidential Media Environment

Article excerpt

If the power of the presidency is the power to persuade, then the ability to communicate with the American public is one key tool in exercising that power. When presidents speak to the nation they expect to garner a large viewing audience, and for their message to continue to permeate the public consciousness through news reports in the days following their address. But a series of changes in the mass media environment has made it much less likely that these expectations will be fulfilled today compared to just several decades ago. A tale of two presidential speeches concerning foreign military actions in 1971 and 2003 provides a good illustration of the profound changes discussed in this article.

President Richard Nixon spoke to the nation during prime time on the evening of April 7, 1971, to defend his policies in Vietnam and to announce further troop withdrawals during the coming months. Nixon's speech was covered live on CBS, NBC, and ABC and garnered a Nielsen rating of 51.2, meaning that just over half of the American public watched it. As Baum and Kernell show, this was a typical rating for Nixon's televised addresses and press conferences. (1) Furthermore, Nixon's ability to communicate his message extended beyond the enormous size of his live audience--he could also expect most people to be reading and viewing news about his remarks soon afterward. The next day, at least 69 percent of the public could be expected to pick up a newspaper containing stories about the president's speech, as surveys back then found this percentage reporting reading a newspaper every day. Later that evening, at least 58 percent of the public could be expected to watch one of the three nightly news broadcasts, as this percentage said they watched these programs frequently.

The situation was markedly different when President George W. Bush went on television on the evening of September 7, 2003, to brief the public about the Iraqi situation and to request $87 billion from Congress for troop deployments and the rebuilding of Iraq. Even with the addition of a fourth broadcast network (Fox), Bush's talk received a combined television rating of just 20.5. Adding in the viewing audience on the cable news channels and C-SPAN would add a few points to this rating, but these channels typically get such low ratings that they are rarely reported upon. In the age of narrow-casting, with so many choices available to most viewers, large audiences are increasingly rare--and even presidents usually do not achieve them. Not only was the audience rating for Bush's speech at best half of Nixon's, but he also could not count on a regular audience of news consumers learning about his remarks the next day. Whereas 69 percent of the public read a newspaper every day in the early 1970s, by the time Bush assumed office only about 40 percent did so. And the percentage who said they regularly watched the nightly news had plummeted to just 32 percent, compared to 38 percent who said they frequently watched these programs in the Nixon era.

These contrasting audience figures between the current era and that of President Nixon are noteworthy in and of themselves. The diminishing size of the audience for presidential messages, as well as for national news, means that presidents now face a significantly more difficult task in getting messages through to the entire public than at any time since the birth of the mass media.

But perhaps even more important is that the nature of the audience no longer befits the ideal notion of a nationally elected officer who is president of all the people. The presidential audience is now highly skewed in terms of age, with young adults being less and less likely to follow what the president is doing. Such a bias may not seem too serious because everyone eventually gets older. But it is a bias that degrades representation, as young people do clearly have interests and policy priorities that are distinct from their elders. …

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