Congress, the Press, and Political Accountability/Handbook of Political Communication Research

By Perlmutter, David D. | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Congress, the Press, and Political Accountability/Handbook of Political Communication Research


Perlmutter, David D., Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


Books

* Arnold, R. Douglas (2004). Congress, the Press, and Political Accountability. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp 296.

* Kaid, Lynda Lee, ed. (2004). Handbook of Political Communication Research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 541.

Political communication education is a paradoxical field in terms of its status in the academy and in the world. On the one hand, there is no sexier area of research (except on pornography itself). Students are fascinated by the sensationalism, bling-bling, and salaciousness attached to campaigns, elections, and political media in general, and the high profile of political consultants in particular. Almost all of my undergraduate political communication majors, for example, when asked which job they want after graduation, reply that they want to design campaign commercials. Political professionals are accorded movie star status, not only in Washington but in the press and on the bestseller lists of the New York Times. The West Wing has made Americans think they know insider codes, norms, strategies, and tactics of politics and political media as much as we are quasi-cognoscenti of the details of police work or emergency room protocol. In terms of wider society, and especially students, political communication is the highest-profile and most attractive area of social scientific research.

Unfortunately, perhaps as a consequence of its mainstream popularity, the field as an academic discipline-mostly within political science but also in mass communication studies-is not as favorably viewed. A highly respected political scientist who studies the interplay of media, elected officials, and public opinion tells me that for leading political science journals, "Media become important only inasmuch as they intersect with topics already of interest to political science....By contrast, the questions that [for example] Congress scholars ask really don't intersect very well with work on media strategies in Congress..." Textbooks and seminal texts on political behavior typically accord about one chapter to the place of mass media in the political process. There are few job openings for "political communication" in polsci departments; better to sell oneself as a scholar of, say, the presidency who "happens to look at media." I recall in my own case a grant proposal for political communication research being turned down because the outside reviewer-a political scientist, I suspect-concluded, "Political communication is not an area worth developing."

Departments of journalism and mass comm are not immune to such prejudices. Student demand does not seem to provoke increased faculty positions. A doctoral student focusing on political communication, scanning the ICA, AEJMC, NCA, BEA, and Chronicle want ads, finds not that many more hits than the completely "dissed" area of "journalism history." I have ended up advising more than a few political communication Ph.D. students to sell themselves as PR or advertising specialists.

There are several approaches to gaining more acceptance and increasing the profile and relevance of political communication within the academy. Two recent books help advance the cause and, vitally, do so non-polemically. Political communication is not raised in status by political communication scholars shrieking, "I am important!" Rather, we will demonstrate our relevance to many other disciplines in political science and mass communication education, by clearly and cohesively building a platform of knowledge that becomes identifiable as intimately belonging to something called political communication, whether concerning the interoffice memos of a CEO, the debate tactics of a gubernatorial candidate, or the television advertising for the next president of Iraq. Lynda Lee Kaid, one of the doyennes of the field, and her contributors have taken an important step in building a foundational legitimacy with the publication of their Handbook of Political Communication Research, dedicated in part to the memory of Steve Chaffee, one of the founders of the field. …

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