With Malice toward All? The Media and Public Confidence in Democratic Institutions

By Patricia Moy; Michael Pfau | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
Erosion of Confidence

Over time, the confidence gap clearly has become pervasive in American society. . . . [I]t is unlikely that any level, any branch, or any major institution of government has managed to totally escape the wrath of citizens during this tumultuous period.

Political scientist Stephen C. Craig ( 1996, pp. 49 & 54)

It becomes problematic. . . . when a majority of the electorate distrusts the government over an extended period of time. Prolonged discontent and alienation from the political system may challenge its legitimacy and, ultimately, its very existence.

Political scientists Ralph Erber and Richard R. Lau ( 1990, p. 236)

Although there is some disagreement on how exactly to define and measure the concept of "confidence," most experts agree that public confidence in democratic institutions experienced a steep decline in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a decline from which it has yet to recover. Public opinion polls have documented this overwhelming drop in confidence, motivating Joseph Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson to characterize it as "an epidemic" ( 1996, p. 72). Similarly, Gordon and Benjamin Black argue that "the American people no longer believe in their government" ( 1994, p. 108). Although Black and Black may overstate the breadth and depth of public cynicism toward government, we believe that the current lack of public support for key democratic institutions is a serious issue, one that motivated our interest in its causes, especially in the role the mass media may play in suppressing confidence levels. Research into this question is the primary focus of this book.

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