1972: THE WATERGATE "CAPER"
Political attitudes, beliefs, and behavior do not easily change in response to the mass media, and even when they do the link is difficult to demonstrate. Yet the conviction survives that mass communications are a powerful political force. Since the early 1970s this conviction has gained new strength, in part from studies that document a correspondence between the amount of media attention a problem receives and the amount of public concern about the problem. Noting this connection between press concern and public concern, social scientists have arrived at a reformulation that holds that "people learn from the media what the important issues are." 1 Or, as Bernard Cohen in his study of the press and American foreign policy put it two decades ago, "the press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about." 2 Applied to the media as a whole, this process has been called agenda setting.
Watergate provides a prima facie case through which to illuminate the role of the mass media in setting the public agenda. If Watergate was not a significant factor in the outcome of the 1972 Presidential campaign--and it was not--was this because the media gave it too little coverage? When it did erupt into a major focus of controversy just five months later, was this simply a matter of stepped-up press attention?
In the case of Watergate, folk wisdom supports the agenda-setting hypothesis. On the one hand, the press (or most of it) has been critized for having buried the issue during the campaign, or at least for providing insufficient coverage; on the other, the news media have been lavishly praised for their key role in mobilizing the public. Without the dogged pursuit of the facts by enterprising newsmen, it is widely believed, the scandal would have expired and the Nixon administration would not have been held accountable. Neither evaluation of the media role quite accords with the evidence.
We start from the assumption that the agenda-setting hypothesis--that bland and unqualified statement that the mass media set the agenda during