conference? In each case, the immediate news "policy" is a sense that something is important enough to be summarized briefly upon the screen; that a certain appearance may be offered as the whole reality. Was a botched news conference an exception, or the way the candidate always works? Did a news producer present Muskie's tears in New Hampshire as significant of the candidate himself or of the affront that had been offered him? A viewer cannot know-- cannot expect to know--what goes into every news decision, so as to sift out bias on the way to some supposed objective residue of fact. Rather, the viewer might as well accept the newscast as a retelling, tonight, of the drama of national life, one which must be tested against his own sense of the story up to now. The viewer must select from television's images, as he would from memoirs or historical accounts, those moments which seem to him so revealing, so symbolically right, as to be pretty clearly the facts of contemporary history. To refuse or resent this task of fact-making is to prefer an authority higher than television, or a democracy, ought to afford.
It is said that a free and independent press is a necessary condition for democracy, and it is frequently assumed that the United States is endowed with such a press. While the news in "totalitarian" nations is controlled, we Americans supposedly have access to a wide range of ideas and information from competing sources. In reality, the controls exerted over the media in the United States, while more subtle and less severe than in some other countries, leave us with a press that is far from "free" by any definition of the word.
The news media are important to any study of American politics. They implant the images in our heads that help us define socio-political reality. Almost all the political life we experience is through newspapers, radio and television. How we view issues-- indeed, what we even define as an "issue" or "event"--what we see and hear and what we do not see and hear are greatly determined by those who control the media. By enlarging our vision through technology, we have actually surrendered control over much of our own sensory experience.1
It is argued that the mass media are not a crucial factor in political life: one can point to the many Democratic Presidents who won elections despite the overwhelming endorsement of their Republican opponents by the press. But despite a low rate of editorial endorsement, Democratic candidates do manage to buy political advertisements and receive coverage by the mass media during their campaigns, unlike radical candidates, who receive almost no exposure and almost no votes.2 The argument also overlooks the subtler and more persistent influences of the media in defining the scope of respectable political discourse, channeling public attention in certain directions and determining--in ways that are essentially conservative and supportive of the existing socioeconomic structure--what is political reality.3
The primary function of television, radio and newspapers is not to-keep the public informed but to make money for their owners, a goal that frequently does not coincide with the need for a vigilant democratic press. The number of independently owned newspapers has been declining in the United States, with most of the big-circulation dailies coming under the ownership of chains like Hearst, Gannett and Copely. In the last twenty years some thirty dailies have disappeared. Today only 45 out of 1,500 American cities have competing newspapers under separate ownership. According to James Aronson, more Americans "are reading fewer papers and fewer points of view than ever before."4 (in many cities where there is a "choice," like