Sunday, 1 March 2009

“The Presidency in the Era of 24-Hour News”, by Jeffrey E. Cohen (Princeton University Press)


A detailed look at the changing relationship between the US Executive Branch and the ever-growing, ever-hungry media

In this interesting book, Cohen attempts to understand and analyse the changing status of the news media (predominantly the mainstream network news) and its influence and interactions with the American presidency. One of Cohen’s main questions: “How has the change in the news media from the broadcast to new media age affected the relationship between the president and the mass public?” Cohen is primarily interested in “attempt[ing] to understand why news has lost its ability to affect public attitudes toward the presidency.”

The book starts with an explanation of how things have changed, using three presidential scandals (Watergate, Iran-Contra, Lewinsky) to show the changing nature of media influence (how it does not affect public attitudes toward the president as much as it once did), how “public regard for the media has eroded”. What follows is broken down into manageable, well-structured chapters on a number of related topics: the decline in political news coverage (usurped by overtly partisan and opinionated programming); presidential news in the New York Times; the increased negativity of presidential coverage (using data from 1980-1999 and more contemporary analysis); the decline in public news consumption (at least from traditional sources like newspapers and broadcast network news); and the erosion of the public’s regard for news media and why this has happened. In his conclusion, Cohen brings this all together by looking at what this all means for the Presidency and also American democracy.

This is an interesting book that fits nicely in with, and adds considerably to the current debate about the future of the media (particularly the print media) in this age of growing connectivity and a new president who has a habit of going over the heads of the mainstream media and straight to the public.

Jeffrey Cohen has written a useful appraisal of how the American media and Presidency interact. The book is written in an academic tone, but Cohen’s coverage of important events (not to mention Presidential scandals) adds content that the reader will either be able to relate to, find interesting, or at least remember. He covers the decline of influence of the mass media, as partisanship and agendas crowd out objective reporting, and what this means for presidents (focus on ‘the base’, special interests, etc.) and the media (audience stats, advertising revenue, etc.). He offers interesting insights and observations throughout; using extensive data (from previous surveys and his own research), the author writes an interesting, intelligent analysis of the media’s changing position in American society and politics. Perhaps what is missing is some analysis of the effect of shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which, according to some surveys, are increasingly the go-to source for presidential news for younger generations. It would have been interesting to see this featured more prominently in Cohen’s coverage and research.

Overall, this is a good (if slightly dry) read with plenty to offer academics, students and casual readers alike.

More on Media’s ‘Decline’: Paul Starr, “Goodbye To The Age of Newspapers” (The New Republic, March 4th 2009); TNR Editors, “MSM RIP” (The New Republic, March 4th 2009); Gabrial Sherman, “The Scoop Factory” (The New Republic, March 4th 2009); James Fallows, “Why Americans Hate The Media” (The Atlantic, February 1996); Walter Lippmann, “The Job of the Washington Correspondent” (The Atlantic, January 1960); David Halberstam, “The Power & the Profits” (The Atlantic, January 1976)

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