Category Archives: Hillary Clinton

Lesiure Time, Pseudo Events and Politics

The emergence of leisure time decreased public interest and involvement at the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th, but leisure time may also have much to do with the current state of politics and journalism in the U.S.

It should come as no surprise that leisure time was a relatively new phenomena at the turn of the century. Just mention America’s old time work ethic and it is likely to conjure up images of farmers who worked in the hot sun from dawn to dusk and laborers who relied on their physical strength and endurance to put bread on the table. These are not the type of folks expected to have a lot of spare time. But as the nature of the nation’s economy changed and inventions lessened the work burden, Americans found themselves with more time on their hands and began to enjoy sports, the arts, and Sunday drives in those new horseless carriages.

In his book, The Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865-1928, historian Michael McGerr (1986) explains how political participation declined as Americans relaxed their work ethic and took advantage of new options for leisure and recreation such as vaudeville, sports, movies and radio. “Political theater could not compete with these new diversions as a source of leisure,” he writes (p. 149). “Neither could politics monopolize the attention of men and women lured by the pleasures of consumption.” Indeed, voter turnout peaked just prior to 1900 and then declined steadily in the new century.

Placed in context of the entire book, however, McGerr’s argument is not so simple. Yes, Americans did have more leisure time — and more choices for how to use it — in the 20th Century. In fact, it was just prior to the turn of the century that sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen authored his classic book The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which he suggested that the working-class Americans aspired to become part of a new “leisure” class.

But McGerr makes it clear that the hard-working farmers and laborers in the 19th Century also had some free time (p. 29). They just chose to use much of that time at rallies, parades and other political events. In part, this was because they did not have the same variety of options available to Americans in the 20th Century. But in large part, it was due to changes taking place in the worlds of journalism and politics before and after the turn of the century.

According to McGerr, newspapers moved further away from the blatant partisanship they practiced in the 19th Century. Improvements in the technology used to print and distribute newspapers made turning a profit less reliant on political allegiances. With advertising revenue increasing rapidly, publications flourished. No longer a tool for politicians, journalism became a business and a profession in its own right (p. 108). Newspapers also broadened their content to attract more readers. They added stories on sports for men, fashion and cooking for women, and sex and crime to capture people’s attention. The impact on political participation was largely negative. “Once the centerpiece of party journalism, politics became engulfed in a sea of sports, gossip, murder, and scandal,” McGerr explains. “The sense that elections held a special place in public life ebbed away” (p. 126).

In politics, McGreer contends that the strategy for winning elections and amassing power changed too. In the latter part of the 19th Century, political participation was a “spectacle” process that involved rallies, parades and strict party loyalty. But as newspapers became less partisan, voters began to act more independently, forcing political leaders to seek new methods of garnering support (p. 70). These methods, developed and implemented over a period of several election cycles, were the forerunners of many present-day election techniques, among them strong national organizations, voter polls, direct mail appeals and targeted campaign literature. Whereas political participation once had been a process in which voters actively engaged, it became a more passive activity with the advent of what McGerr labels “educational politics.”

These changes in politics and journalism — in conjunction with a variety of factors such as new opportunities and choices for leisure — helped to shape today’s news and political systems and the manner in which they interact.

For example, with politicians no longer in control of newspapers and their content, the field of public relations emerged as a means to obtain news coverage. As sociologist Michael Schudson relates in Discovering the News, A Social History of American Newspapers (1978), although journalists found public relations practitioners distasteful and intrusive, they began to rely on their news releases, events and assistance to produce the content that filled their publications. Schudson cites several estimates which claim that 50 percent or more of the content in The New York Times and other major publications originated from the work of public relations professionals (p. 144)

Government made great use of public relations. As presidents, Theodore Roosevelt set up a press room in the White House and Woodrow Wilson conducted regular press conferences (p. 139). The net effect was mixed and continues to have similar consequences for both the media and government today. “Reporters thus gained a more secure relationship to White House news, but one more formal than it had been, and more easily organized and manipulated by the president or his secretaries,” Schudson writes (pp. 139-140).

Public relations also led to a proliferation of manufactured events that to this day help fill news holes when there is an insufficient volume of hard news. In The Image, A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961), historian Daniel Boorstin explains how these “pseudo-events” are planned and conducted primarily to obtain news coverage. He traces their origins to changes that took place in 19th Century journalism, including the decline in partisan political material, which left newspapers in need of more copy.

Nearly 50 years after Boorstin coined the term, pseudo-events have become commonplace occurrences that take place in the form of news conferences and other planned activities. To cite a recent example, during the 2008 Democratic primary, there was considerable speculation over whether Hillary Clinton’s teary comments prior to the New Hampshire primary were genuine or just a pre-planned and scripted activity designed to obtain sympathetic news coverage.

Boorstin warns that the proliferation of pseudo-events can have a damaging effect on democracy, illustrating his point with an example made all the more relevant by this year’s presidential campaign and the long primary season that preceded it: “Pseudo-events thus lead to emphasis on pseudo-qualifications. Again the self-fulfilling prophecy. If we test Presidential candidates by their talents on TV quiz performances, we will, of course, choose presidents for precisely these qualifications. In a democracy, reality tends to conform to the pseudo-event. Nature imitates art” (pp. 43-44).

Pseudo-events and public relations are but two of the elements that evolved from the changes in journalism and politics around the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th — changes that were sparked in part by the end of “All work and no play” as a work ethic and the availability of more time for leisure and recreation.

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How News Frames Shaped the Super Tuesday Coverage

Almost without exception, the state’s daily newspapers led their New Jersey primary stories with language indicating that Hillary Clinton had held off a challenge from Barack Obama:

Gannett – Hillary Rodham Clinton defeated the late-surging Barack Obama in New Jersey’s Democratic presidential primary Tuesday…”

Courier-Post – Hillary Rodham Clinton overcame a fierce challenge from Barack Obama to win New Jersey’s Democratic primary Tuesday…”

The Record – Hillary Clinton held off a surging Barack Obama to win New Jersey’s Democratic presidential primary Tuesday as party power brokers, Latino voters and labor unions helped her avoid an embarrassing loss.

Star-Ledger – New York Sen. Hillary Clinton withstood a furious, final-days challenge from Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in her own backyard to win the Democratic primary in New Jersey yesterday amid a record-shattering turnout by voters.

True, Clinton had long maintained a convincing lead in the polls and Obama had narrowed that gap in recent weeks. But by portraying Obama as the challenger, these stories created the impression that Hillary Clinton already had won something in New Jersey.

That’s fine if you are writing about a prize fight in which a boxer is challenging a heavyweight champion who has won several bouts to earn his title. But in the New Jersey primary, the fact is Hillary Clinton had not won anything before Tuesday. When the polls opened at 6 a.m., she and Barack Obama had exactly the same number of votes – zero.

Yes, Clinton was ahead in virtually every voter poll conducted prior to the primary, but the credibility of polls took a beating in New Hampshire earlier this year. And as candidates are fond of saying, the only poll that matters is the one that takes place in the voting booth.

By framing stories in this manner – whether or not intentionally – journalists have the ability to shape events, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The press both covers events and, in choosing what to report and how to report it, shapes their outcome,” she wrote in The Press Effect.

In discussing the disputed 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Jamieson contends that the frame became one in which Bush was perceived as the winner and Gore as the challenger, even though there was no clear-cut winner. This in effect made it more difficult for the Gore team to gain support.

Moving back to New Jersey, the lead of the Star-Ledger’s national story on Super Tuesday created an air of invincibility for John McCain:

“Sen. John McCain continued his march toward the Republican presidential nomination…”

Now that Mitt Romney has bowed out of the GOP primary, it appears that McCain most likely will “march toward the Republican nomination.” But on Wednesday, when this story appeared, Romney was still a candidate, albeit a weakened one. Yes, McCain’s nomination appeared inevitable, but nothing is inevitable. Just ask the New York Mets, whose chances of playing in the 2007 post-season were considered inevitable before their historic collapse.

When journalists create a sense of inevitability, it can have a direct impact on public perception.

For example, a study by Jack Lule of Lehigh University found that news reports prior to the 2003 war in Iraq were based upon the assumption that war was inevitable. In turn, this assumption had profound implications in terms of public support for the war. This conclusion was based on six weeks of coverage by NBC Nightly News in which the network titled its reports Countdown: Iraq, Showdown: Iraq, and Target: Iraq.

“By using Countdown: Iraq as a structural metaphor, particularly in the middle of February 2003, NBC Nightly News affirmed the inevitability of conflict with Iraq at a time when many Americans and nations around the world were still attempting to prevent the conflict,” Lule wrote in Journalism Studies.

One could argue that the consequences of framing Hillary Clinton and John McCain as candidates in commanding positions on Super Tuesday may not be as great as the frames that helped build public support for the war in Iraq. That is true, but with Super Tuesday, we also are talking about a process that ultimately will determine who will serve as the nation’s next chief executive in one of the most challenging times in our history.

And that is a decision that deserves to be made carefully and thoughtfully by a well-informed electorate.

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Related Post:

Has Election Coverage Entered A Brave New World?

Blame It On the Stones (and the Media)

Hillary Clinton’s campaign is blaming the press for making her look bad in last week’s Democratic debate, and here in New Jersey State Senate candidate Seema Singh is whining that the unfair coverage from the media has damaged her chances of winning election. Now CWA 1035 President Carla Katz is ripping into the Star-Ledger’s Josh Margolin in a blog posting that has generated more than 50 responses, almost all of them anti-press.

Reminds me of Blame It On the Stones, an old Kris Kristofferson song in which the Rolling Stones took the fall for just about all of society’s ills.

Blame it on the stones; blame it on the stones
You’ll feel so much better knowing you dont stand alone
Join the accusation; same the bleeding nation
Get it off your shoulders; blame it on the stones