Commentary Magazine


Channels of Power: The Impact of Television on American Politics, by Austin Ranney

The Media & The Message

Channels of Power: The Impact of Television on American Politics.
by Austin Ranney.
Basic Books. 207 pp. $14.95.

Since the major expansion of network news in the early 1960’s, television has become a significant factor in American political life. And because this same period has seen far-reaching changes in our political arrangements, many people have been led to wonder whether television itself may not be, at least in part, at their root. This question underlies Austin Ranney’s new book, Channels of Power: The Impact of Television on American Politics.

The pervasiveness of television’s influence is suggested by the staggering increases in television-set ownership and viewing in the past three decades. Between 1947 and 1955, the percentage of American homes owning television sets rose from less than 1 to 65 percent; today, almost everybody has a TV set. The average person, on graduating from high school, has spent 12,000 hours with teachers, but 22,000 hours watching television.

With these and other such figures as background, Ranney addresses the fundamental issue of what, in the television age, constitutes “political reality.” If, he asks, “a tree falls in a forest but the event is not videotaped or broadcast on the nightly news, has it really happened?” Television newscasters insist that the reality that exists “out there” is unaffected by their reporting of it. Ranney, however, following Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle—that the observer cannot avoid changing the reality of what he observes—makes a very strong case that TV reporting of political events has, indeed, had profound (and frequently harmful) effects on our political life.

The problem of media involvement in the news is most evident in what the sociologist Michael Robinson has called “medialities”—“events that, in the absence of television, would not take place at all or would take place in a different manner.” These include the staging of events by politicians or political activists to provide the “good visuals” necessary for effective television coverage. Examples are protest demonstrations, “walk-abouts” by political candidates, interviews, and so on. Televised debates of presidential candidates are probably the most conspicuous medialities—often providing these real events with a very different “reality” and thus exercising a decisive impact on the outcome of political campaigns (as in 1960 and again in 1976).

Then there is the critical question of media “bias.” As study after study has shown, most elite TV journalists are political liberals. Ranney, however, along with others, believes that television’s principal “bias problem” is not ideological but “structural”—that is, it inheres in the medium itself. The major sources of this bias are the profit motive, which tilts the editing process toward visually interesting and exciting stories, especially conflict and controversy; time limitations, forcing television to be a “headline service” that makes selection and editing its “very essence”; and legal constraints such as the fairness doctrine.

If TV journalists have a nonstructural bias, says Ranney, it is a tendency, which they share with print journalists, to look for wrongdoing in high places and to focus on narrow self-interest as the very basis of political life. Yet while television stands in this sense in an adversary relation to politics, Ranney also notes the ways in which the relation between the two is symbiotic. Television reporters need the “good visuals” which only politicians can supply, and politicians need the rewards, especially in the form of free publicity, which only television can confer upon them. Indeed, television has proved useful to politicians as a means of appealing to voters directly, rather than through the traditional political vehicles.

It is in this connection that Ranney sees television as a cause of declining confidence in political institutions generally (and of declining voter turnout in elections). By increasing the importance of money in winning elections—money, that is, to buy TV time—and by emphasizing the theatrical dimensions of electoral politics, television has weakened the role of political parties. Television also provides too much information for most voters, and thus turns them away both from the political process itself and from its participants.

Finally, television has added to the burdens of governing. It has created a “fast-forward” effect on the electorate, increasing its expectation of results and shrinking the time that policy-makers have to implement programs. This is particularly evident in economic policy, where changes usually require substantial time to produce the desired result. In addition, television has weakened all coalition-building institutions by sabotaging the backstage maneuvering that is essential to the process of accommodation and compromise—making visible what in the past was hidden, and reducing policy options by publicizing leaks. A major effect of all this has been to transfer power from highly visible elected officials to the bureaucracy, which can operate in secrecy and anonymity.

What then does Ranney see as a way out? He does not believe that the current proliferation of alternatives to network television (cable, pay TV) will weaken the networks’ dominance of news reporting—although he warns that it may increase the power of special-interest groups by enhancing their capacity to mobilize their audiences. In the end, Ranney’s only recommendation is to encourage television to include itself as part of the news. “Why not have on each network each week,” he writes,

at least one hour of prime time devoted to regular broadcasts about the television business, including its coverage of politics? For example, why not show us how the nightly news is produced—how those in charge decide to broadcast certain stories but not others; how much of the footage available for a particular story is used, what is included and why, what is left out and why?

In effect, such a practice would “demythologize” network television and help make it a more “normal” facet of our political life.

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This is a well-written, timely, and extremely thoughtful book. Yet its analysis seems to me troublingly incomplete. The problem has to do with Ranney’s repeated statements of belief in the good intentions of television journalists, and his equally frequent assertion that television’s bias is not ideological or substantive but structural. This is, in fact, exactly what a television journalist would say in his own behalf; it is what television journalists do say whenever they are subjected to substantive criticism. In them, it is an obviously self-serving response, a bid to be exempt from scrutiny. But there is no reason why anyone else need accept this assertion.

Indeed, despite his stress on structural bias, Ranney himself reveals the important role played by substantive bias in TV journalism, although he somewhat misstates its nature. Television reporters are not biased against all politicians, only against politicians of a particular (mostly traditional) kind. Politicians who declare themselves in opposition to “politics”—such as Jerry Brown (especially in his first California gubernatorial campaign) and Jimmy Carter (also in his first campaign)—often become the darlings of the media. And when such “anti-political” politicians are men of the Left they are especially beloved.

This raises the related issue of whether television does, as Ranney maintains, necessarily reduce the government’s power to act. To the contrary, one can imagine circumstances in which television’s weakening of traditional political institutions could greatly increase the power of a certain kind of President, namely one tempted to circumvent the normal checks and balances and appeal directly to the people through the media. (To be sure, he would have to be a President who suited the ideological attitudes of television journalists in the first place. A demagogic Richard Nixon would not do.)

Ranney’s suggestion that television demythologize itself and become self-critical would of course serve as an important safeguard against such an occurrence. Unfortunately, there is no chance the networks will take up his recommendation—for reasons which would themselves be interesting to explore. The reasons do not, I think, center on the issue of structural bias.

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