Democracy and the Media
from the book
The Media Monopoly
by Ben H. Bagdikian
published by Beacon Press, 1997
The bond between communities and their news has been strong
from the beginning of the American experience. In the eighteenth
century, pioneers pushed inland from coastal cities, followed
closely by itinerant printers who assumed that every settlement
should have its own newspaper. Early radio stations were not limited
to national centers like New York and Washington but broadcast
in places like Medford Hillsides, Mass., and Stevensville, Mont.
To this day newspapers take the names of their cities, and radio
and television stations are required to operate in a specified
community, with local studios to produce programs about local
issues. It is not a quaint eccentricity. It is central to the
special nature of governance in the United States.
Most developed countries set all important public policy in
their capital. But not the United States. Voters in communities
across the United States regularly elect 500,000 local officials
to run 65,000 local governmental boards and committees. Local
officials govern schools, courts, zoning, water, fire, police,
and other vital functions. Even the national government has a
locally based democracy in the House of Representatives, with
435 local districts, some consisting of only a few urban neighborhoods.
It is a system appropriate for a country with extraordinary diversities
of population, local culture, economy, and geography. But it is
a formidable responsibility for voters.
Unlike other developed democracies, the United States does
not have a parliamentary political system in which voters cast
their ballots for parties. Parties in most countries have distinct
commitments to differing national programs, differences easily
discerned by voters. Citizens voting in those countries know that
when they cast their ballots for a party's candidate they are
voting for particular policies. In the United States, voters cast
ballots for individual candidates who are not bound to any party
program except rhetorically, and not always then. Some Republicans
are more liberal than some Democrats, some libertarians are more
radical than some socialists, and many local candidates run without
any party identification. No American citizen can vote intelligently
without knowledge of the ideas, political background, and commitments
of each individual candidate.
No national paper or broadcast station can report adequately
the issues and candidates in every one of the 65,000 local voting
districts. Only locally based journalism can do it, and if it
does not, voters become captives of the only alternative information,
paid political propaganda, or no information at all.
There was never a precise pattern of each voting district
with its own journalistic media. But there was once something
like it. In 1900, for example, there were 1,737 urban places and
2,226 daily papers. This came close to an average of a paper for
every city; most cities had competing dailies and weeklies. Papers
were based in a single city, and most papers pursued the intense
interests of their particular readers within that city. It meant
greater detail of information and political analysis. Readers
had strong loyalties to such papers and they provided a greater
proportion of those papers' revenues than readers of the 1980s
pay for their more bland dailies. In the past it meant more, smaller
papers, and smaller papers meant it cost less to start new dailies.
If existing papers ignored the interests of a significant part
of the community there was a greater likelihood chat an entrepreneur
or politically oriented publisher would start a new paper to capitalize
on the untouched audience. As a result, turn-of-the-century papers
more readily reflected changes in the needs and desires of the
Pursuit of advertising changed the versatility of American
print media. It reduced the media's responsiveness to reader desires.
Publishers became more dependent on advertising revenues than
on reader payments. Ads swelled the size of the paper each day,
requiring larger plants, more paper and ink, and bigger staffs,
with the result that it was no longer easy for newcomers to enter
the newspaper business. As the country's population grew and new
communities arose, the old pattern disappeared. Instead of new
papers to meet changing political forces, existing papers pushed
beyond their municipal boundaries to the new communities and,
increasingly, reached not for all the new citizens but for the
more affluent consumers. Soon each metropolitan paper was pre-empting
circulation in thousands of square miles with hundreds of communities
and voting districts. The newly captured populations were inundated
with ever-larger quantities of regional advertising, but the papers,
and later the radio and television stations, could not possibly
tell each community what it needed to understand its own problems
From 1900 to 1950 the American population doubled and the
number of urban places almost tripled, to 4,700. But the number
of daily newspapers dropped from 2,226 to 1,900. The citizens
of the new towns and cities, unlike those of an earlier time,
learned almost no systematic information about their own communities,
and those of older cities learned less than before as their newspapers
and broadcast stations turned their attention outward to wider
The vast territory of each metropolitan newspaper and television
station intensified a basic change in the country's urban geography.
After World War II, affluence and automobiles led many families
to the suburbs. "Urban renewal" programs converted downtowns
from coherent residential and local commercial centers to regional
corporate headquarters. The change removed a major source of newspaper
sales. A new interstate highway system encouraged the sprawl of
residences, factories, and offices, further diluting the politics
and news audiences of the inner cities. Ironically, the programs
that destroyed central cities as living complexes were encouraged
by metropolitan newspapers, oriented as they were to the desires
of real estate and other developers, but all the changes were
destructive to the traditional daily sales of newspapers. Demographic
changes also hastened the demise of locally owned retail enterprises
in favor of ever-larger national and multinational corporations,
which, in turn, pushed newspapers and broadcasting farther beyond
their community orientation.
After World War II, mass advertising steadily destroyed competitive
dailies; monopoly became the norm. In the new l suburbs there
were new dailies, but far from the number that had grown in American
cities of the past. The new monopoly corporations in the central
cities pushed outward to the suburbs, pre-empting the best advertising
that might otherwise have supported a new local daily. Existing
papers did not cover the new communities journalistically. In
1920 there were 2,722 urban places and 2,400 daily papers in the
country. By 1980 there were 8,765 urban places and only 1,745
dailies. Today more than 7,000 American cities have no daily paper
of their own.
The new pattern after World War II had a profound impact on
the way news was reported. One change was a new category of "news"
that was not really news. It was that gray area "fluff,"
part entertainment of interest to readers but mostly light material
designed to create a buying mood as bait for more advertising.
The addition of fluff made newspapers larger and drastically reduced
the proportion of each paper devoted traditionally to its heart-the
breaking news and commentary. The priorities of newspaper companies
were quietly rearranged away from the reporting of important political
events toward advertising-centered editorial matter. The new emphasis
changed staffs, administrative operations, and leadership.
The new form of papers affected the attitude of readers. In
1900 newspaper subscribers paid twice the percentage of their
personal incomes for their daily papers as do subscribers of the
1980s. In 1900 each paper meant more to its readers because the
news dealt more closely with the reader's community and because
each paper was more likely to meet its readers' political and
social interests. The responsiveness of earlier papers to their
particular readers represented sensitivity to social evolution;
as social forces changed, papers were more likely to change with
them. Papers in 1900 were more accountable to their readers because
their financial fate rested on reader loyalty. The news, which,
among other things, meant intense concern with politics and social
change, was a more involving experience for individual citizens.
Responsiveness of each paper to its own social group was not
an unmitigated advantage for society. It was easier for different
segments of the community to see the world differently. Papers'
special orientations often increased divisions within the community.
But it is not clear that this was worse than the apathy resulting
from a bland news system that avoids partisanship in a society
whose political system is designed to be partisan. Nor is it clear
whether the homogenized news for large areas serves citizens who
are asked to make basic political decisions on a specific, local
The growth of monopoly and mass advertising diminished the
amount of information about each community contained in newspapers.
This changed newspapers long before broadcasting became a major
news system, though radio and television soon adopted the same
doctrine to meet their even greater dependence on advertising.
Newspapers neutralized information for fear that strong news
and views pleasing to one part of the audience might offend another
part and thus reduce the circulation on which advertising rates
depend. Where once it was profitable to pursue particular issues
and ideas of interest to the newspaper's particular group of readers,
such pursuit now became a threat to larger profits. Newspapers,
and later broadcasters, wanted all potential affluent consumers
regardless of their personal political interests. Consequently,
if a group as a whole were poor, as was true of some minorities,
papers wished to avoid news of them and their issues. Problems
affecting lower-income communities generally did not become news
until they exploded and therefore affected affluent consumers.
Blandness in the basic politics of the media became standard.
Socially sensitive material of interest to one segment of the
population might offend those with different opinions who, regardless
of their differences, might possess the relevant quality of interest
to newspapers-money to spend on advertisers' products. News became
neutralized both in selection of items and in the nature of writing.
American journalism began to strain out ideas and ideology from
public affairs, except for the safest and most stereotyped assumptions
about patriotism and business enterprise. It adopted what two
generations of news-people have incorrectly called "objectivity."
The standard version of "objectivity" holds that
it was created to end nineteenth-century sensationalism. To a
large extent it did, and that alone made it appealing to serious
journalists. "Objectivity" demanded more discipline
of reporters and editors because it expected every item to be
attributed to some authority. No traffic accident could be reported
without quoting a police sergeant. No wartime incident was recounted
without confirmation from government officials. 'Objectivity"
increased the quantity of literal facts in the news, and it did
much to strengthen the growing sense of discipline and ethics
But the new doctrine was not truly objective. Different individuals
writing about the same scene never produce precisely the same
account. And the way "objectivity" was applied exacted
a high cost from journalism and from public policy.
With all its technical advantages, "objectivity"
contradicted the essentially subjective nature of journalism.
Every basic step in the journalistic process involves a value-laden
decision: Which of the infinite number of events in the environment
will be assigned for coverage and which ignored? Which of the
infinite observations confronting the reporter will be noted?
Which of the facts noted will be included in the story? Which
of the reported events will become the first paragraph? Which
story will be prominently displayed on page 1 and which buried
inside or discarded? None of these is a truly objective decision.
But the disciplinary techniques of "objectivity" have
the false aura of a science, and this has given almost a century
of American journalism an illusion of unassailable correctness.
"Objectivity" placed overwhelming emphasis on established,
official voices and tended to leave unreported large areas of
genuine relevance that authorities chose not to talk about. It
accentuated social forces as rhetorical contests of personalities,
with the reporter powerless to fill obvious gaps in official information
or reasoning. It widened the chasm that is a constant threat to
democracy-the difference between the realities of private power
and the illusions of public imagery.
"Objectivity" tended to keep news superficial because
too deep a pursuit of a single subject might bore or offend some
of the audience. It strained out interpretation and background
despite the desperate need for them in a century wracked by political
trauma. Recitations of facts about world wars, genocides, depressions,
and nuclear proliferation are useful but inadequate; mere recitations
imply that all facts are of equal value.
The safest method of reporting news was to reproduce the words
of authority figures, and in the nature of public relations most
authority figures issue a high quotient of imprecise and self-serving
declarations. Physical crime, natural disasters, and accidents
were politically safe, which accounts for the peculiar American
news habit of reporting remote accidents regardless of their relevance
to the audience. News became more official and establishmentarian.
Perhaps the most powerful influence of the doctrine on working
journalists was unconscious: It obscured and therefore made more
palatable the unprofessional compromises with managerial imperatives
and corporate politics. The subtle workings of the doctrine over
the years and its rationalization of avoiding judgments made it
easy for serious writers to remain silent about social ideas and
political forces and to concentrate on contests of personalities.
It produced the circular answer to the perpetual question "What
is news?"-"News is news." By mid-twentieth century
"objectivity" had achieved the status of a received
truth. The first major crisis that "objectivity" created
for journalists in this century centered on Senator Joseph McCarthy,
who was created largely by the assumption that journalists are
not obligated to write what they can demonstrate as true and significant
unless it comes from the mouth of authority.
McCarthy paralyzed much of government and created hysteria
throughout the country from 1950 to 1954 with lies and distortions.
He made increasingly wild claims about Soviet agents in high places,
including in the offices of the president of the United States,
among generals of the U.S. Army, and in the Department of State.
In the vast political wreckage McCarthy left in his wake, the
senator did not disclose a single Soviet agent that had not already
been exposed. Many competent journalists had evidence that McCarthy's
statements were lies or clever distortions, some of it in the
private admissions of the senator himself during his jocular drinking
bouts with journalists and editors. But most journalistic organizations
held to the doctrine that required use only of "official"
statements by the most dramatic authority figure, and McCarthy
was a United States senator.
Years of reappraisal within journalism after the debacle of
the McCarthy years have not prevented subsequent failures of "objectivity"
in an apolitical press. Race relations after World War II underwent
powerful ferment, politically and socially, but not until they
exploded in massive demonstrations and riots did they become major
news, reported afterward mostly as police actions rather than
as a profound change in the American scene. The same reluctance
to report social forces made the persistence of structural poverty
in a rich society an unreportable phenomenon until it became a
Emergence of broadcasting in the 1920s did not create an alternative
news system that might have broadened the spectrum of coverage
and provided genuine competition in generating news and analyzing
ideas. Instead, broadcasting, with minor exceptions, simply read
the printed news in truncated form. Radio and television newscasts,
at their longest, provide less information than half a newspaper
page. Some distinguished reporting from Europe immediately before
World War II was an exception, although the radio journalism staffs
that produced it were quickly dismantled. The vivid immediacy
of television added a powerful dimension to news but shrank even
the narrow spectrum of print.
Television's chief impact on newspapers was commercial, not
journalistic. Its stunning ability to sell goods and its inexpensive
transmission over thousands of square miles led to a competition
between printed and electronic media to reach ever wider groups
of potential customers, the reaches so broad that it was impossible
to report news about the specific communities exposed to the ads.
Television has obvious advantages over newspapers in immediacy,
motion, color, and convenience. But it has one enormous disadvantage:
Each station can transmit only one message at a time. If that
message is too long or too controversial for some viewers, those
viewers will turn to another channel or commit that terminal horror
that haunts television entrepreneurs -turn off the set. Whenever
a viewer turns a television dial, a television station loses a
customer. Newspapers do not have that problem. If they choose,
they can run a long story that will fascinate a particular set
of readers. Other readers can move their eyes to the next column
or turn the page, where they may find material more to their liking.
Moving the eyes or turning the page does not mean that the newspaper
publisher has lost a customer.
Television entrepreneurs found from the beginning that they
had to maintain maximum attention among a wide disparity of consumers.
Far more than in print, TV presentations-in regular entertainment,
public affairs, news, or commercials- could not dwell too long
on any one subject, and they could not be socially or politically
controversial. Television found the answer early in its history.
It was the twin sovereigns of attention-getting in history-sex
and violence. Sex had to be used obliquely, given the national
public morality, so it permeated television by innuendo, in themes
of entertainment, in selection of actresses and actors, in double
meanings in commercials, and in sophisticated appeals to the subconscious.
Violence was easier to stress, given the prevalence of crime as
a standard ingredient in printed news and the place of guns and
violence in the mythology of the country. Violence could be politically
safe in programs of cops and robbers, in which cops won by violence,
or spy dramas, in which selected foreign enemies were defeated
Nothing in the history of public complaints has lessened the
combined incidence of sex and violence. Some social scientists,
as well as the Surgeon General of the United States, have measured
the high incidence and concrete social consequences of sex and
violence on television. If television producers momentarily reduce
one in the face of organized criticism, they raise the level of
The social and psychological costs of these television twins
are incalculable. The Surgeon General's studies have shown that
television violence increases actual violence and acceptance of
violence in children. Other studies have shown that children who
watch a great deal of television are more cynical than are children
who watch less television. The television commercial is the most
expensive and highly skilled artifact in American society, using
the most polished producers, actors, and technical reproduction
and spending more for the creation and transmission of a series
of thirty-second commercials than some school districts spend
to educate children for a year. The artful construction of commercials
has created thirty seconds as a basic attention unit, ideal for
selling marginal goods but with negative psychological and intellectual
consequences for the average American child, who, the statistics
show,' watches television for twice as many hours as he or she
It is not simple moral perversity that keeps sex and violence
on the air and serious subjects off. It is television executives'
desire to maintain as large an audience as possible for as long
as possible for the purpose of selling goods and services.
The same persistence, with more subtlety, has characterized
emotional manipulation in television commercials. Commercials,
too, have been immune to a variety of serious objections from
consumer agencies, social critics, and parents. Cynical manipulation
in commercials, like that in television programming generally,
comes not from capricious malice but from the power of annual
profit statements for both the corporations that advertise and
the corporations that own the media.
Advertising occupies a powerful place in the American culture.
It has become a worldwide symbol of the country's reputation as
the land of milk and honey, of endless material possessions for
everybody. As an art form, ads are often clever, entertaining,
and arresting in their graphics and sexuality. Some are practical
and informative. Most ads create a fantasy experience, permitting
the national nose to be pressed against the windows of exclusive
shops that will never be entered. In all its permutations-as a
symbol of national wealth, as a purposeful entertainment, as a
guide to useful products, as a clever technique to engage the
emotions-advertising has conditioned generations to accept it
as an inescapable part of the landscape, as ubiquitous and normal
as houses and trees.
Confronted with criticism of commercials, media owners say
the public likes ads. Some people clearly do like some commercials,
often more than they like the less carefully produced programs
in which the commercials are imbedded. But whether the public
approves of what it gets in advertising is questionable. The American
Association of Advertising Agencies found in a ten-year study,
from 1964 to 1974, a significant decrease in public belief that
"advertising results in better products for the public"
or that it helps raise the standard of living or lowers prices.
And there was an increase in public feeling over the ten years
that ads often persuade people to buy things they shouldn't and
that most advertising insults people's intelligence.
In 1977 a survey by Louis Harris of public attitudes toward
leadership of major American activities found advertising at the
bottom of the list. The public seems to be repeating what the
March Hare says in Alice in Wonderland: "You might just as
well say that 'I like what I get' is the same thing as 'I get
what I like."'
To counter public resistance to television and advertising,
the manipulation of emotions has become more sophisticated. Social
science and psychological techniques have been added to television's
arsenal for conditioning human behavior. One firm advises advertisers
on whether their products should appeal to the left (analytical)
or the right (emotional) side of the human brain. The consultant
staff attaches electrodes to scalps of volunteers to measure stimulation
and types of brain waves evoked by certain images in commercials.
They tell advertisers that ads for products like perfume and beer
should be pitched to the right side of the brain; ads for cars
and insurance should be directed to the left side. Most TV ads
appeal to the emotions. The manager of public opinion research
for General Electric says that "much of response to advertising
Another firm uses infrared eye scans to record rapid eye movement
in response to test images in television commercials, advising
clients on elements of ads like the most effective juxtaposition
of sex objects, for example, a woman in a bikini and the brand
name of the advertised product. A Manhattan firm measures involuntary
larynx reaction and uses computers to test people's reactions
to proposed commercials, often determining that even when people
say they dislike an ad, it makes a lasting impression. A Texas
firm uses electrodes attached to the fingertips of human subjects
to see what symbols in commercials- sex, fire, ocean, forests-create
the most arousal in connection with a product.
Chuck Blore, a partner in the advertising firm Chuck Blore
& Don Ruchman, Inc., has said, "Advertising is the art
of arresting the human intelligence just long enough to get money
If that is true, it arrests a great deal of intelligence.
It is estimated that the average American child has seen 350,000
commercials by age seventeen and, in the words of Billie Wahlstrom
of the University of Southern California, these commercials are
"the propaganda arm of the American culture."
The American Association of Advertising Agencies has estimated
that 1,600 advertising messages are aimed at a consumer in an
average day. The individual obviously is not struck by most of
these and does not even become aware of all of them. The average
consumer takes momentary notice of about eighty commercial messages.
Only twelve make a conscious impression. But in order to maintain
sanity and coherence in the midst of this clever and insistent
bombardment, each individual has to erect a sensory screen that
instantly, often unconsciously, detects the incoming signal and
rejects it. A car driver, for example, catches a glimpse of a
distant billboard and decides in a fraction of a second that it
is of no interest and thus does not engage his or her mind with
the content of the ad. The advertising creators know this, so
to penetrate the screen that every human being erects to protect
the senses, ad agencies need a constant supply of new symbols,
images, and ideas.
The sheep's clothing of sex, beauty, a trusted personality,
or a semi-sacred symbol is needed to encase the wolf of the sales
pitch. The human being often referred to by ad agencies as "the
target"-on the alert to screen out unwanted symbols he or
she has already seen, does not recognize a new image and, before
it is recognized as the same old message in a new guise, the unidentified
Iying object has penetrated the protective screen and made a hit
on the deceived mind.
When parent groups and others complain to broadcasters about
the impact of sex and violence on the young, broadcasters traditionally
answer that sex and violence on television do not change human
behavior. That answer has been contradicted by extensive studies
and surveys by the Surgeon General of the United States. But each
year broadcasters sell more than $10 billion worth of commercial
time whose only purpose is to change human behavior. Presumably,
the most sophisticated corporations would not continue spending
billions of dollars if they thought they were not altering human
behavior in their favor.
Furthermore, it is one thing to show that not everyone exposed
to a commercial or to regular programming changes his or her overt,
physical behavior. But it is another to suppose that there is
no emotional or intellectual change from the experience, any more
than it would be to argue that the soldier, at any moment untouched
by bullets in the battlefield, is emotionally and intellectually
untouched by the experience.
The reclothing of ads in ever-new symbols has contributed
to the devastating attrition in the lifespan of symbols in modern
culture. Advertising is not the only cause of this attrition.
All modern communications has a hand in it. Two hundred years
ago the common symbols of society were those of rulers and the
church, their flags and icons displayed individually and seen
solely by live audiences. Mechanical printing and other mass communications
changed that. Contemporary society is filled with images, some
in a constant state of change like television, or in continuously
altered states, as in radio. Printing reproduces words and illustrations
in multiples of billions and can be absorbed by millions. Through
electronic devices and modern printing processes, flags, crosses,
and other emotionally laden symbols can be mass-produced for huge
audiences. But no single force has equaled the merchandising process
in its use of all the sacred and semi-sacred symbols to create
a culture of material consumption. Advertising is a source of
symbol manipulation unknown to earlier generations. The advertising
industry spends $1,000 per household in order to break through
the resistance of human senses and sometimes of human intelligence.
Selling symbols are in continuous flood for six and a half hours
of television a day. Printed images are seen on countless billions
of magazine pages every week and the four billion newspaper pages
printed every day. As viewers and readers get used to the massively
displayed symbols, the symbols change to the latest idea or personality
or national emotion until it, too, in days or weeks, becomes meaningless,
part of the continuous and deliberate slag heap of mass communications.
Sponsoring corporations will even use symbols they dislike
and then trivialize them, in their voracious appetite for new
sheep's clothing. In the 1960s the psychedelic style in art and
clothing, created by hippies as antiestablishment statements,
was adopted almost at once in advertisements and editorial illustration
by the establishment media, not out of sympathy but as a way of
placing inviting and novel garments on old sales pitches. Symbols
and terms of the intense antiwar movement during the Vietnam War
were adopted in ads and programming even by corporations engaged
in war contracts.
Perhaps the most easily measured damage of the media battle
for consumers is inflicted on the American political system. Mass
advertising, without intending to, has become instrumental in
degrading the basic unit of American government.
News distribution is no longer designed for individual towns
and cities. American politics is organized on the basis of the
20,000 urban and rural places in the country, which is the way
citizens vote. But the media have organized on the basis of 210
television "markets," which is the way merchandisers
and media corporations sell ads. As a result, the fit between
the country's information needs and its information media has
become disastrously disjointed.
The average television station sends its signal over more
than 10,000 square miles, or about fifty counties. Metropolitan
dailies, not by coincidence, cover about the same territory. (The
Atlanta Constitution and journal, for example, circulates significantly
in fifty-five counties, thirty-nine of which do not have their
own daily paper. ) The average county has twenty-six local governments,
of which twenty-two have taxing powers and five are school districts.
This means that the average metropolitan newspaper and television
station dominate the news for an area that contains 1,300 public
policymaking bodies and elects large portions of state legislatures
and the U.S. House of Representatives. If each policymaking body
in the area met once a week and each metropolitan news medium
reported only on those meetings and on no other events in the
communities, a typical half-hour newscast would give five and
a half seconds to each body, and a newspaper would give thirty-eight
words. But in fact TV stations, radio stations, and metropolitan
papers do not cover each of the policymaking bodies in the areas
of their circulation or even the general news in each of the communities.
Nor could they if they tried, given the vast areas and the numerous
local districts. In other countries with centralized national
policymaking, local news coverage is a negligible need. In the
United States local coverage is crucial.
Though big-city TV, radio, and newspapers do not cover each
of the communities they reach, they sell advertising to the major
merchandisers for their region and thus remove the economic base
for indigenous stations and papers. Many of the communities without
daily papers have weekly ones and they often serve important functions;
the best ones adequately fill the gap. But most communities either
have none or have shopping papers with little or no significant
social and political news. In fact, most daily papers issue such
news-less advertising sheets in the smaller communities around
their central city to further increase their revenues. By collecting
local advertising in that way, they further pre-empt the basis
for an independent local paper.
There is nothing inevitable in this pattern. In 1851 Horace
Greeley, testifying before a committee of the British Parliament,
described the pattern in the United States in his time:
When a town grows to have as many as 15,000 inhabitants, or
thereabouts, then it has a daily paper; sometimes that is the
case when it has as few as l0,000. .. 15,000 may be stated as
the average at which a daily paper commences; at 20,000 they have
two, and so on; in central towns . . . they have from three to
five daily journals.
If the same pattern existed today, the country would have
4,600 daily papers instead of 1,700. Today 43 percent of the U.S.
population lives in counties with no local daily paper. If radio
licenses were granted on the basis of political and social needs,
each county could have at least three indigenous stations instead
of the present concentration of radio and TV stations in a small
number of major metropolitan merchandising markets. This disparity
between citizens' and merchandising needs has made American elected
office the prize of rich men and women or candidates backed by
rich men and women. Traditional elective politics demanded that
the candidates appear in person before special groups of voters.
This produced a generous diet of rhetorical sound and fury, sophistries,
cynicisms, and simplistic proclamations. But because the candidate
appeared in person, often before groups who had intense interest
and knowledge of issues that affected them, the effectiveness
of empty rhetoric was limited. Farmers might accept sophistries
about urban factory workers but they would have a high level of
critical judgment about agricultural economics, and they would
not hesitate to press the candidate for details. The same would
be true for auto workers, corporate executives, railroad operators,
or labor union chiefs. Each would want to pursue in depth the
subjects that most concerned them. The mosaic of these interests
put together by a candidate would decide success or failure at
But if a candidate could avoid firm positions, it increased
the possibility of giving the appearance of being all things to
all voters. For this, television seemed a perfect medium. It is
an established American habit. Favorite programs are watched by
a large, predictable audience. The insertion of emotional commercials
into programs had become an accepted practice for a variety of
products-perfume, laxatives, toilet paper, automobiles, underarm
deodorants, adhesives for dentures, hemorrhoidal ointments. A
commercial for a political candidate could fall easily into the
accepted brief interval in regular programs. A carefully taped,
meticulously edited political presentation with all the immediacy
and simulated sincerity of a commercial, but without serious content,
could be projected into homes where viewers would be most vulnerable.
Television stations reach more people than a candidate, other
than a presidential candidate, wants to reach. But the candidate
has no choice but to "buy" voters not needed for election,
and at enormous cost. (The fact that most of the candidate's message
is irrelevant to most of the audience means that a portion of
the audience might switch channels, which in turn means that television
stations resist political commercials if they can. ) A candidate
for the U.S. House of Representatives from a district in metropolitan
Chicago would find the economics of TV advertising impossible
without heavy financial backing. The typical House district has
150,000 households. A Chicago-based television station that reaches
a typical district also reaches three million households in thirty-five
counties in four states. The candidate either pays for the 2,850,000
unwanted households or loses the television access to his or her
district that a richer candidate can buy. (A prime-time, thirty-second
commercial for a major sponsor can cost more than $250,000 to
produce. Few political commercials cost as much, but the cost
even for less elaborate political ads on television is so high
that it has created an ominous barrier to entry into American
politics.) Thirty-second commercials must be repeated to be effective.
The thirty-second political ad on a Chicago station, repeated
ten times, would cost more than $50,000 just for air time. The
ad would then be broadcast over a station that reaches so large
an audience that 95 percent do not vote in the candidate's district.
Few candidates can afford to buy a fifteen-minute or thirty-minute
block of television time, a period so long in commercial television
for a non-entertainment program that most stations would refuse
such a sale for fear of losing most of their audience. Even if
a candidate wanted to buy this time, there are disadvantages:
The longer the time, the harder it is to avoid serious issues.
(In Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign for the presidency, the most
expensive in history, 70 percent of his network time was for thirty-second
commercials, 25 percent for five-second commercials, and only
5 percent for thirty-minute talks.) So, inevitably, television
electioneering, which, combined with direct mail, is now the major
mechanism of American campaigns, deals mostly with imagery and
emotional manipulation engendered by the five-second and thirty-second
commercial. It has displaced the phenomenon of the live candidate
before live audiences and almost eliminated coherent debate. A
whole generation of voters has not heard serious content in election
campaigns; that this generation of voters increasingly does not
bother to vote may not be unrelated.
If a Chicago candidate for the U.S. House decided to turn
to a Chicago newspaper to reach his or her 150,000 households,
he or she would not &d a substantial difference in cost or
effectiveness. A major Chicago newspaper is distributed in thirty-seven
counties with a population of seven million. To buy a half-page
ad repeated ten times could cost $100,000.
Running successfully for public office is highly expensive,
and the biggest spenders have been winning the campaigns at a
rate of 4 to 1. Abraham Lincoln won by spending $100,000; McKinley
in 1900 spent less than $4 million; Roosevelt in 1932, less than
$3 million; Kennedy in 1960, $10 million; Nixon in 1968, $25 million;
Reagan in 1980, $152 million. Between 1976 and 1980 the total
cost of campaigns for all public office in the country doubled,
to $900 million.
In California, where some of the best records are kept, the
cost of a campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives rose
45 percent between the election of 1976 and that of 1978; the
cost of a U.S. Senate race in those two elections rose 72 percent.
Today it can cost a quarter of a billion dollars to get elected
president and multiples of millions to become a senator or a representative
in Congress. Not surprisingly, the role of wealthy, special-interest
groups in campaigns has risen dramatically.
The inappropriate fit between the country's major media and
the country's political system has starved voters of relevant
information, leaving them at the mercy of paid political propaganda
that is close to meaningless and often worse. It has eroded the
central requirement of a democracy that those who are governed
give not only their consent but their informed consent.