In the middle of the last decade, political scientist Marc Hetherington wrote about the declining public trust in government, noting that while it was the product of many factors, “media portrayal[s] of government and leaders as incapable of confronting political challenges” helped bring distrust to the fore.
Hetherington was hardly the first to make this point, but his formulation is apt. And such portrayals contribute to a remarkable problem: not ideological hostility to government (though there is plenty of that in the right-wing media marketplace) but diminished expectations—in the public and in the press—about what government can accomplish.
There is a solid body of research showing that media reporting inspires skepticism about government action. For example, Stanford political scientist Shanto Iyengar has written about TV news’s strong preference for “episodic” rather than “thematic” narratives—in effect, coverage that operates at the anecdotal and personal rather than the abstract or collective level. From a storyteller’s perspective, that may seem an obvious choice, but it has perverse consequences. It “discourages viewers from attributing responsibility to government,” which, in effect, “reinforces the Republican message of limited government.”
In the late 1990s, Joseph Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson identified another way that media framing undercuts support for active government. Increasingly, they wrote, the dominant way to cover politics was to treat all political actions as maneuvers in an ongoing game and to expose the self-interested motives behind them. This kind of coverage, they suggested, teaches news consumers to be cynical about politics. And that cynicism, Cappella and Jamieson argued, may in turn make voters more hostile to new policy initiatives, no matter their views.
These studies do more than show that news reports can make people more skeptical about government. They undermine the media’s claim to deliver “accountability journalism.” Perpetuating the idea that the government can’t meet important challenges, after all, is but a half-step away from excusing the government when it doesn’t meet those challenges.
Coverage of the Federal Reserve’s response to the unemployment crisis provides a useful case study. For much of the past quarter-century, the Fed enjoyed an exalted status in the mainstream business and political press. Former chair Alan Greenspan was the “Maestro,” and even amid the wreckage of the financial crisis, his successor, Ben Bernanke, was Time’s 2009 Person of the Year. But in late summer of 2010 the recovery was sluggish; unemployment had barely declined; inflation was low and falling. The Fed’s traditional tool to boost the economy, lowering short-term interest rates, had had a limited effect. Voices in the economics blogosphere—first conservatives, then liberals—argued there were unconventional steps the central bank should take that would provide monetary stimulus. Bernanke had made many of the same arguments when Japan was in a similar plight a decade earlier, even calling for “Rooseveltian resolve” on the part of policy-makers.