The media: influence and power

`IN Washington today,'' wrote William L. Rivers, a Stanford professor who used to be the Washington correspondent for a national magazine, ``correspondents who report for the news media possess a power beyond even their own dreams and fears.'' In his memoir Daniel Schorr illustrated the perceived power of the media: ``In the corridor of the Senate Office Building, I ran into Sen. Hubert Humphrey trying to round up a quorum for a hearing of the joint Congressional Economic Committee. Half jokingly, half despairingly, he asked if I could install dummy cameras and turn on some bright lights to attract truant members of his committee.''

These authors are engaged in ``public speak,'' of course. Washington journalists as a rule do not sit around telling each other how influential or powerful (the words are used interchangeably) the national news media have become. But there are also very few like James Reston of the New York Times, who says, ``Our power is smaller than our reputation.''

There is no shortage of claims for the power of the press on Capitol Hill. So many knowledgeable people, including senators, tell us that this is so that surely it must be so.

The obvious reason influence is attributed to the media is that the members of Congress, and especially their staffs, are incorrigible news junkies.

During a year I spent as an observer at the Senate, I did not see any cause and effect. I saw a lot of reporters writing stories. I saw a lot of bills being voted up or down. The stories often helped explain the votes, but I do not think the stories affected the votes.

The importance of the national media, then, would be not what they report (and can be held accountable for), but simply that they are there; not what gets on the air or in print, but what members of Congress try to get on the air or in print.

Nor should anyone ever underestimate the ego of a politician; no one is ever quite sure that publicity is not its own reward.

But Dorothy Collin, a national reporter for the Chicago Tribune, said that the local reporters are the ones that senators watch most carefully.

Two desks away from Ms. Collin in the press gallery, Lee Bandy, who works for a newspaper in Columbia, S.C., had just written a Sunday column speculating on whether Gov. Richard Riley would challenge Sen. Ernest Hollings in 1986. ``Don't you think the Hollings staff will be meeting on that one?'' National reporters, of course, may play the same role for the handful of senators who have immediate presidential aspirations. Still, most of what they write from Capitol Hill is much more straightforward in purpose: What you see is all there is (as opposed to the coverage of the White House and State Department, which often reflects ``informed sources'' who may have hidden agendas).

The Congress and the White House are at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, but as news beats they are worlds apart. To say that one is open and the other is closed is to define just a part of the difference. Yet it is an important distinction, one that also contrasts the executive and legislative branches of the national government. With the exception of certain information that executive agencies give to the Foreign Relations, Armed Services, and Intelligence Committees, the Senate of the United States really has no secrets.

The twin facts that the legislature tends to be open and accessible and that the Golden Triangle tends to be a closed environment in which important information is given to journalists who are admitted by invitation makes a profound difference in the roles of the two different press corps and their importance (influence, power) in political Washington. The congressional reporters for national outlets -- free to open doors, with sources ever present -- are far less important than the comparable and confined reporters of the White House and State Department beats. This is an irony that Washington journalists live with and is one of the reasons that reporters often rotate from the congressional beat (a happy assignment) to the White House beat (an unhappy assignment), but rarely make the professional move in the other direction.

The national media -- notably the New York Times and the Washington Post -- become major movers of information around the Golden Triangle, almost like journalistic bumblebees spreading pollen from White House to State Department to Pentagon to State Department to White House. Foreign embassies and others may also be players.

Valuable information comes from a single source (``a high administration official said today . . .''). The source basically controls what is in the story. Others on the same wavelength think they know the identity of the source and the meaning of the message, even if general readers do not.

In this bizarre manner the national media gladly allow themselves to be participants in government, thus ensuring that their reportage will be studied by the right people.

On the congressional side, there is some signaling through the media by Senate leaders who wish to send messages to the White House. They are so blatant, says the Post's Helen Dewar, that reporters know how to assess their intentions.

Also, it is not necessary for senators to use the press as an internal means of communication. Officials of the State Department and the Pentagon have remarkably few opportunities to interact with each other, but each reads what the other is thinking as reported in the pages of papers that are widely circulated by means of press clipping services.

The notion that journalists impose upon Congress their view of what is significant -- as some scholars contend -- is not the impression I brought back from my observations. What Congress is doing at any one time is determined by many factors not directly influenced by the press -- the inflation rate, the unemployment rate, the crime rate, what the president asks the Congress to do, controversial decisions of the Supreme Court, acts of terrorists, acts of nature.

The order of business is set by the majority leader, the ultimate insider, after consultation with his committee chairmen. What is then reported in the national media is largely a reflection of this process.

The popular judgment of journalism researchers that ``the press does not tell the people what to think, it tells the people what to think about'' is simply not the case on Capitol Hill. This press corps is almost totally reactive.

National reporters also may become less influential on Capitol Hill as additional sources of information become available to the legislators and their assistants.

One step removed from the research designed for legislators' personal needs are the large committee staffs that service their party needs and ideological needs. Various sorts of computerized services, just now coming to the Senate, will give staffs even more information that is not dependent on the news media.

Ultimately, a lot more people and groups have an interest in noting the power of the press than in showing that media power may sometimes be akin to that of the Wizard of Oz. There is the press itself. As Hedley Donovan, the former editor in chief of Time, observed with regard to President Kennedy, ``We loved being read so closely.'' There are also certain participants in the government process who must find it useful to blame ``media power'' for their own failures or frustrations. Books about the power that is will always sell better than those about the power that is not. And finally, there are media researchers whose entitlements in the world of conference-going and journal articles -- regardless of whether we are praising, pointing with alarm, or remaining truly neutral -- will be in direct proportion to our colleagues' sense that we are writing about one of the real power players in public policy. This then becomes a collective bias of which readers should be aware. Beware.

Excerpted from the book ``The Ultimate Insiders'' by Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution in Washington.

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