Does politics today revolve around the dynamics of cable news? What might be the future of traditional network news and how should we prepare students for careers in journalism, media, and strategy? In an interview today at AoE, I turn to a colleague who offers special insight into these questions.
Dotty Lynch has analyzed political communication trends and impacts for the past three decades, serving as CBS News Senior Political Editor between 1985 and 2005 and before that as a top pollster and strategist. For the past four years she has been Distinguished Executive in Residence in the School of Communication at American University and is director of our newly launched MA program in Political Communication.
In her interview, Lynch notes the ability of cable news personalities such as Glenn Beck to shape the political agenda and even decisions within the White House. She also emphasizes the continued importance of the Sunday news programs. For students and aspiring political strategists, she encourages them to not only seek out knowledge and skills but also to understand how ethics applies to professional practice.–Matthew Nisbet
Interview with Dotty Lynch, American University
How do you define the field of political communication?
Basically I view the field of political communication as the study of how media and politics intersect, how political information is received and processed by individuals, how political and campaign strategies are developed with an eye toward communication and news, how the news media covers politics and what channels of communication are used to transmit and receive political messages.
As the former Senior Political Editor for CBS News, what do you see as the key emerging trends and issues in political communication?
In political journalism we are now talking about converged media, rapid fire turnaround and 24/7 accessibility. “Old media” is trying to adapt (before it becomes extinct) but live streaming and instant archiving have become SOP [standard operating procedure]. Almost all msm have online platforms and most, after years of resistance, are converging with their print and TV outlets.
Interestingly, however, political cable TV shows, even those shows with relatively low numbers of viewers, has an extraordinary influence on the inside political operatives and political elites. As we saw in the Shirley Sherrod case the White House was very focused on the potential for the story to dominate the day’s news agenda. They tried to squelch it before it overwhelmed their story of the day, which was intended to be the passage of extended unemployment benefits. Instead they wound up making it an even bigger story and wiping out the “good” economic story entirely.
The ability of Glenn Beck to dominate not just Fox News but all other news platforms including Comedy Central last week shows that there is still a tendency toward pack journalism and the ability of a loud controversial voice to set an agenda.
What do you imagine is the future of broadcast television news?
Broadcast TV has made adaptations at least in terms of delivery mechanisms and has added lots of interactive aspects to try to capture new audiences. Broadcasts like 60 Minutes and the Sunday Morning shows still draw major political figures because even in a fractured news environment they attract elites and members of the political echo chamber. And they make money.
(Take a look at who sponsors shows like Meet the Press and Face the Nation. These shows are inexpensive to produce and defense contractors and others wanting to target political elites are eager to have their brands advertised in this context.)
President Obama uses network platforms (including Leno, Letterman and The View) to raise his visibility with target non-news audiences and as a way to try to control his message. So far he has done this with some, though mixed, success. I think he has been able to use those broadcasts and print media to his advantage better than he has been able to dominate or set the cable news agenda.
Are there trends in news coverage today that give you pause or reason for concern?
There are many: the fast pace has led to a lack of reflection, lurching from story to story, domination of conflict and trivia over consensus and substance, little to no historical or institutional memory and even bad grammar and bad spelling. The recent polls showing how much misinformation people have about President Obama’s religion and the Muslim religion in general are worrisome indicators to me.
As the midterm elections approach, what do you see as the key communication and public opinion factors that will shape election races?
I think the biggest success so far has been the ability of the Republicans to frame the debate as a referendum on the Democrats’ inability to turn around the bad economy and their reliance on big government. These issues have energized their base. Democrats and Obama have stumbled badly in attempts to sell even popular programs and have not been able to engage their most enthusiastic supporters in 2008—young people.
What is unique about the new MA program in Political Communication at American University?
Our program combines the best of both the theory and practice of political communication and will give the students exposure to the top professors from the School of Communication and the School of Public Affairs. Our location in Washington DC makes it an ideal place for students who want to work in government and politics to learn from and meet the top professionals in the field who will be involved in our courses and programs. The explosion of new media and social networking in political communication is something we are uniquely prepared to analyze in real time though people who are doing the cutting edge work.
What kind of jobs and positions are graduates likely to move on to?
Political campaigns are now a multi-billion dollar industry in the US and political consulting is a growth field especially for people who understand new media. Communication jobs in government, public affairs and political campaigns are all places which are looking for students who are in our program.
If you were to give advice to a student who wants to pursue a career in political communication, what would you emphasize?
There are two prongs here. First, I would advise them to get the best understanding of communication theory and learn the technical skills to practice it. Some can be learned “on the job” but having a basis will help land that job and excel once there.
The second has to do with values. This can be very fulfilling though difficult work. Making sure of why they want to do it and having a strong ethical grounding will enable practitioners to navigate the harsh waters and survive the ups and downs of political victories and defeats.
I am vigilant about bringing professionals to my classes who are not just successful but who are in politics and journalism because of a desire to create a better world and practice what they preach!