Defining the new media and their role in American politics is an important, albeit somewhat challenging, task. In this book, we argue that the new media are quantitatively and qualitatively different from the mainstream press. They do not simply represent a variation of the established news media.
The new media have significant potential to educate, facilitate public discourse, and enhance citizen participation. They provide mass audiences with a seemingly boundless array of sources that transcend the time and space constraints of traditional media. In addition, new media technologies easily bypass national and international boundaries, bringing American citizens into contact with diverse cultures and distant happenings to an extent previously unimaginable. As such, new media have the potential to enhance the public’s understanding and tolerance of different societies.
However, new media’s promise is undercut by the commercial and entertainment imperatives that drive them. In reality, the political role of new media is ancillary. The new media are political when politics pays. Thus the new media’s role in the political realm is volatile. Their educational function is incomplete and sporadic.
The new media constitute a highly diverse range of communication formats. One way of distinguishing between types of new media is to categorize them on the basis of whether they employ old or new technologies. For many forms, the term new media is a misnomer. They involve old media technologies that have been newly discovered or reinvigorated as political media. It is the extent of their politicisation that is new, not their existence. Thus there is a sense of novelty even in those media that have existed for some time. New media that employ old communication technologies include political talk radio, television talk shows, television news magazines, electronic town meetings, and print and electronic tabloids.
Political talk radio, for example, dates back to the origins of radio itself in the 1920s. Early radio stations featured not only news, but also political broadcasts, such as conventions, presidential inaugurations, and speeches of presidents and other public officials. Television talk programmes also are not new. Morning variety talk shows, such as “Today,” “Good Morning America,” and “CBS This Morning” certainly predate the current interest in “new media.” The “Today Show” first aired in 1952, while “CBS Morning News” debuted five years later. Phil Donahue’s nationally syndicated talk programme premiered in 1970 and featured presidential candidate debates from 1984 to 1994. His programme became a significant venue for Democratic presidential primary candidates in 1992.
There are many more examples of particular new media programmes that did not exist a decade ago. The nationally syndicated Rush Limbaugh radio programme appeared in 1989 and his television show first aired in September 1992. Many other talk radio hosts with large national audiences, such as G. Gordon Liddy and Michael Reagan, have emerged only in the 1990s. MTV’s political campaign coverage did not debut until the 1992 presidential primary election.
In addition, new media channels employing traditional media technology have surfaced in recent years. For instance, even though cable is not a new format for broadcasting, new channels designed at least partly for political talk now exist, including C-SPAN, CNBC, The Talk Channel, MSNBC, and The Comedy Channel.
Some formats are genuinely new, having evolved from more recent innovations in communications technologies. The proliferation of online computer networks, coupled with an explosion in the use of home computers, has created new methods for political communication. Fax machines and voice mail operations facilitate citizens’ ability to register opinions with politicians and journalists. These new technologies infuse political communication with a new immediacy. The public can now receive and disseminate political messages with increased ease and speed.