Tilting the Public Sphere: Media History, Conservatism, and American Politics

AHA Session 204
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Virginia Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Susan Douglas, University of Michigan
Conservative Media, Liberal Bias, and the Origins of Balance
Nicole R. Hemmer, University of Miami
It’s The Money Stupid: The Failure of Liberal Political Talk
Brian Rosenwald, University of Pennsylvania
David Greenberg, Rutgers University–New Brunswick

Session Abstract

This panel interrogates the intertwined histories of media, politics, policy-making, and public policy in the United States. At its core, it posits that media history has played a profound, if often under-examined role, in enabling or disabling democratic self-governance, determining which voices and perspectives circulate within the public sphere, and influencing public opinion. In addition, this panel focuses on the role of ideological debates in shaping both the development of American broadcasting practices and in forging the policies that structure and regulate how media operate in American life. In honing in on the intersections between media history and political ideology, this panel emphasizes not only how media themselves are produced by the privileging of particular ideological commitments, but also how contemporary politics and public discourse have been profoundly altered by the configurations and commitments of historically determined media practices.

 Nicole Hemmer’s paper explains how early conservative media rendered the image of the objective newsman as ideologically suspect, and promoted the goal of “balance,” rather than objectivity, in journalistic practices. This trend, Hemmer argues, has its roots in post-war conservative media discourse, its impact visible in the overtly ideologically driven media that engulf our contemporary media landscape. Allison Perlman explores how the concept of “diversity” within broadcast regulation was ideologically contested in the 1980s and 1990s. Focusing on the NAACP’s challenge to the legitimacy of the Fox Television Network, she discusses how a marketplace driven definition of diversity operated to occlude racial diversity as an actionable public policy goal. Brian Rosenwald’s paper tackles a perennial question for observers of contemporary media and political history: why has political talk radio been dominated by conservatives since the 1980s? In his paper, Rosenwald both offers a range of rationales and demonstrates the political implications of a media sector dominated by one ideological perspective.

This panel addresses a wide range of audiences. Each of the papers engages with the history of American conservatism by examining the triumph of conservative discourse on journalism (Hemmer), the ascent of conservative principles in the policy making sector (Perlman), and the hegemony of conservative views within talk radio (Rosenwald). In addition, this panel would be of interest to policy historians, historians of twentieth century US history, business historians, and historians of American politics.

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