MAYORS & MEDIA

American mayors and
the use of mass media

By Tony Favro, Senior Fellow*

US Supreme Court vs city hallsON THIS PAGE: The relationship between US mayors and the media |||
Mayors’ contentious relationship with media ||| Old and New media ||| The many facets of media ||| True messages ||| Endnotes

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The relationship between
US mayors and the media

December 2022: US mayors and other elected officials need the mass media to spread information, and the media need politicians for content. With the rise of electronic communications, many American mayors have struggled to negotiate their symbiotic relationship with the media. The Internet and social media present challenges, but there are constants that pertain to all media platforms, new and old. By recognizing these constants, mayors can help their keep their relations with the media on solid ground.


Mayors’ contentious relationship with media

Mayor Eric Adams of New York City took office in January 2022, after winning election on an anti-crime platform. Three months later, he chastised social media companies that allowed users to post comments and videos about violence. He demanded they ‘step up’ and assume their ‘corporate responsibility’ to stop ‘hate brewing online’ (1).

Across the country, Mayor Carl Joiner of Kemah, Texas (population 2,100) was chastised by his own City Council for proposing to ban negative comments about Kemah on city employees’ social media accounts. ‘They’ve been blocking anything I want to do,’ Joiner said of the employees, asserting that they ‘should not be on social media trashing the city.’ The Kemah City Council unanimously denied Mayor Joiner’s proposal in 2021 and again in 2022 when the Mayor re-proposed it. ‘People have the right to be negative,’ a City Council member said. ‘They have the right to criticize’ (2).

US mayors’ often contentious relationship with the mass media is not new. It predates the Internet and social media and affects even mayors most skilled in dealing with the media. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-owner of a vast corporate media empire and perhaps the most media-savvy mayor in American history, threatened to stop giving news conferences because he didn’t like the questions reporters asked (3). Fiorello LaGuardia, former mayor of New York City (1934-1945), is often considered America’s greatest mayor. LaGuardia frequently bypassed the independent media and engaged the public through WNYC radio, a frequency fully owned and operated by the City of New York which delivered his messages unfiltered (4).

Mayor LaGuardia and Mayor Bloomberg, in their different ways, understood a key point for interacting with the media: that it’s important to frame the discussion and lead the conversation.

‘If we are the first to get the information out, we set the narrative,’ said recently-retired Mayor Bruce Wilkerson of Bowling Green, Kentucky (population 74,000) (5). 

The power of controlling the message is but one constant of both the legacy media and new media. These constants are the product of American culture. They were decades—sometimes centuries—in the making. They may buckle under pressure, but will not yield easily. In the cacophony of media voices, they largely determine what content gains traction with the general public and what is eventually disregarded.


Old and New media

Thirty years ago, the term ‘mass media’ meant newspapers, radio shows, and television news broadcasts. There were no websites, blogs, video-sharing platforms, digital applications, or social media. Today, the mass media are divided into ‘legacy’ media and ‘new’ media, and this has complicated the political system (6).

The legacy media are regulated in the United States. The US Constitution protects a free press.  Balance in the electronic media is written into the Federal Communications Act, which says that the airwaves belong to the citizens of the US. In other words, if television and radio programming do not provide balance—the right of rebuttal and the provision for equal time for opposing views—then someone has been treated unfairly and illegally.

The Federal Communications Act, first enacted in 1934 and revised several times in subsequent years, largely shapes how journalism is understood and taught in the United States. Generally, the legacy media are still dominated by professional journalists, usually graduates of university journalism programs that stress the ethics of the Communications Act. These journalists focus on providing citizens with the information needed to make thoughtful decisions about leadership and policy, as well as focus on uncovering the facts surrounding serious political wrong doing.

The new media are primarily vehicles for advertising, and are not subject to the balance requirements of the Federal Communications Act. For the most part, the new media rely on average people to expand content, including political content, primarily by focusing on interests and events that are typically outside the scope of the legacy media. Political content may be haphazard, unreliable, and inflammatory. Strong opinions are rewarded, and the new media platforms offer few guiding principles for their users. 

US mayors have to navigate different media environments. Mayors of larger cities must interact every day with multiple journalists representing a variety of news outlets; other mayors have less interaction with the media.

Regardless of the size of their jurisdictions, US mayors have had to change the way they communicate and engage with citizens in response to changes in the mass media. For example, most American mayors now communicate with their constituents through social media or blogs. In most American cities, live-stream video of meetings and other events is prepared for residents either to watch live or save and share on social media.

There is, of course, an overlap between the legacy media and the new media. Each relies on the other for content, as they compete with one another for the attention of the general public. There is also ambiguity about the role of the mass media. Should the media function as a watchdog of the public interest, providing a check on government abuses and forcing transparency—the ideal of the legacy media? Or should the media serve as a mouthpiece for politicians and citizens, even if that means promoting silly, vicious, false, and unnewsworthy posts—the practice of much of social media?

The dividing line between serious investigative journalism and superfluous, frequently scandalous, coverage appears to have weakened, allowing a free flow of bad information and faulty facts. Mayors would appear to be at a disadvantage. Their oaths of office and the demands of their citizens require them to be visible, accountable, and truthful, yet their critics have no such legal or normative restraints; indeed, they can utilize powerful new media vehicles to distribute false or misleading information quickly, widely, and anonymously. 

There are, however, certain tastes and perspectives—certain constants—which tend to arc towards honesty and accountability.


The many facets of mass media

The mass media have developed a life of their own in the US, animated by an American public enthralled by the media’s power to deliver messages.

Across the US, however, the mass media of all types confront certain cultural and economic realities. Herbert Gans in his seminal Deciding What’s News and, especially, Peter Regenstreif’s A Short Course in the Black Arts of Manipulation offer some words and ideas about what animates—and constrains—all mass media in the US (7):

• Messages reflect self-interest

The messages disseminated by the new and legacy media reflect the interests of the sender, not the receiver. All kinds of people send a message via the media: special interests, stakeholders, actors in the political, social, economic, and cultural arenas. They all want the receivers of that message to do something. In other words, the media are somebody’s agenda. Who commands that agenda, will command the political process.

• Content bends to the center

The United States is one of the few societies in the history of the world based on a successful revolution; that is, there was a beginning, a middle, and an end to the American Revolution, and then it was finished. There was no counterrevolution. The colonists didn’t go back and establish a monarchy, but a republic that has endured nearly 250 years. American society is a moderate society. Americans don’t do things radically, and if a politician is a radical, she or he is out of the game. Politicians who tack right or left eventually and inevitably lose public trust and elections.

• Democracy is defined altruistically

Americans expect politics to be democratic and that everyone can play. Of course, many political processes do not reflect that value, but failure to adhere to legal processes and established norms, or behaving in a mean-spirited manner—in short, contravening altruistic democracy—will weaken a politician’s message and inevitably take her or him down.

• Capitalism is defined altruistically

Americans expect corporations to behave as responsible capitalists; that is, when reaping their fields they must not cut the corners too sharp, but leave a little behind for the weak and the unfortunate and the widows and the orphans. If corporations don’t behave that way, if they don’t act responsibly, they will lose public’s good-will and become political targets.

• Facts are important

Americans, consciously or unconsciously, use the scientific method to investigate the world around them every day of their lives. It’s part of the American ethos. Americans demand consistency, accuracy, reliability, and validity in the products they buy and the services they receive. In other words, facts and proofs matter and will eventually and inevitably triumph over falsehoods and assertions.

• The media are not truth-seeking

Americans live in a democracy, not in a platonic world of universalistic means and ends. This means there are no American values that exist objectively and outside of the cauldron American society. There is no ultimate truth. There is no unerring path. Rather, outcomes are determined by numbers, by power, by influence, and by manipulation. In the cauldron of American democracy, there can be no fundamentally nonideological, apolitical, nonpartisan, news-gathering and reporting system. The media can offer facts and opinions, and can hold politicians to account for their actions, but can never offer an ultimate truth.

• The people are watching

Public support for the mass media’s watchdog role is substantial, with a Pew Research Center study finding that nearly three out of four US adults (73%) say that it’s important for the media to function as watchdogs over elected officials. People may disagree about how well the media perform their watchdog role, but they don’t want the media to be an unfiltered mouthpiece for politicians (8).

• The people are watching certain things

The people are watching, but mostly the people are watching certain things, or things delivered in a certain way. The mass media reflect many of the tastes and perspectives that underlay American culture, and these help define the parameters of what the media consider ‘newsworthy’.

• Ethnocentrism

First and foremost is ethnocentrism. Americans are ethnocentric. A major disaster in a foreign country receives scant US media coverage. However, if one local person is killed in that disaster, it becomes the lead story. That type of media coverage makes perfect sense to Americans who care primarily about their own. Ethnocentrism is related to individualism, to personalizing everything. Three hundred people killed in a disaster, foreign or domestic, is not a story. It’s a statistical summary that an accountant can give. The media will find a sweet old lady affected by the disaster, or some kind of story about a family, to catch Americans’ attention.

• Scary cities

Another basic newsworthy peg in American media of all platforms is the fear of larger cities. A minority of Americans live in small towns and rural areas, yet the media use them as a counterpoint to the hardness of urban ways, in a presumed competition of different value systems. In any event, most cities rarely make the news, with the exceptions of New York, Boston, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, or someplace in Silicon Valley, which embody, respectively, the newsworthy tropes of financial power, scientific knowledge, political power, artistic creativity, and technological innovation. 

• First and second level words

Politics, business, science, education, and many other aspects of American life revolve around competition, yet competition is a second-level word in the media. As is profit. The American public doesn’t care about somebody’s profit. Profit in the public mind means, ‘You get it and I don’t, so the heck with you.’ Americans prefer to spend their time worrying about more important things like health and public safety.

All Americans are interested in health and public safety. If someone’s health is endangered, people get really upset. The person poisoning the public water supply is in extremely serious trouble, having violated a basic norm as well as the law. Competition is good, but unhealthy competition is a step toosfar. Public safety is not the same thing. Health is one thing; all Americans want to live forever. Safety is someone else doing something, or not doing something, and someone could get hurt or die. Both are endlessly important to Americans, and the media personalizes it, as in ‘You could get ill’ and ‘You could get killed.’


True messages

The mass media environment in the United States often seems to be a shifting terrain; indeed, it often seems a destabilizing force for discourse by distracting, confusing, and dividing users and a destabilizing force for democracy by attacking the basic norms of American society.

But mayors who don’t violate the basic norms of society and respect some vital, tried and true constants, will likely find themselves on solid ground (and often high ground) from which they, acting for the public interest, can launch their messages and themselves with tremendous impact.


Endnotes
(1)  Rachel Scully, NYC mayor: Social media giants ‘must step up’ to identify users talking about violence, The Hill, 17 April 2022.
(2)  Sabirah Rayford, Kemah officials shut down mayor’s proposal to limit negative social media posts created by city employees, residents, NBC Click2Houston.com KPRC-TV, 20 July 2022.
(3)  Beth DeFalco, Bloomberg threatens to stop giving news conferences, New York Post, 26 September 2013.
(4)  Cary O’Dell, Fiorello LaGuardia Reading the Comics (July 8, 1945), National Registry, 2007.
(5)  Julie McClure, Mayors talk about communicating their message on big projects, The Columbus, Indiana Republic, 19 October 2019.
(6)  This section is indebted to: Diana Owen, The New Media’s Role in Politics, Open Mind, 2022.
(7)  Herbert Gans, Deciding What’s News: A Study of the CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time, Random House, 1979. 
Peter Regenstreif, A Short Course in the Black Arts of Manipulation, University of Rochester Review, Summer 1988. This section borrows heavily and gratefully from the rhetoric of Dr Regenstreif.
(8)  Mark Jurkowitz and Amy Mitchell, Most say journalists should be watchdogs, but views of how well they fill this role vary by party, media diet, Pew Research Center, 26 February 2020.


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