The United States of America, located in the northern hemisphere of the American continent, is a federal republic that consists of 50 states and the District of Columbia (capital: Washington). The population comprises 250.6 million people. The USA was created in 1776 out of 13 British colonies. The head of state is the president, and responsible for the legislation are two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate. The political system is dominated by two parties, the Democrats and the Republicans.
The first newspaper published in the British North American colonies was Publick Occurrences, Both Forreign and Domestick. One issue appeared in 1690 in Boston. It was soon closed down by the colonial government. The first continuously published newspaper was the Boston News-Letter, which began publication in 1704 and continued for several decades. The oldest daily paper still publishing is the Hartford Courant, which was founded in 1764. Newspapers and especially pamphlets such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense played an active role in the movement for independence. Although it was ignored by many, the Stamp Act of 1765 required tax stamps to be purchased for a wide range of documents, including newspapers. The controversy surrounding the act provided a rallying point for both supporters and opponents of independence and reinforced a style of journalism that infused ideology into the news. After the war, newspapers grew rapidly along with the nation and became entwined with the political system.
Partisan journalism remained the standard for most of the nineteenth century. The latter years of the century introduced two trends that are still visible in newspapers in many countries. Excessive competition between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer for dominance of the New York market led to “yellow journalism” – named for a popular cartoon character – that resembles the current tabloid or popular press style. In contrast was the sober, non-partisan coverage pioneered by the New York Times. Adolph Ochs took over the financially ailing Times in 1896 and declared that it would publish “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” a slogan that still appears on the nameplate on page one. When Ochs died in 1935, the Times had become one of the most prestigious newspapers in the United States and one of the most influential in the world. Its reputation was founded on careful, fact-based reporting and a strong sense of social responsibility. According to scholar Joseph Campbell (2006), a third model of journalism, complementing the popular press of Hearst and Pulitzer and the nonpartisan professional Times, was a literary journalism promoted by Lincoln Steffens in the New York Commercial Advertiser that anticipated the intellectual emphasis still found in some elite publications.
The simple statement guaranteeing press freedom in the First Amendment to the US Constitution is one of the oldest and surely the most famous legal formulation of what is now considered a universal right. It is also misleading since the guarantee is written as an absolute – “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” – but in fact several exceptions are recognized. They include defamation, obscenity, and sedition and extend to derivative topics such as privacy, restrictions on access to information, and other laws that act to limit publication of information that is embarrassing or damaging to governments, corporations, or individuals. Criticism of public officials received special protection in 1964 when the Supreme Court ruled that they must prove “actual malice” – defined as knowing that defamatory information was false or had been published with a reckless disregard for its truth or falsehood – in any civil suit for defamation. As a result, lawsuits by public officials against critical media are virtually unknown.
The American approach to press freedom is minimalist. It is mostly a set of restraints on government, as the First Amendment specifies. At its core is the principle that government cannot prevent publication of information but can hold journalists responsible after publication. The Freedom House Report 2006 ranked the United States seventeenth among 73 “free press” countries. The report expressed concern for government policies linked to its war on terrorism but concluded that “media coverage of political affairs is aggressive and often polarized” (Karlekar 2006, 256).
More controversial is an annual report by the France-based Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), which ranked the United States fifty-third among 168 countries in 2006. This represented a drop of nine places from the previous report.
Relations between the media and the Bush administration sharply deteriorated after President George W. Bush used the concern over national security to regard as suspicious any journalist who questioned what he called a “war on terrorism.”
Daily newspaper circulation reached a peak in 1985 when 1,676 daily newspapers produced 62.8 million copies. Since then, circulation – along with the number of daily newspapers – has declined steadily. In 2005, 1,452 daily papers printed 53.3 million copies. Most affected by the declining circulation were afternoon dailies and newspapers published in large urban areas. In addition, 6,659 weekly papers published 49.5 million copies, averaging 7,319 copies. The United States has three daily newspapers that circulate nationally: the popular USA Today, which was founded in 1982 as a national newspaper (circulation in 2005 was 2.28 million); the business-oriented Wall Street Journal (circulation 2.07 million); and the general news-oriented New York Times (circulation 1.14 million). Most daily papers are small and oriented toward local communities. In 2005, 86 percent of all dailies had circulations of fewer than 50,000 copies; only 2 percent circulated more than 250,000 copies.
Circulation figures mask the full impact of newspaper decline because they omit reference to the rapid population growth of the United States. A more telling statistic is daily newspaper sales per 1,000 population, which permits cross-national comparisons and comparisons across time. In 1985, the 62 million copies represented 264 copies per 1,000 population; the 53 million copies in 2005 represented 178 copies per 1,000 people, a drop in two decades of 33 percent.
Readership studies reinforce the gloomy circulation statistics. In the 1972 national General Social Survey, 69 percent of respondents said they read a newspaper every day. In 2004, the comparable figure was 41 percent. The Pew Research Center (2006, 3) reported that the percentage of Americans who had read a newspaper “yesterday” dropped from 58 percent in 1993 to 40 percent in 2006.
Radio And Television
Terrestrial broadcasting in the United States is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which grants broadcast licenses and maintains limited oversight under a “trusteeship” model of broadcasting represented by the phrase “public interest, convenience, and necessity.” The phrase was contained in the Broadcast Act of 1927 and included in the Broadcast Act of 1934, which provides the basic structure of broadcasting. From the beginning, fixed-term licenses were granted to mostly commercial organizations to broadcast on preset frequencies to local markets. Public broadcasting evolved from early licenses granted to universities, with the involvement, in many cases, of the federal Agricultural Extension Service. Local stations could affiliate to national networks to achieve an approximation of national services.
As of March 2006, the FCC had granted active licenses to 11,002 commercial radio stations and 2,746 educational or public radio stations, and to 1,371 commercial TV stations and 381 public TV stations. Additional licenses, mostly for translators and boosters and for low-power licenses operated by universities and a few communities, brought the number of terrestrial broadcasters licensed in the United States to 27,556.
Most commercial TV stations are affiliated to one of the three traditional networks – CBS, ABC, or NBC – that provide news and prime-time entertainment programming, or to one of the new limited networks, such as Fox and the CW network, which is aimed at young adults. Locally produced programming is typically limited to several hours of news that is heavy on coverage of crime, fires, and accidents along with local weather and sports.
Although the big three networks own radio stations, “network radio” in its traditional mix of entertainment and news has disappeared. Within each of the 210 designated market areas (DMAs), individual stations aim for a narrow segment of listeners with a specific format of music – top 40, contemporary adult, country, and rhythm and blues, among others. Stations are programmed and sometimes remotely controlled from a regional or corporate headquarters, with the result that stations broadcasting in a particular format are nearly identical in content across the country. It is not unusual for a single company to own several stations with different formats in the same market. The largest player in the industry was Clear Channel, which, until it announced the sale of more than 400 stations outside the 100 largest markets in 2006, owned more than 1,100 local stations.
Internet, Cable, And Satellite Television
The Internet emerged as a mass medium in the 1970s and remained a communications platform used mostly by educated, elite users until the development of the world wide web in the early 1990s. The net grew quickly in popularity as developers created web browsers that simplified the process of connecting via personal computers. Media organizations soon began to recognize the web’s value as a medium capable of transmitting information instantly and in greater depth and clarity than was possible through traditional forms. Over time, media groups increased their reliance on the web, building more sophisticated sites to exploit its interactive features and to converge traditional forms of video, audio, print, photography, and graphics in multimedia offerings. A dominant characteristic of media websites has been change, as professionals have adjusted, often fitfully, to the shifting patterns of innovation and consumer use in the early stages of the digital era.
Almost three-quarters of all US adults, or 73 percent, enjoyed a connection to the Internet in 2006, according to survey results from the respected Pew Internet and American Life Project (Horrigan 2006, 2). The recent growth has occurred in the accelerating adoption of high-speed Internet service. More than four in ten, or 42 percent, of American adults had broadband connections in 2006, a remarkable 40 percent increase in broadband use from a year earlier.
The arrival of digitization posed new techniques and worries for the delivery of entertainment. File-sharing techniques quickened consumers’ abilities to obtain copies of popular music and software, for example. Such practices also forced debate and revisions of laws protecting copyrights, which in turn have spawned movements toward maintaining a democratic use of the web.
News organizations moved warily onto the web as some journalists cautioned against a loss of control, and perhaps function, in a more fluid, interactive environment. The need to change, however, trumped the status quo. For traditional print and broadcast organizations especially, the continued fragmentation and decline of mass audiences has prompted a greater willingness to embrace digital forms.
The surge of independent publishing on the web, popularly labeled citizen journalism, has awakened the established media to the revolutionary possibilities of digital networking through blogs, podcasts, video sites, and popular social networking sites. Scholars and professionals continue to explore the implications of the new digital landscape, debating issues such as whether news and advertising will continue to be presented in bundled forms via branded websites, or more commonly delivered through personalized channels and services via feeds to PCs and other, more portable devices such as mobile telephones.
Most American households can receive six or more terrestrial TV stations with a simple roof-top antenna. However, cable television is the standard delivery system, providing, in some cases, more than 200 programs as well as high-speed Internet access and even telephone service. In 2005, 85 percent of all TV households were cable subscribers. Private commercial cable companies operate as monopolies with franchises granted by local governments. In 2003, there were more than 9,000 cable systems, although most were owned by a handful of large corporations such as Comcast, Time-Warner, and Cox. Federal regulations require cable providers to carry all local terrestrial stations, which is important to small stations with weak signals in the upper UHF band, and local governments usually require that cable channels be set aside for use by local government and for public access. Otherwise, content decisions are made by the providers themselves. Since the federal government’s authority to regulate content does not apply to cable or satellite broadcasting, cable content on pay services such as Home Box Office (HBO) often includes nudity, rough language, and graphic violence that are prohibited on traditional channels. Some companies even offer “adult” channels that show mild pornography.
Direct broadcast satellite (DBS) is available in the United States but relatively limited. Two private companies offer program packages similar to those available on cable TV and serve mainly rural areas that cable does not reach. The small “pizza-dish” antennas are not as much a part of the landscape as they are in many other countries. In 2006, the two companies had about 27 million subscribers. One provider, Dish Network, specialized in packages of foreign programming, offering 20 different regional and language packages in 2006. Most cable systems and the two DBS systems provide two or more channels in Spanish, including the two US-based Spanish networks, Univision and Telemundo, Spanish versions of national news and sports services, and channels imported from Latin America.
Terrestrial digital radio is undeveloped in the United States, although the FCC does grant licenses, and some stations broadcast a digital signal version of their traditional terrestrial program. The advantages of a digital signal are both the CD-like quality of the sound and the compression, which allows up to five separate signals to be transmitted in the bandwidth used by one analog signal. Receivers, however, are expensive and not readily available and little pressure to develop the system is apparent, either from the government, the public, or the broadcast industry.
Up until now, a source of irritation to long-distance motorists, radio signals fade rapidly as one travels along the interstate highway system. Since the stations are local, it is not always easy to find another signal that offers similar programming. However, satellite radio that reaches coast to coast is available through two commercial companies that began operation in 2001 and 2002. The main market is automobile and truck drivers, although the service is also available for in-home and even portable receivers. As of mid2006, the two services – XM Radio and Sirius Radio – had from 12 million to 13 million subscribers. Both services offered a mix of channels including 60+ commercial free music programs, 35–40 news/talk programs, and 20+ local traffic/weather and local sports programs that allowed listeners to follow a favorite college or professional team regardless of where they lived. As with DBS television, satellite radio is in the early stages of development, and its future direction is uncertain.
In the 1990s, the US government began moving toward an advanced system of fully digital high-definition television (HD-TV), replacing the half-century-old National Television Standards Committee (NTSC) analog system. To implement the new standard, each terrestrial TV broadcaster would be given a temporary second frequency. During a transition period, it would introduce HD-TV on one frequency while continuing to broadcast in NTSC on the other. At a specified time, the analog service would stop. Broadcasters were happy to receive a second frequency but some wanted to use it for nonbroadcast services; others balked at the expense of converting to the new standard. Broadcasters were reluctant to introduce high-definition programming because so few households could receive it; consumers hesitated to buy the new, relatively expensive HDTV sets as long as programming was limited.
At some point in the last half of the 2000–2010 decade, HD-TV is likely to reach the takeoff point in the traditional S-curve of adoption of new technology. Households in most markets could receive limited local high-definition signals with a special rooftop antenna, although most consumers are so far opting for a set of HD channels available on cable or satellite. The commercial networks have begun making prime-time programming available in HD to local stations, which have fed the signals to local cable companies before they have begun over-the-air transmission of network programming or converted local programming to the new standard. The deadline for shutting down the old analog system has remained flexible, although a principle agreed upon early in the debate still seems to apply: when 85 percent of households has access to HD-TV, dismantling of the old analog system will begin. A tentative date, postponed at least once, was 2009.
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