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If the News Is So Bad, Why Are Presidential Polls So High? Presidents, the News Media, and the Mass Public in an Era of New Media



Despite a barrage of bad news in 1998, Bill Clinton still enjoyed strong and rising popularity with the public. Many have sought to explain this paradox. My intention is to describe the new news environment that began to emerge in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Four trends describe the news environment of the new media age. First, the news media have become increasingly competitive and decentralized. Second, reporting styles have changed. News is now softer and increasingly negative. Third, the public now consumes less news from traditional outlets than it once did. Fourth, public regard toward the news media has declined. To a degree, this news environment insulates the president from news, which helps explain Clinton's popularity rise in 1998 despite bad news. But this news environment also impedes the president's ability to lead the mass public. As a result, the president's governing style has changed. Instead of focusing their efforts on leading the nation, presidents spend more time targeting select constituencies. This narrow “going public” style reinforces the polarization in the political system, while also alienating the broad middle from American politics.