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Political Communication: Politics, Press and Public in America.

Political Communication: Politics, Press and Public in America. Richard M. Perloff, Mahwah, New Jersey and London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1998. 492 pp. ISBN 0-8058-1795-6.

The information systems that Americans depend upon for news and information about public affairs are undergoing rapid change and are the subject of considerable controversy in contemporary life. Controversial events and stories abound and it is not long before some aspect of the news coverage itself comes under scrutiny and debate.

Richard M. Perloff, professor of communication at Cleveland State University, and a well-known author, has written a masterful book examining political communication in America from the vantage points of social scientific and mass communication perspectives. But this description does not do the book justice. The book is organized in a thoughtful and helpful way, incorporating historical and rhetorical perspectives as well. These vantage points are applied in varying ways throughout the book in such a skillful manner that it is hard to know where one ends and another begins. The book is written in a very lively and engaging manner and will likely find a wide audience.

The phrase `political communication' can have many meanings, depending on the skills and disciplinary specialization of the author, such works often stress either of the two key words, political, or communication. Too often, political communication is interpreted in the narrowest sense to be only about media and elections. Fortunately, Perloff's survey of the field stresses both politics and communication, although it tends more towards communication, as might be expected. Of more significance, Perloff treats a very broad set of literature dealing with the role of media in electoral systems and public affairs and public policies more generally. To widen the scope of inquiry is an excellent decision. The result is a very useful book about the communication of politics and public affairs information.

In addition to the overall topical focus, Perloff made several shrewd decisions in the production of this book. Rather than simply provide a chapter on the history of his topic, which might have been the easy option, he has taken the opportunity to provide a historical perspective on each of the topics he touches. This pays real dividends for the student users of this book, as well as scholars. It sets a high standard for others to follow by providing a historical context for many controversies and topics.

The book is organized into three main sections. The first is `Mass media and government institutions,' which includes chapters on the history of the academic study of political communication as well as various ways of looking at the press and president throughout American history. `Political communication theories and effects,' includes chapters on agenda-setting, agenda-building and two chapters on health care reform. The inclusion of the history of the health reform campaign of 1993-94 is one of the more important campaigns in recent memory and focusing on this case helps tie many themes together and particularly highlights the point that not all political communication is election-oriented. Perloff breaks little new ground in these two chapters on health care reform, but does provide a good summary of the scholarly and journalistic literature to emerge on this topic in the last four years. Chapter 14 follows this with a good, if somewhat brief, analysis of news work about health care reform and other media behavior and their various links to public opinion about the topic. It is good to see this kind of focus bringing various perspectives to bear on an important issue. The failure of the media and political system to adequately deliberate on this issue is an important lesson.

The third section, `Communication and the presidential election,' includes topics such as the role of the media in the nominating process, press coverage of campaigns, media effects on voters, political advertising and debates. In the case of the last two topics, separate chapters are offered on the content and effects of each area.

There is also at least one major omission: audience learning from the news, with particular focus on the type of learning differentials highlighted by the knowledge gap hypothesis. A detailed discussion of the political implications of this line of research would be a meaningful addition to the book.

The book is rich with anecdotes and is well-written. It is well grounded in the literature of the field of mass communication and is closely tied to the empirical scholarship emerging in that area. I can imagine this book will be popular with students and useful to professors.


Gerald M. Kosicki is an Associate Professor School of Journalism and Communication The Ohio State University.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Kosicki, Gerald M.
Publication:International Journal of Public Opinion Research
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1998
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