Good Life

Focus on Research: Scholars worry of president’s ‘friend in the press’

President Barack Obama signs an executive order after speaking at the White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection in Stanford, Calif., on Feb. 13.
President Barack Obama signs an executive order after speaking at the White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection in Stanford, Calif., on Feb. 13. AP

Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects being conducted at Penn State. Each column features the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.

The media rarely confront modern presidents when they wield unilateral powers by signing executive orders, and a Penn State researcher believes that the reluctance is part of a growing trend that worries many constitutional scholars.

“With a mere ‘stroke of the pen,’ presidents can change the political status quo,” Mark Major, lecturer in political science and associate director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy writes in “The Unilateral Presidency and the News Media” (Palgrave McMillan, 2014). “However the Constitution is silent about these powers, Congress seldom acts to limit them, and the public is usually unaware of these powers.”

While the number of executive actions varies from presidency to presidency, the scope of these powers is the more troublesome aspect, Major said. For example, recent presidents, such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have used executive orders to pave the way for the use of torture for intelligence gathering and drone strikes in the service of counterterrorism.

“It’s not the rate, it’s the importance,” Major said. “The recent actions go beyond LBJ ordering flags to be flown at half-mast to honor the passing of Winston Churchill. These have a much bigger policy component.”

Despite the increasing importance of executive orders, the media have been relatively silent, according to Major.

“When it comes to unilateral powers, presidents still very much have a friend in the press,” Major said. “When the president acts alone without constitutional basis, you might think that the media would seize on this, but, often, the issue is ignored, or marginalized.”

Reporters have a few challenges in effectively covering presidents and executive actions, Major said. For example, few sources in the legislative and judicial branches — which are often divided by party politics themselves — will go on record to criticize the president.

Even when these sources do question a president’s actions, they are typically seen as less powerful or credible as sources than the president.

“This leads to, in large part, too much reliance on administration sources,” Major said. “The president and advisers overshadow the Congress, and that makes it difficult to have more balance in the coverage.”

The network of independent blogs on the Web, once thought to be a tool to democratize and decentralize media, are more likely to be ideologically driven, Major said. Bloggers tend to ignore unilateral executive actions when a president they favor backs their ideology, he added.

“Previous scholarship shows that editorial choices in the blogosphere are informed through a partisan lens resulting in conservative (liberal) blogs selecting and highlighting stories that are favorable to Republicans (Democrats) or embarrassing to Democrats (Republicans),” Major writes.

The environment resembles the party-press period of American history, when political parties used newspapers to extol their policies and demonize their opponents, he added.

Major argues that increased scrutiny of the president’s unilateral actions is not likely to arise on its own. Citizen-activists and the political system can move the press to provide more balanced coverage of the use of presidential powers. He said that an active Congress is one reason the media did more to focus attention on recent examples of unilateral powers, such as those allowing torture and the use of drones.

“We like to think of the media as this watchdog, but if the press fails, it’s usually because the political system has failed first,” Major said.