Political scientists (with some exceptions) are confident that political parties have grown stronger over the last few decades. One development that makes the parties stronger is the revival of the partisan press. Very quick summary: in the 19th century political information was generally controlled by partisan newspapers. In the 20th century, the partisan press faded and was replaced by mass media that valued neutrality and objectivity, reaching its zenith in the network news era of the 1950s through the 1970s in which most people got information from a source that didn't even have an editorial page to wall off news reporting from. Then, from about the 1970s on, we've had a revival of the partisan press in several forms, probably beginning with op-ed pages and syndicated partisan columnists, but featuring (OK, you know this part) such things as Fox News and MSNBC, talk radio, and the partisan blogosphere.
Here's the question, however: what are the incentives governing the partisan press? How does it fit in with the rest of the party -- that is, both formal party organizations and the larger party network?
There are basically three plausible stories. One is that the partisan press, just like the 20th century objective press, follows professional journalist norms and financial incentives, each of which creates biases which are (roughly speaking) outcomes of other processes rather than deliberate ideological choices. For example, we can expect that if a candidate wins a huge landslide in Iowa in three weeks that the neutral, objective media will play up the chances of the #2 or #3 candidate, rather than declaring the nomination contest over -- even if the contest appears to be over by all objective standards. That's because everyone involved -- reporters and correspondents, editors and producers, and upper management -- has incentives to keep the battle going on and appearing competitive for as long as possible. So: does Fox news have the same incentives? Will that drive its actions?
A second story is that the partisan press serves as the PR wing of the parties, and takes its marching orders from them. This can be complicated, of course, when the parties themselves are split over something, but when party actors agree on something, then we can see whether the partisan press takes their lead from them.
And then a third story is that the partisan press are party actors, but that they are freelancers -- that no one tells Beck and Rush and Hannity and the rest (and their Democratic counterparts) what to say, and so the most successful ones become independent, important party actors in their own right.
The problem is that these are extremely difficult stories to untangle empirically, especially if (as I think is the case) each story is partially true. Fortunately, the next couple of months should prove highly useful, if indeed we have a situation in which the bulk of Republican party actors ("establishment" and otherwise) strongly oppose Newt Gingrich, but his act continues to play well in the polls and then with Republican voters in the early states.
Indeed, the entire election cycle will be interesting. How did Fox News cover, and therefore contribute, to the demise of Herman Cain? How is it treating Newt right now? To what extent does the Republican partisan press move in unison? What happens to those who appear to be opposing the bulk of party actors?
Party and media scholars are getting plenty of data to work with. If I see any interesting results, I'll pass it on (and if I'm missing any important findings from what's out there so far, please let me know; I try to keep up with the party literature, but not so much with the media literature).