Go Biased, Young Man?
We hear so much about bias in the media that it's easy to forget advocacy journalism once was the norm in America. As the Wall Street Journal's Cynthia Crossen reminds us today, early American newspapers were anything but "impartial." Crossen notes the economic forces that drove both the advocacy model and the trend toward serving a broader public in a way that makes sense. And it made me wonder – in today's polarized environment where one can so easily choose sources of information, is the biased model making a real comeback? Here's Crossen:
Early American newspaper publishers scoffed at the idea that they should hide their political prejudices under a cloak of objectivity. "To profess impartiality here," wrote William Cobbett in his Federalist newspaper, Porcupine's Gazette, "would be as absurd as to profess it in a war between virtue and vice, good and evil, happiness and misery." The motto of the Gazette of the United States, which began publication in 1789, was "He that is not for us is against us."Sounds a bit like a Keith Olbermann-Bill O'Reilly fight doesn't it?
And a New Jersey printer wrote in 1798, "The times demand decision; there is a right and a wrong, and the printer, who under the specious name of impartiality jumbles both truth and falsehood into the same paper, is either doubtful of his own judgment or is governed by ulterior motives."
If ulterior motives played a part, however, it was to encourage early newspaper publishers to become deeply entrenched in politics. Circulation and advertising revenue couldn't support a newspaper, but government jobs or printing contracts could. When the political candidates they supported were elected, loyal editors expected pork or patronage, and their journals became "virtual branches of the government," wrote Eric Burns, author of "Infamous Scribblers."
The news pages -- there was no such thing as an editorial -- were unapologetically partisan, disdaining what Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune called "gagged, mincing neutrality."
Indeed, editors who tried to remain relatively detached were mocked by their competitors. One newspaper, the National Intelligencer, whose editor, Samuel Smith, was deemed to be insufficiently combative, was dismissed as "Mr. Silky Milky Smith's National Smoothing Plane."