Skip to comments.The Return of Partisan Journalism
Posted on 09/24/2004 7:23:27 AM PDT by Valin
The Year of Exposures
Fans of Comedy Central's hit The Daily Show were thrilled this past week to discover the "fake news" phenomenon has made its prime time network debut, usurping the position of (previously) highly regarded CBS News. When all that was really needed was a retraction and an apology, CBS--and anchor Dan Rather--compounded their "Killian Memo" gaffe by insulting Internet bloggers, who initially pressed the assertion of forgery, and by interviewing ardent anti-Bushies to prove that the story still had an objective truth even without any objective evidence. In all likelihood the impact of this "yellow journalism" on the election will be negligible. The impact on CBS, however, may be more profound. A network that has strutted under a halo of non-partisan legitimacy can now say that their political slant has something in common with Janet Jackson's breasts--ie., it's been exposed.
Partisan reporting--never to be considered mutually exclusive with good reporting--is the norm in British and European mainstream media, and is nothing new in American media either, reports Michael Barone in the March/April 1996 issue of TAE.
The Return of Partisan Journalism
By Michael Barone
Anyone who raises the proposition that today's media are mostly partisan must gird himself for a barrage of protests from journalists. "We are not, have not been, never will be, partisan," they will bark. They will concede that there once was a partisan press, in the evil days of Republican press lords like Henry Luce and Colonel McCormick and William Randolph Hearst. But it will be said that today's media--led by national giants like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, ABC, NBC, and CBS--are scrupulously objective.
This is nonsense. And the most honest journalists acknowledge as much. Famed columnist Walter Lippmann understood that pure objectivity was impossible: "The truth is that in our world the facts are infinitely many, and that no reporter can collect them all, and that no newspaper could print them all...and nobody could read them all. We have to select some facts rather than others, and in doing that we are using not only our legs but our selective judgment of what is interesting or important or both." Washington Post political reporter David Broder notes that "Our range of vision is limited by the bureaucratic definitions of our beats, by the perceptions of what is news, and by ingrained values and biases that shape the way in which we see the world." Or as journalism professor Mitchell Stephens explains, "As they tell their stories, all journalists are encumbered with belief systems, social positions, workaday routines, and professional obligations--all of which affect their selection and presentation of facts."
Recognizing the impossibility of complete objectivity, newspapers openly acknowledged and defended their partisan positions throughout most of American history. Newspapers subsidized by Andrew Jackson's Democrats and Henry Clay's Whigs were reliable supporters of those parties. In time, newspapers became ideological forces in their own right. Horace Greeley's New York Tribune became a national publication as the guiding voice of one wing of the Republican party. William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer developed yellow journalism as explicit supporters of the Democratic party. Hearst was elected to Congress as a Democrat, and was the Democratic nominee for governor of New York in 1906. Had he been elected, his next move would surely have been to run for president. Henry Luce, the founder of Time, became a leading force in Republican politics: Wendell Willkie's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination was first sparked by a July 1939 cover story in Time, and was managed by Fortune editor Russell Davenport.
The high tide of partisan media may have been in New York in the 1920s, when the city had more than a dozen daily newspapers, each targeted at a different ethnic and partisan niche. The new tabloids--Captain Joseph Patterson's Daily News, and Hearst's Daily Mirror, with their screaming headlines and big pictures--were aimed at the masses of Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants. The Herald Tribune was for Anglo-Saxon Republicans. The New York Times, with its seeming independence from both political parties, was the favorite of upscale German Jews, who were diffident toward both WASPy Republicans and Tammany Democrats. Pulitzer's World was aimed at Protestant Democrats, Hearst's Journal and American at Catholic Democrats. Yet to come were the tabloid Post, targeting Democratic Eastern European Jews, and PM, directed to Jewish left-wingers. No one read all of these newspapers; who would have time? People picked up the one whose coverage seemed to make the most sense of the world for them. Everyone expected their paper to be partisan.
What is odd is not that mainline journalism has today become partisan again, but that for a long time it could plausibly claim to be objective. One big reason for the "objective" interlude was structural. The movies and new radio networks of the 1930s and '40s, and the television networks that followed in the 1950s, couldn't support themselves on thin market segments like the New York newspapers of the 1920s. So they aimed to please everyone. In a nation split fairly evenly between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, broadcasts aiming for large audiences had a strong commercial incentive to be perceived as nonpartisan. Moreover, broadcast licenses were allocated by the government and could be revoked if the station irritated the wrong party (see the article by Tom West later in this issue). In those circumstances, broadcast journalists foreswore partisan tilts, and this same attitude soon spread to newspapers.
Today the claims to objectivity of the mainline press are laughable. True, many reporters and editors produce fair-minded work, and the bias of the press does not work reliably in any one direction. But there is tilt present for all to see--heading in just the directions you would expect from newsrooms staffed by very large majorities of Democrats, cultural liberals, and feminists. Mainline journalism is by no means reliably pro-Democratic, as Clinton White House staffers will attest, but it is reliably anti-Republican. The Center for Media and Public Affairs documented that in the fall 1994 campaigns the three major networks gave Newt Gingrich 100 percent negative coverage. The major media outlets are fairly open-minded on economics, open even to some criticism of the welfare state, but overwhelmingly pro-choice on abortion and pro-feminist in general. Witness, for example, the breathtakingly one-sided coverage of Anita Hill's charges against Clarence Thomas.
But while respectful to the point of slavishness to the feminist Left, mainstream media organs tend to deride religious conservatives to the point of caricature. Even though the large majority of Americans are believing Christians (and voters split more sharply on lines of religion than any other demographic factor), few journalists are believers of any sort. David Broder admits that the irreligiosity of reporters "tilts our coverage." Recall how Broder's own Washington Post blithely characterized the Christian Right as poor, uneducated, and easily led. Anyone who knows Robert Kaiser, the number-two editor on the paper, who top-edited the article in question, will not be surprised that he found the statement unexceptionable. At some point the appropriate response to such bias is not protest but laughter.
This leftward (or, better, anti-Right) partisan tilt is enforced not so much by conscious effort as by a newsroom culture that is becoming increasingly monopartisan and monocultural--even as it preens itself on its "diversity" and "openness." In most newsrooms there are simply too few Republicans, too few believing Christians, and so forth, to intelligently explore the views held by such Americans. As managers seek a more superficial facial diversity of women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, Eskimos, Aleuts, and Pacific Islanders--rather than a true variety of different viewpoints--newsroom cultures move farther left every year. On any suburban street in America you will find plenty of people who vote for Democrats and Republicans and are happy to tell you why. But in most newsrooms those few who vote Republican tend to keep their mouths shut, while those who vote Democratic smugly continue to assume that every decent, thinking person does the same. (I am happy to report that at U.S. News & World Report, where I work, there is a critical mass of both Republican and Democratic perspectives on staff, and I think that improves our magazine in general and my work as a political writer in particular.)
What should be done about this heavy imbalance within the media? One answer is to accept partisanship, expand the viewpoints to more accurately reflect the nation as a whole, and then sit back and enjoy it. As the mainline media have grown Left-partisan, guerilla Right-partisan media have risen in response. This development is often attributed to new technology, and indeed cable TV and the Internet have opened up new outlets for many previously unheard points of view. But the most successful Right-partisan communication of all has come through some old, even antiquated, technology: Newt Gingrich reaches his fans through a printed book, a medium that dates back to 1456. (The non-fiction bestseller lists have become a kind of conservative underground over the last decade.) And Rush Limbaugh talks to his audience on AM radio, which dates back to 1920.
Partisan journalism can be good journalism. It is indeed the norm in other countries, and produces plenty of excellent reporting and analysis: Britain's Telegraph and Times are Conservative papers, the Guardian leans toward Labour. France's Le Monde is gauche, Figaro is droit. And in America, too, partisan journalism is often first-rate--accurate, intellectually serious, stylishly carried off. Witness the unacknowledged partisanship practiced by today's mainline organs, or the acknowledged partisanship of numerous high-caliber magazines, papers, and broadcasts on the Right, plus a few on the Left. To many readers and viewers, these outlets actually aren't perceived as partisan at all, just as accurate and truthful. The paper or broadcast is telling it like it is for most of its audience.
Of course not everyone is pleased. A partisan newspaper or newscast will, sooner or later, prove rasping for some portion of the universal audience. But then this is already happening; that's why we see the "East Berlin effect" of millions of Americans voting with their feet and fleeing the mainline media. In 1970, U.S. daily newspaper circulation was 62 million. By 1994 it had slipped to 60 million, even though the number of households had simultaneously risen from 63 to 97 million. Network newscast viewership has plummeted even more sharply than the newspaper audience, peaking at 41 percent of all households in the 1980-81 season, and reaching 28 percent in 1994-95.
Admittedly, there is more behind these trends than just the East Berlin effect. Young people who grew up watching television and not learning to read well are naturally less interested in newspapers. Television viewers who had only five or six stations to choose from in the 1970s but now have 50 or more choices on cable, plus thousands of videos for rent at Blockbuster, may find less time for Peter Jennings. But the left-wing partisanship of mainline media also explains some of the American public's alienation from our traditional media, and their growing interest in untraditional media.
When I made this last point on cnn's "Reliable Sources" recently, I was astonished to be shouted down in a barrage of protests from the other panelists--Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, Ellen Hume, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, and Bernard Kalb, formerly of CBS News. They all assured me that not one jot or tittle of newspaper circulation losses or network viewership decline could be explained by any leftish bias or partisan tilt. The fury of their denials, however, convinced me I was on to something.
The great fear of liberal reporters in this area is that the owners of mainline media may decide to interfere with the newsroom cultures that in the past they have assiduously left alone. Right now such intervention appears unlikely. Network executives concerned over tanking newscast viewership have responded by cutting costs, not by bringing in new points of view. Newspaper owners show less worry over flat or declining circulation than they do about the possibility that new media might make Want Ads or supermarket fliers obsolete. They seem to believe that partisan imbalances can be papered over by offering more sports, lifestyle, and finance coverage.
They may be right. But if I owned a broadcast news network, I would wonder why I was competing with two or three others for the approximately one-half of all Americans leaning toward the left side of the political spectrum, while leaving entirely open the audience of approximately half of all Americans favoring the Right. I would move my headquarters out of the west side of Manhattan to some Middle American site like Grapevine, Texas--a perfect name, and right near the Dallas-Fort Worth regional airport. The employees who could not bear to leave Manhattan for Dallas-Fort Worth are just the kind of people I would happily be rid of. It is no accident that CNN produces the least left-tilted news of the four major U.S. networks, even though it has by far the most leftish owner. With his headquarters in Atlanta, most of Ted Turner's employees live in neighborhoods where both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, are represented--which is not something you can say about New York or Washington, D.C.
In the same way, if I owned a newspaper, I would wonder whether giving free rein to a newsroom culture that pushes the journalistic product farther and farther to the left is a good idea. To some extent, owners already try to address this problem by odd attempts at "balance." While most newspaper editorial pages are liberal, the out-of-town columnists brought in for contrast are frequently conservatives. The overall culture of newsrooms, however, keeps heading further left.
If journalism's reputation for liberalism, combined with the industry's drive for "multicultural" hiring, keeps driving away conservatives and attracting liberals, there will soon be problems. Problems with the quality and accuracy of news coverage, and problems with audience rebellion.
I will not be surprised if in perhaps a dozen years the owners of our mass media may finally have to take on the newsroom cultures--just as in the 1970s and 1980s they took on craft unions, and for the same reason: to prevent the destruction of otherwise exceedingly valuable financial assets. That would mean installing tough, objective-minded editors, like A.M. Rosenthal, who kept the New York Times' news pages mostly objective for two decades over the vociferous opposition of the newsroom culture. And it would mean taking affirmative actions to hire Republicans, conservative Christians, and others now vastly underrepresented in newsrooms.
Partisan journalism can be good journalism. It must admit its partisanship, however, and quit making increasingly implausible claims of objectivity. On the other hand, partisan journalism, especially of today's leftish variety, may not be good business for metropolitan newspapers and broadcast news that aim for a broad audience. Will the bottom line and the front page soon collide?
Michael Barone, a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report, is co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.
The real joke here is that there was never such a thing as impartial journalism. Heck, the media almost single-handedly started the Spanish-Amercian War, and that was over a century ago!
IMHO, it is best to let everyone have their biases out in the open, rather than trying to hide them behind a cloak of "fairness."
As usual, Michael is spot on. I just love him. He's such a hoot when he's introduced on TV: he initially has this "deer in the headlights" look, but then he gets totally comfortable as he warms to his subject.
I say, let them continue unfettered. The media and J F'n Kerry are going so far to the left that even their own previous supporters are casting them off. Good riddance to bad rubbish!