Three Cheers for a Partisan Media

Americans often complain about how dirty and mudslinging politics have become.  This complaint demonstrates the lack of knowledge of their own history that many Americans today display.  As the imaginary attack ad by Adams at the beginning of this post illustrates, politics tended to be much less restrained in political attacks in the early days of our Republic.  During the campaign of 1800, Jefferson and Adams, two of the primary Founding Fathers, were called every name imaginable.   Jefferson was called, among many other things, an atheist, a weakling, a coward, a libertine, mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, and the son of a half-breed Indian squaw sired by a Virginia mulatto.    A few of the insults hurled at  Adams included  fool, hypocrite, criminal, tyrant, and that he was possessed of a hermaphroditical character which had neither the force or firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of  a woman.  The passions that were roused in that campaign are shown by gentle Martha Washington, the widow of George, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was one of the most detestable of mankind.  The press were at the forefront of this battle, with the papers of the day wearing their political affiliations emblazoned in their headlines.

And so it remained in America until after World War ii.  Up until that time, most  papers adhered to a set of political beliefs determined by the owners of the papers, and they were very upfront about it.  It was only in the postwar era, with the attempt to instill professionalism into the always somewhat disreputable ink-stained wretches, that the concept of objective journalism came to be prized as a goal and embraced by most organs of the media.  Papers that wore their ideological hearts on their sleeves, the prime example being the New Hampshire Union Leader, were viewed as survivors of an earlier stage of journalism that the press had outgrown.

Journalists, at least those who worked on big newspapers in cities, became better educated with a college degree a job requirement for scribbling news stories.  Gone was the old press corp, usually blue collar in origin and sympathies, but who often had diverse life experiences that impacted their points of view, and in their place college educated journalists who usually spoke alike, wrote alike and thought alike.  When academia began its headlong dash to the left in the sixties, journalists inevitably followed.

That leads us to the current situation where objectivity is hailed as one of the highest goals of the profession, and most Americans are convinced that the media is anything but. The Journolist scandal in which hundreds of journalists participated in an e-mail list on which they clearly showed they were liberals first and journalists second, further undermines what little public trust remains for the mainstream media.  We have an intensely partisan media that assumes the mask of objectivity in public, while in private acting like the intense partisans many members of the media are.

Jay Cost at Real Politics, the home away from home for all political junkies, had an interesting post yesterday in which he called for a new honesty about this situation.

Conservatives have long sensed that the mainstream media is tilted against them. Relatively few have suggested that it is a hard bias, i.e. an actual conspiracy by media types to present the news in a certain fashion. Instead, the inference has long been that political opinions reflect contested values – and our values are pervasive, influencing how we interpret and present the world to others in all sorts of subtle ways. And because journalists overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates, as a group they strongly favor one set of values, which means their reporting inescapably does as well.

Somehow, Ezra Klein has managed to drain a little more water out of the already shallow pool of media objectivity. He’s introduced the notion that, in some instances, it may not have been a soft bias, but instead a hard one. That’s exactly the kind of suspicion and mutual distrust that a party caucus breeds. And, unless the full JournoList is opened to the public, nobody will ever know for sure.

JournoList looks to me to be yet another mile-marker on this country’s return to a partisan press. This does not upset me very much at all. I think American democracy is unthinkable without the political parties, so I do not think that a partisan press is all that bad. And it might finally stop journalists and academics from acquiring the inherently political authority that comes with monikers like “objective news” or “social science” when they are in fact promoting subjective values. That would be a good thing. All in all, a partisan press is, weirdly enough, a very honest one in that you know fully where everybody is coming from, and nobody can claim for him- or herself the epistemologically ridiculous “God’s eye view.”

Go here to read the rest.  Of course technology is helping solve this problem.  With countless blogs and diverse news sources only a mouse click away, the day in which a Walter Cronkite could say, “That’s the way it is.”, and have most people believe him, is as dead as rotary phones and black and white tvs.  However, if journalism is to regain any semblance of trust with the public, journalists must remember the basic truth that no one should ever pretend to be something he is not, and objective finders of fact are simply not what journalists, at least those beyond small local papers, television and radio stations, tend to be these days.