Three Cheers for a Partisan Media

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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.

5 Responses to Three Cheers for a Partisan Media

  • G-Veg says:

    One area not discussed though is the Associate Press’ impact.

    Applying the Marketplace of Ideas theory at the core of Free Speech jurisprudence, so long as there is a robust dispute between ideas and the freedom to express them, liberty is preserved. While the Framers of the Constitution knew a thing or two about partisan politics and, while President Washington warned about the dangers, he appears to have accepted and used his party to affect policy.

    As noted above, the great variety of traditional media outlets that were aligned with particular socio-political movements balanced one another. As importantly though, most media outlets understood that “getting the scoop” was an important part of their business model. While a particular paper may have been aligned with the GOP, for example, it understood that having been “scooped” on story by a Democratic rival was bad for business. There was an intense contest for stories with reporters traveling all over the place to get or follow-up on stories.

    What we no longer seem to have is this sort of “investigative journalism.” We have the AP to thank for that.

    It is cheeper and more efficient to pick stories from the hourly AP list. Find a story on-line that you think is important? Click on any other story on the same subject and you will see that it is the same story. Thus, the readers now HAVE to rely upon the objectivity and competence of the original writer since there will be no other reporter out there writing about that particular subject or taking other photographs of the particular event.

    Case in Point:

    Last year, there was an immigration story that ran internationally about a couple, the husband of which had obtained his immigration status as the “Unmarried Son of an United States Citizen.” That classification requires that the Beneficiary be “unmarried” at the time that they obtained their Lawful Permanent Residence. (Let us set aside whether this statute is the best rule or not. It is the law, whether or not it is the best law imaginable.)

    When the US Consulate interviewed the Beneficiary, he testified under oath that he was unmarried and had never been married. He obtained his visa and the couple came to the US. Six years later, he applied for citizenship and an Examiner with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services discovered that he had obtained his status in the US through fraud. Apparently, the Examiner did not accept the claim that the Beneficiary had not understood what “unmarried and never married” meant and, whether or not intentional, the fact remained that the Beneficiary had never been eligible for the visa that he came to the US on. His citizenship application was denied. He appealed and that was denied. He was placed into immigration removal proceedings to be deported from the United States and an immigration judge found him removable. He appealed that decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals and the BIA found him removable. He appealed that decision to the District Court what found him removable and obtained an en banc review by the Circuit Court of Appeals which also found him removable. The US Supreme Court denied him certiori.

    Now, those are the undisputed facts. (I know both their attorney and several of the immigration officers that worked the case.) However, the reporter who picked up the story for the AP stated that the Beneficiary was only asking for his “day in court” – that he had not had a chance to present his case before a judge. Further, he repeated his claim that he had not understood what the Consular Officer he was originally interviewed by meant by “unmarried” or “never before married.” The immigration matters and law were utterly muttered, at one point, the reporter stated that the Beneficiary had gotten his citizenship when he came to the US and the government was now taking it away – a patently false statement and wrong as a matter of law.

    I did some digging and figured out that the “reporter” was a college Journalism major who had been published in his school paper and had had two articles about his college football team published in a local newspaper. Stated differently, the “reporter” was not a professional at all, had no experience in writing legitimate news stories of this type, and had not interviewed anyone other than the Beneficiary himself. Even the facts obtained from the Beneficiary were muddled and the legal issues could have been determined with a few very simple internet searches. And yet, the Associated Press purchased this guy’s article and then sold it to media outlets such as the Philadelphia Inquirer (where I read it). On-Line searches showed that it was picked up by overseas outlets as well.

    My point is just this… At an earlier time, there were lots of legitimate reporters out there trying to beat one another to stories and make the other outlets look foolish. This competition forced the outlets to be “professional” and to make at least a reasonable effort to get stories right or correct them later. This is no longer the case and the AP is to blame.

  • Elaine Krewer says:

    “At an earlier time, there were lots of legitimate reporters out there trying to beat one another to stories and make the other outlets look foolish… This is no longer the case and the AP is to blame.”

    Actually, I think the decline of family-owned and locally-owned newspapers in favor of corporate chains that believe the fastest way to making a profit is to drive their papers into debt and then cut (and cut and cut) staff in order to pay that debt off is far more to blame. The AP has been around in some form since the 19th Century and was around long before the age of competitive and “objective” journalism.

    The main reason you see newspapers and TV stations relying more on AP these days is because they’ve cut their staffs to the point where no one has either the time, skill, or experience to do serious investigative reporting — they can barely keep up with fires, accidents, crime reports, city council meetings, etc. Many major newspapers have also dumped their Washington D.C. bureaus and their state capital bureaus, again, forcing them to rely on AP.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, a true larger than life character, became a fast friend of Andrew Jackson after their duel. Late in his life he was asked by a young man if he had known President Jackson. “Knew him sir? I shot him sir!”

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