One of the key founding narratives of modern America is the myth of an impartial press or news media.
The modern American myth is that the media is above or outside the political fray. Anybody who watches five minutes of the so-called cable news networks’ programs; or reads a few paragraphs of The Washington Post’s editorial content, will realize that media impartiality is nonsense.
Yet, Americans are told that the media is impartial and always has been. History, however, shows America’s has never been politically impartial. Interestingly, no other nation seems to believe in an impartial press. British newspapers; for example, are fiercely partisan.
The Political Roots of the American Press
The two founding fathers of the American Press; Benjamin Franklin and Horace Greeley, saw a newspaper’s role as to promote a political and philosophical agenda.
Indeed, both Franklin and Greeley held political office and waged political campaigns through the press. Before the Revolution, Franklin was Pennsylvania’s political boss and later its representative to Parliament and the Royal Court in London.
Later on Franklin switched sides and served as American’s ambassador to France during the Revolution. Notably, Greeley served as a Congressman, helped found the Republican, and waged a spectacularly unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1872.
During the 18th Century Franklin published America’s first successful national publication, Poor Richard’s Alamack. As a publisher, Franklin established the conceit of promoting his political philosophy under the guise of “educating” readers.
Greeley helped invent daily newspapers and big-city journalism. In the process, Greeley established the precedent of a newspaper loyal to one political party.
Greeley even created a paper; The Log Cabin, to support a Whig Presidential campaign. Predictably, Greeley who did not care about money died broke.
America’s Partisan Press
Throughout most of its history, America’s media was proudly partisan. Newspapers published editorials on the front page, and newsmen publicly campaigned for candidates.
Newspapers were proud of their political and ideological identities. In fact, publishers named newspapers Republican, Whig, or Democrat. Later on socialist and even Communist newspapers appeared in some American cities.
For the first two centuries of American journalism, there was little criticism of partisanship. Indeed, most readers expected their newspapers to take political stands. If a reader did not like a paper’s politics, he or she did not buy it.
Tarbell, for example, made no secret of her intent to destroy oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller Senior through her writing. Likewise, H. L. Mencken printed attacks on President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York), on the front page of The Baltimore Sun.
The Origins of Impartial Journalism
Interestingly, the peculiarly American notion of impartial journalism arose from commercial concerns, not journalistic integrity.
The first half of the 20th Century saw the rise of corporate media. Before World War I, individual entrepreneurs, families, and politicians owned newspapers. After World War I, newspaper chains arose.
At the same time, the pioneers of two new mediums avoided partisanship for sound business reasons. Movie producers and radio station owners feared government interference in their business. One way to avoid government interference, censorship, and regulation was to avoid politics.
For example, legendary Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn famously told writers; “If you have a message, call Western Union. If you’ve got a message, send a telegram.” Avoiding politics was good for business, so the new corporate media avoided politics.
Moreover, the new media was trying to reach the largest mass audience possible to charge the highest advertising rates. A painless way to reach a mass audience is to offend nobody.
Government Enforced Impartiality
Government played a role in the rise of impartial journalism. Uncle Sam regulated broadcast media from the start through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Operating a radio or TV station required a federal license the FCC could take away.
Notably, some FCC regulations were blatantly political. For example, the Commission aimed a rule barring companies or individuals from owning both newspapers and radio stations in one market at one man Colonel Robert R. McCormick.
McCormick, the owner of the most influential newspaper in the Midwest The Chicago Tribune; and the powerful radio station WGN, was an outspoken critic of FDR. Democratic FCC staffers hoped to keep conservative newspaper owners out of radio with the regulation.
A more oppressive FCC rule was the so-called “Fairness Doctrine.” Theoretically, the Fairness Doctrine required a broadcaster to present both sides of a political argument. For example, a radio station that aired a conservative commentator had to follow that person’s remarks with a liberal rebuttal.
The actual intent of the Fairness Doctrine was to keep all political speech except paid advertising off the air. To explain, the Fairness Doctrine made it expensive and difficult to air any political speech.
By the 1950s, consolidation had put most media outlets under corporate control. Before 1950, a local leader owned the average big-city newspaper. After 1950, an out-of-town corporation dedicated to selling advertising probably owned your local paper.
Another force driving impartiality was the rise of a national corporate media. For instance, producers at a national TV network did not want to offend viewers or station owners in diverse regions. Thus, television did not discuss racism out of fear of offending Southerners, or criticize unions out of fear of losing Midwestern viewers.
Rebels against Impartiality
Therefore, enforced impartiality was one result of media consolidation.
Newspapermen who wanted jobs were told their keep their opinions to themselves. Publishers confined opinions to the editorial page where management kept a careful eye on the content.
A side effect of this corporate consolidation was the rise of the so-called alternative (left-wing) press in the 1960s. Alternative newspapers such as New York’s Village Voice were not shy about their left-wing politics and sympathy for the counterculture.
Another reaction to impartial journalism was the appearance of national magazines with blatantly political agendas. Those mags included William F. Buckley’s conservative National Review; and left-wing efforts such as Ramparts;whose editors arrogantly promised “a bomb in every issue.” Buckley; and the muckrakers at Ramparts, portrayed themselves as revolutionaries but they were really throwbacks to an older journalistic tradition.
Importantly, one key allegation of conservatives and some left-wing thinkers; Noam Chomsky in particular, was that the media’s vaunted impartiality was a partisan stand. The charge was that impartiality was a lie executives and journalists used to suppress opinions they disagreed with.
Notably, the rising popularity of Chomsky in the 1970s and 80s coincided with successful efforts to repeal the Fairness Doctrine. Chomsky and conservative Fairness Doctrine critics made the same allegation; that impartiality was an attempt to suppress free speech.
The New Old Media
During the 1980s and 1990s, the media drifted away from impartiality. Some of this drift was unintentional as some media companies found that political opinions sell.
Other efforts, such as the creation of Fox News, were deliberate attempts to recreate a politically partisan media. Interestingly, one force working against impartiality was media fragmentation.
For instance, many cities had dozens of radio stations by the 1980s. To stand out, station owners began adopting unique voices such as the right-wing or left wing station. Other station managers realized that colorful characters with strong opinions attracted viewers and sold advertising.
Similarly, on television dozens of new cable channels were competing for ratings. Hence, branding a news channel as “liberal” or “conservative” made sense.
Rush Limbaugh’s America
A significant figure in the politicization of American media was Rush Limbaugh, a disc jockey and drive-time radio host from Missouri. Limbaugh stumbled upon a successful formula that combined conversation and opinion while working at a Sacramento radio station.
Rush took his show national and attracted a vast audience in a country that was leaning right. Unlike many of the political commentators who followed him, Limbaugh was careful not to preach or lecture to audiences and never questioned his listeners’ intelligence.
Like a good entertainer, Limbaugh panders to his audience and is careful to avoid some controversies. Plus, Limbaugh has a good intuitive sense of the nation’s political direction. For example, Rush was one of the first media figures to understand the rise of Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) and embrace it.
Additionally, Limbaugh has no political ambitions of his own and little interest in influencing political leaders. Thus, politicians do not see Limbaugh as a potential threat or rival.
Limbaugh was the first broadcaster to build a lucrative brand as a partisan political propagandist he was not the last. An army of conservative and liberal commentators followed Limbaugh but only a few achieved fame.
The notables included Saturday Live writer turned radio host Al Franken; one of the few left-wing commentators to achieve real success, and several Fox News personalities. Interestingly, many talk radio and podcast successes are show business veterans.
Limbaugh, for example, began his career in light-entertainment radio as a DJ. Likewise, Franken was a TV writer and stand-up comedian before turning to talk.
Additionally, today’s podcast king Joe Rogan is an active stand-up comedian, and a former TV host with some acting experience. Tellingly, most of today’s successful cable talkers, such as Tucker Carlson, Krystal Ball, and Rachel Maddow, are cable TV veterans.
The Age of the Podcast
Today, however there is an of such powerful commentators including Fox’s Tucker Carlson; the urbane tribune of populism, Trump yes-man Shawn Hannity, YouTube sensation Krystal Ball, and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
In recent years, podcasting and YouTube are giving rise to a new generation of commentators. Notables include filmmaker turned rabble rouser Michael Moore and former TV news woman Krystal Ball. One advantage to podcasting is that there is no corporate filter.
Nobody cares if a podcaster drops the f-bomb; indeed, Joe Rogan has made The F-Word an obligatory part of the podcast vocabulary, or makes an outrageous allegation. Dramatically, some podcasters specialize in making absurd allegations such as claims Trump is a Communist.
Hence, media impartiality in America is dead; expect perhaps on the network news broadcasts nobody under 60 watches. Thus, today’s media landscape is closer to America’s historic norm of partisan journalism than most commentators will admit.