The True origins of “Objective Journalism”
One of the prized myths of the American media is that there was a golden age of objective journalism. The golden age was a time when journalists only reported the facts and displayed no opinions.
This myth contains some truth, but the golden age was shorter and later than most Americans assume. To explain, the Golden Age of American Journalism was roughly 1950 to 1990 or 2000. Thus, the golden age lasted forty to fifty years.
In that interlude, most newspapers and journalists claimed to aspire to objectivity. However, during that era, there were many critics; such as Noam Chomsky on the left and William F. Buckley jr. on the right, who believed the media was driven by bias. Chomsky charged the media manufactured consent to influence public opinion, while Buckley claimed many news outlets promoted leftwing propaganda as fact.
The Strange Origins of Objective Journalism
So what was the Golden Age of objective journalism, and where did it come from?
Strangely, the origins of Objective Journalism are rooted in economics and the Great Depression. To explain, during the 1920s and 1930s, the rise of radio and the Great Depression changed the American newspaper business and news itself.
Before 1930, there was no objectivity in American journalism. Most newspapers were blatantly political. Many cities had a Democratic newspaper and a Republican newspaper, and some larger cities had socialist, and even Communist papers. There were also conservative Democratic papers and liberal Republican papers.
For example, Democrats in Colorado read The Denver Post, the Democratic paper. Meanwhile, Republicans preferred The Rocky Mountain News, the Republican paper.
Local entrepreneurs and politicos owned most newspapers and put their opinions in the paper. It was common to see editorials on the Front Page and propaganda in the news pages.
In fact, mining heir William Randolph Hearst Senior built the first national newspaper chain, the Hearst Press, to promote his political ambitions. Hearst Press papers such as The San Francisco Examiner promoted Hearst’s conservative Democratic views.
Most reporters and editors were poorly educated working-class whites who went along with the boss’s politics for a paycheck. A large portion of newspapermen were immigrants or immigrants’ children.
How Radio and The Great Depression made Objective Journalism
Before 1930, newspapers were a lucrative business because they had a monopoly on advertising. If you were a Republican department store owner, you bought advertising in the Democratic paper because you needed Democrats’ money.
That status quo changed in the 1930s because of the Depression and the rise of radio. First radio began competing directly for advertising. In particular, radio stole the biggest and most lucrative advertisers, such as department stores and car dealers. Second, businesses had less money to spend on advertising because of the Great Depression.
The 1930s were catastrophic for the newspaper industry. Newspaper advertising revenues fell by 40% between 1929 and 1933, Encyclopedia.com estimates. Consequently, dozens of papers went out of business, and hundreds more sold out to big newspaper chains.
One result of the 1930s disaster was that hundreds of newspapers came under the management of newspaper industry professionals, mostly advertising salesmen. These new managers competed harder for fewer advertising dollars.
One way to attract those dollars was to be less offensive. Papers stopped being Democratic or Republican. The corporate managers banished opinions to the editorial pages and encouraged journalists to write in a flat and inoffensive style and concentrate on facts.
Another aspect of the change was greater reliance on cheap syndicated material; comic strips, horoscopes, crossword puzzles, columnists, international news, business news, sports, etc. In particular, national columnists such as Walter Lippmann, Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper, and Louella Parsons became major national celebrities.
The result was that newspapers became blander, and more repetitive. For the first time, people in Denver, Peoria, and Seattle were reading the same news written by the same people. Similarly, many newspapers increased sports and entertainment coverage, which attracted readers without being offensive.
Newspapers became objective because objectivity was good for business. Not because newspaper owners valued objectivity.
The rise of radio encouraged objectivity because government heavily regulated radio. To explain, radio owners feared any political opinion on air could attract the attention of politicians and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Notably, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) and Congressional Democrats banned newspaper owners from owning radio stations.
Democrats enacted that measure because staunch Republican Colonel Robert R. McCormick owned the Midwest’s largest and most influential newspaper, The Chicago Tribune and WGN, a powerful radio station. FDR and other Democrats feared a Republican controlled media, so they separated radio and TV ownership.
The Age of Objectivity
These trends continued through the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. During that period, most of the nation’s newspaper owners sold out to chains.
Once proud banners such as The Baltimore Sun, The Louisville Courier, The Denver Post, and even The Chicago Tribune fell under corporate ownership. As they did, newspapers became more regimented and objective.
The rise of television, which also competed for advertising dollars, made the situation far worse. One result of TV and radio competition was that most American cities found themselves with just one daily newspaper by 1980.
Ironically, the winnowing out made newspapers incredibly lucrative in the late 20th century. Warren Buffett was one of many investors who began buying up newspapers because many of them became licenses to print money.
To explain, even with TV and radio, newspapers had monopolies on certain kinds of advertising. Classifieds and supermarket inserts, for example. In addition, newspapers were still the only advertising many businesses could afford.
Meanwhile, the newspaper workforce was changing. The GI Bill gave newspapers a pool of college graduates to hire. After World War II, journalism became a respectable middle-class profession. College graduates replaced H. L. Mencken’s ink-stained wretches.
Meanwhile, advertising monopolies allowed newspapers to pay higher salaries to attract college-educated journalists. They trained many of those journalists to be objective in college.
This created an age of objectivity. The journalistic hero was no longer the tough wisecracking and rule breaking reporter often played by Clark Gable in the 1930s movies.
Instead, the journalistic icon of the age of objectivity was the soft-spoken conservative Walter Cronkite. A figure who resembled a small town barber rather than a reporter. The one time Cronkite broke kayfabe and expressed his opinion of the Vietnam War on TV created a national sensation.
Newspapers were no longer propaganda outlets. Instead, they were big business and newsmen were employees, not crusaders.
The newspaper movie of the 1970s was All the President’s Men, which glorified corporate reporters who always wore ties and worked in a newsroom that resembled an insurance company office. The only radical thing about Hollywood’s version of Woodward and Bernstein was Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman’s slightly long hair.
The End of Objectivity
The age of journalistic objectivity ended as the newspaper business came crashing down in the 21st century as the internet stole the advertisers. The internet hurts newspapers because it steals the small advertisers.
For example, Craigslist and Facebook take the classified ads, while Google swipes the business advertisements. In recent years, Amazon (AMZN) has been making inroads in the advertising market.
Digital competition has hit hard the news business. Statisa estimates the number of daily newspapers in the United States fell from 1,748 in 1970 to 1,279 in 2018. Similarly, Pew Research estimates US newspaper weekday circulation fell from a high of 63.34 million in 1984 to 24.299 million in 2020.
In fact, US weekday newspaper circulation was lower in 2020 than it was in 1940, when 41.132 million daily newspapers circulated in America. Consequently, US newspaper advertising and circulation revenue fell from a high of $49.275 million in 2006 to $8.834 million in 2020, Pew Research estimates.
The only growing business at newspapers is digital. For example, digital advertising revenue rose from 17% in 2011 to 39% in 2020.
Finally, the number of journalists is falling. Pew estimates newsroom employment at US newspapers fell from 74,410 in 2006 to 30,820 in 2020. Hence, more than half of US newsroom jobs disappeared between 2006 and 2020.
Digital Kills Objectivity
Digital kills objectivity because the way to attract eyeballs online is to be sensational. For example, a 1970s newspaper could have run this headline: ”Vaccine Side Effects Reported.” In contrast, a digital tagline could say “Researchers Say Vaccine Causes Cancer.” A 1980s newspaper headline might say “Suspect arrested in Smith Murder.” In contrast, a digital tagline could say “Mother Arrested for Killing Child.”
Many observers will note that the modern taglines resemble old time tabloid headlines. Hence, today’s digital publishers resort to the same tactics as 1920s tabloid editors. The tactics for attracting eyeballs on screens or a busy newsstand are the same.
Another digital tactic is niche journalism. Appeal to specific groups, even small groups. For example, tailor articles to conservatives, comic book geeks, wrestling fans, leftists, baseball fans, knitters, birdwatchers, etc.
A surefire way to appeal to niche readers is to abandon objectivity. For example, conservative slanted articles for conservative readers.
The 1970s newspaper tried to appeal to the widest audience possible. Hence, the paper took no political stands, and made political reporting as bland as possible. In contrast, the modern digital outlet takes a strong stand and makes political reporting as passionate as it can. For example, an article calling President Joe Biden (D-Delaware) a senile old man or a sellout.
In the final analysis, objectivity was a sensible business strategy for American news media that no longer works in today’s world. Those who want objective journalism had better ponder that reality.