In his well researched book Partisan Journalism: A History of Media Bias in the United States, Jim Kuypers traces the history of American journalism back to America’s founding and shows the history of journalism’s connection to party politics. Each era differs, of course. The changes in media from newspapers to radio and television and now the Internet make a marked difference in journalism. After all, few disagree with McLuhan who told us “The media is the message.”
This is clearly shown in the impact of the decrease in newspaper subscribers, who’d at least glance through most sections of the paper, and Internet readers, who hop by clicking from one link to the next, perhaps never seeing stories unrelated to their core interests.
I know from my research into the 19th century that newspapers were clearly affiliated with political parties. It was customary for each paper to annually declare which party they were aligned with. Now that practice is no more, but it’s not hard to determine that PBS*, MSNBC, CBS, CNN, etc. lean towards the Dems and Fox News∞ leans towards the GOP. Kuypers does spend a good chapter on surveys of journalists, which confirm what I’d heard about a slant in journalists vis-a-vis in membership in and donations to the Democrats. (Roughly over 85% of journalists identify themselves as Democrats. Even a majority of Fox News employees donated to Democrats in 2012.) There’s a lot of solid data, along with the sources so you can double check it all.
Rather than rehash every section let me share an excellent summary and review:
[F]ocusing on the warring notions of objectivity and partisanship [ . . . ] Kuypers shows how the American journalistic tradition grew from partisan roots and, with only a brief period of objectivity in between, has returned to those roots today. The book begins with an overview of newspapers during Colonial times, explaining how those papers openly operated in an expressly partisan way; he then moves through the Jacksonian era’s expansion of both the press and its partisan nature. After detailing the role of the press during the War Between the States, Kuypers demonstrates that it was the telegraph, not professional sentiment, that kicked off the movement toward objective news reporting. The conflict between partisanship and professionalization/objectivity continued through the muckraking years and through World War II, with newspapers in the 1950s often being objective in their reporting even as their editorials leaned to the right. This changed rapidly in the 1960s when newspaper editorials shifted from right to left, and progressive advocacy began to slowly erode objective content. Kuypers follows this trend through the early 1980s, and then turns his attention to demonstrating how new communication technologies have changed the very nature of news writing and delivery. In the final chapters covering the Bush and Obama presidencies, he traces the growth of the progressive and partisan nature of the mainstream news, while at the same time explores the rapid rise of alternative news sources, some partisan, some objective, that are challenging the dominance of the mainstream press. This book steps beyond a simple charge-counter-charge of political bias
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The best part of the book was how it shows readers how to look out for framing, selection and emphasis and the sort of questions to see how television journalists shape the news to fit their agenda.
I recommend people read Partisan Journalism and take the time to fact check as you go.
*My near daily source.
∞My other regular source since I believe in learning from all sides.