Recently the Columbia School of Journalism published a four-part series of articles admitting––with qualifications, rationalizations, and reservations––the mainstream media’s professional failures in their coverage of Donald Trump, especially the ginned-up Russia collusion hoax that they eagerly promoted.
Most conservative commentators have been unimpressed with this exercise in closing the barn-door after the cow got out. The media’s partisan bias has long been with us, but became arrogantly obvious the moment Barack Obama ran for president and the journos started their “slobbering love affair” with their fellow cognitive elite progressive president, as Bernie Goldberg called their blatant cheerleading.
But for decades most conservative complaints about the “liberal” media have implied that once upon a time there existed an objective, empirically based media that honored a “wall of separation” between opinions and facts, the principle that New York Times publisher Adolph S. Ochs announced in 1896––“to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.” William Randolph Hearst must have burst out laughing when he read that claim.
The fact is, from the start, American periodicals often slanted even facts in order to serve partisan political interests. The date of Ochs’ pronouncement is telling: the late 19th century was the beginning of the progressive movement, and its technocratic pretensions and program of weakening the Constitution’s divided and balanced powers by a centralized conglomeration of government agencies staffed by trained apolitical “experts.”
This chronic partisanship of the press aroused complaints during the Founding period that culminated in the Constitutional convention, and the speeches and article during the state ratifying debates, most famously the Federalist papers. These widely distributed populist broadsides and more formal and sophisticated writings solidified the division of political sentiment into conflicting Federalist and Antifederalist opinions and ideas.
For example, in 1805, antidemocracy Federalist Congressman Fisher Ames identified the media as the tools of partisan demagogues: “[B]y supplying an endless stimulation to their [the masses’] imagination and passions, [the press] has rendered their temper and habits infinitely worse . . . . Public affairs are transacted now on a stage where all the interests and passions grow out of fiction, or are inspired by the art, and often controlled by the pleasure of the actors.”
By the time of the Civil War, most periodicals and newspapers wore their partisan loyalties on their sleeves, as the frequent inclusion of “Democrat” and “Republican” in their names attest. If you didn’t like those preferences, you were free to read different newspapers. One of the most infamous example of a partisan press was the opposition newspapers’ treatment of Abraham Lincoln, which were brutally ad hominem. As Victor Davis Hanson writes in Carnage and Culture, they called Lincoln “a naïf, incompetent, tyrant, butcher, baboon, freak––and far worse than that.”
Even the Republican New York Times’s Paris correspondent advised that likenesses of the president not be sent to Paris, since “the person represented in these pictures looks so much like a man condemned to the gallows, that large numbers of them have been imposed on the people here by the shopkeepers as Dumollard, the famous murderer of servant girls, lately guillotined near Lyons.”
In the early 20th century, the heyday of progressive technocratic pretensions, Walter Lippmann in his 1919 book Liberty and the News, wrote that journalism had “become confused with the work of preachers, revivalists, prophets and agitators.” His influential solution, typical of progressive technocratic assumptions, was to turn journalism into a “profession” conducted according to the canons of science, and for society to provide “genuine training schools for the men upon whose sagacity [the citizens] were dependent.”
Such schools would have “to wait upon the development of psychology and political science,” but once armed with this “scientific” knowledge, they could become objective journalists, superior to all the political passions and ignorance of less “sagacious” folk. Then journalists, like scientists, would practice a “unity of method, rather than of aim; the unity of the disciplined experiment.”
After World War II, this idea, more scientism than science, had been institutionalized in what became “J-schools,” the universities and colleges that offered degrees in journalism, a trade that previously was something more like a craft. Once drawn mainly from the working and middle classes, now journalists fancied themselves “professionals” akin to doctors and lawyers, credentialed “experts” who deserved similar deference and prestige, and considered themselves fit to guide and direct the badly educated masses.
Few challenged the idea that representative politics, in which a diverse, free citizenry participate, can be managed by rational, objective policy discussions despite the conflicting passions and interests of flawed human beings. Instead, political deliberation can be better directed and controlled by “experts,” rather than by traditional wisdom, virtue, and common sense. Equally delusional is the technocratic notion that “professional” journalists trained in a rational “method” and Olympian “objectivity” will not themselves be influenced by their own ideological passions and interests.
Opinion and ideology, then, became masked by the claims of “objectivity” and professional “expertise,” unlike their proudly partisan journalistic forbearers. But in the event, politics continued to shape how stories, headlines, and ledes are framed, as well as a story’s length and whether it was on the first page with bold headlines, or buried in the back.
By the Fifties, the most prestigious papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post determined for the nation––especially the network news shows–– which stories should be printed, and from what angle they should be written. Their editors’ default sensibility was that of the progressive cognitive elite and the technocratic federal government.
Moreover, the rise of television news shows reduced the number of daily newspapers, along with the great variety of alternative viewpoints. Before the coming of cable news and then the internet, three television news anchors––and later taxpayer-subsidized PBS––all nearly indistinguishable in their political views and preferences, were the only source of political news and opinions for many millions of people.
The political upheavals of the Sixties and the rise of the New Left, particularly the reactions to the war in Vietnam, moved the media’s partisan prejudices farther left. Their point of view became obvious in the coverage of the January 1968 Tet Offensive. Despite briefly occupying Saigon and the grounds of the American embassy, within months the offensive was quickly crushed, at the cost of 40,000 North Vietnamese killed. The Vietcong communist cadres in the south were exposed and destroyed, a grievous blow to the North.
Yet if one read or listened to the American media, Tet was a disaster for the U.S . News photos and video footage of the brief occupation of the embassy grounds, interviews with soldiers under fire, and tanks and artillery rolling through Saigon that ignored the larger context of the offensive fed the perception that Tet was a success and a fatal setback for the Americans and South Vietnamese. An American victory and display of bravery and elan was sacrificed to bolster the left’s narrative of neo-imperialist hubris interfering in a civil war between the nationalist north and America’s colonial stooges in the south.
Indeed, so successful was this effort that even the conservative Wall Street Journal warned that “the whole Vietnam effort may be doomed,” and CBS’s Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America,” announced, “To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.” As a South Vietnamese government official said, “The U.S. snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”
The mainstream media’s coverage of Tet exposed the pretensions of professional objectivity created by the progressives’ commitment to technocratic control, and returned journalism to its roots in political partisanship. The difference today is the dishonest mask of objectivity has been dropped. The election of Barack Obama accelerated that trend, but it didn’t begin it.
Finally journalists’ time spent in universities has exposed them to the “higher nonsense,” resulting in something worse: not just hypocrisy, but a stale postmodern and poststructuralist epistemic nihilism that completely discards the notions of truth and objectivity. As reported by Townhall’s Derek Hunter, this trend has been given positive exposure in the once-venerable Washington Post.
“Newsrooms that move beyond ‘objectivity’ can build trust,” the Post rationalizes, the scare-quotes around “objectivity” signaling its bias. The Post adds, “increasingly, reporters, editors and media critics argue that the concept of journalistic objectivity is a distortion of reality. They point out that the standard was dictated over decades by male editors in predominantly White newsrooms and reinforced their own view of the world.”
The author continues by perfuming this abandonment of journalism’s serially besmirched but still foundational principle with some identity-politics and “systemic racism” claptrap:
“They [“woke” reporters] believe that pursuing objectivity can lead to false balance or misleading ‘bothsidesism’ in covering stories about race, the treatment of women, LGBTQ+ rights, income inequality, climate change and many other subjects,” the reporter writes. “And, in today’s diversifying newsrooms, they [“diversity” hires] feel it negates many of their own identities, life experiences and cultural contexts, keeping them from pursuing truth in their work . . . . [O]bjectivity has prevented truly accurate reporting informed by their own backgrounds, experiences and points of view.”
Notice the uncoupling of “accurate” from “objective.” Now the reporting of facts and empirical evidence has been replaced by solipsistic victim narratives and moral relativism.
There are, of course, still independent journalists who honor objectivity and can use the internet and social media to get their voices heard. But the corporate mainstream media still dominate the attention of the government, corporate boards, education, and even entertainment; and as the Twitter Files have documented, they collude with tech companies to censor and deplatfom journalists who respect truth.
True objectivity, although most often honored in the breach than in the observance, should remain the goal of journalism, despite being difficult to achieve. We shouldn’t abandon that goal, and certainly not on the grounds of Hamlet’s juvenile “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” We should never forget that truth is a democracy’s immune system, and a corrupt media a dangerous infection of the body politic and its unalienable rights.
Malachi White says
Exactly. So well-known now that this report on the News is old news!
Dana F. Harbaugh says
Deflect and deny… AI trolls.
Again, we are not a democracy.
Algorithmic Analyst says
Thanks Bruce, excellent article.
David Ray says
This article can’t be true, can it??
Afterall, the snide bitch Leslie Stahl said that she “had her bias surgically removed” which showed so clearly when she ran cover by smuggly lying about Hunter’s laptop.
Steven Brizel says
The legacy media should not be trusted for its pronouncements on zany issues
Dana F. Harbaugh says
Marxists do what Marxists do. And might I say, “accurately’ and “objectively”
Okay, so there has never been true objectivity in the news media. But today, it has gone beyond simple bias. Way beyond. Today, with few exceptions, is outright political activism on behalf of the Dem Party and the political Left. That is not bias. That is propaganda.
Spurwing Plover says
We saw four years of the M.S. Media bottom feeders treatment of Trump and how they kissed Obamas rings for eight years like they did with Clinton and now Biden and were catching onto their diciteful ways they repot the news
THX 1138 says
Where does this attack on objectivity come from ultimately? The ultimate philosophical questions are what is reality (metaphysics)? Can man know reality as it truly is (epistemology)? Do man’s natural senses give him a true perception of reality or do they not (epistemology)? Can REASON give man a true and objective understanding of reality or not (epistemology)?
“The man who . . . closed the door of philosophy to reason, was Immanuel Kant. . . .
Kant’s expressly stated purpose was to save the morality of self-abnegation and self-sacrifice. He knew that it could not survive without a mystic base—and what it had to be saved from was reason….
No, Kant did not destroy reason; he merely did as thorough a job of undercutting as anyone could ever do.
If you trace the roots of all our current philosophies—such as pragmatism, logical positivism, and all the rest of the neo-mystics who announce happily that you cannot prove that you exist—you will find that they all grew out of Kant.” – Ayn Rand
“Kant, Immanuel” – The Ayn Rand Lexicon
Can I wait until tomorrow to trace those roots. I have other things to do right now like laundry, cooking dinner and trying to figure out why everything revolves around your Objectivism.
By objective, I have a sneaking suspicion the author was talking about the media being fair and balanced, which they are not. He wasn’t wondering about Kant and Ayn Rand. You are so F.O.S.
The media has been corrupt at least since the Vietnam war. The Government put an end to descent from the media after the war and it worked. How else could you explain 80 FBI agents at Twitter? How many of them are left? They just banned Project Veritas.
David Ray says
One example of biased reporters in Vietnam was when idiot Peter Arnett misquoted or made up completely the quote that gained him instant fame “We had to bomb a village to save it”.
To be fair, Arnett might simply have lacked the needed intellect to process his interviews correctly.
Afterall; the Bozo-the-clown clone was stupid enough to fall for the bogus story “Operation Tailwind” and hyperventilate over us bombing a baby milk factory in the 1st Gulf War. He cited the factory workers wearing “Baby Milk Factory” shirts . . . written in English.
There may never have been a time when the industry was truly objective, but there was a time when the reported facts were common to all competitors in the industry regardless of bias. There was a time when what actually happened was the gravity that was generally agreed upon. The same stories with the same facts were reported on by Fox and CNN even with their different slants.
But now activist journalists merely frames facts, real or imagined, into creating narratives, and the fractured audiences disdain any facts that get in the way.
So what is changed is the audience. People are not so much interested in becoming informed about the critical events that are happening in the greater world, but instead want to be a part of the cause that they have signed on to.
The advantage of course goes to those that actually have the better grasp on what is actually happening, even if the collectivist armies are marching on like zombie armies from the wastelands.
Stephen Triesch says
I think Watergate was a key event that changed American journalism for the worse. If you look at pre-Watergate movies and TV shows, journalists were typically portrayed in an unflattering way – cigar-chomping, boozing, excitable, and sensation-seeking. But when two journalists – working hand-in-glove with the Deep State – played a key role in bringing down an American president, a new paradigm was established. Suddenly, the journalist was the hero, the crusader, the speaker of truth to power. And, over time, this crusading and speaking truth to power was increasingly used to favor Democrats over Republicans.
The pattern has been consistent: the swooning over Kennedy’s (D) Camelot; the attacks on Nixon (R), leading to his downfall: the bonhomie over “nice guy” Carter (D); the mocking of Ronald Reagan (R); and so forth. Fast forward to Obama (D), and the press became almost worshipful. Then, when Donald Trump (R) unexpectedly beat Hillary Clinton, the gloves came off, no holds were barred. It was unremitting, obsessive hostility which continues to this day. The double standards between the treatment of Trump and Biden are astounding. Thought experiment: imagine if one of Trump’s sons had acted like Hunter Biden, not only in his personal antics but in his use of his father’s political connections to amass millions from foreign governments and their surrogates. The press would have pounced on it with a vengeance.
THX 1138 says
The shift towards socialist-collectivist propaganda in American journalism goes back at least to the days of Ida Tarbell and the Progressive (socialist) Era muckrackers.
“The Man With The Muck Rake” – Theodore Roosevelt