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.