A Big Yes For Partisan Press

by | Dec 15, 2005

Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols explore the values of a partisan press in In These Times:

It comes as a surprise to many to learn that the notion of objectivity or simply professional journalism is a relatively recent development in the United States. In the first one hundred-plus years of the republic, journalism tended to be highly opinionated and partisan. Indeed, the first few generations of U.S. journalists–the years from Madison and Jefferson to Jackson and Lincoln–were diametrically opposed to what many Americans think is intended by the First Amendment: a commitment to neutral, values-free news reporting.

The key to having partisan journalism promote democratic values, rather than repress them, is to have a wide range of partisan viewpoints available, and for it to be feasible to launch a new partisan newspaper or magazine if one is dissatisfied with the existing range of options. One way to view the freedom of the press clause in the First Amendment is to see that it protects the right of citizens to launch their own publications, even if they are opposed to the political views of those holding political power at the time. That radical idea was mainstream thinking at the time of the country’s founding.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, as publishing became an increasingly lucrative sector, market competition generated innumerable new newspapers, with publishers seeking profit as much or more than political influence. This was a classic competitive market, where new entrepreneurs could enter the field and launch a newspaper with relative ease if they were dissatisfied with the existing publications. Major cities like New York or Chicago or St. Louis tended to have well over a dozen daily newspapers at any given time, reflecting a fairly broad range of political viewpoints. The system was far from perfect, yet it worked.

On the other hand, as newspapering became big business, markets became much less competitive. By the early twentieth century, there were fewer and fewer newspapers in any given community, and in many towns there remained only one or two competing dailies. Barriers to entry emerged that made it virtually impossible to launch a new newspaper in a community, even if the existing papers were highly profitable. In short, newspaper publishing became monopolistic, far more so than most other major industries.

This led to a political crisis for journalism. It was one thing for newspapers to be stridently partisan when there were numerous competing voices and when it was not impossible to launch a new newspaper if the existing range was unsatisfactory. It was altogether different when there were only one or two newspapers and it was impossible to start a new one.

Professional journalism was the solution to the crisis. It was the revolutionary idea that the owner and editor of a newspaper would be split, and a “Chinese Wall” put between them. News would no longer be shaped to suit the partisan interests of press owners, but rather would be determined by trained nonpartisan professionals, using judgment and skills honed in journalism schools. There were no such schools in 1900; by the end of World War I nearly every major journalism school in the nation had been established, often at the behest of newspaper owners. Professionalism meant that the news would appear the same whether the paper was owned by a Republican or a Democrat.

Now that we’re in the age of citizen media, we’ve returned to the multiplicity of voices ideal. Except we’re on a global stage today, and there aren’t a dozen “papers” in a given market, there are thousands of “voices” competing to be heard. The more eloquent and trustworthy these voices become, the more readership they will garner.