By Matthew Isham
In the wake of the acrimonious presidential election this past fall, several political pundits condemned what they believed to be invidious media bias on both sides of the contest. That bias, they charged, has created a toxic political environment that exacerbates partisanship and sharply divides the nation. At Salon, for instance, Andrew Leonard blamed the conservative “echo chamber” for promoting Republican extremism and blinding the party’s loyal base to political reality. Not to be outdone, Rich Noyes at the Fox News website accused “media elites” in essence of conspiring to derail Romney’s campaign and re-elect the president. For Leonard, Noyes, and other pundits, the behavior of the media in recent elections offends their ideal of an independent and objective media, scrupulously devoid of political bias. Their complaints are inspired by a nostalgic notion that the country’s press once was a model of professional objectivity, but, with the proliferation of electronic media, in recent years has devolved into unseemly partisanship.
Yet, what these critics see as a troubling new phenomenon has a very long history in this country in reality. Historically, the proliferation of the press and the establishment of political parties were intimately intertwined. Each was necessary to the establishment and development of the other. Beginning around 1800, newspapers enabled incipient political parties to reach a national audience and recruit loyal voters, ensuring the organizations’ long-term survival. For their part, newspapers benefited from subsidies from political parties to publish campaign information and literature and from an expanded readership that devoured political news. Still, this mutually beneficial relationship did not always sit well with people. The well-known social reformer and critic Gerrit Smith despaired of the deepening partnership between the press and political parties in the 1820s. He cautioned citizens that if they cherished an independent press, then they should “expose it, as little as possible, to the corruption of political parties and to the lying spirit, which too generally actuates them.” Americans did not heed Smith’s warning, however, for unabashedly partisan newspapers came to dominate the press from the 1820s through the Civil War.
So why did Americans tolerate a thoroughly politicized and highly partisan press in the past? In large part it was because the concept of a professional, critical, and objective media was foreign to them. From the 18th through much of the 19th century, the American press was designed to serve a segmented market. Individual newspapers served the interests of merchants, lawyers, women, temperance advocates, abolitionists, churchgoers, devotees of literature, even enthusiasts of pornography, among other niche markets. Americans therefore were used to popular media that promoted and catered to particular points of view, interests and beliefs. In Objectivity and the News, the historian Daniel Schiller contends that the penny press of the 1830s essentially invented the concept of objectivity in the media when they sought to bypass the segmented market and create a broader public appeal. This was an inauspicious development, for these journals’ pose of objectivity was a mere marketing ploy, not an accurate reflection of their editorial or journalistic practice. The penny press still was highly politicized, if not consistently partisan.
Partisan newspapers continued to dominate the press until the late nineteenth century, when. overt partisanship in the media all but disappeared. Politics and the media nevertheless continue to be intimately connected, as the robust market for political news has remained a constant. The proliferation of electronic media in recent years, particularly with the success of special interest websites and blogs, has capitalized on this by resurrecting media partisanship. This might come as an unwelcome shock to those who venerate the myth of media objectivity, but it is unsurprising when considered in the context of the mutual historical development of the media and partisan politics in this country.
Matthew Isham is Managing Director of The George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center, The Pennsylvania State University. He wrote “A Press That Speaks Its Opinions Frankly and Openly and Fearlessly”: The Contentious Relationship between the Democratic Press and the Party in the Antebellum North in This Distracted and Anarchical People: New Answers for Old Questions about the Civil War–Era North.