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University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Fall and Rise of Partisan Journalism

* Editor’s note: This article reprises Prof. Baughman’s presentation at our 3rd annual ethics conference on 4/15/11.  You can watch video of the speech here.

You don’t need to have a degree in history — or even to have paid much attention when you suffered the US history survey course as an undergraduate — to know that American newspapers were very partisan in the 19th century.  “Editors,” wrote one historian, “unabashedly shaped the news and their editorial comment to partisan purposes.  They sought to convert the doubters, recover the wavering, and hold the committed.  ‘The power of the press,’ one journalist candidly explained, ‘consists not in its logic or eloquence, but in its ability to manufacture facts, or to give coloring to facts that have occurred.’”[i]

Party newspapers gave one-sided versions of the news.  Papers in opposition to Andrew Jackson in 1828 attacked him for marrying a woman before her divorce had been finalized.  He was the violator of marital virtue, a seducer.  Jackson, one paper declared, “tore from a husband the wife of his bosom.”  Pro-Jackson newspapers insisted on the general’s innocence, and accused his critics of violating his privacy.  There was no objective, middle ground.[ii]
Stories that might flatter the opposition went unreported — or under-reported.  As one historian observed, “The truth was not suppressed.  It was simply hard to get in any one place.”[iii] When Democrat Grover Cleveland won the presidency in 1884, the Republican Los Angeles Times simply failed to report this unhappy result for several days.[iv]

Newspaper economics partly explained why, as one veteran editor observed in 1873, the press “was bound to party.”[v] Before the Civil War, parties actually subsidized the operations of many newspapers.  Sometimes directly, sometimes through government printing contracts.  In many cases, the subsidies were indirect and unknown to readers.  Editors or their reporters worked part time for state legislators or members of Congress.  Some of these relationships continued late in the 19th century. Needless to say, they were not terribly ethical.

Journalism historians, including our School’s founder, Willard Bleyer, regarded the party press as a bad thing.  Bleyer fervently believed newspapers had an obligation to educate the citizenry on matters of public policy.  A biased news medium was bad for a self-governing people.

Although Bleyer reflected the views of several generations of journalism historians, more recent work has broken with this consensus.  Gerald Baldasty and others argue that the party papers encouraged democratic participation, that they treated readers as citizens and voters, not passive observers.  Declared the Worchester (Mass.) Spy in 1832, “Go the polls [and] see that your neighbor goes there and vote for the men who have always been faithful to you and your interests.”[vi] And voter turnouts, especially in the northern states, reached record levels, over 80 percent in 1856.

The more objective, detached journalists that Bleyer favored may have done their job too well.  By examining politicians too closely, Thomas C. Leonard suggests, the press left the voter feeling helpless, even cynical, regarding the electoral process.  Why bother?  The percentage of voters turning out for elections dropped sharply in the 20th century, that is, once most newspapers ceased being party organs.[vii] An average of about 60 percent voted in the last three presidential elections.[viii]

At the same time, scholars like Baldasty maintain that the decline of the partisan press is not explained, as Bleyer would have hoped, by a more responsible, professional attitude among journalists and editors, many trained in new schools of journalism at Madison and elsewhere.

Baldasty contends that commercial factors encouraged many newspapers to become less partisan.  The cost of publishing a daily paper, especially in the largest cities, began growing to the point that party subsidies no longer covered operating costs.  Even more, the presence of new revenue sources, specifically department stores and other retailers, more than made up for old party subsidies.  Yet these new advertisers all but insisted that editors expand their reach, and be less partisan.[ix]

Such considerations drove most, though not all, newspapers to present the news more objectively.  Newspapers did not march in lock step, especially in the 1930s, when the Chicago Tribune made no effort to disguise its distaste for Franklin Roosevelt.  There were other holdouts, including, for many years, the Los Angeles Times.

Still, I would argue that by the 1950s most newspapers, large and small, as well as the broadcast networks, tried to present the news objectivity.  What factors, in effect, closed the deal?   The relative neutrality of broadcast journalists was explained in large measure by federal regulations that all but mandated fairness.  But there are other explanations as to why our national news culture, whether print or broadcast, preferred the middle ground.

The middle ground was more populated.  By that I mean that partisanship in the 1950s was less intense. This was in some degree because the Cold War had created a consensus on foreign policy, and much of the Republican party had accepted the outlines of the welfare state created in the 1930s.  Even Robert A. Taft, the Republican Senate leader detractors said had the best 19th century mind in the upper chamber, favored federal housing programs.

“Old Party divisions are less meaningful,”  wrote one Fortune magazine writer in 1960.  “American political debate is increasingly conducted in a bland, even-tempered atmosphere and extremists of any kind are becoming rare.”[x] The differences were often subtle, having less to do with ideology than life style.  One journalist told the political scientist Clinton Rossiter that you could tell the Democrats at a Rotary lunch. Their  “dress is more casual, salutes are more boisterous, jokes are more earthy.”[xi] As to Republicans, a friend growing up in suburban Milwaukee in the 1950s recalled, “I was led to understand that the way to tell a Republican household was that it owned a martini pitcher.”

In the late 1960s and 1970s we began to see a greater division among our two major political parties.  The Vietnam war fractured the Cold War consensus, mainly among more liberal Democrats.  We had a much more active debate about fundamentals of US foreign policy.

At the same time, conservatives slowly became more conservative, and began to increase their influence within the Republican party.  Moderate Republicans as a species all but vanished.  A more conservative Republican party challenged some of the premises of the welfare state (and more recently, labor policies), as well as progressive income tax rates.

At same time, mainstream news media (larger metropolitan daily papers and networks news) lost some if not much of their authority.  Part of that loss was due to a change in what constituted objective news presentation.  This is something Stephen Ward wrote about so ably in his first book.[xii] Reporters were encouraged to add analysis into their stories.  Such analytical reporting more often than not, I think, had a liberal centrist slant.  Not hard liberal.  Not Rachel Maddow liberal.  Maybe “neo-liberal.”  Here, I draw on Herbert Gans’s classic study of four major news organizations.[xiii]

Look at the The New York Times in 1960 vs. 2010.  The reportage is more interpretive.  This is not a problem for me, but it is an issue for my more conservative friends (and I have them).  The more analytical journalism could be off-putting for those on the fringes, left and especially on the right.  One reader’s analysis is another reader’s opinion.  Sixty percent of those surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2009 believed reporting was politically biased.[xiv]

There is a related problem that editors note and I encountered when I gave public service talks as director of the journalism school….a lot of people can’t distinguish the editorial page from the rest of the paper.  Some assume the worst, that the editorial views of the newspaper inform the rest of the paper.

Various missteps by the mainstream media did not help.

–For many of those opposed to the Iraq war, New York Times’ mishandling of claims that Hussein had WMD in 2003

–For Republicans in 2004,  the flaws in CBS News’s reports about President Bush’s military service during the Vietnam war.

News organizations have always made mistakes, but they have greater consequences when the consumers have somewhere else to go.  A safe harbor.

Safe harbors became visible in 1987, when the end of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine empowered Rush Limbaugh and a much more opinionated talk radio.  Then, in 1996, came Fox News, soon followed by the Internet, with webs sites and blogs.  All provided conservatives safe harbors for their world views.

There were safe harbors as well for those holding more liberal views, if we look at Huffington Post a few years ago or substitute MSNBC for Fox.

Has partisan journalism returned?  Yes, but only in part.  We need to remember that most Americans don’t watch Fox News or MSNBC. Limbaugh claims to have the largest audience of any radio host.  But most Americans on a given day do not listen to his program or view Glenn Beck.  Most Americans are not fierce partisans.  Independents are the largest block of voters.

Let’s look at the numbers.  Much has been made of the declining popularity of the network evening newscasts.   Katie Couric, anchor of The CBS Evening News, has had a particularly rough few years.  Her newscast reached what the New York Times reported Monday as “a record low” of 4.89 million viewers last August.[xv] Well, according to the Pew Research Center, Couric still drew roughly a third more viewers than The O’Reilly Factor, and nearly four times what Keith Olbermann’s Countdown averaged in 2010.

Although the audiences for the new party press should not be exaggerated, we should acknowledge that its fans are more likely to be politically engaged.  Or, as Louis Menand wrote in 2009, “people who need an ideological fix.”[xvi] The new partisan media can inspire or simply reassure those resting on the ideological fringes.  If you belong to the Tea Party, you have Glenn Beck.  If you think the Koch Brothers are trying to purchase the State of Wisconsin, you have Ed Schultz.

You have a safe harbor.

So have we gone full circle?  Is it 1850 all over again?  I think not.  Perhaps not even half way.

In contrast to the factious newspaper culture of the mid-19th century, today’s media culture is in fact divided between the new partisan media of the radio, internet and cable, and those news outlets that still endeavor to report the news seriously.  Serious news services won’t, for example, provide platforms for those who insist the President was born in Kenya, or that the Bush administration was behind the destruction of the World Trade Center.

As I noted, the serious or adult journalists still have the larger audience.  But can they keep at it?  And, more to the point, does that larger audience really pay the freight?

Roger Ailes brilliantly understood this when he founded Fox News in 1996.  Ailes anticipated an argument that Joseph Turow[xvii] made a year later that the media business model was changing.  Advertisers, who had once pressed newspaper publishers to covet a mass audience, were now in search of niche audiences.  The successful media entrepreneur, whether publishing a magazine or creating a cable channel, went after sub-groups of readers or viewers.  In the case of Fox News, cultivating a niche audience of 60-something conservatives.

Ailes also recognized that news-gathering is far more expensive than opinion-spouting.  It is far cheaper to produce a show from New York than to send reporters, like the Center’s very own and gifted Anthony Shadid, into harm’s way.  And consumers of cable news understand this difference as well, when France, Britain and the United States launched air strikes against Libya several weeks ago, viewers turned to CNN, not Fox.  (Alas, we cannot count on new military interventions to prop up CNN’s ratings.)

Should everyone remain calm?  After all, America survived the fiercely partisan press of the 19th century.  But just barely.  The robustness of political engagement then could not prevent the Civil War, and eliminate slavery peaceably.  I am not so sure that Bleyer and others were so wrong to condemn the party press.

As in the 1850s, Americans have to make tough decisions.  Not ones, fortunately, involving something as evil as slavery, but still difficult choices about our future.  Fiscal crises on the state and national level require some compromise, the finding of common ground.   The new partisan press, consumed so lustily by party activists, makes finding that common ground seemingly impossible, or much more difficult than it was a half century ago.  And our political culture, as in the 1850s, has become deeply dysfunctional.[xviii]



James L. Baughman has been a member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism faculty since 1979 and was director of the journalism school from 2003 to 2009.

Baughman has written extensively on the history of American journalism and broadcasting. His books include Henry R. Luce and the Rise of the Modern American News Media, Republic of Mass Culture, and Same Time, Same Station: Creating American Television, 1948-1961. He is currently writing a history of American political journalism since 1960.

An Ohio native, Baughman earned his BA from Harvard and an MA, M.Phil. and Ph.D. from Columbia. In addition to numerous University committee assignments, he served on the Wisconsin Advisory Committee to the U. S. Civil Rights Commission from 1985 to 1992 and was chairperson from 1990 to 1992.

[i]William E. Gienapp, ‘”Politics Seem to Enter into Everything’: Political Culture in the North, 1840-1860,” in Essays on Antebellum Politics, 1840-1860, ed. Gienapp, et al. (College Station, Tex: Texas A & M University Press, 1982),  p. 41.

[ii]Norma Basch, “Marriage, Morals, and Politics in the Election of 1828,” Journal of American History 80 (December 1993), p. 897.

[iii]Mark Wahlgren Summers, Press Gang: Newspapers & Politics, 1863-1878 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), p. 56.

[iv]Joan Didion, After Henry (New York: Vintage, 1993), p. 227.

[v]Frederic Hudson, Journalism in the United States, from 1690 to 1872 (New York: Harper & Bros., 1873), p. 414.

[vi]Gerald J. Baldasty, The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), p. 28.

[vii]Leonard, The Power of the Press: The Birth of American Political Reporting (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), ch. 7.

[viii]David Paul Kuhn, “The Huge Voter Turnout?  Didn’t Happen,” Politico, 9 November 2008.

[ix]Baldasty, pp. 53-54, 56-58, 143.

[x]Daniel Seligman, “The New Masses,” in America in the Sixties: The Economy and the Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), p. 118.

[xi]Rossiter, Parties and Politics in America (New York: New American Library, 1960), p. 123.

[xii]Stephen J. A. Ward, The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004), ch. 6.

[xiii]Gans, Deciding What’s News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek & Time (New York: Pantheon, 1979).

[xiv]Cited in Louis Menand, “Chin Music,” New Yorker, 2 November 2009, p. 40.

[xv]Bill Carter, “After 5 Years, Couric and CBS Are Said to Seek Exit Strategy,” New York Times, 11 April 2011.

[xvi]Menand, p. 40.

[xvii]Turow, Breaking Up America: Advertisers and the New Media World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

[xviii]Depressingly suggestive in this regard is David Donald, “An Excess of Democracy: The American Civil Ward and the Social Process,” in Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era, 2nd ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), pp. 209-35.


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