Man Bites Dog: Columnist Reveals Truth About History of 'Journalism'
By Staff News & Analysis - February 26, 2013

Unsolicited advice for Jeff Zucker, CNN's new boss … As Zucker seeks inspiration for CNN, I can guarantee he won't devote himself to the 300-year history of the American newspaper. But he could do worse than to review the early decades of the 19th century, when most newspapers operated as adjuncts to the political parties, much as Fox and MSNBC have aligned themselves with the Republicans and the Democrats. The newspapers of that era relied on the parties for support and content, transmitted political catechism to the party, and warred with the opposition, much as Fox and MSNBC do today. – Reuters/Jack Shafer

Dominant Social Theme: Reporters, like politicians, are 21st century technocratic priests.

Free-Market Analysis: We've written about the history of newspapering – pamphleteering really – but were nonetheless surprised to find a brief synopsis by Reuters columnist Jack Shafer.

This is unusual. Twenty-first century journalism suffers from the same technocratic piousness that almost every other part of Western society is infected with. Experts abound, caring, passionate and professional – though in reality we know so little about ourselves and our history that "expert" is a silly term.

There are no experts, not really. And the idea that reporters, culturally programmed young men and women just out of journalism school, can somehow take on the role of dispassionate observers is equally silly. Reporting is actually one of the most biased of all activities because it is the methodology whereby Money Power disseminates its memes – dominant social themes of scarcity and fear.

One of the reasons that the alternative 'Net media has been so successful is because many bloggers and writers on the Internet don't pretend that they are unbiased. They have defaulted to what originally passed for journalism – the opinionated ramblings of better or lesser scribes whose prerequisite in this modern is simply an electronic soap box.

What passes for truth on the Internet, to some degree, is simply undisguised opinion – but what's wrong with that? Opinion is good. It's useful. We set our own conclusions against it and occasionally we are enlightened.

What has gotten the mainstream media in so much trouble in this Internet era is not just that people can see what is being left out (unreported) but also that much of what IS reported is quite biased even though there is no acknowledgement that it is.

For this reason, Jack Shafer's advice is startling – not because it is original but because it can be found on Reuters. Like much else in the 21st century, the history of the media has been obscured over time and Reuters is one of the main re-shapers of the Western narrative. Nonetheless, Shafer has managed to write a column that tells some of the truth about the origins of what is today known as journalism. Here's more:

Purely partisan newspapers dominated the news market until the arrival of Benjamin Day's New York Sun in 1833. Day considered readers, not the parties, his customers, writes Christopher B. Daly in Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation's Journalism. "No longer would the newspaper (or at least his newspaper) be dependent on officeholders for subsidies, printing contracts, or other spoils of political victory. Instead the Sun would be independent, handing out praise and criticism to politicians of any party according to merit," Daly writes.

Inspired by Day's success, James Gordon Bennett started the competing New York Herald in 1835, and New York readers switched en masse to these upstarts. These two papers strove to provide something for everyone. They were concise and entertaining, they relied on storytelling to convey the news, they squeezed the police blotter for the most salacious criminal news and gave saturation coverage to the financial beat, and they brought showmanship to the pages. By moving the definition of news outside the limited penumbra cast by the political press, they vastly expanded the newspaper audience, which had been limited to popularity of the parties, Daly observes.

In his debut issue, Bennett wrote: "We shall support no party, be the organ of no faction or coterie, and care nothing for any election or any candidate, from president down to constable. We shall endeavor to record facts on every public and proper subject, stripped of verbiage and coloring, with comments when suitable, just, independent, fearless, and good-tempered."

This is very good. Mr. Shafer knows his pamphleteering – er … newspapering. We can see here the gradual evolution of modern journalism, though actually Shafer has left out another viewpoint, which is that modern journalism got its start during the Civil War that forced on-the-scene observers to write what they saw.

Of course, our paradigm is a bit more complex. It could be that modern journalism was destined to pay lip-service to objectivity, given the professionalization of the craft. But we have to think that the powers-that-be were satisfied with such a trend.

Let young people believe they ought to be objective and they will gladly report your narrative without comment. Today's journalism too often includes a rigorous determination to hold common sense in abeyance.

Is Shafer's brief historical recitation a hopeful sign that journos are beginning to remember the roots of their calling? No major news organization today admits to "bias" – or at least not as it affects news coverage and yet invariably mainstream news and information are relentlessly dishonest.

After Thoughts

Recognizing that bias – and how it operates – is the first step in the rehabilitation process.

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