The demise of media objectivity
American media have come full circle. Newspapers, among the only media in Colonial times, were highly partisan, and truth was not a priority. Today, newspaper and TV media have returned to that point.
Before the Revolution, in many towns, one man with a printing press published a paper, venting his own opinions. If that stirred up anyone else, the offended one was likely to start his own paper. Competition made up for the lack of objectivity.
In the 1800s, the rise of political parties and the invention of high-speed printing presses caused a spurt in circulation, and many papers blossomed. In the 20th century, media chains began to dominate, and they had a noticeable impact on politics. William Randolph Hearst helped get Franklin Roosevelt the presidency but soon turned on him and became his severest critic.
With government gaining power, and politicians growing unhappy over public scrutiny, publishers became nervous about the future of the press. They created a commission to study the media. The Hutchins Commission published a report called "A Free and Responsible Press," calling upon the press to be responsible in order to avoid any possibility of government control.
As is often the case, remedies were behind the curve. TV news was becoming a force and provided needed competition. But newspapers also had discovered that objectivity was a good thing. It was appreciated by readers and did not drive half the readers away.
The good newspapers took to heart the commission's standard: "The first requirement is that the media be accurate. They should not lie."
There were 1,749 American newspapers in 1945. By the end of 2014, the number had shrunk to 1,331, according to the Brookings Institution. The peak was around 1970, and there was a steep plunge from 2006 to date as the internet blossomed and robbed papers of classified and display ads.
Most papers now concentrate on their digital editions, and printed papers are almost an afterthought.
In the meantime, objectivity steadily had lost ground, which unquestionably was a contributing factor. In 2016, the media dropped all pretense of it, for the most part, and have been on a rampage since then. Several networks such as CNN and MSNBC conduct a virtual 24/7 rant against the president — and with him capitalism, conservatism, Christianity, and other aspects of traditional American culture, no matter the cost in viewership.
Fortunately, the social media gave people more opportunity to express their own opinions and reach millions, cutting into the media monopoly.
But as the media giants consolidate, and objectivity shrinks, the same concerns that arose 75 years ago are being revived.
Those in the media might want to consider the warning from the Hutchins Commission:
No democracy will indefinitely tolerate concentration of private power, irresponsible and strong enough to thwart the democratic aspirations of the people. If these giant agencies of communication are irresponsible, not even the First Amendment will protect their freedom from government control. The Amendment will be amended.
When you hear talk today of curbs on the media, consider this background. It is largely a self-imposed problem.