In these polarized times, Americans have a partisan media that suits the circumstances. Or do biased news and information sources drive the polarization? Whatever the case, public trust in the mass media to accurately report the news is about as low as pollsters have ever found it. The marked ebbing of trust comes as people consume information, credible or not, from more sources than ever before: social media, blogs, podcasts, web sites, YouTube channels, etc.
But before you pine for the good old days of a neutral press, you should be aware that the notion that journalism should be professional and independent rather than partisan is relatively new in U.S. history. From the beginning of the republic, the first newspapers and pamphlets were openly political. And by 1860, about 80% of American newspapers were partisan journals “that promoted the interests of a given political party,” according to Penn State’s digital Civil War archive. The era of yellow journalism followed in the late 19th century.
Is today’s trust problem the result of rank partisanship or other forms of bias? Do the sheer number of sources and relentless firehose of information, no matter the veracity, simply make it impossible to sort fact from opinion, news from conspiracy theories?
In this episode of History As It Happens, University of Missouri historian Jeff Pasley, author of “The Tyranny of the Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic,” discusses the similarities in media bias between the 1790s and today. In the internet age, the web is teeming with political news and commentary that makes no effort at balance or fairness. Rather, just as in the 1790s, the aim is to damage the opponent.
“The conventional newspaper is not dead yet, but almost dead. The replacement by first cable news and radio and then blogs and internet-based publications has created a situation that’s quite a bit more like the 1790s partisan press,” Mr. Pasley said.
One major difference, however, is that while the partisan press of the late 18th and early 19th centuries encouraged readers to engage in the democratic process, today’s highly polarizing media ecosystem seems to be tearing at the fabric of society, Mr. Pasley said. Politics are permeating everything.
Listen to Mr. Pasley talk about the origins of the partisan news media by downloading this episode of History As It Happens.