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Learning to Trust Again

“Objectivity” may never have been the right thing to look for in the media.

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

In January, the Knight Foundation issued a new report on “trust, media, and democracy.” It was a long document—71 pages, with eight headings atop 28 bullet points in the “Key Findings” section alone—and took a detailed look at why modern news organizations struggle to “fulfill their democratic responsibilities of informing the public and holding government leaders accountable.” The report identified many contributing factors, but none more than the perception among the public that the nation’s news organizations weren’t being objective. According to a Gallup-Knight survey conducted for the report, fewer than half of all Americans could think of a news source that “reports the news objectively.” Political partisanship had, apparently, so eroded trust that respondents to a “media trust scale” rated their belief in the news at an abysmal 37 out of 100.

Implicit in both the report and its findings was the assumption that journalism should be objective and nonpartisan—and that the current state of affairs is unusual because it lacks both qualities. It represents a nostalgia for the supposed glory days when the press was the hero behind Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, and when integrity and independence mattered to journalists and publishers. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” Lyndon Baines Johnson (reportedly) said, “I’ve lost the country.” These are concerns over which the current president likely does not lose much sleep.

Widespread objective, nonpartisan media did once exist in this country, from roughly the 1950s to the late 1970s. But at the time, that was something new, too. Before that, there was no press other than the partisan press. Newspapers controlled by the Federalists branded Thomas Jefferson an “infidel,” while the Democratic-Republican press called George Washington a “traitor.” Before journalism became a “profession” in the Progressive Era, newspaper editors organized parties and held meetings in their offices. So if the passage of modern objective news is lamentable, it is also not all that surprising. Objective reporting in this country arose from a unique confluence of circumstances: a consolidation of distribution technologies (more network television and fewer local newspapers), broad political consensus and bipartisanship, and a strong professional credo of independence. These factors came together like never before and perhaps never again.

With the advent of television, networks began experimenting with serious news programs, eventually enshrined in the 30-minute network news programs of the 1960s. People watched. Lots of them. What choice did they have? Americans consumed more or less the same news, which made it easier to agree on a single set of facts and narratives. Such consensus, unthinkable today, also stemmed from the existing political dynamics. In the postwar years, Democrats and Republicans were not the attack-oriented and ideologically disciplined teams they have become today but rather two loose, overlapping coalitions, with national programs similar enough to one another’s that they didn’t require entirely different facts and values to justify their existence. Political leaders might quibble with the tone or emphasis of news coverage—Nixon was famous for this—but what, really, could they do about it? The mainstream media served as both information gatekeeper and arbiter of fairness. There was no place else to go.

Equally important was that newspapers underwent a dramatic consolidation around this time. For decades, small cities in the United States had morning and evening newspapers with different political slants. Take Charleston, West Virginia, which published the conservative Daily Mail in the morning and the liberal Gazette in the afternoon. As television and radio expanded, the subscription base of newspapers collapsed, sinking news diversity along with it. Chains like Knight Ridder and McClatchy and Scripps took over the smaller markets, pushing out the other voices and imposing a wide-gauge, politically neutral uniformity. Between 1945 and 1968, the number of cities with two or more daily newspapers declined by more than 60 percent. Circulations at the remaining large publications swelled, and the publishers chose to accommodate subscribers, and of course advertisers, by catering to a broad—and yes, objective—range of political views.

The nonpartisan news consensus began to unravel in the 1980s. Cable television imposed a new kind of pressure on the broadcast networks, forcing them to forgo the serious, fact-based news that was the staple of objective, nonpartisan professional journalism in favor of eye-grabbing sensationalism. In 1969, 58 percent of network news stories had “civic affairs” content; by 1997, that number had fallen to just 36 percent. In 1987, Reagan revoked the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to provide balanced news coverage, and conservative talk radio exploded: Between 1990 and 2009, the number of news or talk radio stations increased more than sixfold, reaching 53 million listeners per week. In 1996, Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News, which became the first partisan national television news network, forever altering the norms and underlying values of the profession. The internet did the rest.

The current wave of media consolidation has not resulted in more objectivity, as anyone who has ventured online for a read knows. Opinion-oriented blogs and full-fledged opinion web sites have supplanted many of the outlets of traditional media in influence, resulting in a sprawling range of partisan content. Professional norms have adapted to the dynamics of the new reality, self-optimizing for the powerful emotions of anger, threat, and outrage. This is great for political engagement—see Fox News—but bad for objectivity.

Is there a way to reverse the trend? Probably not. U.S. politics is now organized largely around national issues, which makes pragmatic compromise harder: People are less likely to give ground on these broad, symbolic issues, which tend to take on an all-or-nothing quality in the service of zero-sum partisan warfare. More important, Republican ideology has evolved from a vague antipathy to academics and intellectuals into an all-out hostility to almost all forms of science and expertise. Note that in the Knight Foundation report, it is Republicans who overwhelmingly—67 percent—claim to see a “great deal” of media bias, while only 26 percent of Democrats do. For people consuming rightward media, truth is not the stuff of fact checks and scientific method. It has an almost religious quality and is a matter of faith and feeling.

Technology will surely change again. Perhaps in a new era of virtual reality, the costs of news production will rise, and so, too, will the barriers to entry, pushing the bloggers and political hotheads out of the game and restoring objectivity. But even if the hot takers depart, opinions in hand, there is no guarantee that something good will replace them: Lack of news diversity could easily translate into centralized, totalitarian power, which may be one reason why the anti-tyranny ethos of the early United States produced a First Amendment that protected the free press.

More likely, Americans will have to learn to live with partisan media, which is the norm in most democracies, just as conflict and contestation are democratic norms (consensus politics deprives voters of meaningful choices). Partisan media can amplify existing partisan divisions—see Fox News yet again—but mostly they reflect them. In a political system divided on fundamental questions of science, religion, and national identity, the question of what responsible media looks like will only get more pressing—but it can’t be answered in terms of “objectivity.”