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American Journalism Comes Full Circle

The characteristic of the American journalist consists in an open and coarse appeal to the passions of his readers; he abandons principles to assail the characters of individuals, to track them into private life and disclose all their weaknesses and vices.

A description of Andrew Breitbart’s consistently scummy contributions to our public discourse? A reaction to ideological strategizing among the members of the liberal listserve Journolist? Hardly. The quotation comes from the first volume of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, published in 1835. The passage is useful because it reminds us of something we tend to forget in the midst of our moralistic posturing about Journalistic Ideals, the rise of groupthink, and the descent of the media into rumor-mongering trash talk. What we forget is that extreme partisanship and vulgar advocacy on the part of journalists is nothing new in the United States. It is, on the contrary, the historic norm.

When Tocqueville visited the young United States in 1831, the press consisted almost entirely of partisan broadsheets. The political commitments of each paper’s publisher were obvious in nearly every story. Politicians and citizens on the same side received favorable coverage while opponents were regularly savaged with a viciousness that rivals our most rabid bloggers. There were Democratic newspapers and Whig newspapers, pro-slavery and anti-slavery newspapers, and so forth, through all the major issues of the day.

Not until the heyday of Progressivism in the 1910s did writers begin to advocate an ideal of objectivity for the press, and not until the years following the Second World War did major newspapers and magazines begin to uphold with any consistency that standard in the newsroom while relegating political opinion to the editorial page. By the middle of the twentieth century, reporters were expected to strive for neutrality, compiling a litany of unbiased facts that were presented to readers who would then discharge their civic duties by making political decisions in their light. It truly was the high tide of postwar liberalism.

But when it comes to journalism, it seems, our future is our past. Where there were a few hundred newspapers in the 1830s, today there are thousands of political bloggers, each of them vying for attention and influence by screaming into computer-amplified megaphones. The numbers are greater and the medium is different, but the style is the same: libelous exaggeration and furious passions rule the day, every day, on every side of every public dispute, drowning out the few who resist choosing sides and joining the partisan battle.

As he did with nearly everything he observed in the United States, Tocqueville traced the rancorous character of American journalism to the character of American democracy (by which he largely meant our commitment to the principle of equality). In a country where citizens actively deny, in the name of equality, that any public institution possesses the authority to determine the community’s common good, the battle among individuals and groups over competing civic visions will be fierce.

Viewed in the light of this history, the middle years of the twentieth century were the exception—the years when high-minded journalists managed for a few decades to set themselves up as a recognized public authority in the United States, empowered to act as arbiters of opinion and the country’s common good. But it couldn’t last—and not only because the ideal of objectivity could never be perfectly realized. It couldn’t last, above all, because the democratic convictions of American citizens make them especially receptive to the claim they are being unjustly ruled—that all authority is arbitrary authority.

And so here we are: Once-great institutions of journalism—the one-time gatekeepers of political opinion-making—in financial free-fall and writers on both sides of the aisle outdoing themselves in a contest to see how slanted they can be in the presentation and analysis of the news. Welcome home, America.