Amanda Bennett is a contributing columnist for The Post.
In the United States, we prize journalistic objectivity and sharply criticize those we suspect of breaching it. Presidential candidates seek neutral moderators for their debates and excoriate questioners they see as too tough or less than objective. After the first Republican presidential debate, Donald Trump lashed out at moderator Megyn Kelly, charging bias after she asked him about his statements on women. Hillary Clinton supporters accuse the media of prematurely predicting her downfall. On one side, people decry the “liberal media”; on the other, they mock Fox News’s claims of being “fair and balanced.”
Of course, cries for objectivity are often only thin masks for the outrage a subject feels when observers don’t see things the way he or she thinks they should. Still, as a general rule, the public often seems to believe that the press is supposed to be objective and that something is wrong when it is not. There is a palpable sense that we have somehow strayed from a golden era of press objectivity, and a correspondent longing to return to those days.
Once complication: Those Shangri-La days never really existed — or at least not for long. Media has much more frequently been a partisan pastime, ever since the country was created. Yet efforts to define and practice objectivity through the years quickly devolved into arguments about just what objectivity meant. “Ask ten journalists what objectivity means and you’ll get ten different answers,” then-managing editor Brent Cunningham wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2003, when debates over reporting on the recent U.S. invasion of Iraq were in full swing. As early as 1798, Americans were already debating whether the First Amendment only banned the government from interfering with a planned publication, or whether it also should prevent the government from punishing its critics by imprisoning writers on flimsy charges of publishing falsehoods, as it did several times.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was common to have political parties supporting various newspapers. Even as late as the mid-20th century, editorial pages of some papers took their cues directly from the leaders of various political parties. In fact, some argue that it was the rise of the mass market, more than idealism, that helped drive the news industry toward an ethic of objectivity around the middle of the last century.
“It was actually the advertisers,” said Debra van Tuyll, a professor of communications at Augusta University. “People didn’t want to tick them off. If we have partisan [Democratic] views then we won’t have Republican advertisers” and vice versa. With greater neutrality, papers thought: “We can become a newspaper for everyone selling hundreds of thousands of copies, and everyone can advertise.”
Thomas Terry, a professor of journalism and communication at Utah State University and the former owner of a small group of community newspapers, agrees. He said the desire to appeal to the masses was one force behind many newspapers’ failing to report on racial issues, especially in the South. “You don’t want to offend your audience,” he said. “Democrats and Republicans, wealthy and poor, immigrant and native — you had to appeal to all of those.”
Of course even then, as today, really divisive events split readers, writers and those they write about. The line “nattering nabobs of negativism” was famously the result of this friction. Uttered by Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1970 to describe his press and other critics (although actually penned by the columnist William Safire), it became shorthand for media bias.
“As the ‘60s progressed, the news media came under attack from the right as never before, with critics led by Agnew alleging that journalists’ liberal bias had caused them to abandon their objectivity,” Matthew Pressman, a history PhD candidate at Boston University and a former journalist, wrote in an email. “At the same time, people within the profession began saying that objectivity was an outdated and harmful ideal, mainly for the same reasons people cite today: that it muzzles journalists, leads to he-said-she-said coverage and favors the powerful/reinforces the status quo.”
After that, the media tried to practice a puritanical form of objectivity for years. It was — and still is — common for newspaper editors and reporters to register as independents. Some go further: Leonard Downie Jr., former editor of The Washington Post, declined to vote at all. During the 2004 presidential campaign between George W. Bush and John Kerry, when I was editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, reader charges of coverage bias left me spending a distressing amount of time with a ruler, measuring the size of the photos and counting column inches devoted to each candidate.
Some researchers now say that far from being a departure from an ideal past, today’s sharp partisan criticisms of bias actually reflect a return to normal. “Perhaps MSNBC and Fox, et al., actually do represent a return to the partisan origins of American media (in the 18th and 19th centuries) and objectivity is an anomaly,” Terry said. Audiences have fragmented into small special interest groups similar to what existed when this country began.
“My theory is that we never actually lost the partisan ideal,” said van Tuyll at Augusta University. “The partisan press is the normal state of journalism.”