Yesterday the New York Times ran a piece about the U-T San Diego (formerly the San Diego Union-Tribune), the southern California daily owned by hotel magnate Douglas Manchester.* The paper, according to media reporter David Carr, may be part of a “future” in which “moneyed interests buy papers and use them to prosecute a political and commercial agenda. ” The piece led me to two thoughts, one on the history and one on the future.
The history is easy: Manchester’s move to simply take over a journalistic enterprise to promote his commercial and political interests is classic nineteenth-century journalism. In fact, as most journalism historians would argue (I think, anyway), the ideal of “objectivity” has a much shorter lived history in journalism than does the partisan nature of the press. It’s how Weed and Hearst made their money, how Andrew Jackson controlled the narrative of his Presidency, and the reason why there are two sets of “official” transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
That’s not to say that during this period no one claimed to be impartial. On the contrary. In my own work [ed.: shameless plug alert!] I’m trying to show that paeans to impartiality were a self-negating means of producing politically pointed news. Or to put it another way, and to paraphrase the movie musical 1776 (itself ripping off Franklin): impartiality is only visible in the first person: I’m impartial!, and partiality only in the third: he’s biased!
That media analysts like Carr fail to acknowledge this history in writing the narrative of the changes in journalism over the past few years is disappointing. Instead we get treated to Golden Age pablum:
Many of us grew up in towns where the daily paper was in bed with civic leaders, but the shared interest was generally expressed on the editorial page. Occasionally, appropriate lines of inquiry would be suspiciously ignored in coverage, but the news pages were just that, news.
I’ll take my bias the old-fashioned way, thank you very much.
As for the future, I must admit that I’m still trying to sort out how to interpret this through a historical lens. In many regards, I want to be cautious. The nineteenth century was a Golden Age for partisan journalism (whether party- or business-based), but an awful lot has happened since then. We live now in a cultural milieu that seeks unbiased news, whatever that means, and a move towards more partisan-oriented journalism has consequences.
On the other hand, as media critic Jay Rosen has argued for several years, the “View from Nowhere” no longer serves even the function it once purported to serve. Saying where one stands as a journalist may eventually prove far more effective at communicating information and the contours of a debate than the weak-kneed “he said, she said” journalism we’re frequently presented today. But doing so means that Manchester gets to own a newspaper that proclaims a viewpoint, and if he’s going to do those things, it’s to the good that he say so, as Rosen noted on Twitter.
In any case, combined with last week’s discussion of movie mash-ups involving Lincoln and vigilante freedmen and the news that gonorrhea is making an antibiotic-resistant comeback, the nineteenth century is having quite a run.
* If his name sounds familiar to the historians out there, Manchester was locked in a labor dispute with several unions at hotels that were used for the 2010 AHA convention.