A Return to Partisan Press?
November 17th, 2011
Although the “Partisan Press” era, during which newspapers were controlled by individuals or organizations who could advance their own agendas and views, was prominent over 200 years ago, the media landscape of today still reflects the nature of that era, albeit in a less overt way. In their study on effects of partisan press on U.S. elections, Carson and Hood point out that during the partisan press era, “newspapers actually carried out many of the functions directly relegated to political parties in later points of time including voter mobilization, platform/policy dissemination, and candidate advertising” (Carson & Hood, 2008: 3). While newspapers, magazines, and television news channels today are not financially linked to one party, it can be argued that with the proliferation of talk radio and cable news in the past decade, the media in the United States is more politically segregated now than it has been in the past. Outlets such as Fox News and MSNBC have hired current or past politicians affiliated with the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively, suggesting these channels may be acting as indirect political advertisements.
Political bias in the media is not a new phenomenon, but the current segregation of the media is dangerously partisan. Audiences are increasingly drawn to news outlets that simply support their own worldviews, rather than offering two distinct sides of a story: James T. Hamilton studied this and reported that “the farther a product is from an individual’s worldview, the more likely the person will be to say the media outlet is biased” (Hamilton, 2004: 106). The change in ways audiences can access news, through television, radio, and ever increasingly the internet and blogosphere, means that individuals can pick and choose the opinions they want to listen to, and ignore those they do not agree with.
Audiences are not only becoming more separate, they are also becoming smaller, and, as reported by The Atlantic in 2010, the number of Americans who do not consume news daily increased from 1998-2008. Therefore it is more likely that those who do take an interest in the news and politics will be more strongly affiliated with a particular party, and as a result of this news outlets may feel they can also be more overt about their own political leanings. If, for example, Fox News knows that their audience is primarily conservative, it is in their favor to report in a conservative way to retain their audience. If they do not, audiences may find other outlets that tell them what they want to hear. Theoretically independent media organizations should not be partisan, and are not funded directly by political parties. But when organizations find that pandering to one side will lead to more advertising revenue and higher ratings, they become a sort of indirect advertisement for each party. Interestingly, recently Roger Ailes, the conservative head of Fox News, commented on this hyper-partisan media situation and suggested he is now leaning away from a partisan era by refusing to hire Tim Pawlanty as a “paid spokesperson for Romney.”
Even as Ailes retracts from a partisan media model, it may be too late to halt the return to an era of partisan press. If we are returning to such a strongly partisan media environment, it would arguably be better to have some overtly partisan outlets, as there were in the Partisan Press era. Having an independent media is one of the backbones of modern democracy, but if certain outlets are simply masquerading as “independent” while really advancing the ideas of one major party, wouldn’t it be better to say so outright? Perhaps admitting the United States has a combination of neutral and politically biased outlets would be more honest than the current thinking.
Carson, J. L. and Hood III, M. V., (2008). The effect of the partisan press on U.S. house elections, 1800-1820. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the MPSA Annual National Conference, Palmer House Hotel, Hilton, Chicago, IL Online. Retrieved from http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p266195_index.html
Hamilton, J.T., (2004). All the news that’s fit to sell. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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