Knowing the fragility of a republican form of government, our Founders placed their hopes on an educated and informed citizenry to preserve our institutions. How has that worked through two centuries of journalistic development?
Obviously, circulated pamphlets promoting the separation from England and support for a constitution played a vital role. Can you say "Common Sense" and "Federalist Papers"? After the division between Federalists and Democrats, national partisan periodicals appeared to attack opponents. The attacks on the outsider Andrew Jackson were so vicious that he believed they led to the untimely death of his scandalized wife.
The invention of the rotary press ushered in the rise of city dailies, which made news big business with screaming headlines, photos, comic strips and, above all, sensationalism. "If it bleeds, it leads" became the slogan of editors. "When a dog bites a man, that's not news. But when a man bites a dog, that's news."(Mark Twain) By nature, therefore, news media are attracted to disaster and "dirty laundry." In 1898 the vicious competition between Pulitzer and Hearst stimulated the public to demand war with Spain over Cuba.
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The Progressive era after that saw the addition of investigative reporting. These "muckrakers" exposed ills in urban conditions, bringing reforms. These journalists gained legendary fame. Developments of the 20th century introduced syndication, associated services and broadcasting. Major city outlets sponsored radio and, later, television stations, which joined networks for national news gathering. Commercial consolidation characterized the last few decades, with Comcast owning NBC, CNBC and MSNBC. The impact of this concentration almost totally destroyed diversity in coverage, not to mention opinion.
"The best test of truth," said Justice Holmes, "is its ability to get itself accepted in the marketplace of ideas." It makes sense that an inquiring public will arrive at a consensus that squares with the facts. The problem now is the monopolization of the news by a few mainstream outlets. Unfortunately, the normal competition of diverse views and the ethical integrity of journalism are no more.
Muckraking turned partisan at Watergate when Woodward and Bernstein gained fame in targeting "all the president's men." "Woodstein wanabees" flocked to journalism schools at the same time Cultural Marxism was taking '60s protest on its "long march through the institutions," adopting the "identity politics" of the Democratic Party. By 1980, studies observed an overwhelming Democratic bias showing up in the items chosen for coverage or extinction, the location in the paper or the newscast, the "spin" of words to color the subject, and even the voting and donation patterns of the journalists.
What was horribly lopsided by 2000 has become extreme against Trump, who accurately brands the media as "fake news," in cahoots with the Democrats. The Shorenstein Center reported negative-to-positive ratio of network coverage for Trump's first 100 days as 13 to 1. An analysis of 430 journalists donating to the 2016 campaigns found 96% went to Hillary. Is there any wonder the volunteer president takes to Twitter to get his message out?
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How does this affect their once-proud craft of objectivity? Newscasters run excessively with leaks from anonymous sources without later retractions, frenzy feeding on negatives. They ignore or relegate to back pages the good news of economic growth and international accords. Items like COVID-19, the lockdowns and urban riots are piled on Trump, and Democrats' negatives sound like crickets.
News was once meant for the front page and opinion reserved for the editorial page. Now bias drives basic reports. Is there no competition to keep them honest? Clearly there is cable news and talk radio, though even that voice is challenged by leftist smears and advertiser boycotts. Social media do give conservatives exposure, but censoring by Big Tech and Soros-funded "fact checkers" challenge that expression. How can this be explained, given our proud history of journalistic integrity?
The easiest answer is that the profession has been infected by the contagion of "political correctness." When Marxism failed to find a downtrodden economic group to lead the socialist revolution, the Frankfurt School turned to racial, ethnic and sexually different groups to rise against their oppression. Led by Vietnam draft-dodging grads who became tenured professors, these radicals shaped the mindset of a generation to see our national past as one of oppression. Incubated unchallenged in the Ivory Tower out of view, this twist of mind pervaded academia, culminating in Democratic "identity politics." Unfortunately, this thinking did not offer itself for consideration in "the marketplace of ideas." Instead, it moved to silence all dissent with shaming, obstruction and violence. The prevailing ethic is not openness and fairness. Leading leftist Herbert Marcuse stressed that "for the sake of tolerance, we must be totally intolerant of all who differ with us." Given the Marxist rationale that all is permissible that advances the cause, even lying and character assassination, the media feel no shame in fabricating, exaggerating or squelching in the name of the narrative.
No wonder the polls show public confidence in the media at an all-time low. The future of a misinformed society can be apocalyptic. Will a massive rejection of this socialist threat at the ballot box be sufficient to awaken these misguided journalists? Or is their internal peer pressure too great to allow any desertion or variation? Freedom of the press is a hallowed right in our American system; yet freedoms can be abused as we all know, like when they do damage to an innocent student outside the Lincoln Memorial. Can those who commit character assassination that leads to someone being shot be held accountable?
One thing we can all do now is to speak the truth ourselves and demand the truth as the price of our attention. Otherwise viewership and subscriptions should dry up, and letters/calls to the editors should explode. Now is the time for the Silent Majority to speak up!