Mitchell Stephens provides a historical overview of how and why journalism is drastically changing.

Goodbye Nonpartisan Journalism. And Good Riddance.

In brief, Stephens says that nonpartisanship and balance in American journalism was a response to 

a business model which needed an audience of millions for their advertisements, so that they had to be "trusted” and centrist. When journalism's audience fractured into hundreds of cable news networks, popular websites and Twitter feeds, legacy organizations adjusted too slowly, becoming easy marks for Trump. 

Here's a summary:

The man who would eventually do the most to bring nonpartisanship and balance to American journalism was Lowell Thomas…

…Thomas intuited that the best way to hold this large audience was to avoid excessively offending any major political group. He tried to play it, as he put it, “down the middle” ….

Lowell Thomas 1939

image source

And Thomas’ main successors in the role of national newsmen—David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw—aimed for somewhere around “the middle” too. The business model of network television newscasts, which required gathering an audience of millions for their advertisements, necessitated that they be “trusted” by Democrats and Republicans alike.

By the last third of the 20th century, America’s newspapers, their numbers shrunk by competition with broadcast news, were honoring a similar business model.

… we have come to see this late-20th century journalism as “traditional” journalism. It was at least the journalism with which most of us grew up. And it did have one great advantage: the gravity and trust that often did flow from the mass audiences it attracted and its reputation for impartiality. That gave these news organs, on the rare occasions when they chose to exercise it, clout.

But let’s not romanticize this era of mostly disinterested journalism. Given the fear of being caught possessing an opinion, pussyfooting abounded. And with so many journalism organizations clustered near “the middle,” the range of available viewpoints necessarily narrowed. On the seesaws reporters were so intent upon balancing, plenty of perspectives were denied seats: nonwhite and nonmale voices, anti-anti-Communist or anti-war opinions.

McCarthy had been leveling his wild charges for four years before Murrow took him on.

... near the height of American journalism’s infatuation with impartiality—were a time of protest marches, civil disobedience, assassinations and urban riots. Indeed, by failing to offer more diverse and radical voices access to its columns and microphones, mainstream 20th-century journalism may have compelled them to express themselves in the streets.

The audience for journalism fractured again in the 21st century. With hundreds of popular websites and Twitter feeds added to a few cable news networks, journalism began appearing in lots more interesting flavors: not just Fox News Channel and MSNBC, but the Drudge Report, Andrew Sullivan, the Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo, BuzzFeed, POLITICO, Breitbart,, the Intercept, etc.

Our legacy journalism organizations—including NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, NPR, PBS, the Associated Press and most daily newspapers—were slow to recognize the new order and find their voices in the din.

Indeed, their obsession with nonpartisanship lingered long enough to leave them deeply vulnerable to manipulation by a boisterous, rudderless presidential candidate like Trump.

Trump dissembled, most fact-checkers determined, with much greater frequency than other candidates. But could “objective” journalists actually declare that a major presidential candidate was lying?

If the mainstream media do not merely echo their man’s views, Trump supporters dismiss them as the “liberal” media, as, gallingly, “fake news.” In the second decade of the 21st century, it seems impossible to be trusted by many on all sides the way a Lowell Thomas was.

Our most respected mainstream journalism organizations are beginning to recognize the failings of nonpartisanship—its tepidness, its blind spots, its omissions, its evasions.

Journalists at many, perhaps most, mainstream journalism organizations now seem comfortable detailing the incompetence or dishonesty of the Trump administration without always feeling the need to quote someone contributing to the dishonesty by denying what is clearly true.

American journalism has been changing in front of our eyes.

... the old “on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that” style of journalism is not coming back. The condition that created it—a limited supply of news organs, which sought large audiences by not offending—is gone.

 Why can’t all newspapers and news channels stop pussyfooting and own up to having something of a political point of view? [emphasis mine]

This begs the question, from where will consensus emerge without a trusted centrist voice?

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Replies to This Discussion

I'm going to keep throwing this quote out there until someone actually GETS it:

I've searched my conscience, and I can't for the life of me find any justification for this, and I simply cannot accept that there are on every story two equal and logical sides to an argument.
-- Edward R. Murrow

And at the risk of saying the obvious, no, there are NOT on every issue two equal and valid sides to an argument.  "Donald Trump is an inept fool, at least as regards his current job title, who is, either intentionally or not, doing his best to undermine the government of the United States because elements of that government have the unmitigated nerve to oppose what he wants."  That is not an opinion, subject to a debate; it is verifiable fact, and it is currently being espoused by people with names like Olbermann and Maddow and Uygur, among others.  That those names are not mainline names as regards journalistic media is not the point.  The content of their broadcasts IS, and to borrow the words of fictional news producer, Mackenzie McHale, they are "speaking truth to stupid."  The sad problem is that, with the proliferation of news sites and semi-news sites and pseudo-news sites and the general fragmentation of the news audience, people get the "facts" which reinforce their own prejudices rather than actual news which doesn't care if there is an "R" or a "D" after their name.

The truth is not an opinion, and sometimes it rubs certain people and certain groups the wrong way ... and sometimes repeatedly.  Such a condition is usually a result of said people or groups expressing opinions or taking actions which are uninformed, against the public interest or plainly and simply stupid and/or dangerous.  News people can do this because they tend to be better informed than the average person is.  Big surprise, that's part of their job.  In addition, if they have biases, they are more likely to be supportable than the average Joe because they see more of the big picture than Joe does:

Anchors having an opinion isn't a new phenomenon. Murrow had one and that was the end of McCarthy. Cronkite had one and that was the end of Vietnam.
-- Charlie Skinner, The Newsroom

The real question is whether or not those who report the news can be responsible with their opinions and have them reflect the facts rather than their own biases.  Murrow and Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley and Severied and Rather and Wallace and many others could, because they gave a damn about their craft and the discipline it represented.

The OTHER question is whether the audience gives a damn.  They used to, back when there were three television networks and those were all the choices available.  In the age of the 24-hour news cycle and narrow-casting, if the audience doesn't hold the reporter's feet to the fire, anything can and will be reported and no one will complain because those who disagree will simply follow reportage which agrees with their personal bent.  The fact is that news reporting, now that it is a profit-driven business, has to be throttled and managed as much by an engaged audience as by serious news producers and upper management.  Otherwise, we get garbage-in / garbage-out ... and I won't have that.


To be honest, Ruth, I've barely read your article, and pardon me if I've just blathered over top of it ... but good news reporting MATTERS to me.  Also, I should mention that I've been watching The Newsroom over the past couple days, and Charlie Skinner and Will McAvoy are very bright in my consciousness right now.

I think there ARE good mainstream newsmen and women out there right now.  Call me crazy or old-fashioned but I still see CBS as the Tiffany Network as it comes to news, and especially 60 Minutes and the team which makes that show tick.  NPR may be even better, but because they are radio, they don't get the notice they deserve.  With all of that, if I thought for one second I was being sandbagged, I'd drop them like a bad habit.

I haven't and for one very basic reason: they very obviously (to me) still give a damn.

NPR news articles also on the web: a.k.a. . One of my go-tos for news.




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