The Myth of the Impartial Media

by Will on November 6, 2010

From the front page of the “New-York Times” from August 19, 1896:

Thousands Hear W. Bourke Cockran…

Honest Money Reply to Mr. Bryan’s Speech

The Good Sense of the People Pledged to Resist the Dishonest Doctrines of the Populists

Madison Square Garden rang with a buret of patriotic enthusiasm last night…

The contrast in the two meetings was one of the noticeable and significant facts in the comment of those who were at both. Mr. Bryan came as the candidate for the Presidency, a Boy Orator, sprung out of the West, with a halo about him hung there by the hands of the Popocrats–a curiosity. Mr. Cockran appeared in his home town, where he has often spoken, and where curiosity, and the halo which hangs over Presidential candidates were not the drawing elements…

The article just goes on and on like that, building up this forgotten Cockran as a deity among men and a bearer of sound wisdom, and castigating William Jennings Bryan as a dangerous, unwashed hick who would ruin the country. This is the primary article that they ran that day. In that era, newspapers weren’t shy about being straightforward shills for the rich people who owned them. Every paper in the country — literally every one — opposed such “radical” New Deal policies as unemployment insurance and the minimum wage. And people back then just knew that if they looked to a paper, they would get a mix of information and right-wing spin.

I spent a lot of time in school researching some things that happened in New England in 1797 and 1798. The partisanship of the journals at the time made my task easier. If I wanted to know how Federalists felt about, say, Napoleon’s exhibition to Egypt, I’d look at the Hartford Courant from that day and see how it described things. If I wanted to know how Jeffersonians felt about the same thing, I’d go to Benjamin Bache’s¬†Philadelphia¬†paper, the Aurore.

Partisan media outlets aren’t new or unusual. Indeed, the illusion of objectivity that prevailed for 50 years or so after World War II was highly abnormal. Fox News and MSNBC, with their partisan sympathies, represent a return to longterm trend. Which I suppose is all my way of saying, I think it was shabby for MSNBC to suspend Keith Olbermann, hyperbolic though he may sometimes be.

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