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The News Media Past and Present

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By Jerold Levine

Many people today are objecting to how the American news media has become partisan, using phrases like “we’ve never seen” or “never before.” The “we’ve never seen” is true. The “never before” is inaccurate, and a result of historical myopia. Like the young who, in each generation, think that they are the first to have discovered sex, we can misperceive that the past extends only as far back as we can remember. Not only has America seen the kind of rabid media partisanship we have today, it has in fact been the norm for most of our history.

Newspaper articles from the Revolution through the early twentieth century disclose the hyper-partisanship of the press. As example, Founding Fathers accused each other of dishonesty, debauchery, taking bribes, secret loyalties, etc. While these early media accusations were no more reliable than today, just as today they were consumed or rejected by partisans. Maybe the most famous case was the 1828 Presidential election, where the predominant campaign claims were that incumbent John Quincy Adams was a procurer, and that the wife of challenger Andrew Jackson was a whore. As noted by Rick Ungar of Forbes.com in 2012, “By the time Jackson prevailed in the race, the headlines would be filled with charges of murder, adultery, and pimping—headlines printed in highly partisan newspapers that make amply clear that today’s media has nothing on our ancestors when it comes to pursuing a political agenda.”

In even modern days the press openly embraced the question of whether a Catholic, John Kennedy—a WWII Navy hero—would as President show greater fealty to the U.S. Constitution or to the Pope; the inference being that Catholics in politics are suspect. The same issue arose again very recently when U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein questioned a Catholic judicial nominee’s ability to follow the Constitution. Sans sex or manufactured lies, that is about as dirty as it gets.

The really big change in media has not been left-wing broadcasters recently going ballistic, but the change from the old newspaper era to network radio and television. On its website, the New York State Library indicates, “By 1865…373 newspapers were being published in 428 editions, 54 of these in New York City.” Even by the early 1900’s there remained more than two dozen dailies in New York City. No matter who you were or what you believed, there was a newspaper for you. But all that changed with broadcast media. As radio grew, and then television, the dailies dropped like flies. And when the counterculture finally gained a strong footing in America, more than a few of its supporters joined the ranks of journalism. Thereafter, television news became the voice of the left.

So why are so many people finding fault with the partisanship of the new media where everyone again now has a voice? The answer depends on who you ask.

If you are a leftist, you decry the conservative voices now being heard, because you only remember the good old days when that was impossible. The left tilt of the news, when the networks ruled the airwaves, is gone; the tilt achieved most commonly by just ignoring conservative viewpoints entirely.

If you are conservative, you miss the old days for a different reason. While you cheer the rise of conservative radio and television—because you cannot remember a time when conservatives ever had a voice—you wish the left-wing press had kept its tame-and-civil-sounding presentation, and you object to its openly-Communist proselytizing. But take notice that the networks no longer have what comedian Yakov Smirnoff joked was the reason for easy success in the Soviet Union: a captive audience. When the networks did not have to compete against conservatives they could afford the false pretense of fairness. But now, attracting only the leftist audience share, they must fight each other more ravenously for viewers, over both network and cable. And Thank God for that. Now they wave their red flags every day, for all to see.

Additionally, on top of having smoked-out the left, the new media not only has returned us to an era where all voices are heard, it has caused an even greater democratization in news than existed pre-broadcast. No longer does anyone need a newspaper, a radio station or a T.V. station to disseminate ideas; digital communication and the internet destroyed that monopoly. Thus, conservatives have regained their voice, America hears it, and much of America responds to it. And while it is true that there are more left-wing news outlets than right-wing, so be it. The other side is free to spend as much money as they like to sell their views…and so are we.

(The author is a New York attorney who maintains a residence in Lehigh County.)

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