Last week’s dust-up at an Iowa campaign event between the corporate-rent-seeker Donald Trump and the media-attention-seeker Jorge Ramos has prompted many to wring their hands. Did Ramos violate a sacred tenet of the journalistic canon by being biased in his coverage?
The Univision news anchor has long used his position as a prominent Latino journalist to advocate a distinct policy position. His vocal support of immigration amnesty is supposedly a cardinal sin in the journalism profession. Making matters more complicated, it was revealed that Ramos’ daughter happens to work for Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the other party’s nomination.
Regardless of whether you think Ramos’ opinions and positions are right, we can all agree that this is a heartening outcome of the near-fisticuffs between two shameless self-promoters. Yet another American journalist has come clean and is unencumbered by the noble myth of objectivity. Ramos, already popular with Spanish-speaking viewers here and throughout the Americas, now has the attention of English-speaking America and, much like his Fox and MSNBC colleagues, he can be seen as in the great tradition of the American press: as a reporter with transparently honest and ideologically consistent opinions that motivate his reporting and animate his life.
The myth of an unbiased and “objective” media took hold in the 1950s and 1960s when a select group of television reporters gained almost oligarchic control over the nation’s news attention. With Walter Cronkite as their poster child, broadcasting Brahmins effectively banned healthy partisan and opinioned media discourse—or, rather, cordoned it off to the realm of “opinion columnists” like William F. Buckley, Anthony Lewis, George Will, or Walter Lippmann. By implication, other writers and television journalists had the holy grail of truth because they were neutral.
As newspapers consolidated, they, too adopted this mantra of objectivity in reporting. The journalism school, a newfangled form of education, portrayed newsgathering as a near-scientific process. And both coincided with a dulling of American political discussion, a decline in voter turnout and participation, and a distinct contraction in clubs and organizations that celebrated mass politics.
Prior to these changes, the American press had a long vibrant history as the source of wonderfully colorful and thoughtful discourse over the differences that divided us as a nation. In the election of 1800, newspapers aligned with the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson characterized the opposition Federalist Party as a group of tyrannical elites while the Federalist press called Jefferson’s party French sympathizers. (One Federalist partisan, then 13 years old, was the aspiring poet William Cullen Bryant, author of a wildly popular satire of the Jeffersonians that called them “pimps of France.”)
Journalists in the North took up the baton of the anti-slavery movement (albeit it in fairly limited numbers) well before the Civil War, while most Southern papers defended the institution. In the post-Civil War era, Republican papers defended the high “Republican Tariff” and Democratic papers railed against what they saw as an oppressive limit on free trade that damaged their readers who depended on agriculture and trade for their livelihoods.
During the 1884 presidential campaign between Democrat Grover Cleveland and Republican James Blaine, ribald and scandalous items appeared in print that openly joked about Cleveland’s illegitimate son. But the coverage was also robustly factual, with articles from both sides regularly citing data about the impact of Republican monetary and trade policy on different sectors of the American economy. The famous election of 1896 produced enthralling coverage, by Democratic papers, of William Jennings Bryan’s appeals to end the gold standard, while the Republican press expatiated on the potential industrial job losses among urban workers if Bryan’s inflationary monetary policies were adopted.
While the era of honest partisan journalism was by no means perfect, newspapers used informed arguments to draw in readers from across the ideological spectrum, which enriched the political discussion. And the highly competitive market among the print media forced journalists and editors to differentiate themselves from their competition. Multiple newspapers in towns and cities had to fight for circulation, and they did so by establishing reputations as supporters of different parties with reporting that was both credible and entertaining.
A good example of a competitive newspaper town was the Republican Chicago Tribune in the late 19th and early 20th century that competed with various Democratic papers. Horace Greeley’s New York Herald Tribune in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was also Republican. The New York World was one of the leading Democratic papers during this period.
Contrast that with the “objective” model and its squelching of competition, with the famous CBS-NBC-ABC television co-monopoly. It lasted for nearly half a century until Fox News uncomfortably pushed the broadcast networks out of their comfort zone.
Political participation was higher during the era when reporters were allowed to have and show opinions. Interest in campaigns soared; clubs and associations held forums and debates. In short, the period in which heated and partisan media coverage was the norm happened to coincide, not accidentally, I’d argue, with levels of high voter turnout and intense citizen interest in the direction of our democracy.
Recent research in psychology, such as Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (2013), display clearly that regardless of our best hopes and dreams, individuals have world views and cognitive structures that influence the way we process information. Daniel Kahnemann’s Thinking Fast and Slow (2013) shows us how we use shortcuts to process information every day. We are creatures with a wide range of opinions who would be better served by honest transparency of political views that animate the media rather than the continued myth of “objectivity.”
And the future of honest journalism looks bright. Fox News, MSNBC, the Drudge Report, Real Clear Politics, the Daily Kos, and Reason are just a few examples of news sources that essentially serve as news aggregators, information sources and opinion providers with clear and honest perspectives. There is healthy demand for these types of news sources, which reflects consumer preferences.
We should not fear the honest media any more than we should aspire to political consensus and the prevention of disagreement. If we have two major parties and numerous smaller parties, we can certainly live with a media environment as diverse and rich as our political life. An honest press, where agendas and perspectives are clear, shows respect for viewers and readers and would go a long way toward revitalizing interest in politics and public life.