In 1848, a group of New York City newspapers got together to figure out a way to cut the costs of gathering faraway news. The world was shrinking rapidly, and many of them wanted to provide their readers with information about other parts of the nation and the world. Their solution: create a cooperative venture that would gather and report news, then send the news back to each paper in the same form. This venture would be called the Associated Press. Today it is probably the best-known news service in the world.
In addition to providing member newspapers with news, the creation of the AP had other consequences. Because AP reporters wrote for many different newspapers, they could not slant news to fit a particular political ideology. So they attempted to write objective news stories - a notion foreign to printers and publishers whose viewpoints were often embedded in the very names of their publications. (America is still dotted with newspapers with names like the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the Coffey County Republican.)
Thus, it was only gradually, and through the forces of economics, that the notion of "objective journalism" became the model for the American press. For years before the AP, newspapers advanced particular political agendas and tried to appeal to audiences with the same notions. AP, as well as the mass audience, helped make newspapers into the general-interest, primarily objective news vehicles that most of them are today.
This bit of history becomes instructive when one considers today's media environment. With the rightward tilt of Fox News, the popularity among some audiences of rabid, ultra right-wing talk radio, and the growing conservatism of the gigantic corporate news conglomerates, it seems possible that America may be heading toward a second period of the partisan press. That could mean that the notion of objective journalism is becoming lost amid the attempt to slant or frame news items in particular ways.
A partisan press is not necessarily a bad thing - as long as all viewpoints are reflected honestly. The danger comes when a particular worldview dominates or when viewers or readers are deceived about the agenda of a news vehicle. The ardor with which Fox News claims to be "fair and balanced" may be inversely proportional to its actual objectivity, but not all viewers are aware of this.
Australian Rupert Murdoch's Fox, in fact, expressly claims objectivity while selectively emphasizing or leaving out key issues, facts or developments that contradict its agenda. This strategy by Murdoch and Fox chief Roger Ailes - himself a staunch conservative - is very effective. A report by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes noted that those who watch Fox News were more likely to hold incorrect views about the Iraq war. Furthermore, heavy viewers of commercial television in general were more likely to be wrong about issues associated with the war. Not surprisingly, these viewers were more likely to believe in false statements about Iraq and terrorist groups that tended to justify the war - including the incredible notion that world opinion was in favor of the Iraq invasion. This increasingly powerful, ready-made corporate vehicle for deception may be one reason that President Bush has pushed for even greater media consolidation.
The founding fathers may have envisioned a partisan press, since that was a common model for journalism before the Associated Press. It is unlikely, however, that they considered the possibility that vast numbers of people could be deceived by giant media conglomerates bent on a particular position. And some conservatives may be happy with Fox's partisan success, but one wonders what their reaction would be if foreign interests in control of a huge media corporation pushed a left-wing agenda on the American public.
It seems clear that conservatives and liberals alike should agree that a diverse, multi-voiced press is in the best interests of America and the world. That means that every right-thinking citizen should answer the new partisan press with his or her own voice. That is the best way to shout down the Rupert Murdochs of the world.
The original notion of a partisan press was that it would create an atmosphere in which the truth would prevail in the marketplace of ideas. That may yet work; the Internet has, thankfully, provided an outlet for truth that has alarmed Fox News pundits and caused Rush Limbaugh to warn against liberal websites. But there must be no mistake - the fight is only beginning. It must be relentless, it must be patient, and it must be loud.
Guy Reel is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at Winthrop University.