A Partisan Moment In Time, On Repeat

On August 1, 2012, 11:00 AM by

Despite popular belief, Fox News and MSNBC are only the latest contributions to American media’s partisan history.

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Aaron Sorkin drew on the zeitgeist with his new HBO series The Newsroom, a televisual manifestation of the collective anxiety about contemporary news media. In the past four years, murmurs of mainstream news media’s partisanship have exploded into a cacophony of criticism. As if a switch had been flipped, millions of people suddenly seemed to realize that the media, once thought to offer an objective, unfiltered and trustworthy view of the world, floats within a cauldron of personal, political and corporate interests that taints broadcasts from coast-to-coast.

We have seen this drama play off-camera, too: MSNBC bade adieu to Keith Olbermann after it was revealed he donated $7200 to three Democratic Congressional candidates; Glenn Beck and Fox News parted ways due to his extracurricular politicking; NPR’s Juan Williams found work at Fox News after he said he gets “worried” when he sees Muslims on a plane; and most recently Joe Williams was asked to leave his post as Politico’s White House correspondent after saying Mitt Romney appears more “comfortable” around “white folks.” In other words, the ideological lines that separate news outlets today are not drawn. They’re carved.

PARTIAL JOURNALISM, AN AMERICAN TRADITION

It’s naive and culturally egocentric to assume modern media’s political and economic alliances are an aberration unique to our time and place in human history. Partisan news has American roots that stretch even further back than our seminal fight for ‘independence’. For instance, founding father Benjamin Franklin’s brother, James, was arrested in 1722 after his paper, The New England Courant, criticized the colonial powers for their lax protection from pirates. He was later barred from publishing.

In another, similar case, New York Weekly Journal Publisher John Zenger was tried for “seditious libel” in 1735 regarding criticisms of New York Governor William Cosby that ran in his paper. As part of his defense of Zenger, Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton argued, “The laws of our country have given us a right–the liberty–both of exposing and opposing arbitrary power (in these parts of the world, at least) by speaking and writing truth”. Zenger was found not guilty, and Hamilton’s statement became the basis for guaranteeing free press in the nascent 13 colonies, colonies that may never have seceded from Britain had it not been for papers like The Boston Gazette and The New York Journal championing the revolution.

Politicized media continued to flourish in the post-revolutionary period and throughout much of the 19th century. One cent dailies, particularly those concerned with abolition, helped shape the political and cultural landscape leading up to the Civil War. The 1880s saw the profit-driven rise of yellow and “stunt” journalism pioneered by Joseph Pulitzer. William Randolph Hearst used his own papers in the 1890s to instigate the Spanish American War and in the 1900s took advantage of syndication to fight for Democratic lawmakers. Such trends continued for the next four decades.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Based in Brooklyn, writer Andrew Belonsky has penned pieces for Gawker, Salon, the New York Times' T blog, and AlterNet with a focus on the overlooked details of political and popular culture that shape our world today. His favorite quote from E.B. White is, "[A writer] is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in.

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