How did American newspapers, largely identified with political parties for most of the nineteenth century, come to pride themselves on “objectivity”?

You can easily come upon misleading answers to this rather complicated question. The two most often repeated wrong answers are:

The telegraph did it. When it became common for reporters to send news back to the home office by telegram (beginning with the US-Mexico War soon after the electronic telegraph was invented, and coming into wider use during and after the Civil War) it became important to write brief dispatches. The longer the telegram, the more the newspaper paid for it. Adjectives disappeared. Opinion was squeezed out. Basic facts remained.

So the story goes. But most newspaper writing remained florid and fulsome long after the telegraph was in broad use. News style became gradually leaner in the late nineteenth cen- tury—but then so did prose in fiction, none of it transmitted by wire. There is no evidence that the telegraph was basic to the transformation of news style, although there is no reason to doubt that telegrams offered a model of how a lot of information could be transmitted tersely.

Economics did it. Newspapers sought to make more money by appealing to both Democratic and Republican readers. With high-speed presses, abundant paper from wood-pulping, and Mergenthaler typecasting machines (1886), plus rapid urbanization and a growing and increasingly concentrated advertising market, partisanship became economically irrational. Why not appeal to readers across party lines and make a lot more money?

This seems like common sense. But nineteenth-century publishers started their own papers or bought papers not only to make money but also to establish political influence. When Joseph Pulitzer bought the New York World in 1883, he wanted to make it a "schoolhouse," as he put it, and he was personally most interested in the editorial page. When William Randolph Hearst bought the New York Journal in 1895, he wanted his paper to support the Democratic Party and to influence it. Both of these titans of the newspaper industry served—albeit briefly—as Democrats from New York in the US Congress, Pulitzer from 1885-1886 and Hearst 1903-1907.

When Tennessee newspaperman Adolph Ochs bought the New York Times in 1896, he did not try to compete directly with Pulitzer and Hearst but to differentiate himself from them and the other dailies in the city. In articulating his philosophy for the newspaper, he said he would "intensify its devotion to the cause of sound money and tariff reform" and would support "advocacy of the lowest tax consistent with good government, and no more government than is absolutely necessary to protect society." Today's New York Times seems to have forgotten this part of Ochs's three-paragraph credo and routinely quotes only the publisher's assertion in the same charter-setting statment that the paper would "give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of any party, sect, or interest involved."

So where did "objectivity" come from? There is no single force at work here. Multiple factors mattered. In the United States and slightly later in Britain, news organizations placed growing emphasis on what have been called "fact- centered discursive practices." That is, not only did newspapers focus more intently on getting the facts and getting them right, but reporters inaugurated new tools for doing so. Most important of these was interviewing. American reporters were the first in the world to make interviewing a chief method for gathering news, and they would go on, particularly during World War I, to show their European colleagues how to do it, although by that time some British reporters had fully adopted the practice. As the ranks of reporters increased in the growing cities of the late nineteenth century, reporters developed a comradeship and a devotion to one another separate from—and sometimes even hostile to—their employment relationships to the publishers who paid them. They gathered after work in the same bars and pubs. They established clubs. Specialized trade journals catered to their interests. Some reporters thought that journalism was a temporary job, a way station to fame and fortune in literature, but others increasingly came to understand themselves to be reporters. Reporting facts became their professional pride.

Reporters were part of an increasingly fact-minded, science- minded, and antipolitical cultural mood. Political reform efforts based on distrust of establishment party politics in the 1880s (civil service reform) and the 1890s (the secret ballot; the establishment of nonpartisan municipal elections where candidates were not allowed to identify themselves by party on the ballot; the passage in many states of laws to allow citizens to vote directly on legislative proposals by "initiative," bypassing the party-controlled state legislatures) were part of a mood of independence from parties. Reformers believed that political leadership should rise above partisanship and be dedicated to the technical tasks of making government work.

These developments led journalism on the path toward what we might recognize as "objective" reporting, but it did not for the most part lead journalists to clearly articulate "objectivity" as an ethical value until after World War I. The war brought on waves of propaganda activity not only among the European combatants but in the US government as well, once it declared war. Moreover, about the same time and increasingly in the years following the war, "public relations" became an industry and public relations specialists were becoming more commonly employed by businesses, by government agencies, and by nonprofit institutions like universities and hospitals. Reporters quickly felt themselves deluged by outsiders eager to have their perspectives on events represented directly or indirectly in the pages of the newspapers. Journalists complained that journalism schools, still very new, were churning out more public relations specialists than reporters. It was at this point that journalists, recognizing the efforts of governments, businesses, and others to plant stories in the press to enhance their reputation, power, or profit, asserted that they would not be swayed by any of it. With interested parties seeking control of newspaper content, the reporters insisted that they would bow to no one and nothing but to their own ethic of disinterested, fact-based, balanced, and fair-minded reporting.

This new model of professional journalism, often called "objective" reporting at the time and after, was further institutionalized and maintained because it served newspaper editors as a kind of discipline for directing and controlling their increasingly large staffs of young reporters learning the trade on the job. College education was rare among reporters in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Newspapers were their own training schools and "objectivity"—sometimes called "balance" or "fairness"—was a useful pedagogy.

Many things in human affairs have multiple, conjoined causes. The professionalization of journalism and the emergence of an ethical code and set of work practices called "objectivity" is one of them.

 
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