All the News That's Fit to Twist

The nation got its news 200 years ago from partisan purveyors who pushed political causes. That style is being reborn in the 21st century

By Thane Peterson

Mainstream American news media seem to be under siege. I'm not just talking about The New York Times's Jayson Blair scandal, or the criticism of the Los Angeles Times for publishing sexual-harassment allegations against Arnold Schwarzenegger a few days before the California recall vote, or even the network newscasts' long-term ratings plunge. I'm also talking about the deep and growing distrust of the mainstream media that has prompted conservatives and liberals alike to turn to alternative news sources that support their political views.

Here are some examples:

• The soaring popularity of Fox News and conservative talk radio, which are deliberate attempts to counter the supposed "liberal bias" of the mainstream media with a more conservative take on events. Fox's registering of the phrase "fair and balanced" as a marketing slogan is a deliberate thumbing of its nose at the pretensions of mainstream CBS, NBC, and ABC, which it considers anything but.

• The rise of liberal Internet-based organizations such as Moveon.org and TrueMajority.org have organized millions of people to donate to liberal political candidates and lobby Congress on causes such as media concentration and global warming. On their Web sites and in e-mail alerts, these organizations provide a liberal take on the news.

Moveon has a service called The Daily Mislead in which it sends out a daily e-mail alert describing the Bush Administration's alleged lies that it says have gone unchallenged by mainstream reporters. Moveon also shapes the news covered by established news outlets, as when it sponsored Al Gore's Nov. 9 speech blasting President Bush.

• Aggressive authors like liberals Michael Moore and Al Franken and conservative firebrand Bill O'Reilly dominate best-seller lists. Their books hold the top three spots on the latest New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. These books' main selling point is that they're full of opinions -- such as that President Bush stole the 2000 Presidential election or that liberals are treasonous and aim to undermine Christianity -- considered too extreme to be seriously aired by the so-called responsible media.

• Despite CBS's protests to the contrary, an Internet campaign on conservative Web sites such as BoycottCBS.org and DefendReagan.org probably forced the network to cancel its planned mid-November airing of a miniseries about Nancy and Ronald Reagan, which conservatives believed to be inaccurate and demeaning. To me, this was a grassroots campaign for control of Reagan's image as a conservative icon.

UNABASHED SLANTS.

  Someday, historians may chalk all this up to a contentious period in U.S. political history. But it sure seems that something more fundamental is changing. I think a major push is under way to move back toward the highly personal and politicized style of journalism that prevailed in the early days of the Republic. From the late 18th century on through the late 19th century, American newspapers made no pretense of being objective and nonpartisan. Newspapers of Whig, labor, socialist, Democratic, and other political persuasions unabashedly slanted their coverage to support their political biases.

Journalists like to think that the tenets of modern journalism were cast in stone centuries ago, but they're actually a 20th century invention. The First Amendment posited a free marketplace of ideas in which all sorts of opposing positions battle it out, and the truth emerges. But by the end of World War II, after a long consolidation in the news business, most communities were getting their information from a single monopoly newspaper. In 1947, a blue-ribbon panel met and defined what's now the prevailing model for American journalism.

The new idea, as laid out in an influential 1956 book called Four Theories of the Press (I know about this because my late father was one of the book's authors) was that "the power and near monopoly position of the media impose on them an obligation to be socially responsible, to see that all sides are presented, and that the public has enough information to decide." Since not much real competition existed, news organizations had a responsibility to create an internal marketplace in which competing ideas could be aired. By Thane Peterson

SOARING DISTRUST.

  It's this notion -- that news organizations can operate as honest brokers of political discourse that fairly and objectively arbitrate among competing ideas and interests -- that a majority of Americans don't seem to buy anymore. Critics on the left contend that the "corporate media" are dominated by advertisers and fat-cat publishers who don't want liberal ideas to get a fair airing. Conservatives contend that most reporters are closet liberals who bias coverage to conform to their prejudices.

Public distrust of the news media soared to new heights after the disputed 2000 Presidential election. A Gallup poll in December, 2000, showed that an amazing 65% of respondents rated news stories "often inaccurate," with only 32% calling them accurate and 3% expressing no opinion. That represents a huge drop in confidence since mid-1985, when 55% of those polled by Gallup said news reports were accurate, 34% said they were mainly inaccurate, and 11% expressed no opinion.

Confidence hasn't improved much over the last three years, either. In a Gallup poll this May, 62% of those surveyed continued to believe that news reports are often inaccurate, vs. 36% who expressed confidence in their accuracy and 2% with no opinion. Liberals are nearly as skeptical of the media as conservatives.

ANGER FROM ALL SIDES.

  To some extent, Americans are indulging in the familiar tendency to "kill the messenger" -- to blame the media for the disturbing news it brings into their living rooms. But I believe most of the skepticism of the established press is well deserved. Until the 1980s and the election of Ronald Reagan, conservative ideas were given short shrift by Big Media. More recently, in my opinion, most of the mainstream press has deferentially rolled over to the Bush Administration, failing to adequately question (among many other things) its quashing of civil liberties and its rationale for invading Iraq. The result is that liberals are now just as angry at the media as conservatives are.

Though hardly flattering to mainstream journalists like me, that's not necessarily a bad thing. I expect influential publications such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, and BusinessWeek to continue to attempt to honor their responsibility to offer an open forum for democratic debate. But I also expect highly politicized, big-audience, left-wing news organizations to emerge and compete with Fox and conservative talk radio.

Already, speculation has it that The Guardian, Britian's left-leaning newspaper, will launch an American edition and that a new, liberal news service is in the offing. If that happens, I think it'll provoke America's established news media to consider new ideas. And that press will increasingly look like it did in Ben Franklin's day.

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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