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Political partisanship in the media

Published June 12. 2010 09:00AM

Much of the mistrust of the news media today centers around their political tone - or, more accurately, their perceived tone. Are they liberal or conservative? The flashpoint of this raging debate generally centers on Fox News, which, despite being angrily targeted by liberals for what they believe is a conservative skew in reporting national and international news, has gained legions of new viewers.

The perception is that MSNBC is the liberal counterpart to Fox News, yet, as do Fox executives, those at MSNBC disavow any ideological bent in one direction or the other.

Around the turn of the 20th century, it was common for newspapers to be aligned with one major political party or the other. Most of the daily newspapers in this area espoused either the Republican or Democratic philosophy and made no bones about it in their editorials. In communities which had two newspapers - usually one Republican-leaning and the other Democrat - they took potshots at each other in almost every issue, often using the most intemperate of terms.

In Lehighton, George Morthimer established The Evening Leader in 1902. According to the "History of Carbon County," Morthimer was "an exponent of Democratic doctrines." The book also notes that the Lehighton Press, started in 1892 and taken to new heights by David McCormick, was "staunchly Republican."

Today, most news organizations, including Fox News and MSNBC, view themselves as nonpartisan, even if the public does not.

Our predecessor journalists rarely made the distinction between news and editorial comment. A writer in the early 20th century thought nothing of expressing his opinion, sometimes in the most graphic racist or ethnic of terms, in what was ostensibly a news story. Today, journalists are admonished to keep themselves and their views out of news stories.

Columns and editorials are another matter, and that is at the heart of the problem. The lay public rarely understands the distinction between news and opinion, even though newspapers take great pains to label opinion.

Political partisanship has come to be regarded as an unethical journalistic practice. News columns are expected to be "fair," "balanced" and ideologically neutral.

Even many editorial pages are now driven by politically independent inquiry rather than partisan loyalties. Some major daily newspapers - The Morning Call of Allentown is a prime example in this area have scrapped local editorials entirely

Several factors have brought this about. The movement for efficient and nonpartisan government bureaucracies was led by newspapers early in the 20th century. What seemed good for government - professionals replacing political hacks - came to be seen as a positive step. It was not uncommon back then for a reporter to be on the take from special interests, including mobsters.

A second factor was the rise of local newspaper monopolies that served readers of all parties and factions. When newspapers merged or one bought out the other, the survivor found it both "socially responsible" and good business to be neutral.

It might also have been politically wise. Congress imposed a "fairness doctrine" on broadcasters and is not powerless to affect the fortunes of great newspaper and magazine corporations through postage-rate manipulation, antitrust policies and other legislative devices.

Finally, editors no longer own newspapers. They are in most cases, the untenured hired hands of distant managers and anonymous stockholders. Angry consumers are bad for business, so the far-away bosses don't want to rock the boat and lose subscribers and advertisers by an overly aggressive news product.

The question rages today in journalism: Should the press be an active participant in the news or a conduit through which information passes?

Some news organizations play an active role in helping to set the community's agenda, then vigorously campaign to implement change. Purists rail at this notion, insisting that these news organizations are crossing the line.

Editors use this analogy: It's the difference between being an observer or a participant in a parade. The purist editors ask how journalists can cover the parade dispassionately if the news organization is part of the show. It's a great question.

William Randolph Hearst, the press baron with whom we associate the phrase "yellow journalism," and on whose life the motion-picture classic "Citizen Kane" is loosely based, bought the New York Journal and adopted as his motto:"While others talk, the Journal acts."

In an editorial, he explained: "Action - that is the distinguishing mark of the new journalism. The new journalism prints the news, but it does more. It does not wait for things to turn up. It turns them up."

Hearst hired investigators to expose scandal and corruption. He sent a rescue team to snatch a political martyr from a Spanish prison in Havana, Cuba. He offered $50,000 for information on the culprit who sank the battleship Maine. He demanded a war against Spain (and got it in 1898). Although his personal political ambitions (the presidency among them) were never fully realized, the empire he created and the "new journalism" he unfurled survive in modified form until this very day.

(Bruce Frassinelli, a native of Summit Hill, is observing his 50th year as a journalist. He also is an adjunct instructor at Lehigh Carbon Community College and lives in Schnecksville.)

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