Before the 1920s, the idea of an “objective” or “non-partisan” media did not exist. The previous 100 years had seen the reign of the newspaper as the primary news medium and newspapers of that era never portrayed themselves as objective or non-partisan.
Newspapers evolved from the pamphleteers who considered themselves polemists. Their goal was to propagandize for their side. Most newspapers in the golden era of newsprint were publicly associated with a major political party or faction. Many newspapers had the words “Democrat” or “Republican” in their names. It was considered normal. Everybody who bought a paper knew what its biases were.
This standard began to change in the 1920s with the arrival of radio and the socialization of broadcast spectrum. Instead of auctioning off broadcast spectrum the dominant ideology of the time led to the creation of a system wherein broadcasters functioned as public utilities. The government decided who could and could not broadcast, using a politically sensitive process.
Since broadcasters functioned as public utilities and had monopoly use of a public property, they could not follow the openly partisan traditions of the newspapers. Broadcast journalists began to advertise themselves as “objective” and lacking “partisan” bias. They had no choice. Nobody was going to tolerate their own political opponents having a monopoly on the broadcast media. Also, broadcasting was supported purely by advertising, so the broadcasters had a profound interest in making sure they did not offend any large chunk of their audience by overtly taking sides.
For the first 30 years of broadcast journalism this system actually worked moderately well. Broadcasters did not do a lot of original reporting. Quite often they were just repeating stories from newspapers. (The New York Times became the nation’s paper of record in large part due to having its stories broadcast by the New York based broadcast networks.) When the broadcasters began doing original reporting the ’60s, however, partisan bias began to leak in. It wasn’t any great conspiracy, but simply a profound lack of intellectual and cultural diversity within an insular community of a few hundred individuals who researched and broadcast the stories. As broadcasting became the biggest megaphone, the ability of anybody to effectively challenge broadcast media disappeared. If all three of the major networks told the same story, nobody could effective rebut them. The networks no longer had to fear that they would alienate their audiences as their collective audiences had no other place to turn for news. In effect, broadcasters had a government supported cartel on news.
Like all cartels they grew lazy and sloppy. By the late ’60s and early ’70s the lack of diversity, the insular culture and the lack of economic competition caused broadcast media to collapse into a left-of-center bias. It was not until the rise of cable in the late ’80s that the cartel cracked, and not until the rise of the Internet that it collapsed completely. Given the opportunity, the broadcast media’s customers deserted them in droves.
I doubt that any single organization can report the news objectively. To do so they would have to create internally competitive teams, each attacking a story from a different perspective. Then they would need some system of reconciling the conflicting perspectives into a single story. I don’t really see that happening on a reliable basis.
Going forward, I think we will return to the pre-broadcast tradition of a more partisan media. I think this will benefit everybody. In the Internet age it will be easy for people to get multiple perspectives on the same problem. Broadcast spectrum will cease to have its current market dominance and economic importance. The political and economic necessity to maintain the facade of objectivity will erode.
Eventually, media consumers will sit, like juries in front of dueling attorneys each presenting evidence for their side and hammering away at the case of the other. People will get their final view of a story by an active process of synthesis of conflicting viewpoints. This hyper-competitive environment will in the end lead to a better informed public.