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HOYT PURVIS: Advocacy vs. objectivity

Fragmentation returns taste of party press by Hoyt Purvis | April 21, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

The role of journalism and the media in present-day public affairs raise many questions and points of debate. The questions are not necessarily new ones; indeed, some have significant history as they bring new and intensified issues to the spotlight.

There are important antecedents to the current conflict over the role and influence of the media. That influence has been heightened by the ballooning impact of digitalization, social media and online communication. We must take into account the presence and influence of the "new" media.

Increasingly, we are witnessing a shift that reflects deeper divisions within the larger civic and political community. In broader terms, we have two major categories:

• Advocacy journalism or partisan or politicized media.

• Objective journalism, sometimes referred to as fact-based or non-partisan traditional journalism/media.

As for the historical relevance, we are reminded of the era of partisan or party publications that characterized early decades of American journalism.

Some see a return to that partisan era as evident in today's media, which, in some cases, are overtly partisan and reflecting what might be called a "slant" or "bias."

Of course, it is important to acknowledge that we shouldn't look at the media as monolithic. There are many differences within the media, varied opinions and approaches to news and commentary. It is important to recognize that when we use the term "media" we are not necessarily referring to the media collectively.

However, advanced technology, with its accelerated news cycles and ability to magnify and trivialize, has promoted the non-stop or permanent political campaign, especially at the presidential level. We can point to the continuing Trump campaign as an example. Fox News has been a major generator of advocacy journalism, propounded by Trump's seemingly endless supply of invective consistently aimed at the media. In later years, Fox proclaimed that it is fair and balanced. And it features a know-it-all-Tucker Carlson as its news "personality."

The New York Times, purchased in 1896 by Adolph Ochs, adopted the motto, "All the news that's fit to print," and emphasized balanced, thorough and accurate coverage, and sought to be a "newspaper of record," pledging "to give the news impartially "without fear or favor."

For most of the 20th century, news journalism was generally dominated by publications that tended toward "objective" coverage of news and public affairs, with opinion and commentary normally confined to editorial or op-ed pages or special columns. Most of the reporting was event driven.

And even though the range and reach of the media have increased – so have the choices within the media. That includes online options that may reach smaller audiences (and a declining number of newspapers) rather than those aimed at larger audiences that don't rely on funds from large financial interests or from television advertising.

An added component of the contemporary media is video, especially with so many surprising and sometimes significant events captured candidly and transmitted visually via video.

In the early days of American journalism, newspapers were often blatantly partisan, closely identified with particular candidates or causes.

There is also a long tradition of presidents and political leaders railing against the press. We certainly saw this early and often in the Trump campaign and presidency. Trump could effectively grab media attention, though the impact was frequently debatable.

Most news organizations claim to have a balanced approach in their news coverage. However, many newspapers historically had direct ties to political parties or other political interests. They were sometimes subsidized by political organizations or identified with political causes.

There are those who foresee or favor a similar pattern today – in some respects it would constitute a new chapter in the long-standing relationship between politics and the press. In the earlier stage of the relationship, political leaders were able to reward or encourage newspapers by giving publications government printing contracts or by designating certain publications to publish paid announcements of public laws and other official information.

Party papers reached their peak during the administration of President Andrew Jackson (1828-1836). Jackson relied heavily on a network of supportive newspapers, many of them funded by Jackson's political organization. Thereafter, the importance of the party press began to fade, ultimately coming to an end during the Lincoln administration in the 1860s when Lincoln decreed that he would not have an administration organ (or "house organ"), a semi-official newspaper tied to the White House, even though he did have close relations with the Chicago Tribune. And he ended the practice of rewarding friendly news organizations with printing contracts by establishing the Government Printing Office to handle that work.

Today, some would prefer like-minded podcasts and publications and online presentations that reflect their own views.

Some of them are associated with extreme-right factions.

Will we see a revival of or something comparable to the party press? It may reinforce deeper divisions in politics.

In this day of political polarization, instead of mass media, we may see more targeted media, leading to a modern-day version of the party press.

Print Headline: Advocacy vs. objectivity


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