President Trump’s declaration that today’s media is “fake news” gets a lot of journalists angry, but they should save the outrage. Anyone who attended journalism classes learned that the press has always been biased, always controlled by its owners and the “gatekeeper” editors. The concept of a fair and unbiased press only existed in the minds of journalism professors, but in reality there always have been both conservative and progressive (or Republican and Democrat) leaning publications.
Let’s take a quick look at the past. Were William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer unbiased in their coverage? As early as high school I learned that the circulation war between Hearst and Pulitzer used “fake news” to propel the U.S. into the Spanish-American war in 1898. Now there is a Pulitzer prize for journalism; any student of history might safely assume this is given for promoting the most effective propaganda.
Journalism courses attempted to instill the idea of fair and unbiased coverage. That’s a worthy goal but newspapers and the rest of the media have always been businesses first. The real product newspapers were selling was their readership and they sold it to the advertisers. More readers meant they could charge more for ads. The news side was a profit-loser, but necessary to get people to buy the papers. Anyone want to pay for a publication that only contains advertisements? If owners could pump up circulation with sensational news, why not?
The journalism schools taught future reporters to spell names correctly, get the facts right and not follow in the Hearst/Pulitzer tradition. But eventually the idea of “advocacy journalism” crept into the curriculum. Instead of reporting the facts and letting readers make up their own minds, reporters and editors decided their work should advocate for change. Hard investigative reporting would have done the same thing, but it often isn’t as interesting to read as emotion-packed, fictionalized coverage.
When I first started as a copy clerk in 1977, the most of the copy desk editors were conservatives. My job didn’t require contact with the reporters, so I didn’t know their views. These conservative editors, and local newspaper owner, helped balance any overtly progressive reports turned in by writers. There also was a clear distinction between the editorial page, where opinions were expressed, and the rest of the paper, where opinion was banned.
Today’s media outlets look like extended editorial pages. Even Real Clear Politics, one my favorite news websites, runs far more opinion pieces than actual news on its home page. The center is always filled with opinion pieces, while the news items are relegated to the sidebar on the right, typically the last place readers look. It’s a design element indicative of what today’s media thinks about honest reporting; it’s only a sidebar.