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What’s old is new: Partisanship in the news

April 29, 2021

Media illiteracy and unethical journalistic practices are not new topics in U.S. history. Writers and companies have manipulated information to entertain, persuade, and also confuse their readers. Take yellow journalism, sensational reporting, in the 1890s as an example; with the head-on competition between New York City newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, it left a new era of sensationalist and melodramatic styles of journalistic entertainment and business strategy.

“If you look back into yellow journalism, and then the history of it, it was wild and crazy back then. It was social media,” North Central College Associate Professor of Journalism and Adviser to The Chronicle Dr. Mary O’Donnell said. “That was early social media: just salacious scandalous, no facts — everything made up for.” 

Technology researcher Alexandra Samuel describes the inner workings of yellow journalism and, later, tabloid journalism in the early 20th century. Joseph Patrick McKerns’ “History of American Journalism” from 1976 additionally notes the justification of the First Amendment rights during the period.

According to McKerns, “To its many critics, it seemed as though the press was using the freedom from regulation it enjoyed under the First Amendment to make money instead of using it to fulfill its vital role as an independent source of information in a democracy.” 

Following the critique of sensationalized journalism, the attributed success of the New York Times shifted from the decline of yellow journalism and became a “highly conservative paper” according to Sidney Pomerantz regarding the New York Press. The courts also had the same sentiment as the public. As Amy Gajda, a law professor at Tulane University points out in “Judging Journalism,” the courts concluded in holding newspapers and media outlets accountable relating to undermining the provisions of the First Amendment. 

If you look back into yellow journalism, and then the history of it, it was wild and crazy back then. That was early social media: just salacious scandalous, no facts — everything made up for. ”

— North Central College Associate Professor of Journalism and Adviser to The Chronicle Dr. Mary O’Donnell

The early 20th century continued to see another check on yellow journalism. W.E. Miller established the journalism industry’s first code of ethics in 1910. This was then adopted by the Kansas State Editorial Association. The success and adoption of similar codes across the country was only the beginning of combatting a long-standing tension between public interest and sales versus accurate reporting. This results in creating a culture of clickbait and prioritizing human interest stories rather than hard news. 

Questioning the media is not new, however. The Donald Trump presidency only exacerbated the hyperpartisanship attitudes and political polarization on the news and how humans practice civil discourse. 

On Feb. 18, 2017, former President Trump incited a formal declaration of war against the media on Twitter. Trump declared ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, and the New York Times as “FAKE NEWS media” and mentioned that the news media is “not the enemy of my people, it is the enemy of the American People.”

From Woodrow Wilson’s creation of the Committee on Public Information to Nixon’s work on Fairness Doctrine to the Obama administration targeting former New York Times reporter James Risen with a subpoena to reveal confidential sources, Trump was not the first U.S. President to engage in tension with the news media. As Trump continued his administrative agenda, he repeatedly used the phrases “fake news” and “enemy of the people.” Regardless of political affiliation, those statements became a part of the American culture. It became part of the United States’ social culture.

“I think that the term ‘journalist’ has lost a little of its professionalism as social media has allowed the acts of journalists to become more community-owned and not professional,” Naperville Central’s Carlson said. “I think that’s part of your problem and where Trump comes in. He commandeers the concept of fake news and basically turns it into ‘fake news is weaponized journalism where media outlets say things that could harm or hurt me. And it doesn’t matter if the things that are being said are 100% factual, it’s meant as an attack on my party or me.’”

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