Tradition of free press, yes. Tradition of objectivity... not so much

When I got the journalism bug back in 1971 I actually believed that our tradition of media objectivity dated all the way back to the Bill of Rights.  But over the years I've done a lot of study on the subject of the press, especially in the past 10 years, and discovered that the US press from about 1750 to 1950 was anything but objective.  In fact from the end of the the Revolutionary War through World War 1, the tenor of the American press had a greater resemblance to Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olberman than Woodward and Bernstein.


The early American press was primarily anonymous.  Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin wrote scurrilous pieces about public friends and office holders that would be considered actionable today.  And they did it all under pen names. Jefferson blasted his "best friend" John Adams simply as "Anonymous" and Hamilton under the name "Brutus."  Hamilton took on both Adams, Jeffeson and even George Washington under "Pacificus"  And Franklin had an entire village of pen names that bitch slapped just about everyone that ever crossed him.

As the new country "matured" people got a little braver stating their abject disgust with certain public figures, to the point that certain factions actually founded newspapers to support their particular position.  Andrew Jackson near the end of his first term funded the establishment of a newspaper that blatantly admitted they were in existence to support Jackson.

In Jackson's defense, the newspaper that was funded by his the John Quincy Adams camp called him a homicidal maniac.  Something had to be done.

A few decades later, having your own publication wasn't considered cricket for politicians, but I imagine Abraham Lincoln wished he could have.  Here's what the New York Herald had to say about him when he was running for his second term:

President Lincoln is a joke incarnate... The idea that such a man should be president of such a country is a very ridiculous joke ... His cabinet is and always has been a joke....His emancipation proclamation was a solemn joke..." and on it goes.  

Of course, the people of the southern states didn't like him much either. Harper's Weekly, in 1864 published a list of slurs against Lincoln including: Filthy storyteller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Usurper, Monster, Butcher.  Oh, wait.  Those weren't what the southerners were saying.  That's what northern Democrats called him.

Keep in mind, this is what was being reported as "news" not editorial.

The point here, is that for almost 200 years, the tradition of the American press, and to a certain degree the European press as well, was not one of objectivity.  Freedom of the press meant the protection of unjust, hateful and often untrue conjecture against both public and private figures.  In other words, pretty much a lot what we see on television, hear on radio and readon the internet today.  So how did we get to the place we are today?  That's next week.