[Was hard] news ever commercial?
Gerald J. Baldasty’s book, The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century, makes a case clear as spring water that hard news has almost never been a mass commercial enterprise.
The American newspapers of the 1820s and early 1830s were creatures of political parties, edited by zealots. Essentially propaganda sheets, these newspapers were “devoted to winning elections,” as Baldasty wrote… Without newspapers, top political organizer Martin Van Buren once said, “we might as well hang our harps on willows.”
Political parties supported the papers financially, and when editors strayed from the party line into independence, the parties would dump their newspapers.
Everybody blames the Internet for the decline of newspapers, but the Web is only the most recent of electric interruptions to have disturbed their profitability, which began with radio in the late 1920s and was followed by broadcast television, car radios, transistor radios, FM radio, and cable television. Newspapers were in so much advertising trouble in September 1941 that Time magazine ran a piece about their “downward economic spiral.” Press scholar David R. Davies argues in his 2006 book The Postwar Decline of American Newspapers, 1945-1965 that daily newspapers were in serious trouble by the mid-1960s, because, among other things, they had failed to hook the baby boom generation. Los Angeles Times press reporter David Shaw sounded the alarm in a 1976 piece in his newspaper. It began: “Are you now holding an endangered species in your hands?” Update the figures and change a few dates and the names of the principals in Shaw’s piece and you could almost pass it off as a 2012 diagnosis of newspaper industry ills.
Rather than ripping news outlets for “slanting” the news—as Groseclose and the other bias-hunters do—I prefer to blame news consumers for journalism’s deficiencies: Readers and viewers aren’t as critical about their favorite news outlets as they should be, except to complain that the New York Times isn’t as liberal as it should be or that Fox has failed to terminate the career of Barney Frank. My cure for this kind of credulousness is simple: Have readers and viewers expand the range of news sources they consume, embracing the whole SQ spectrum from liberal to centrist to conservative to “off the wing.”
Hey consumers: You’re responsible for the failings of the media you consume, and not the other way around! So says Shafer. If we’re so appalled, so underserved and so mislead by the news outlets that inform us, and if we were actually willing to quit them, they’d quickly change their tune to give us what we want. The fact that we’re still having the same discussions about bias, without anything changing, means we’re getting exactly what we want as consumers, or worse yet, we’re getting the media we deserve.