As Jonathan Ladd noted in his wonderful post on Colbert and Stewart, American journalism changed substantially between the 19th and 20th century. While it was common for newspapers to be publicly affiliated with and root for parties in the 1800s (titles like the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette live on from those days), the press of the 1900s was largely bound to a model of objectivity. Journalism had become “professionalized,” with reporters trained to gather evidence from multiple sides of a debate and report on events impartially. Endorsement of explicit opinions would thenceforth be relegated to the back pages of newspapers.

But how exactly did this rapid shift come about? The general interpretation is that the Progressive movement of the early 1900s was responsible for it, with many of its adherents opposed to political corruption and convinced that principled journalists could help rid society of the worst aspects of machine politics. Richard Kaplan has a somewhat different take on this in a chapter on the origins of the objective press: that the party system itself was partially responsible for the change.

Specifically, the pivotal election of 1896 led many Democratic-affiliated newspapers to abandon their party as the party’s presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan, seemed to be endorsing an increasingly radical platform. According to Kaplan:

The Nation declared, “Probably no man in civil life has succeeded in inspiring so much terror without taking life as Bryan.” The Democratic candidate was repeatedly reviled from the platform as well as the pulpit. Democratic papers deserted the party en masse…. Conservative elite dailies like the New York Times and the Detroit Free Press issued “declarations of independence.” Even liberal, sensationalist journals such as Pulitzer’s World, or Scripps’ Cincinnati Post dumped the party. In New York City, only the heretical William Randolph Hearst trumpeted Bryan’s candidacy. At the campaign’s close, Bryan… remarked on the journalistic inequality between the two parties: “With all the newspapers of the country against us, our 6,500,000 votes is a vindication of which we have a right to be proud.”

In the wake of the election, Kaplan adds, party politics took on a much more regional pattern, with the Democratic Party becoming largely uncompetitive in northern and western states. Affiliating with the Democratic Party had thus become a bad business decision for many newspapers.

Now, as Kaplan concedes, newspapers had bolted the parties in previous elections but eventually came back to support them. What made this time different was some specific contributions of the Progressive movement. For one, voter registration led to dramatically lower voter turnout in the early 20th century. Newspapers were great rabble-rousers, but there was now just far less rabble to rouse. For another, a popular Progressive idea of nonpartisanship (or at least independence from the era’s major parties) was taking hold. Perhaps the newspapers didn’t need to go back to the parties; perhaps they could do just fine advancing their own agenda without being tainted by partisanship. Kaplan argues that this led papers to sever their ties to both parties in short order.

So yes, the Progressive movement bore responsibility for the advancement of modern objective journalism, but it did so by exploiting a collapse in the old party system and a period of crisis for the partisan press.

(h/t Marc Herman)

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.