"What's Fair?"

Definitions of fair journalism have changed over the last two centuries.


Everybody's a media critic in a democracy. The news media are the chief institutions for making our public life visible, and a lot rides on how they present us to ourselves. As citizens, we have a stake in trying to make our standards theirs. So people complain that the news media are too liberalor too conservative. The media overplay violenceor they sanitize it. They are the lapdogs of their corporate ownersor they bite the economic system that feeds them. They are insufferably prurientor they are rigidly puritanical. They are insidiously partisanor they are boringly neutral. And on and on. Where have you been, Monica Lewinsky?

American journalists, buffeted by critics from every corner and wracked by self-criticism too, have long insisted that they try to be fair. But what's fair? That has changed from one era to the next.

In colonial journalism, printers proclaimed their concern for fairness in order to shed responsibility for what appeared in their pages. Benjamin Franklin insisted in his "Apology for Printers," published in 1731, that the printer was just thatone who prints, not one who edits, exercises judgment or agrees with each opinion in his pages. "Printers are educated in the Belief that when Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter: Hence they chearfully serve all contending Writers that pay them well, without regarding on which side they are of the Question in Dispute."

At first, colonial printers did not imagine their newspapers to be either political instruments or professional agencies of news gathering. None of the early papers reached out to collect news; they printed what came to them. Colonial printers, more than their London brethren, were public figuresrunning the post office, serving as clerks for the government and printing the laws. But they were also small businessmen who were careful not to offend their customers.

In the first half-century of American journalism, little indicated that the newspaper would become a central forum for political discourse. Colonial printers avoided controversy when they could, preached the printer's neutrality when they had to and printed primarily foreign news because it afforded local readers and local authorities no grounds for grumbling. Out of a sample of 1,900 items Franklin's weekly Pennsylvania Gazette printed from 1728 to 1765, only 34 touched on politics in Philadelphia or Pennsylvania.

As conflict with England heated up after 1765, politics entered the press and printerly "fairness" went by the board. In a time when nearly everyone felt compelled to take sides, printers found neutrality harder to maintain than partisanship. The newspaper began its long career as the mouthpiece of political parties and factions. Patriots had no tolerance for the pro-British press, and the new states passed and enforced treason and sedition statutes.

American victory in the war for independence did not bring immediate freedom for the press. During the state-by-state debates over ratification of the Constitution in 1787 and 1788, Federalists dominated the press and squeezed Antifederalists out of public debate. In Pennsylvania, leading papers tended not to report Antifederalist speeches at the ratification convention. When unusual newspapers in Philadelphia, New York and Boston sought to report views on both sides, Federalists stopped their subscriptions and forced the papers to end their attempt at evenhandedness.

Some of the nation's founders supported outspoken political criticism so long as they were fighting a monarchy for their independence but held that open critique of a duly elected republican government could be legitimately curtailed. Sam Adams, the famed Boston agitator during the struggle for independence, changed his views on political action once republican government was established. This great advocate of open talk, committees of correspondence, an outspoken press and voluntary associations of citizens now opposed all hint of public associations and public criticism that operated outside the regular channels of government. As one contemporary of Adams observed, it did no harm for writers to mislead the people when the people were powerless, but "To mislead the judgement of the people, where they have all power, must produce the greatest possible mischief."

The Sedition Act of 1798 forbade criticism of the Federalist government and as many as one in four editors of oppositional papers were brought up on charges under this law. But this went one step further than many Americans of the day could stomach. Federalist propaganda notwithstanding, Thomas Jefferson won the presidency in 1800. The Sedition Act expired, party opposition began to be grudgingly accepted and a more libertarian theory of the press gained ground.

In 19th-century journalism, editors came to take great pride in the speed and accuracy of the news they provided. With the introduction in the 1830s of the rotary press and soon the steam-powered press, amidst an expanding urban economy on the Eastern seaboard and the rush of enthusiasm for Jacksonian democracy, commercial competition heated up among city newspapers. A new breed of "penny papers" hired newsboys to hawk copies on the street; penny-press editors competed for wider readership and increasingly sought out local newsof politics, crime and high society.

While this newly aggressive commercialism in journalism was an important precondition for modern notions of objectivity, at first it fostered only a narrow concept of stenographic fairness. Newspapers boasted more and more about the speed and accuracy of their news gathering, but editors found this perfectly consistent with political partisanship and choosing to cover only the speeches or rallies of their favorite party. It was equally consistent, in their eyes, for reporters to go over speeches with sympathetic politicians they had covered to improve, in printed form, on the oral presentation. Into the 1870s and 1880s, Washington correspondents routinely supplemented their newspaper income by clerking for the very congressional committees they wrote about.

As late as the 1890s, when a standard Republican paper covered a presidential election, it not only deplored and derided Democratic candidates in editorials but often neglected to mention them in the news. In the days before public-opinion polling, the size of partisan rallies was taken as a proxy for likely electoral results. Republican rallies would be described as "monster meetings" while Democratic rallies were often not covered at all. In the Democratic papers, of course, it was just the reverse.

While partisanship endured, reporters came to enjoy a culture of their own independent of political parties. They developed their own mythologies (reveling in their intimacy with the urban underworld), their own clubs and watering holes and their own professional practices. Interviewing, for instance, became a common activity for reporters only in the 1870s and 1880s. No president submitted to an interview before Andrew Johnson in 1868, but by the 1880s the interview was a well-accepted and institutionalized "media event," an occasion created by journalists from which they could then craft a story. This new journalistic practice did not erase partisanship. It did, however, foreshadow reporters' emerging dedication to a sense of craft. Journalists began to locate themselves in a new occupational culture with its own rules, its own rewards and its own esprit.

Interviewing was a practice oriented more to pleasing an audience of news consumers than to parroting or promoting a party line. By the 1880s, newspapers had become big business. They erected towering downtown buildings, employed scores of reporters, sponsored splashy civic festivals and ran pages of advertising from the newly burgeoning department stores. The papers vastly expanded their readership in this growing marketplace. Accordingly, reporters writing news came to focus less on promoting parties and more on making stories.

Yet not until the 1920s was American journalism characterized by what we might call modern analytical and procedural fairness. Analytical fairness had no secure place until journalists as an occupational group developed loyalties more to their audiences and to themselves as an occupational community than to their publishers or their publishers' favored political parties. At this point journalists also came to articulate rules of the journalistic road more often and more consistently. As an Associated Press executive declared in 1925, "If you do not remember anything else that I have said, I beg of you to remember this, for it is fundamental: The Associated Press never comments on the news."

This newly articulated fairness doctrine was related to the sheer growth in news gathering: Rules of objectivity enabled editors to keep lowly reporters in check, although they had less control over high-flying foreign correspondents. Objectivity as ideology was a kind of industrial discipline. At the same time, it seemed a natural and progressive ideology for an aspiring occupational group at a moment when science was god, efficiency was cherished, and increasingly prominent elites judged partisanship a vestige of the tribal 19th century. First Mugwump reformers, led by the Anglo-Saxon patricians of the Northeast during the late 19th century, and then the Progressives, who pursued a broader reform movement in the early 20th century, argued that politics itself should be beyond partisanship. No wonder journalists picked up on their appeal.

Yet at the very moment that journalists embraced "objectivity," they also recognized its limits. In the 1930s, there was a vogue for what contemporaries called "interpretive journalism." Leading journalists and journalism educators insisted that the world had grown increasingly complex and needed not only to be reported but explained. Political columnists, like Walter Lippmann, David Lawrence, Frank Kent and Mark Sullivan, came into their own. Journalists insisted that their task was to help readers not only to know but to understand. At the same time, they now took it for granted that understanding had nothing to do with party or partisan sentiment.

Was this progress? Was a professional press taking over from party hacks? Not everyone was sure. If the change brought a new dispassionate tone to news coverage, it also opened the way to making entertainment rather than political coherence a chief criterion of journalism.

Speaker of the House "Uncle" Joe Cannon objected in 1927: "I believe we had better publicity when the party press was the rule and the so-called independent press the exception, than we have now," he said in his autobiography, Uncle Joe Cannon. "The correspondents in the press gallery then felt their responsibility for reporting the proceedings of Congress. Then men representing papers in sympathy with the party in power were alert to present the record their party was making so that the people would know its accomplishments, and those representing the opposition party were eager to expose any failures on the part of the Administration." In the independent press, in contrast, serious discussion of legislation gave way to entertainment: "The cut of a Congressman's whiskers or his clothes is a better subject for a human interest story than what he says in debate."

News, Cannon mourned, had replaced legislative publicity. What had really happened was that journalists had become their own interpretive community, writing to one another and not to parties or partisans.

The triumph of an ethic of analytical and procedural fairness (or "objectivity" as it has presumptuously been called) was never complete. Even journalism's leaders took it for granted that fairness in journalism could be combined with active partisanship in politics. Claude Bowers proudly recalled in his autobiography, My Life, that, while an editorial writer for the New York World, he wrote speeches for Democratic senatorial candidate Robert Wagner while running daily editorials in Wagner's support. As Ronald Steel recounts in his biography Walter Lippmann and the American Century, Lippmann and James Reston in 1945 helped write a speech for Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg in which he broke from his isolationism. Lippmann then praised the turnabout in his column. Reston wrote a front page story on the speech in The New York Times, noting the "unusual interest" it attracted and observing that Sen. Vandenberg presented his theme "with force." President-elect John F. Kennedy shared with Lippmann a draft of his inaugural address. Lippmann proposed some modest changes that Kennedy accepted. After the new president delivered his speech, Lippmann praised it in his column as a "remarkably successful piece of self-expression." When George Will helped Ronald Reagan prepare for his television debates with Jimmy Carter in 1980 and then as an ABC commentator discussed Reagan's performance, he acted in a well-developed tradition.

With such intimate political involvement from leading lights of the journalism establishment, it is difficult to accept journalists' claims of political innocenceeven the claims of journalists, like Washington Post editor Leonard Downie, who forswear voting for fear it could taint their scrupulous neutrality. But scrupulous accuracy and fairness are indeed the watchwords of journalistic competence today, even though the work of editorial writers, columnists and sports reporters (who are obliged to write from the viewpoint of the home team) offers countercurrents to professional ideals of detachment.

In the 1960s and again in the 1990s, some journalists have rebelled at the voicelessness of objective reporting and seek to write with an edge or an attitude that calls attention to the story as a piece of writing, not just a neutral vessel for transporting purportedly raw reality to audiences. Cutthroat competition encourages this. So does a postmodern relativism that spits at pretensions to objectivity.

At the same time, journalists, when criticized, invariably return to the old standbys. They assert their accuracy, their impartiality and their intrepid willingness to pursue the truth without fear or favor. There is safety in this. There is also honor: honor in the abnegation rather than the aggrandizement of self, and honor in the ordinary ambition to pursue a craft well rather than pursue art or influence badly.

As for Monica Lewinsky, the tender morsel on the fork of this season's feeding frenzy, there are certainly questions of journalistic fairness. (Did the press jump to conclusions that President Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky had an affair?) There are also questions about fairness and propriety in the special prosecutor's office. (Has the special prosecutor's office exceeded its mandate or encouraged leaks in a partisan effort to embarrass President Clinton?) The larger question about the news media, however, concerns not fairness but proportion. The press rushed to judgment not in asking whether the president violated his marriage vows, but in asking whether the very survival of his presidency would rest on this. There are no journalism school classes in prognostication, but a lot of reporters were dusting off their crystal balls in January or asking sources to consult theirs.

Outside Washington, this seemed nutty. Out here in the provinces, Primary Colors had been a best-seller. Out here in the boondocks, we had read about Paula Jones for years. Monica Lewinsky was a new name, but what she represented was old news. Journalists seemed to abandon not fairness but mental equilibrium. Washington seems to be a strange small town where local gossips do not whisper over the backyard fence but carry cell phones to call the Times. The one thing that the news media require to keep a sense of balance is a few moments of time for reflection. And that, it seems, is in short supply when the modern communicator is never disconnected.

At the same time there is a grow-

ing anxiety around journalism, if not inside it, that professional nonpartisanship, even at its best, has faults as well as virtues. Nonpartisanship hides informational cues that citizens need to make sense of complex issues. When a news story is written so that the readers do not know whether to cheer or boo, this represses emotional identification with political issues, persons and parties. Since nearly everyone today acknowledges that the organized political party has been a boon to democratic government, journalism that is divorced from parties and asserts a professional distrust of partisanship may help undermine one of the basic institutions of democracy.

Journalists are not about to rearm with partisan cudgels. The day of party loyalty is quite clearly over in American politics. But, then, is there any alternative to the distance that today's journalistic fairness places between politics and citizens? One possibility is "public journalism." Public journalists ask reporters not to abandon professional fairness for partisanship but to develop a kind of nonpartisan partisanship, an advocacy not of party loyalty but of public life. Public journalists want to use the news media to get citizens to talk to one another; they see no virtue in a journalistic chastity that keeps democracy's juices from flowing. It is too soon to know whether public journalism can develop a coherent set of professional norms and values itself, and the ideologues of conventional professionalism may well cut short its experimental fervor. We have yet to see.

Is modern professional fairness better for democracy, on balance, than the partisan press? So far as I know, no one has ever seriously studied this question. There are few studies that compare, say, party-oriented European journalism with objectivity-oriented American journalism, and none that successfully answer the tricky question of which serves democracy better. Do citizens know more about politics and vote more often where there is a party press or an independent press? In most European democracies, there is higher voter turnout and higher scores on tests of political knowledge than in the United States. But in Europe there are also stronger political parties and very different electoral institutions. What their effect might be on the values that direct the news media is simply unknown.

There is something enduring about the desire to be fair in journalismboth the writer's quest to be believed and the news institution's strong interest in maintaining its own credibility. But there is nothing at all stable across history or across national cultures about the actual rules and practices that pass for fairness. Today's journalistic fairness in the United States is a blend of high hopes, historic traditions, contemporary political culture and the expediencies journalists face in keeping audiences, owners and sources at bay. It is a shifting set of principles and practices that will be tested and reformulated by a changing informational environment whose shape will not hold still.

Michael Schudson, a 1985­86 Media Studies Center fellow, is a professor in the department of communication at the University of California, San Diego. He is author of The Power of News and The Good Citizen, a study of the history of American public life (fall 1998).

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