Fair and balanced forever? Photographer: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images
Fair and balanced forever? Photographer: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

What is the future of partisan media? Not long ago, virtually all of the news media was “neutral.”* Political talk radio goes back only to the Reagan era, and Fox News didn’t exist for most of the Clinton presidency. Nor, obviously, did partisan or ideological web sites. Even op-ed pages in major newspapers are a relatively recent creation. For the most part, there were low-circulation opinion magazines -- National Review, the Nation and such -- and little else.

Seth Masket has a nice post passing along new research from Richard Kaplan on how we got that 20th century world, which supplanted the explicitly partisan 19th-century newspapers. A key turning point was the 1896 election, in which Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan was perceived as so radical, and so certain to lose, that Democratic newspapers deserted him -- and in the process discovered “neutrality” as a viable alternative.

Could the same thing happen again, if, say, Republicans nominated Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and he got clobbered?

It's unlikely. I’m no expert on 19th-century media, or even on the current media as a business, but what strikes me as the decisive fact about Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and their less-robust Democratic-aligned cousins is that they’ve found a way to be profitable even if their party gets clobbered. (Indeed, they may make more money when their party fails and angry partisans gather round the television set and stew.) So there’s no reason at all for them to jump ship when things go wrong.**

Another big difference between partisan media now and in the 19th century is the extent to which today’s party revival has failed to produce explicitly partisan rites and symbols. Fox News is the most obvious example of that. It’s almost inconceivable that Fox could have branded itself “Republican News Network” and promised news from a Republican perspective. Not because Democrats would have minded but because the target audience itself prefers the fiction that Fox is “fair and balanced.” The same rule applies to the Democratic-aligned media and their target audience.

What's unclear is whether the current status quo, which features both niche party-aligned media and plenty of the old “neutral” media, is approaching anything like equilibrium. That would depend, presumably, on both the future of the parties and of the media. That, in turn, depends on technology and other influences at least as much as on politics. I do think the Progressive antipartisan ideology of “neutrality” is still pretty pervasive, but whether that sells newspapers (so to speak) now or in 20 years is pretty hard to tell.

*Neutral doesn’t mean unbiased. In the mid-20th century, newspaper reporting and broadcast network news aspired to be above partisanship or ideology, in keeping with Progressive-era ideals. There certainly were biases embedded in their perspectives, but outside of a general preference for what they believed to be mainstream ideas, most such biases were driven by journalistic norms, not partisanship. The widely-believed idea that the neutral press is “liberal” is, like the less widely believed notion that it is “conservative,” largely a myth.

**I don’t know to what extent 19th-century newspapers profited from the spoils system. At a national level at least some did, with government printing jobs, for example, being steered to friendly news organizations. I’d guess some of that happened at the state and local levels as well, but I don’t know how big a deal it was for newspapers in general.

To contact the writer of this article: Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.