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May 24, 2024





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The late 19th century in our country marked the height of yellow journalism, a style of newspaper reporting that prioritized sensationalism over facts. Presenting little legitimately well-researched news, papers of that era focused on eye-catching headlines to drive sales. Stories of the day were rife with scandal-mongering, crime, sex, and violence. Even “legitimate” news stories were full of outrageous exaggerations. Historians argue to this day about the role of yellow journalism in pushing the United States into the Spanish-American War.

In the early part of the 20th century, however, this tide seemed to shift. Some newspaper owners, responding to consumers’ thirst for more dependable information, realized that accurate investigative reporting could stimulate good business. Moreover, some, like Joseph Pulitzer, believed that newspapers were public institutions with a duty to improve society. After purchasing the New York World in 1883, Pulitzer started replacing the many sensational stories with real journalistic coverage. By the time of his death in 1911, the World was a widely respected publication.

In the first decade of the new century, newly formed press associations began championing higher education. In 1908, the same year as the founding of the National Press Club, the University of Missouri opened the first school dedicated to journalism, followed by Columbia University in 1912 (funded by a $2 million grant from Joseph Pulitzer). With other schools adding journalism to their curriculum, the new field of study was defined as a process of collecting, processing, and disseminating information in the public interest.

Now sanctioned by universities, journalism could teach acceptable behavior and establish credentials, and also promulgate high ethical norms such as accuracy, balance, impartiality and truthfulness, independent of any commercial or political interests. It was nothing less than the birth of a profession.

Over the next decade, the field further distinguished itself with a robust sense of social responsibility towards the general public, good governance, and democracy. At its foundation were two principle underpinnings; the first was designating a relentless focus on the pursuit of truth as the center of the value hierarchy. Second, the revolutionary idea of erecting a “Chinese Wall” between the owner and the editor of a newspaper. News would no longer be shaped to suit the partisan interests of press owners, but rather would be determined by trained nonpartisan professionals, using judgment and skills honed in journalism schools.

So what happened that led us from the days of Walter Cronkite to the present era in which the autonomy of professional journalism seems to be vanishing faster than the Amazon rainforest?

Here are the three developments of the recent decades that proved pivotal:

> The regulatory framework was rescinded. In 1987, President Reagan’s FCC repealed the “fairness doctrine,” which required the holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that fairly reflected differing viewpoints (some argued that as cable news spread, the doctrine seemed to be rendered obsolete).

> News got replaced by (sensational) entertainment. In the face of the rising costs of accurate investigative news gathering, Roger Ailes pioneered a new business model at the FOX News Channel. This “winning” model, in which costly journalism is replaced by inexpensive pundit blowhards, caught on and became highly attractive to all media owners. The alternative path for many other television and radio stations was the outright elimination of news.

> The great training camp for fresh “up and coming” journalists withered away. The growth of the internet proved to be a death sentence for the money-maker in the print business — “the classifieds,” which kept afloat thousands of local newspapers across the United States. The unintended consequence: the vital training ground where young journalists newly out of school could learn the profession receded as local town and regional newspapers closed. In fact, the AP reports that the nation has lost two-thirds of its newspaper journalists in the last twenty years.

Today what is left is a media landscape where the search for eyeballs (or clicks) is the raison d’être which routinely trumps accuracy, data, or any form of verified information. The subscription model has become scarce and in the maelstrom of advertising that remains, most Americans have given up the pursuit of truth. The alternative is to create and maintain your own unsullied version of the truth in your chosen bubble.


American Schism: How the Two Enlightenments Hold the Secret to Healing our Nation


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