How Professional Journalism Reinforces Partisanship

Author: Andrew Gripp
Created: 04 June, 2014
Updated: 21 November, 2022
7 min read

It is quite well known by now that there is two-party dominance in the United States because of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) -- or plurality -- electoral system. Third parties can have an unintended “spoiler effect” on contests by stealing votes from the ideologically similar -- but more viable -- candidate.

For instance, in Virginia’s 2013 gubernatorial election, Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis siphoned nearly 150,000 votes from Republican Ken Cuccinelli’s total, which was enough to give Democrat Terry McAuliffe a 55,000 vote edge, and the governor’s seat.

What is less acknowledged, however, is the way professional journalism reinforces this partisanship, discourages political independence, and precludes independent thought.

First, a microhistory:

Until roughly the 1890s, most Americans got their news from local newspapers. The country's major cities offered a smorgasbord of print options, including several major corporate publications in addition to a smattering of thriving independently-owned dailies and weeklies catering to niche audiences.

At the turn of the century, paralleling the rise of major industrial operations during the Gilded Age, several major outfits achieved national distribution, including Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal.

These new media giants did not want to alienate potential customers, so they went about professionalizing their craft by affirming its antipathy toward biased reporting. In 1922, the American Society of Newspaper Editors was founded, and it quickly codified its arch principles of independence, impartiality, and truth and accuracy under its statement of principles, originally called its “Canons of Journalism."

The detached observance of the professional journalist replaced the crusading zeal of the investigative muckraker.

This “facts-only” approach, however, gradually devolved into a species of “he-said-she said” stenography. Since professional journalists refrain from injecting their own opinions into their work, they instead aim to capture “both sides” of a story.

According to media historian Robert McChesney, when it comes to political reporting, "professional journalism has a strong inclination to simply publicize the positions of the leadership of the two parties.”

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This trade's embrace of "balance," of portraying the Democrat and Republican side of the issue, set the stage for a professional journalism that reinforces partisanship. In recent years, this kind of reporting has become the new normal.

With Americans getting their news predominantly from online sources rather than staining their fingertips with printed papers, many media outfits have seen their revenue plummet, and some publications have gone extinct all together. Those that have survived have downsized their staff to cut costs, sometimes axing multiple reporters.

Because they lack the time and resources that are required for hard-nosed investigative work, including building close relationships at the statehouse or digging through archives, many news networks have become increasingly reliant on simpler, more affordable means of acquiring their raw material.

As McChesney puts it, the streamlined method is to "just plant reporters near people in power and have them report."

Studies have confirmed that reporters do depend overwhelmingly on official statements to guide their stories. A 2008 survey of the media in Baltimore found that 86 percent of stories were initiated by the words and deeds of “higher authorities,” such as press releases, public relations statements, and the like rather than at the journalist’s own initiative.

As a result, the public often learns about what embedded members of the two-party political class think at the expense of fresh, outside, independent perspectives.

To see this kind of professional journalism in action, here are two excerpts of a story posted on Friday, May 30, on the “front page” of the Washington Post's website. The article is titled "GOP candidates show signs of retreat on full Obamacare repeal as midterms approach.”

Democrats such as Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the latest shifts show that the GOP’s plan to repeatedly attack the Affordable Care Act has “backfired.” “Now they’re promising fixes but won’t be specific,” Israel said in a statement. “That’s like a car dealer offering you a trade-in without telling you the car you’re getting in return.” […] House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said deliberations will continue and a vote on a GOP plan remains a priority. Many GOP lawmakers are unsure whether the party should unveil their plans now or wait for a possible Senate takeover. House Republicans had initially planned to test different health-care messages during the spring recess.The wave of the election is already within sight, and I believe we are going to do well,” said House Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.). “I don’t think we need a replacement bill to win the election, but it is something that would be helpful in guiding our governing agenda for next year.” A significant number of GOP Senate and House aspirants still back the idea of fully repealing the Affordable Care Act, including Senate candidates Tom Cotton (Ark.), Terri Lynn Land (Mich.), and Thom Tillis (N.C.).As a result, only a handful of ads on behalf of Democratic congressional candidates attack Republicans for wanting to abolish the law. Minnesota Democrat Mike Obermueller has a commercial showing the dance party that would break out among insurers if his opponent, GOP Rep. John Kline, were able to reverse it. The pro-Democratic House Majority PAC has aired an ad targeting the GOP challenger to Rep. Nick Jo Rahall (D-W.Va.), warning that the law’s repeal would undermine benefits for residents who suffer from black lung disease Most Democratic Senate incumbents have been more cautious, although they all say they stand by the law they voted for 4 1 / 2 years ago. Only Sen. Brian Schatz (Hawaii) has run an ad touting his support for it, and Grimes made a point of saying last week, ““If I had been in the Senate, it would have been a different law.” Jahan Wilcox, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, wrote in an e-mail to reporters that Democrats will soon discover that the law remains a serious political liability. He pointed specifically to Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), along with Senate candidate Michelle Nunn of Georgia.

At a deeper, structural level, this mode of reporting (one of its co-authors, Robert Costa, is a Beltway reporter who has a knack for such stenography) has two interrelated consequences.

First, the focus in this excerpt is almost entirely on image over substance; the reporters mention the GOP's health care place in passing, for instance, but they are content not to dig deeper and uncover at least an outline of its contents.

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Instead, we read that the Republicans are expressing their divided views over how to convert a piece of controversial legislation to their electoral advantage, while Democrats are discussing how to embarrass Republicans who want to undo the law in one way or another and deprive sick people of coverage.

Here, the two parties are concerned with posturing, gamesmanship, and political competition rather than the real-world application of the Affordable Care Act and how we can better understand its effects on consumers, insurers, and health care providers so that we can reform the law and maximize the access, affordability, and quality of health care in America.

Second, and relatedly, what stands out here is the passive echoing -- directly or indirectly -- of statements made by partisan officeholders and consultants. By simply regurgitating the opinions of Republican and Democratic loyalists, political independents are excluded from the discussion -- a non-aligned perspective goes unacknowledged, and the possibility of independent thought is precluded all together.

By overlooking the voices of regular citizens, from health care experts and providers to consumers and concerned citizens, professional journalism prevents the debate over important policy matters from advancing beyond the shortsighted interests of politicians.

In other words, professional journalism reinforces partisanship and sediments the endurance of our political duopoly in place by adding a protective layer of journalistic deference to Republican and Democratic officials on top of an institutional design that already favors a two-party system.

If our political system is to be reformed to better accommodate the voices of independent voters and the ambitions of independent politicians, then there will have to be an equivalent and simultaneous shift in mainstream journalism that halts the propagation of partisan squabbling and instead makes room for, and celebrates, independent thought.

Photo Credit: Singkham / shutterstock.com