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All The News That’s Fit To Print

March 4, 2019 Frontpage No Comments

By MIKE MANNO

My dad was a printer by trade. Before I was born, he had his own print shop in Philadelphia. It wasn’t like today’s print shops where you can print from a master made on your computer, or even a typewriter. It was the old- fashioned kind of printing where type was set and photos and logos were first turned into engravings and then into metal plates.
The city wanted my dad’s property. He didn’t want to sell, but my mom’s family had some connections with the Republican bigwigs who ran the city at that time, so dad’s property was sold for top dollar. He finally moved my mom and me to Des Moines, Iowa, where he worked as a plant manager for an envelope manufacturer. But printer’s ink still ran in his veins and I always thought his original trade was neat.
I mention this because in college I was a journalism major, and for the first five or six years of my post-college life, I earned my living writing for and editing newspapers. One of the things I learned right away was that the newspaper business in America started as an adjunct source of income to early printers during our Colonial period and into our first years as an independent nation.
The printers of the day put together news items in no particular order, with no particular professionalism, and printed the information on broadsides for sale. The printers, or publishers, of the day were not editors — they came along later and polished and put order into the newspapers they edited. With the rise of the editor, the papers of that time began to include essays, poetry, and scientific articles.
Later, as political parties took root, they found it convenient to patronize local publishers and editors who found it economically helpful to seek patrons from the political establishment. When a partisan divide struck George Washington’s cabinet, the followers of the two major protagonists founded their own newspapers: The Federal Gazette for Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and The National Gazette for Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.
Thus began or, according to some historians, continued the practice of partisan news: All sides had their “spokesmen” in the form of an editor and a print shop. There was no such thing as “fair and balanced” nor was there any attempt at it. The news was tailored to partisan advantage and if, for any reason, you wanted a balanced view, you needed to buy each side’s publications.
The political nature of these newspapers prompted the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville to write that the press in America was “the power which impels the circulation of political life through all the districts of that vast territory….The power of the periodical press is second only to the people.”
But it didn’t take too many years for someone to recognize that news was a true commodity that could be bought and sold and periodicals began to be produced on a more frequent basis until there were — at least in the big cities — daily newspapers. Of course, not everyone in the early 1800s could afford a daily newspaper — some ran as high as six cents.
But the economic barriers fell when Horace Greeley and The Sun introduced the penny press in the 1830s. The new readership, which could now afford the penny price, opened up an entire new class of readers that required a shift in content. Editors were now poised to find and print stories that the public wanted to read, which meant more local news, a lot of sensation with stories of crime and sex, and the origin of the human-interest story.
Big city political machines still had their favorite outlet and remnants of party press still remained, but the change in audience would have a dramatic impact on how news was reported. Ultimately the Civil War produced a new character, the war correspondent, and following that was the development of Yellow Journalism as Hearst and Pulitzer vied with one another over a cartoon character, the Yellow Kid, and their own brand of sensationalism.
But over time, journalism grew up, so to speak. Muckrakers, as they were called then, began to highlight problems in meatpacking plants, insane asylums, and in other notable areas that brought about reforms in many industries and political organizations. Journalists, reporters, and editors were to present facts, not opinions — they were left to the editorial staff and columnists — not beat reporters who were supposed to be of an independent mind who would report the news fairly and accurately.
When I worked in the field, I was proud of the tradition of American journalism, of its ethics and its responsibility to its readers. But now saying I was a journalist is somewhat like saying I graduated from a Jesuit university; while still something I can be proud of, the institutions now hang like a dark cloud over me. I wonder sometimes what has happened to my old profession of which I was once so proud.
As I follow the path of the New Journalism, I wonder where this will end. I understand the demand for sensationalism — if it bleeds, it leads — but what I see now is a return to the days before the penny press, when each news outlet had its own political patron and news was reported only through the lens of that political viewpoint.
But in some respects it may be worse than before. Back in the early days of the partisan press, the newspapers had a defined political philosophy, an ideology, if you will. Today philosophy has been replaced by agenda: The wall was okay under Mr. Obama, or Mr. Bush, but it’s immoral under Mr. Trump; there’s no coherent political philosophy in that, and not isolated to the issue of the wall, that’s just symbolic of all the agenda-driven reporting today.
It’s also worse because the early printers never suggested that they were being impartial, yet today’s journalists insist on just that, and they are doing so while ignoring stories favorable to one side and hyping those favorable to the other.
The New York Times has a motto: “All the news that’s fit to print.” Perhaps it should be rewritten: “All the news that fits our agenda.” Better yet, use the motto my professors taught me: “Just the facts,” or maybe that was Joe Friday. Anyway, you get the point. Today journalism has hit rock bottom. It was once a proud profession with an equally proud and historic life story. Too bad it’s lost its way; too bad it’s no longer fact-driven but agenda-driven. Too bad for us, too.
(You can reach Mike at: DeaconMike@q.com.)

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