When the Press Became the Media

In Colonial times, and the early days of the United States of America, there was nothing that even resembled true journalism. Port cities would glean what news they could from passengers and crew of arriving ships and print it. There was no independent verification, no one would even think of having two sources. The Port City Herald (or whatever) would print the gossip that had come ashore. The next city over, once they got a copy of the Herald would reprint the story; like a stack of dominoes, the story would fall into place in other newspapers. It might be weeks or months-old when the Gazette first printed it, and it might not age well as it trickled through the countryside. No matter–it was something to read.

Most newspapers were primarily political in nature, printing articles that promoted the owners’ views shamelessly. Since everybody knew this was the norm, nobody got upset and few took the news at face value. Ben Franklin, after learning the business from his brother, bought the Pennsylvania Gazette, for which he wrote many articles under various pseudonyms; after all, there was more credibility in multiple authors sharing a viewpoint than in a single person’s opinion. However, it’s probable that most who read the Pennsylvania Gazette knew that it leaned away from King George III and toward independency.

Things changed, probably because of the invention of the telegraph, so that current events could be printed in newspapers. There was still–and always will be–bias, but for many people a single newspaper was not their only source of information. People were interested in the outcome of battles during the Civil War, but then, as now the newspapers promoting the Union reported the same story quite differently than those favoring the Confederacy.

Eventually, there was at least a modicum of journalistic ethos, if for no other reason than newspapers did not want to be sued or be defenseless against opposing political forces. Perhaps the late twentieth century is a good example, if for no other reason than the reporting on the Watergate break in.

Today, newspapers are being killed by social media. It is difficult to compete with the 24 hour news cycle on the internet in which anyone with a smartphone (which is pretty much anyone over the age of three) can record an incident, present it from his or her own perspective and post it to social media without any vetting, editing, or oversight and without identifying the source of the author. Comments in response are unconstrained as well. There’s no way (or interest) in checking sources, determining facts, or balancing biases.

When Twitter becomes the communication channel of choice for the President of the United States, you can see what I mean.

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