Bias has always existed in the news. Until the Great Depression, most cities of any size in Canada had two partisan newspapers—one Liberal, one Conservative. The Depression forced papers to amalgamate or fold in the face of dwindling advertising and that meant they had to take a more balanced view of politics in order not to offend potential clientele. Hence the beginning of “objectivity” in journalism.
The notion of the media as a disseminator of agreed-upon facts has been slowly eroded over the decades. Republican presidents as far back as Richard Nixon complained about an “eastern bias” as the major TV networks and America’s two most influential newspapers were located in the New York – Washington corridor. When Ted Turner started America’s first cable news network he touted it as a source of “unbiased” news. In its early days, CNN was almost boring. It became a sort of ticker tape of straight news.
Then Donald Trump came along, and a trend that was already underway, was ramped up overnight. The biggest change came not in Fox News, which had already staked out the extreme right of the political spectrum under the rule of Roger Ailes, who claimed to have been responsible for Trump’s win. Fox had a clear agenda and made no bones about it. The big change came with CNN and MSNBC who went into a panicked overdrive after they had been humiliated for their failure to see that there was a path to the White House for Trump. Where both networks had provided a good balance of news and opinion pre-Trump; now, they both swung into a menu of almost all opinion and very little hard news reporting.
They castigated Trump for despoiling the office of the presidency, and he has; but to some degree those two cable news outlets have damaged journalism as we knew it. The old phrase in TV news “we report…you decide,” is a dim memory. In the Johnson and Nixon era, with a much-less educated population, the media were much more nuanced. In the case of Johnson, when Water Cronkite of CBS News aired a commentary saying the war in Viet Nam was un-winnable, it was a cataclysmic event, because such commentary was so rare. Journalists in those days would never use the word “liar” to refer to a politician;” they would present facts that contradicted what the person in question had said, and leave it there for the public to decide what they may. There is no longer that bond of respect and trust between the media and its consumers. It is mostly heavy-handed propaganda.
If Trump loses on Tuesday, there may be those who think the news media can go back to a more dignified role. But in our view the nature of political reporting has been changed fundamentally, and it won’t be an east task to change the rules of the game to a less hysterical tone. And worse, there may be little willingness to do so.