When the American news media could be trusted…

“A gruesome clash between North and South is inevitable—
if only because newspapermen are screaming about it.”

— Blind Tribute

America is a country divided; it cannot be argued. Perhaps more so than any time in our history, barring only the Civil War of 1861-65. And the environment now is beginning to look remarkably similar to 1860.

While it seems logical to say that, as Americans, we have more in common than not, myriad forces continue to tell us we are wrong, chief among them, that broad, varied and variable category, “The Press.” Whether “fake news” or “Russian partisan propaganda” or “opening up the libel laws” or the role of comedic satire or the need for (or advisability of) “Woodward-and-Bernstein-style” exposés, all we seem to hear about on the news is… the news.

Conventional wisdom says the media environment wasn’t so hyper-partisan before President Reagan pressured the FCC to abolish the Fairness Doctrine, which mandated balanced reporting in broadcast journalism, requiring broadcasters to discuss controversial matters of public interest and air opposing views. Back then, the story goes, the press existed to provide a service, to act as part of the systems of checks and balances—the “Fourth Estate” in the triumvirate of American checks and balances. Reporters acted with integrity and forethought, exposed corruption, spent more time informing than imposing electoral dogma. The news business used to be trustworthy. Right?

Not exactly.

The Fairness Doctrine, when instituted, was sorely needed. The ethics the Fairness Doctrine meant to codify in the face of new broadcasting technologies were still quite young in 1949. They weren’t even industry norms until the early 20th century. (It should be noted that, even now, media ethics are entirely voluntary and, ironically, unenforceable by virtue of the First Amendment.) While the question of ethics and values in this industry goes back to the 17th century in Europe, the answers, in America at least, are much more recent. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), arguably the modern keeper of this canon of ethics, was not formed until 1909 (then—and until 1960—a men’s fraternity called Sigma Delta Chi). The American Society of Newspaper Editors (as of 2009, the American Society of News Editors) (ASNE) was formed in 1922 for the express purpose of developing and codifying norms and ethics for the industry, which were set in type the following year. The SPJ borrowed this code in 1926, and these remained their central tenets until 1973.

However, if we travel further back, sixty or so years before the ASNE and SPJ began their work to make the news business honest, trustworthy, and accountable, we reach the beginnings of the Civil War, when the glorious olden days of media integrity didn’t exist. Not only that, just about any reporter, if presented with the concept of “fair and balanced,” would have either given you a blank stare or laughed at you outright.

On the question of partisanship, our modern media has nothing on the early 19th century.

So, back to the Civil War: the current president asks, “Why couldn’t we just work that out?” Of course, the thought process is reductive; in short, it couldn’t be worked out because slavery could not, should not, and would not stand. But as to why emotions ran to such a fever pitch at just that moment in history? Perhaps because newspapermen were screaming about it.

Even given the risk inherent in trying to separate a man from his money (even when that “money” is invested in ownership of other humans); and given the (pseudo)religious and (im)moral justifications for slavery, and their opposite refrains in the Abolitionist movement; and given the innate tension between federalism and community sovereignty that threads through our entire democratic history; and given that Europe would quite possibly have used slavery (in due course) as a pretext for embargo or another war; and given, finally, that an armed black uprising probably would have eventually succeeded, why did the rhetoric heat to a boil then? Why did we end with a conflagration then?

At the risk of also becoming reductive (probably inevitable when discussing the causes of the Civil War):

It might have had something to do with the fact that nearly every newspaper in America was associated with one political party or another, and no political party was without its conjoined newspapers. Not only was this the norm and accepted practice, it wasn’t even considered unethical. If a man (and, of course, it was always men) was smart enough to own a printing press, erudite enough to make his opinions matter to his readership, and wealthy enough to expand his newspaper’s reach, why would he not use it to trumpet his own views? If he had once held elected office or planned to in the future, would that not just make him better informed about the issues of the day? And why would he not affiliate with the politicians who agreed with him, to expand his circulation, lend weight to his message, and defray his costs? It is capitalism in action. The American Way. (For both Americas—freedom of the press was enshrined in both Constitutions, and the norms of the burgeoning industry crossed the Mason-Dixon line.)

Thus, a partisan, vocal, and influential news media (in part) drove conflict into war, and now, it seems, we have forgotten the lessons of the past. To provide a bit of necessary perspective, it should be noted that without the constraints of the Fairness Doctrine, and owing, in part, to the expanded technological landscape, partisanship in the news business is once again the norm, as are the use of political relationships and affiliations for purposes of profit and influence. The primary differences between the media now and in 1860 are: the increased speed with which news travels and the expanded breadth of its reach.

References:

“American Society of Newspaper Editors Code of Ethics or Canons of Journalism.” (1923) Illinois Institute of Technology Ethics Codes Collection, 10 Nov. 2016, http://ethics.iit.edu/ecodes/node/4457.

“American Society of Newspaper Editors: History.” (2014) ASNE website, 10 Nov. 2016, http://asne.org/content.asp?contentid=83.

“American Society of Newspaper Editors: Statement of Principles.” (2014) ASNE website, 10 Nov. 2016, http://asne.org/content.asp?contentid=171.

“Society of Professional Journalists: Code of Ethics [2014].” SPJ website, 10 Nov. 2016, https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp.

“Society of Professional Journalists: History of the Society.” SPJ website, 10 Nov. 2016, https://www.spj.org/spjhistory.asp.


Blind Tribute

As America marches toward the Civil War, Harry Wentworth, gentleman of distinction and journalist of renown, finds his calls for peaceful resolution have fallen on deaf—nay, hostile—ears. As such, he must finally resolve his own moral quandary: comment on the war from his influential—and safe—position in Northern Society, or make a news story and a target of himself South of the Mason-Dixon Line, in a city haunted by a life he has long since left behind?

The day-to-day struggle against countervailing forces, his personal and professional tragedies on both sides of the conflict, and the elegant and emotive writings that define him, all serve to illuminate the trials of this newsman’s crusade, irreparably altering his mind, his body, his spirit, and his purpose as an honorable man. Blind Tribute exposes the shifting stones of the moral high ground as Harry’s family and friendships, North and South, are shattered by his acts of conscience.

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