Fantastic article from Princeton prof Paul Star about the rise of Fox News and its effects on the political landscape. His verdict — maybe not so bad:
Not since the 19th century have presidents had to deal with partisan media of this kind, and even that comparison is imperfect. Today the media saturate everyday life far more fully than they did in early American history. Fox News, in particular, is in a league by itself. In the absence of clear national leadership in the Republican Party, Fox’s commentators (together with Rush Limbaugh) have effectively taken over that role themselves. Although they have their liberal counterparts on MSNBC, the situation is not exactly symmetrical, because MSNBC’s commentators do not have as strong a following and the network’s reporting is not as ideologically driven as Fox’s.
Of course, professional journalism, with its norms of detachment, hasn’t disappeared, though it’s in deep financial trouble. Leading newspapers, notably TheNew York Times, have a wider readership online and in print than they had before in print alone. Media-criticism blogs and Web sites from varied perspectives serve a policing function in the new world of public controversy. Partisan media are now firmly part of our national conversation, but countervailing forces—not just the political opposition and its supporters in the media, but professional journalists and other sources for authenticated facts—can keep partisanship from controlling that conversation. Although most American journalists assume that professionalism and partisanship are inherently incompatible, that is not necessarily so. Partisan media can, and in some countries do, observe professional standards in their presentation of the news. That is where civic groups and the scientific community, as well as media critics and others upholding those standards, should focus their pressure. Some commentators may be beyond embarrassment, but the news divisions of the partisan media are likely to be more sensitive to charges of unsubstantiated claims and loaded language. The yellow press of the 1890s looked equally immune from rebuke—and for a long time it was—but the growth of professional journalism in the 20th century did bring about a significant degree of restraint, even in the tabloids.
No one can put the old public back together again. Walter Cronkite’s death last July provoked nostalgia for a time when it seemed all Americans had someone they could trust, and that person was a journalist. But it’s not just Cronkite that’s gone; the world that made a Cronkite possible is dead. Now we have a fighting public sphere, which has some compensating virtues of its own. As in the early 19th century, a partisan press may be driving an increase in political involvement. After a long decline, voter turnout in the 2004 and 2008 elections returned to levels America hadn’t seen in 40 years. Fox News and MSNBC stir up the emotions not just of their devoted viewers but of those who abhor them; liberals and conservatives alike may be more inclined to vote as a result. Democracy needs passion, and partisanship provides it. Journalism needs passion, too, though the passion should be for the truth. If we can encourage some adherence to professional standards in the world of partisan journalism, not via the government but by criticism and force of example, this republic of ours—thankfully no longer fragile—may yet flourish.
Read the whole thing — he offers a great history of the partisan press and describes the evolution of today’s fragmented media.
A partisan press doesn’t seem so bad to me. Critics have always complained that the “objective” model never really worked in the first place. So, perhaps we should just drop all pretenses — the New York Times covers stories from the left (the Public Editor already admitted it), the New York Post takes a rightward slant. Injustices perceived from both ideological camps would be uncovered, and everyone leaves satisfied.