Friday, October 23, 2009

Fox News and the Locofoco Connection

"Because traditional journalistic organizations have understood the Administration's push back against Fox an attack on journalism generally, and not as an attack on the newly emerging partisan press, these organizations, by rising to the defense of Fox News are helping to dig their own graves."

Law professor Jack Balkin today has the most penetrating analysis we've yet seen about the White House kerfuffle over Fox Cable News. Here is a distillation of his main points:
We have been witnessing the return of a twenty-first century version of the party presses of the late 18th and 19th centuries. These party presses have no obligation to be journalistically objective, and they are not. They may say, as Fox News does, that they separate out news coverage from editorial writing, as the Wall Street Journal has done for many years. But do not believe it. ...

This new form of journalism is not, strictly speaking, a "party press" in the early 19th century mold because it is not owned and operated directly or indirectly by a political party. It is, however, a "partisan press," because it is unabashedly partisan in its purposes and its product, including both editorial and news operations. Indeed, the two operations increasingly merge in the new partisan press, as they did in the nineteenth century party press. (Fox's protestations that it keeps these two elements of its product rigidly separate cannot really be taken seriously. ...)
* * *
Barack Obama's Administration is the first Administration that both faces a dominant and hostile new party press and has publicly recognized it as such. It is seeking to change politicians' (and Presidents') relationships to a media that has already changed for better or for worse. It is the first Presidency to recognize and adapt to the rise of a powerful party/partisan press, which, if the current decline of traditional newspapers continues, is likely to be an increasingly dominant form of journalism in this century.

The irony of the Administration's response to Fox News is its declaration that Fox is not a "legitimate" news organization. It is not a legitimate mid-twentieth century news organization. But it is a legitimate nineteenth century news organization and it could well be what twenty-first century news organizations increasingly look like.
Like Balkin, we've been struck by how closely today's emergent media echo the partisan and vituperative press of two centuries ago. For just a mild taste, check out the "news" item in the Trenton State Gazette, which appeared just a week before the 1848 presidential election, where you'll learn, "We all know that a locofoco cannot be trusted politically."

"Locofocos" [crazy lights] was a common Whig pejorative for Democratic Party sympathizers -- a party whose platform principles at the time favored states' rights, the conquest of Mexico, opposition to internal improvements [read: "stimulus"] funded by the federal government, and (for the most part) return of runaway slaves who sought refuge in free states. (Almost sounds like today's Republican Party, doesn't it?)

The Whigs, on the other hand, were so diffuse in their individual political views and factions that as party they didn't stand for much at all. But they were the closest thing to a Peace Party then available. A significant proportion of western Whigs favored federal financing of roads and canals linking the states together. Another faction insisted on complete abolition of slavery. No one faction could gain the ascendancy. (All of which sounds rather more like today's Democratic Party, doesn't?)

Also like Balkin, we would not be surprised if all "twenty-first century news organizations" become more partisan. Many social and economic parallels between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries augur well for such a development. By no means the only, but certainly one of them is the shrinking amount of leisure time available to the mass of people in the economic middle and below.

In the nineteenth century, both husbands (in the field or shop) and wives (at home and in the garden or field) worked long hours and were compelled to budget their leisure time as well as pinch their pennies. As the twenty-first century opened, things are looking very much more like a return to that condition for the mass of Americans.

If you have only an hour to spare every day to learn the political news, how would you rather spend it? With some columnist or media performer who shares your perspective or one who favors a world view you find repellent? In our household, She Who Must Be Obeyed tivos MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and not, god forbid, Bill O'Reilly. Time was when we watched Jim Lehrer's News Hour or BBC News, instead.

The thing to bear in mind is that the nineteenth century partisan press had a very tough time making a go of it, even as it became more one-sided and vituperative. Almost as many newspapers died as were born, as even a short recitation of newspaper history in one city illustrates.

If Balkin is right, you can look forward not only to more tendentiousness in your news, but also shorter-lived news entities from whom to get what you want.


Anonymous said...

Reporters beware. Don't buy a house. You will be moving a lot.

Under a Tin Roof Sky said...

I can see the shift happening. Newspapers require focus and a hands-on interaction. Glenn Beck, or whoever, offering up an instant opinion that sounds a lot like yours, what's not to love. Salon has a great piece on Cheney, the comments are even better.

Anonymous said...

Great piece. Informative and clear. Pithy and certainly helped put into words what many of us are feeling when we listen to the garbage spewed out by Fox news.