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Internet Rebuilds Jeffersonian Press Ideals

January 28, 2009

Disseminated by The Erie Wire from The Future of News 

4 Advances that Set News Back

Jefferson’s vision for news called for a multitude of voices, competing in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas. By the end of his life in 1826, he had watched news make steady progress toward this vision. French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, in his book Democracy in America of that time, marveled at the ability of individual newspapers to attract and organize like-minded citizens into “Associations,” each representing a different voice.

But, soon after his death, Jefferson’s vision for news not only stalled, it reversed itself, and continued in the opposite direction through most of the 20th century. Ironically, each of the 4 primary causes of this reversal, outlined below, held promise to be a great advance toward his vision.

1. The Steam-Powered Printing Press
While the harnessing of the steam engine to newspaper printing presses at first represented a great leap forward toward Jefferson’s vision, ultimately it was a significant step backward. This innovation allowed many more citizens to participate in public policy debates because more were able to afford newspapers — this cost-reducing technology allowed many papers to drop their price to as low as a penny. But, there was a catch. The total number of different newspapers declined because only those with very large circulations could achieve the efficiencies required to achieve the lower costs. In the end, there were fewer newspapers in each locality, and fewer voices in Jefferson’s hoped-for freewheeling marketplace of ideas.

2. Broadcast Technology
Similarly, broadcast technology initially showed a great deal of false promise toward fulfilling Jefferson’s vision. Broadcasting provided the public with no-cost access to fresh news throughout the day, courtesy of a business model in which advertisers bore the full cost. But ultimately, the public was offered a limited number of voices, each constrained in its political speech, because of the federal government’s decision to control the use of broadcasting frequencies through assigned licenses. Only a handful of TV channels were allowed in each local market, which in turn could support only a handful of national networks. Moreover, government insistence that broadcasters meet guidelines for “responsible programming” for license renewal had a chilling effect on speech, as broadcasters quickly understood that their livelihood depended upon keeping politicians happy. In the end, there were few voices, representing little diversity of opinion, a far cry from Jefferson’s freewheeling marketplace of ideas.

3. The Associated Press
The formation of the Associated Press (AP) can also now be seen in retrospect as a significant step backward, away from Jefferson’s vision. This organization began as a win-win proposition for New York papers and their readers. These newspapers decided to pool their resources to get news from Europe faster and at lower cost. It was a clever scheme in which boats met American-bound ships (carrying informed passengers and European papers), sooner (in easterly Halifax), then forwarded news to New York through the newly-invented telegraph.

But, it was not long before the dark side of this collaboration among would-be competitors emerged, ultimately leading to fewer newspapers and fewer voices. Competition was first stifled when AP papers signed an agreement giving Western Union exclusive rights to the AP’s telegraph business in exchange for higher telegraph fees for other news providers. News competition was further stifled by AP bylaws that essentially gave members veto power over admission of new competitors in their circulation areas. E. W. Scripps, creator of the first chain of newspapers, said that the AP is a “monopoly pure and simple” that made it “impossible for any new paper to be started in any of the cities where there were AP members.” Scripps also commented, “I regard my life’s greatest service to the people of this country to be the creation of the United Press, to compete with a monopoly that determined what news was provided to the public.” The U.S. Supreme Court in 1945 seemed to share his sentiments, when it found the AP in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act — a decision that allowed the Chicago Sun to remain in business.

The continuing anti-competitive effects of the AP are still with us today, limiting the number of newspapers and the number of voices. The remedies from the 1945 Supreme Court decision appear to have been insufficient, as not a single, financially self-sustaining metropolitan daily newspaper has been founded in the more than 60 years since then. The distortion in the competitive environment caused by the AP network preempt today’s newspapers from being the paragons of independence they might mistakenly see themselves to be. Essentially, our newspapers now refuse to compete with each other on the basis of news stories or news angles. In most cases they docilely and unquestioningly reprint wire material provided by the AP and fellow members, like The New York Times and Washington Post. While there is regular news coverage about the potential damage caused by “Big Oil,” Big Tobacco,” and “Big Pharmaceutical,” we hear nothing about the damage done to Jefferson’s vision for a freewheeling marketplace of ideas by what the AP network of newspapers has created — “Big News.”

4. Scientific Journalism
The movement to improve the accuracy, credibility, and professionalism of journalism that began in the early 20th century and continues today represents the last of the 4 false great leaps forward. The foundation for this movement was set by the success, then the excesses, of a style of journalism developed and honed in an epic battle between two New York newspapers led by two larger-than-life journalism figures, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Under heated competition, news was made more and more entertaining through the use of more graphics, sensationalism, and populist themes. Circulation soared, but more upscale readers ultimately became irritated by the eroding seriousness of newspaper content. This style was pejoratively dubbed “Yellow Journalism,” named after the “Yellow Kid” newspaper cartoon.

The Scientific Journalism movement, launched arguably by newspaper legend Walter Lippmann with his 1919 book “Liberty and the News,” called upon the then-discredited journalism profession to embrace scientific goals and procedures. Journalists were to pursue the “truth” and true solutions in public policy through the use of “objective” methods. While these sound like indisputable ideals on their face, this was essentially the opposite of what Jefferson intended and believed. He did not envision specialized “scientists” seeking singular “truths” to form public policy. In a country founded on individual rights, he felt that public policy should be driven by the aggregate of individuals’ opinions, formed by their varied knowledge, experiences, judgment, and preferences. And, he felt that the best way to arrive at this aggregate of opinions (i.e. the “public will”) was through a freewheeling competition in a marketplace of ideas.

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