The American news media has spent the past four years in a state of highly public soul-searching about its much vaunted role in maintaining a democratic society. Recent editorial conflicts at several prestigious publications have accelerated this process, by exposing deep disagreements within these institutions about the nature and purpose of the news itself. In her letter of resignation from the New York Times, Bari Weiss cites the collapse of a journalistic consensus around the fundamental values of balance, objectivity and “the free exchange of ideas” as one of the reasons for her departure. Many on the other side of this debate argue that the notion of journalistic objectivity has always been an illusion: the product of a racist and sexist twentieth-century society, which treated as universal the perspectives of white men. An increasing number of young journalists share Wesley Lowery’s judgment that “American view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment.” But, if journalistic objectivity is a twentieth-century invention, the contemporary debate over the future of news is steeped in a language that’s much older: phrases such as free speech, a free press and the free exchange of ideas, which Weiss and others invoke, are products of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, a period that gave us not only the newspaper as a medium, but the very concept of the news.
The conservative critique of mainstream media’s liberal bias is extremely familiar, as is the charge that decadent media elites have abandoned a core set of American—or even broadly western—values. But, over the past few months, some voices on the left have denounced the professional-managerial class character of mainstream media institutions in strikingly similar terms. In one of a series of controversial posts on the subject, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi characterizes the recent “flurry of newsroom revolts” as symptoms of an insular, paranoid media aristocracy, obsessed with its own internal discourse dynamics and utterly indifferent to the concerns of ordinary Americans of all races and backgrounds. This media class was so traumatized by the election of Donald Trump, Taibbi alleges, that they have rejected American democracy itself, and now devote their intellectual energies to discrediting “the Enlightenment ideas that led to the American Revolution.”
As a young scholar who has grown up in a news environment dominated by social media, and whose research deals extensively with the newspaper culture of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, I’m intrigued by these comparisons between that time and our own. Critics of the old journalistic consensus rightly point out that notions of journalistic objectivity and balance are a relatively modern invention. Referring to the explicitly partisan media landscape of the Early Republic, Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute has observed that—far from representing some lost ideal of rational Enlightenment discourse, “Early American newspapers read a bit like today’s blogs.” This comparison suggests that the collapse of consensus and the rise of a more self-consciously activist media is merely a return to the historical norm.
The reality is more complex. It’s true that many cherished notions about the American news media and its crucial relationship with American democracy can trace their origins back to the founding of the Republic. It’s true that early American newsmen preached in favor of free and rational discourse and against the evils of media prejudice and factionalism. It’s also true that nothing even remotely resembling the independent, professionalized and supposedly objective news media of the twentieth century existed in early America. For, although it established many of the values, norms and genre conventions we now associate with the news, the news in early America was the product of a completely different world.
The Revolutionary Newspaper
The American Revolution was perhaps the world’s first mass media phenomenon. It would be difficult to overstate either the significance of newspaper literature in the independence movement, or the extent to which the experience of independence came to define the genre of the newspaper itself. The language early American newsmen used to describe their profession is so overwhelmingly familiar that it may obscure some of the differences between their world and our own. Many journalistic clichés about the importance of an informed citizenry and the vital role of the press as the watchdog of liberty began their lives as Patriot propaganda during this period. New publications were generally launched with a manifesto, in which the editors declared their commitment to the public good, foreswore allegiance to any party or faction and promised to provide independent and impartial coverage. Early American newspapers were openly ideological and partisan—yet it would not be accurate to characterize them as the organs of political parties, which barely existed. There was no such thing as the media in early America, as a free-standing pillar of society, separate from partisan politics. Rather, the press was itself the central institution of a new kind of mass political culture, in which ideologically motivated leaders and activists used print media as a tool of party-building and popular mobilization.
The newspaper was part of a web of societies, associations and clubs, which structured civic life in the absence of modern political parties. The Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternity for Continental Army officers and their descendants, formed the activist base of the Federalist party and provided both financial and organizational support for pro-government newspapers. A national network of Democratic-Republican societies, inspired by the Jacobin clubs of the French Revolution, emerged in opposition, coordinating their efforts through opposition newspapers. Gentlemen dilettantes, university students and elite professionals, as well as farmers, veterans, tradesmen, immigrants, religious minorities and freedmen, all established civic organizations that used the press to coordinate their activities and to foster solidarity among their constituents.
Before the Revolution, printed periodicals, pamphlets, magazines and almanacs already played an important role in American life, furnishing readers with practical information and entertainment, and connecting them with a wider Atlantic world. But the revolution transformed the colonial press and accelerated its development. The demands of mass mobilization—the coordination of boycotts, demonstrations and, ultimately, a large war effort—gave rise to something like the modern notion of the news as a continuous chronicle of public—and especially political—events. It also transformed the colonial printer from a skilled tradesmen, simply trying to sell his services, into a kind of civic leader and activist, who promoted, criticised, competed and mingled with the new nation’s governing elite. The quintessential colonial printer was someone like Benjamin Franklin, a businessman whose entertaining and educational Pennsylvania Gazette brought him popularity and financial success. The quintessential early national printer was someone like his grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, a Democratic–Republican crusader, who was willing to run his newspaper, Aurora, at a financial loss in order to spread its political message.
The difference between the colonial and early national press was not only qualitative, but quantitative. There were more newspapers founded in the United States during the 1790s than in all of British North America during the entire period of 1700–1789. These publications did not simply chronicle events: they were often established in response to particular events, and with the aim of influencing future events. The 1765 Stamp Act prompted the establishment of one wave of activist newspapers. The debates over Alexander Hamilton’s financial policies during the early 1790s, and the Alien and Sedition Acts during the late 1790s, drove even greater waves.
The new newspaper of the early republic was ephemeral and experimental: few of them lasted more than a couple of years, and many disappeared after only a handful of issues. Publications often disappeared and reappeared, relaunched themselves under new titles, tried out different formats and even changed ideological orientations. They were neither objective nor partisan in the modern sense. They were collaborative, participatory and responsive to reader opinions and tastes. They were communal, habitually passed around taverns and coffee houses, and read aloud on street corners, where even the illiterate were exposed to them. They were didactic, promising to educate, enlighten and improve the reader. And, above all, they were politicizing: encouraging readers to see themselves as heroic, active citizens, perpetually vigilant against any threat to their liberties.
The News, the Economy and Democratization
The news meant novelty—that which was new. It reflected a certain Enlightenment understanding of time, and it coincided with the development of other time-bounded concepts, such as technological improvement and cultural fashion. These concepts emerged during the second half of the eighteenth century, in conjunction with a series of economic and technological changes that had a profound impact on early Americans’ daily lives. In colonial America, land was cheap and labor was expensive, so colonists enjoyed more economic equality and a higher standard of living than their British counterparts. The growth of the Atlantic consumer economy meant that, instead of making virtually everything at home, ordinary colonists could now afford to purchase from Britain manufactured items, including furniture, housewares, clothing and accessories. Innovations in food processing and preservation meant that foods could increasingly be enjoyed out of season. Innovations in textile manufacturing meant that colors and patterns once worn only by aristocrats were now available to ordinary consumers. These developments gave rise to a certain kind of patriotic historical consciousness—not yet the nineteenth-century notion of progress, but a pervasive sense that the future might be different from the past and that Americans might have some special part to play in it.
The early American newspaper was not simply a disembodied vehicle for these ideas: it was itself a high-tech, mass-produced, manufactured commodity, distributed over vast distances. The Revolution and Early Republic immersed Americans in a informational and aesthetic multimedia environment, which included patriotic music, poetry, theater, illustrations, orations, parades, toasts, ritualized riots and street demonstrations, clothing, novelty items and foodstuffs. The expansion of the press made it possible to have something resembling a national political culture over the vast and extremely rural geography of the early United States. Americans read about the patriotic rituals and consumption habits of their distant countrymen and tried to copy them, creating a feedback loop between the practices of this new mass politics and the press that reported on it. The newspaper was both the primary medium through which these politicized aesthetic experiences were disseminated, and an aesthetic object in and of itself, which marked the consumer as patriotic, public-spirited and well informed.
As consumers, colonial Americans aspired to taste. As citizens, Revolutionary Americans aspired to virtue. The American Revolution pioneered the consumer boycott as a form of protest, effectively combining the two. In a certain sense, virtue was to politics as taste was to fashion. Civic virtue and good taste were both faculties of personal judgment and character, which needed to be continually cultivated through participation in the public sphere. The newspaper gave ordinary Americans access to an arena in which to exercise these faculties. It promoted a certain kind of political consciousness in its readers, encouraging them to see themselves as informed, discerning, fashionable and up to date, and therefore capable of self-government and the public use of reason. The fundamental revolutionary proposition of the news as a concept was that ordinary people possessed the capacity—the Common Sense—to observe public events as they happened, and to express their own political judgements about them.
A Twenty-First Century News Revolution?
To study the Age of Revolution, in an age of widespread political disaffection and despair, is often bitterly surreal. The overwhelming tone of early American newspaper literature is one of delirious optimism about the power of reason, virtue and a free press to liberate humanity and transform the world. But it’s been a long time since that news was new. It’s been a long time since consumption and fashion seemed liberating. It’s been a long time since access to ever more information seemed like enlightenment.
Lamenting the loss of our civic republican heritage may seem like an exclusively conservative pastime, but, in recent months, figures from the ultra-online left have expressed deep dissatisfaction with the atomized, alienating and disempowering landscape of social media-driven news, and a yearning for something like the American Revolutionary ideal of a bracing and strenuous civic life, in the flesh-and-blood public sphere. On a recent livestream hosted by Jacobin magazine, Chapo Trap House host Matt Christman compared political participation to building a ship: “You learn how to do it by doing it!” he insisted. “You learn how to sand a keel, and stand up a mast.” The modern media landscape, he argued, gives people the illusion of political education and participation in the public sphere, “but what you’re actually learning is how to build a ship in a bottle.”
Christman’s Chapo co-host, Will Menaker, asked, on a recent episode of the podcast, “Can you imagine QAnon supporters trying to do a Declaration of Independence or Continental Congress, or pull off an organized American Revolution?” His point was that the kinds of civic institutions that would be required to accomplish such a revolution no longer exist. The bizarre online subculture of QAnon, he suggested, as well as its left-leaning equivalents, provide a kind of placebo substitute for revolutionary action, an outlet for disaffected Americans to vent their populist frustrations in the absence of anything even remotely resembling the nineteenth-century agrarian populist movement.
Taibbi contrasts the brave, truth-seeking, public-spirited journalists of the Watergate era with what he views as today’s self-righteous professional self-promoters. But whether the “traditional understanding of the press” that Taibbi eulogizes was truly noble or, as Lowery argues, a “failed experiment,” it was also the product of a very different political economy. As former NBC news executive Joe Ferullo points out, the conflict in contemporary newsrooms is taking place against a backdrop of lost revenue, declining subscriptions, massive cutbacks and the collapse of job security for journalists. Today, the twentieth-century ideal of a unionized, church-going, newspaper-reading America seems like almost as much of a distant fantasy as an eighteenth-century republic of yeoman farmers.
Invoked by journalists of all stripes, the idea of the American news media as the guardian of American democracy still has resonance today. But what would a twenty-first-century news media that mobilized, humanized, elevated and empowered ordinary Americans even look like? If there is anything about the idealistic, Enlightenment-era vision of the news worth saving, it is necessary to understand the intricate relationship between political economy and political culture that made such lofty notions thinkable in the first place.