For the 36th episode of the Journalism History podcast host Nick Hirshon spoke with Matthew Pressman about the emergence of a risky style of reporting and selling the news in the 1960s and 1970s that re-imagined the journalistic principles of objectivity and impartiality.
Matthew Pressman is an assistant professor of journalism at Seton Hall University. He received the History Division’s Book Award at the 2019 AEJMC conference in Toronto for On Press: The Liberal Values that Shaped the News. This podcast was recorded at the History Division’s awards gala in Toronto.
This episode is sponsored by the College of Communication and the Arts at Seton Hall University.
Nick Hirshon: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
This episode is sponsored by the College of Communication and the Arts at Seton Hall University. Just fourteen miles from New York City, the college is a premiere choice for students to study in the classroom with internationally recognized faculty and put their learnings into practice in the media capital of the world. The College of Communication and the Arts is committed to empowering students to lead, create, and communicate with integrity, passion, and excellence.
And this is a very special episode for us, because we are recording today before a live audience at the conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication in Toronto, Canada, so thank you all for being here. [Applause]
And just for some context for our listeners, this is the largest annual gathering of journalism scholars, and today we welcome one of the very best. We have Matthew Pressman, an assistant professor of journalism at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, and last year the Harvard University Press published Matt’s thoughtful and thoroughly researched book, On Press: The Liberal Values that Shape the News. The book explores the emergence of a new style of reporting and selling the news in 1960s and 1970s America due to the proliferation of television, pressure to rectify the news media’s dismal treatment of minorities and women, accusations of bias from left and right, and the migration of affluent subscribers to suburbs. Reporters began to interpret and analyze events for their readers, and they reimagined the core journalistic concepts of objectivity and impartiality. Matt describes in his book how the modern American press stands now at a precipice that could challenge its very survival.
So the audience has just seen Matt accept the final award presented at our gala dinner tonight, the AEJMC History Division Book Award. So, again, let’s give a round of applause for Matt’s terrific research. [Applause] So, Matt, thank you very much for joining us.
Matt Pressman: Thank you for the kind introduction, and it’s a delight to be here at AEJMC.
Nick Hirshon: Of course. Thank you for a – for comin’. So, your book has received so much media acclaim. There’s probably a lot of questions you’ve already addressed, but I’m glad we can have you on, and I hope we’ll take it in a little bit of a direction tonight. So, On Press looked primarily at changes over the past half-century at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and you’ve explained in previous interviews you picked those newspapers, because they were readily available in archives, and a lot of historians here in the audience tonight would appreciate that. But, also, of course, they’re major newspapers that represent the journalism of the time. So my first question for you there is, do you find that the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times set a kind of trickle-down precedent for other news organizations in this new idea of objectivity, impartiality?
Matt Pressman: I think so, certainly, yeah. I think the regional newspapers, newspapers in smaller cities, then as now, they do look to the most successful, most widely circulated newspapers as something of a model. And it’s not just an anecdotal impression. Certainly, you see in the personal papers of the editors of the New York Times and the L.A. Times there are – are many requests, uh you know, “Well, what are you doing at your newspaper to address this issue?” There’s correspondence from, uh, editors and executives at other news outlets asking for – for guidance. So I think – I think they do really set the tone in a lot of ways.
Nick Hirshon: Hmm, which is great that you focused then on them in the book. And a main objective you state in the book is the reimagination, as you call it, of objectivity, impartiality. I thought this was really interesting. Today journalism students are taught to follow the five W’s and the H, right: who, what, when, where, why and how. But you describe how even though that seems so essential to journalism today that it wasn’t always that way and that one of those W’s kind of changed over time.
[0:04:00] So can you get into that?
Matt Pressman: Yeah. Well, I think what you’re describing there is what – what’s really the – the growth and rise of interpretive reporting, which, although some journalists and journalism professors had been calling for it, you know, beginning with Walter Lippmann, even, since the ’20s and ’30s, it only really begins to be practiced in the 1950s. And I think this sorta sets in motion a lot of the changes that – that I talk about in the book, the – the fact that everyday reporters are now interpreting the news, and it’s not just a privilege reserved for editorial writers and columnists and the – and the Sunday review section. That makes the reporting process open to a lot more criticism when reporters are – are issuing judgments and not just summarizing what somebody said or did the day before.
Nick Hirshon: And it seemed a key part of that change from objective reporting to something a little more interpretive, perhaps, is – personally we’re all familiar with Joe McCarthy, the senator from Wisconsin who rose to infamy as an anticommunist demagogue, and he changed how journalists viewed their roles.
[0:05:00] You say maybe they felt an obligation to shed the idea of fairness, give equal attention to all sides of an argument maybe wasn’t as important anymore and challenged McCarthy on some points. So can you just talk a little more about Joe McCarthy, his role in this?
Matt Pressman: Sure. Well, I – I think a – a couple things that I wanna maybe clarify a little bit – I – I wouldn’t say they were shedding the idea of fairness, and I wouldn’t even say that they were a – they were abandoning objectivity. I think they’re just redefining it a little bit. And the way I see it, there were – there was – the primary motive for the rise of interpretive reporting was – was an economic one, the fact that newspapers, with the rise of TV, had to provide something that television news could not, and also they saw magazines having tremendous growth in this period, and magazines were – were quite interpretive in their approach to the news.
But I think that the – the rise of McCarthy, who’s – was really abetted by the – by the newspaper press. He went from an – you know, a nobody to a household name, and at the same time most of the working journalists really thought he was a demagogue and a fraud but didn’t say so and didn’t provide the – the context. They sort of had regrets after the fact. I think that provided some – an – a noncommercial motive, because, you know, a – as we all know, right, journalists are – are very resistant to changes in their practice that they think are – are driven by commercial motives or by the business side of the paper. So I think it certainly helped to have this – this public-service motive also.
And there was a – a third factor, too, which – which journalists talked a – about quite a lot of the time, which was simply that the world is becoming so much more complicated, you know? It’s the Atomic Age. It’s the Cold War. It – the – the audience is becoming far more educated. So I think that was a factor, too, but I really think the two big ones are the – the economic factor of needing to compete with television –
and the – the sort of political, I suppose, factor, of trying to not become sort of the tools of – of the next demagogue.
Nick Hirshon: And that kinda leads into my next question here. I think we know where we’re gonna go with this, but –
Matt Pressman: [Laughs]
Nick Hirshon: – there’s a lotta parallels between things that’re – you describe in your book, the phenomenon that was happening then into what’s happening today. And you’ve been asked many different versions of this question, but are – do you think journalists today are more open to that analysis or maybe using certain terms that in the past would’ve been viewed as nonobjective or biased, for example, when President Trump recently write a series of tweets telling four Democratic women of color to go back where they came from and a lot of media outlets did not even hesitate to call those tweets racist, not even “racially charged” or “what some people call racist.” They just outright said “racist.” Do you think that that is tied into the history in the book?
Matt Pressman: Yeah, I think so, because I think the sort of distinction – that got made in the ’50s and ’60s with trying to fit –
interpretive reporting into the – the traditional definition of objectivity was that journalists were – were being asked to make a distinction between their personal opinions and their professional judgments. And so, professional judgment, based on your expertise, your knowledge of this issue, the reporting that you’ve done, this is how you’re seeing it versus personal opinion, “This is how I feel about this thing.” And so, I think you see that same thing at play in the – in the coverage of – of Trump’s tweets. You know, this particular tweet about the congresswomen, a lot of news outlets said, “Well, no, our – our professional judgment is that’s a racist statement. It’s not a matter of opinion. That’s just what it is.” Some news outlets felt like, oh, well, no, that’s – that’s still an opinion. But I think probably the – the majority in this instance went – came straight out and – and called it, you know, a racist statement.
Nick Hirshon: Mm-hmm.
Matt Pressman: So, I – I think – uh, I think it is. It – it’s really – it’s following a lotta these same –
these same principles and – and guidelines that – that really emerge in the ’60s and ’70s. And that’s – that’s the case I try to make throughout the book that a lot of the practices that – that continued to – to sorta guide journalism today emerged from that era.
Nick Hirshon: And when you talk about this reimagining, then, of impartiality or objectivity, I guess that leads into this notion of a liberal bias in the media. And even calling Trump’s tweets racist, some would say, “See, they – they’re not – uh, they’re siding with one side over the other. They’re anti-Trump, anti-Republican.” Uh, but one of the interesting ideas in your book is that there used to be almost a conservative bias, in a way of the media, and this idea of a liberal bias is a more recent kind of a concern. Could – can you just get into that a little?
Matt Pressman: Yeah, sure. Uh, so, certainly the – the complaint about the press prior to the 1960s, if there was a complaint about ideology, usually was from – from the left. And, you know, Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 campaign famously complained that there was a one-party press, and, of course, that one party was the Republican Party.
The editorial pages of most newspapers leaned Republican, but – but beyond that, the – the news coverage was – kind of by default, favored the – the powerful and – and the status quo, and this is a critique that got raised a lot in the 1960s and ’70s from – from people on the left, you know, saying, well, there’s a – a built-in bias with objectivity towards people in positions of power, right? The – the people who get written about are the – are the powerful. They’re allied with – with powerful institutions, and the – the dissidents and the – the young people, the people of color, their voices don’t make it into the reporting. And so, there’s – there’s this built-in conservative bias, in a way, even if, yes, the – the majority of reporters in their personal beliefs lean to the left, and that was the case, you know, certainly as far back as the – the 1930s, when Leo Rosten did his famous survey of Washington correspondents.
Even though that may be the – the way that the reporters feel, still the end product comes out with a – a bias that’s in favor of the – the establishment or – or conservatives.
Nick Hirshon: And, of course, we’ve been focusing on what reporters tend to think and how editors view this, but I’m wondering how in your research you found sources react to some of these changes in media coverage. For example, a politician – do you think that they tended to be, maybe feel more comfortable with the old style of journalism, where they felt they’ll get a fair shake whether they’re a Democrat or Republican? Do you think they feel more comfortable now, where it’s like, “I can go to the shelter of Fox News if I’m a Republican or MSNBC if I’m a Democrat?”
Matt Pressman: Uh, yeah, certainly. This is another – I think a really important change that I – that I devote a chapter of the book to, which is the – the rise of adversarial journalism. It’s just a different approach to covering people in power. And it – it wasn’t as if the 1960s and ’70s was the first time it happened, but there – you know, of course there was the earlier period of muckraking, and then there was the earlier period of – of a partisan press.
But – but, yes, there’s – there’s a huge change, I think, in the – the way that journalists approach their – their sources, their subjects, people who are in positions of power. And, yeah, the – the – the relationship between journalists and their – and their sources changes dramatically.
And there – there are many examples of it, and I – one of the more interesting ones to me, one of the newspapers I write about a lot is the Los Angeles Times, as you mentioned. There’s – and this story’s been told before, but the – the relationship between Richard Nixon and the L.A. Times, which practically created him as a – as a political force in California, when it was quite a conservative paper and a – another reason why the press may’ve had some sort of a conservative bias is there was – many of the nation’s most powerful news outlets did have a Republican slant in their news pages, the L.A. Times, the Chicago Tribune, Reader’s Digest, Time, among others.
And that changes dramatically in – in the ’60s, and Richard Nixon can no longer count on the L.A. Times, but it’s not just coverage of the president.
I – I get into, also, the – the way that the relationship between the L.A. Times and the mayor of Los Angeles changes dramatically, and – and they get into a major feud, and the relationship between the – the – the L.A. Times and the Los Angeles Police Department changes dramatically, to the point where you have the – the chief of police of Los Angeles labels Bill Thomas, the editor in chief of the L.A. Times, Public Enemy Number One in the 1970s in a public statement. So, yes, it’s – it’s a dramatic change, I think.
Nick Hirshon: And then as we’re talking about this, you know, I just wonder. What’re your opinions now you’ve done all this research? Do you think – obviously we’ve heard objectivity can never be truly achieved. But should it be something that should be so – a goal of ours? Should we strive for objectivity as journalists, or – I know it’s a very complicated question. You could probably spend a long time –
Matt Pressman: [Laughs]
Nick Hirshon: – talking about it. But after you’ve done all this research, I’m just curious how you come away.
Matt Pressman: I mean, I think that it’s not necessary for there to – to – to be a – a one-size-fits-all approach.
Objectivity might be appropriate for some news outlets and not for others. Different news outlets may have different definitions of objectivity. I think the – the most important thing for – for any news outlet is to be fair, to be accurate. Of course, accuracy is key, but – but fairness, too, right, giving an accurate and honest representation of the other side’s views, and being transparent about your reporting processes. You know, a lot of, uh, journalism commentators have – have talked about transparency as sort of the – the new objectivity, in a way, and I – and I think there’s – there’s something to that.
I also think that the word itself can be problematic, and this was something that was evident as – as far back as the 1960s and ’70s. I write about in the book that the – the publisher and – and the editor in chief of the L.A. Times in this period, they didn’t like the word objectivity. They stopped saying, “Hey, we’re trying to report the news objectively,” because they felt like that means different things to different people.
When we say objective, they think that we mean just the facts, ma’am, and no interpretation. And so the publisher of the L.A. Times, Otis Chandler, said, “I loathe the word objectivity. I don’t wanna hear it, and what we’re – what we’re after is – is fairness and honesty,” although, really, when you came down to it, the – the – the kind of reporting practices that they wanted their staff to follow really were the same as the way many other people were defining objectivity. So, I think a lot of it still is a question of – of semantics, I think, and – and it’s – it’s worth interrogating, you know, how much the – the use of that word gains for news outlets.
Nick Hirshon: So one of the spectacular things about your research is that it remains very relevant. I think it will for – for years, because we can keep looking back at how this began and, you know, how we’re seeing it play out in today’s media coverage. So I was asking you about Trump’s tweets being deemed racist, but some other phenomena you describe in the book, reimagination of objectivity, the move to interpretive reporting –
can we see that play out in the way the press has covered other things, for example, we’re recording this podcast on August 6th, 2019, and there have been a slate of mass shootings recently – Gilroy Garlic Festival in California; El Paso, Texas; Dayton, Ohio. What have you learned while researching your book that can explain the kind of coverage of maybe the gun-control issue and how that has changed, and we’re seeing newspapers on the front page even coming out and – not even an editorial. Sometimes it seems like they’re coming out in their news coverage, saying, “This has to end,” and calling for action.
Matt Pressman: Yeah. I mean, that certainly is crossing a line into – into advocacy, but in some instances, right, newspapers will – will take that step. I mean, one – one parallel to me is in coverage of the – of the civil rights movement. Especially the – the early sort of heroic phase of the civil rights movement to end Jim Crow in the South, the – the – most of the press in the North then – and major cities in – in –
the West and Midwest were unapologetically sympathetic to the – to the protesters, right, to – sympathetic to the nonviolent protests led by Martin Luther King Jr. and others, right? And, you know, many – many people who opposed them [laughs] thought that this was an early sign of – of liberal bias. And, you know, David Greenberg wrote a – a journal article about this some years ago as being sort of the – the starting point for the accusation of liberal bias. But I think there’s another instance where a lot of journalists saw it as such a sort of moral imperative that – that the normal rules of objectivity weren’t applied in quite the same way.
Nick Hirshon: Are you seeing that play out in any other particular form of news coverage? Specifically, I think, of course, about politics, and right now we have the Democratic primary going on. The debates, you know, have been happening. But do you see any sort of change there in the news values?
I know there’s been some criticism that journalists tend to look for conflict, and when they’re covering a debate, for example, they tend to look at Kamala Harris versus Joe Biden, and they attacked each other, and maybe not really looking for something more substantive. So are you seeing it play out there, too?
Matt Pressman: Yeah, I mean, I think so. I think – and this comes back to a – a complaint that’s been made, a criticism that’s been made about objectivity as practiced for a long time, which is that journalists sort of sidestep the important issues like policy stances in favor of conflict and the horserace, where it’s easier to come off as objective. It’s easier to seem like you’re not taking a side if you’re not dissecting what this politician really stands for or, you know, what their – what their past actions say about them, if you’re just chronicling, you know, “This one said that, and the – and the other one said this,” or if you’re just saying, you know, the – “This is what the polls say. This is how much money they’ve raised,” then you can’t really be accused of – of bias as – as easily.
Nick Hirshon: Mm-hmm.
Well – and we can talk about your terrific book forever.
Matt Pressman: [Laughs]
Nick Hirshon: We’re gonna have to wrap up pretty soon, but I wanna ask you – the final question we always ask guests of the Journalism History podcast is, “Why does journalism history matter?” You’ve just spent so much of your life studying it. It’s your career. You’re comin’ all the way to Toronto –
Matt Pressman: [Laughs]
Nick Hirshon: – for a conference to discuss it. So, why do you think journalism history matters?
Matt Pressman: I think that journalism history matters for the same reason that – that all history matters, right, is to – to understand where we came from, how we got to this moment, what we can learn from the past. And I think journalism history matters in particular, because journalism is – is so important in – in a democratic society. It’s – you know, it’s – it really affects almost every aspect of – of the culture of politics, of society. It’s how people form their views. It’s how they make sense of their world. So – so certainly, yeah, I – I think it’s crucial.
Nick Hirshon: Terrific. Well, thank you again, Matt, for being here. Thank you to our audience.
Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the Journalism History podcast, and additional thanks to our sponsor, the College of Communication and the Arts at Seton Hall University. Once again, thank you to the live audience here at the AEJMC Conference in Toronto.
Matt Pressman: Thank you so much for having me. It was a real honor.
Nick Hirshon: Yes. And until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: “Good night, and good luck.”