For much of American history, “nonpartisan” political reporting enjoyed a status roughly analogous to that of “alcohol-free” beer — a wholesome alternative to the standard that most nonetheless regarded as a contradiction in terms.
Throughout the 19th century, most newspapers boasted an explicit partisan affiliation that was by no means quarantined to their op-ed pages. An outlet’s political allegiance would largely determine the tone, selection, and placement of its stories — and, in many cases, the very facts of them. The Los Angeles Times’ aversion to printing news that reflected poorly on the GOP was so great, the paper declined to report the outcome of the 1884 presidential election for days after Grover Cleveland’s victory.
Many credit ethical progress for the fact that such papers eventually adopted a commitment to “objective” reportage. But much of the change can be chalked up to economics: In the 19th century, many papers couldn’t generate enough revenue from advertising to cover their operating costs, and thus, relied on subsidies from political parties to keep the presses rolling. But the rise of mass-market retailers provided journalistic outlets with new sources of revenue — and with them, new incentives. Department stores wanted to sell goods to Democrats and Republicans alike, and directed their ad dollars to newspapers that could reach a broad, bipartisan audience. Thus, in the 20th century, “objectivity” was good for the news business.
In the 21st century, virtually nothing is. The market conditions that made it possible for newspapers to compete in the eyeball-gathering business — while staying true to a civic-minded mission of providing accurate, unbiased reporting on political events — have collapsed. So long as advertisers had few alternative platforms for reaching consumers, local newspapers could afford to prioritize their civic function above optimizing their utility as attention-gathering platforms (which is to say, they could afford to print reports about developments in the state legislature instead of running pages and pages of cat pictures and swimsuit models). But Facebook and Google have leveraged economies of scale — and techniques of mass surveillance — to match eyeballs to products far more efficiently than journalistic enterprises ever could.
Now, as the business model that sustained newspapers in the 20th century fades, the 19th-century model and its accompanying journalistic norms might be making a comeback. News outlets are no longer optimal tools for influencing mass consumer behavior; but they remain an excellent means of exerting political influence. As Politico reports:
In March, Congresswoman Diane Black, a top candidate for governor in Tennessee, put out a campaign ad that seemed at first glance to be utterly textbook: a scene of President Donald Trump embracing her played while a quote from a local news outlet is displayed in the foreground: “President Trump to Rep Diane Black: ‘You Came Through’ on Tax Reform,” it read, citing a headline from the Tennessee Star.
Close watchers may have had just one question: What is the Tennessee Star?
… Launched in February 2017, the Star is part of a growing trend of opaque, locally focused, ideological outlets, dressed up as traditional newspapers. From the Arizona Monitor to the Maine Examiner, sites with names and layouts designed to echo those of nonpartisan publications — and with varying levels of credibility — have emerged across the country, aimed at influencing local politics by stepping into the coverage void left by the collapsing finances of local newspapers.
The Star has successfully gained traction among the Tennessee political elite, raising questions over whether the current news climate is ripe for these type of Breitbart-like local sites to proliferate across the country.
Critically, the Tennessee Star isn’t just posing as a local newspaper, it’s also executing the core function of one — or at least, the core function of a partisan paper in the 19th century:
Its coverage goes deep on local political news — with stories on a variety of races as well as legislative minutiae, alongside a healthy dose of commentary — all from an anti-establishment, right-wing perspective. For instance, Randy Boyd, Black’s more mainstream opponent in the Republican gubernatorial primary, has been mocked on the site as “La Raza Randy,” for his stance on immigration. The site has gained attention, in part, because cutbacks at mainstream outlets have limited what they can cover.
The outlet was founded by a pair of conservative activists who see the publication primarily as a tool for influence (as opposed to profits). And in the small world of Nashville politics, a site that garners 7 million page views per year can exert quite a bit. That makes the low-cost, low-overhead publication an enticing investment opportunity for well-heeled right-wing ideologues — while also attracting ad dollars from Republican campaigns.
The Star is already contemplating an expansion into Pennsylvania and Ohio. And it wouldn’t surprising if it — or something like it — did set up shop in those battlegrounds. The Star’s model makes sense: Partisans and ideologues will always have an interest in bankrolling local political reporting. Commercial advertisers never really did.
Of course, the idea that the future of local political reporting will look a lot like its distant past — if the “Know-Nothing” papers of yore had been optimized for SEO — is a bit unsettling. In an interview with Politico, Tennessee Star co-founder Steve Gill insists that, name aside, his outlet’s ideology is too transparent to mislead anyone. But social science suggests otherwise. Fox News’s biases are hardly subtle. And yet, in presenting itself as a formally “fair and balanced” news network, the channel has moved the minds of many independent and Democratic viewers in its direction. In a landmark study published in the American Economic Review last year, Emory University political scientist Gregory Martin and Stanford economist Ali Yurukoglu estimated that if Fox News were never founded, the Republican presidential candidates’ share of the two-party vote would been 3.6 points lower in 2004 and 6.34 percent lower; which is to say, without Roger Ailes’s network, John Kerry may well have been president.
If “baby Breitbarts” rise from the ashes of local newspapers — while Sinclair Broadcast Group continues gobbling up local television stations — the benefits to the Republican Party could be substantial. One of the biggest mistakes that those who downplay the role of “money in politics” make is to focus on campaign contributions as the sole mechanism through which the wealthy undermine self-government. Very few people can afford to fund news outlets at a loss for the sake of advancing an ideological cause. But billionaires can; and Rupert Murdoch and Sheldon Adelson do.
In some respects, the 19th-century model of journalism fulfilled its civic function. As the historian Mark Wahlgren Summers wrote of the era, “The truth was not suppressed. It was simply hard to get in any one place.” Further, by addressing the public as citizens — and imploring them to take specific political action — the partisan press might have encouraged higher levels of civic engagement than its “objective” successor, which often depicted politics as an elite game, and its readers mere (savvy) spectators. In the 19th century, voter turnout rates in American elections (among the enfranchised population) was far higher than in the 20th.
Ideally, our society will recognize that fact-based local reporting is indispensable to our democracy — and fund it as a vital public good, through some mix of federal subsidies and private philanthropy. But things are likely to remain decidedly less than ideal in the U.S. for the foreseeable future. And a democracy in which both parties fund biased, but aggressive and factually accurate, local political reporting would be far better than one in which little-to-no such reporting exists. Thus, left-leaning billionaires and interest groups should probably start preparing to enter the local media fray themselves. The economics of local news might no longer sustain“fair” political reporting — but “balanced” is still within reach.