In a recent editorial, well-known TV personality Ted Koppel criticized the state of today’s media cacophony:
We live now in a cable news universe that celebrates the opinions of [Keith] Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly – individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship and who are encouraged to do so by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary is highly profitable.
The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me. While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic. It is, though, the natural outcome of a growing sense of national entitlement. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s oft-quoted observation that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” seems almost quaint in an environment that flaunts opinions as though they were facts.
I think Koppel is right to lament the authority wielded by blowhards, both liberal and conservative, who dominate today’s media outlets and provide partisan talking points for the masses. Koppel’s view is historically limited, however–media in the early American republic were just as partisan as they are today.
Consider, for example, the journalists of the Jacksonian period. Duff Green of the United States Telegraph (Washington, D.C.) was the Jacksonian coalition’s mouthpiece in the run-up to the 1828 election, which was one of the nastiest in U.S. political history. Green was openly partisan and helped spread the Jacksonian critique of a “morally depraved” Adams who bought a billiard table for the President’s Mansion. Charles Hammond of the Cincinnati Gazette was a pro-Adams/pro-Clay editor who was instrumental in exposing the questionable circumstances of the Andrew Jackson-Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson marriage. (The Jackson marriage scandal, by the way, makes some recent political sex scandals seem quaint by comparison.) John Binns, editor of the Philadelphia Democratic Press, was one of the most widely known editors in the 1828 campaign because of his printing of the “Coffin Handbill,” which highlighted Jackson’s violent past.
So, the next time you mute Fox News or MSNBC, or change the channel from CNN, CBS, NBC, or ABC, take some comfort in the realization that nineteenth-century American media had their moments in the gutter. No doubt, some readers of nineteenth-century American newspapers wadded up their newspapers and threw them away in disgust, while most gleefully repeated the half-truths and outright lies found in their party’s organ. We survived nineteenth-century smear campaigns, and we’ll survive today’s talking heads.