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Bias in the News

June 14, 2012

Guest blogger today, here’s Shelby Ostergaard’s take on bias in the news (full disclosure, she’s my daughter)


Fox lies. So does NBC. Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart do too. And hoo boy, does Bill O’ Reilly lie. Ask around enough, and you’ll find someone willing to tell you all about how anyone under the sun lies. Liberal laugh at Fox. Conservatives can’t stand NPR. Anytime a news story breaks, the second wave of it is everyone squawking about bias.
There is no shortage of causes for the increased political polarization we’ve seen lately. The murkiness of the 2000 election, Sarah Palin, the Occupy movement, all that crap about birth control, you name it. But personally, I think all this blabber about bias is another reason.
It wasn’t always like this. When newspapers fist started in the US, no one bothered to try and hide their bias. The Federalist was a federalist newspaper, end of story. It was like that for quite a while. One of the first moves of the abolitionist movement was to start a clearly abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator.  When you had something to day, you said it, and you used current events to help you make your point.
Two things changed at the turn of the 19th century.     
First of all, journalists were getting more professional. More universities began offering a degree in journalism. The Society of Professional journalists established itself and produced a code of ethics for journalists to follow, based on protecting sources. All across America, bright, fresh, young people were trying harder to make journalism more professional and FABulous. That is, fair, accurate, and balanced. (My high school newspaper used the acronym. You know, in case you forgot what your ethical code was, you could at least remember to be FAB.) Nobody wanted to be a dirty, overly passionate muckraker anymore, ala Upton Sinclair or Stephen Crane. Those guys never got paid anyway.
Oddly enough, at the turn of the century, journalists were also getting less professional. It was the age of yellow journalism, the news boys forcing the paper into people’s faces, shouting “EXTRA, EXTRA!,” trying to get a penny for the latest scoop. Sensationalism got so bad that people sometimes blame Hearst and Pulitzer’s subscription war for the start of the actual Spanish-American war. Each was trying to top the other, until all of a sudden one published a story on the sinking of The Maine and America was engaged in our “Splendid Little War”. Needless to say, it was a little much and people were getting tired of it.
These two major changes made for a volatile combination. People were sick of dirty newsies, untrue stories, and muckrakers that brought nothing but trouble. They wanted something new. In came the bright, young, shiny new journalists. And semi-modern journalism, with all its emphasis on being un-bias, was born.
So, if this changed a hundred years ago, why do I only think it is contributing to political polarization now? Well, my friend, the internet came. And even I, who can barely remember the world before the internet, know that the internet changed absolutely everything.

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One Comment
  1. Shelby Ostergaard permalink

    This is only part 1 though! If you liked it, you can check out my blog ( for the rest. I wrote a history paper on the subject (and actually traveled all the way to the University of Iowa for some of my sources. dedication, FTW) and figured I might as well put it in blog form, because I came across some interesting theories.

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