Critics of the Mainstream: The Collapse of Journalistic Authority in the United States, 1955–2000

AHA Session 41
Friday, January 2, 2015: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Conference Room F (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Michael Schudson, Columbia University
David Greenberg, Rutgers University–New Brunswick

Session Abstract

This panel examines the ways that critics and consumers of news began challenging the established journalistic order in the United States, beginning with The National Review in the late 1950s. It addresses the myriad of origins of the fragmented, often ideologically driven, media landscape today. Additionally, it provides a glimpse into the political impact of this transformation. Papers by Rob Rabe and Julie Lane respectively explore the manufactured and the natural roots of the argument that the mainstream media suffers from liberal bias. The development of this belief on the right fatally undermined a media landscape in which purportedly objective journalists presented “the news.” Most Americans received one set of facts, which shaped political debates. Indeed, Walter Cronkite signed off each night by telling viewers “and that’s the way it is.” James Baughman’s paper looks at a journalistic schism that exposed the closeness between many members of the media and the elected officials that they covered. This schism also had major implications for the way in which journalists covered politics. Political news coverage may never have been truly objective; after all, journalists’ cultural outlooks shaped what they considered to be newsworthy and how they approached stories. In fact, during this era, journalists consistently failed to report stories about politicians' personal behavior which could have been considered newsworthy. Nonetheless, these changes helped to create today’s media landscape, in which many Americans live in an echo chamber, and receive news only from ideologically driven sources. Indeed, Brian Rosenwald’s paper demonstrates that one of the results of these twin changes in the media landscape is a group of radio commentators who zealously guard their independence, but in reality, are actually a new type of party leaders with distinct political and ideological agendas. Though they are independent powers within the Republican party, and can often create problems for elected party leaders, they are also crucial allies who help Republicans in numerous ways. They and their listeners believe that they objectively provide information, and provide news that the “liberal media,” refuses to cover because of bias. Yet, in many ways, they have more of a political and policy agenda than any of the “liberal media” or any of the journalists who were also friends and admirers of the politicians that they covered in the 1960s. They also perpetuate the charge that the mainstream media suffers from liberal bias, thereby reaffirming this understanding for their millions of listeners. This panel fits ideally with the conference theme of history and other disciplines. It presents scholarship at the intersection of history, political science, communications, and media studies. It brings together scholars from a variety of disciplines to discuss a critically important topic, both culturally and politically—the media— that exists across disciplines, and often is neglected in the historiography because it falls within the purview of so many disciplines. Indeed, many of the best media historians reside outside of history departments and employ the techniques of other disciplines, as well as history.

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