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The Rise and Fall of Professional Journalism
Robert McChesney


Found on the internet here.

Also found in a condensed version in the last chapter of “Into the Buzzsaw”.

Part 1 of 3
Introduction and the origins of professional “unbiased” journalism



The chapters in the book (Into the Buzzsaw) have provided a devastating account of the assault on democratic journalism that is taking place in the United States today. It is a dark picture, but the point of the book is not to depress people, or to immobilize them. The point is to show clearly what is transpiring and the troubling implications for a free people. In this concluding chapter I will locate this critique in a historical context, and argue that, ultimately, the problem is a result of the nature and structure of the media industries. Therefore, the solution will require in those structures.

In this article I present a…critique of contemporary US journalism:
the origins…of professional “unbiased” journalism (part 1),
the commercial attack upon journalism (part 2), and
the right-wing critique of the liberal media (part 3).


In my view, the US government is in a deep crisis. The collapse of effective journalism is a significant factor in explaining the shriveled and dilapidated state of US democracy. The reasons for lousy journalism stem not from morally bankrupt or untalented journalists, but from the operations. If we are serious about producing a self-governing society, it is important that there be structural change in the media system.

Democratic theory suggests that society needs a journalism that is a rigorous watchdog of those in power, can ferret out truth from lies, and can present a wide range of informed positions on the important issues. …How a society can construct a media system that will create “democratic journalism” is a problem for a free society, as powerful interests tend to dominate the flow of information.

In this article I attempt to provide a framework for explaining why US journalism today is a failure on all three of the above counts.

I first look at the rise of professional journalism roughly 100 years ago, and some of the problems for democracy inherent to the manner in which it developed in the United States.

I then assess the two-pronged attack on the autonomy of professional journalism that has taken place over the past generation.

In the second section I discuss the commercial attack on professional journalism and in the third section I assess the conservative critique of the “liberal” media.

I argue, these three factors explain the pathetic state of US journalism in the early 21st century. The implications of my argument are that a commitment to anything remotely resembling bona fide democracy requires a vastly superior journalism, and we can only realistically expect such a journalism if there are sweeping changes in media policies and structures.

In conventional wisdom, these flaws in the American political system and press are nearly beyond understanding. The profit-driven US media system is the only acceptable one for a free people. Whatever limitations for journalism the pursuit of profit might encourage are acceptable due to the benefits of the market, and anyway, there are professional standards to protect against degradation of the news by commercial pressures. If our journalism is floundering, it is because professional standards are not being rigorously adhered to, or because media consumers are sending the wrong message to media owners. The system works.

In my view, the conventional wisdom is misleading at best, and more likely dead wrong. It is a major impediment to our actually grasping the nature of journalism and its place in a truly democratic society. In this chapter I hope to debunk the conventional wisdom and show that the media system is, in fact, the source of much of the trouble with our journalism. I also intend to show that professional journalism is hardly a solution, and, even at its best, it is seriously flawed. Specifically I address the historical rise of professional journalism, its relationship to private media power and democracy, and its strengths and weaknesses.

The Rise of Professional Journalism

The notion that journalism should be politically neutral, nonpartisan, professional, even “objective,” is not more than one hundred years old. During the first two or three generations of the republic such notions for the press would have been nonsensical, even unthinkable. The point of journalism was to persuade as well as inform, and the press tended to be highly partisan. The free press clause in the First Amendment to the constitution was seen as a means to protect dissident political viewpoints, as most newspapers were closely linked to political parties. It was understood that if the government could outlaw or circumscribe newspapers, it could effectively eliminate the ability of opposition parties or movements to mobilize popular support. It would kill democracy. What few Americans know is that the government actively subsidized the press through printing well into the 19th century, and postal subsidies to this day. A partisan press system has much to offer a democratic society … as long as there are numerous well-subsidized media providing a broad range of opinion. (Pasley, 2001).

During the 19th century, the press system remained explicitly partisan, but it increasingly became an engine of great profits as costs plummeted, population increased, and advertising—which emerged as a key source of revenues—mushroomed. During the Civil War, President Lincoln faced press criticism—from some newspapers in the Northern states—that would make the treatment of Lyndon Johnson during Vietnam, Richard Nixon during Watergate or Bill Clinton during his impeachment seem like a day at the beach (Maihafer, 2001). A major city like St. Louis, for example, had at least 10 daily newspapers for much of the middle to late 19th century. Each newspaper would tend to represent the politics of the owner and if someone was dissatisfied with the existing choices, it was not impossible to launch a new newspaper. By contemporary standards, it was a fairly competitive market.

But it was only a matter of time before there would be a conflict between the commercial economics of the press and its explicitly partisan politics. It became a growing problem during the Gilded Age. Following the logic of accumulation, the commercial press system became less competitive and ever more clearly the domain of wealthy individuals, who usually had the political views associated with their class. Throughout this era, socialists, feminists, abolitionists, trade unionists, and radicals writ large tended to regard the mainstream commercial press as the mouthpiece of their enemies, and established their own media to advance their interests. Consider, for example, the United States in the early 1900s. Members and supporters of the Socialist Party of Eugene v. Debs published some English and foreign language daily, weekly and monthly newspapers and magazines. Most of these were privately owned or were the publications of one of the 5000 Socialist Party locals. They reached a total of more than 2 million subscribers (Streitmatter, 2001). Appeal to Reason, the socialist newspaper based in Kansas, alone had a readership of nearly a million (Graham, 1990).

From the Gilded Age through the Progressive Era, an institutional sea change transpired in US media not unlike the one taking place in the broader political economy. On the one hand, the dominant newspaper industry became increasingly concentrated into fewer chains and the majority of communities only had one or two dailies. The economics of advertising-supported newspapers erected barriers to entry that made it virtually impossible for small, independent newspapers to succeed, despite the protection of the constitution for a “free press.” The dissident press, too, found media market economics treacherous, and lost much of its circulation and influence throughout the first third of the 20th century, far in excess of the decline in interest in “dissident” politics.

At the beginning of the 20th century these developments led to a crisis for US journalism. It was one thing to advocate that a commercial media system worked for democracy when there were numerous newspapers in a community, when barriers to entry were relatively low, and when immigrant and dissident media proliferated widely, as was the case for much of the 19th century. For newspapers to be partisan at that time was no big problem because there were alternative viewpoints present. It was quite another thing to make such a claim by the early 20th century when many communities only had one or two newspapers, usually owned by chains or very wealthy and powerful individuals. Everywhere concentration was on the rise, almost nowhere were new dailies being launched successfully to enter existing markets. For journalism to remain partisan in this context, for it to advocate the interests of the owners and the advertisers who subsidized it, would cast severe doubt on the credibility of the journalism. Likewise, sensationalism was less of a problem when there were several other newspapers in the community to counter it.

During the Progressive Era criticism of the capitalist press reached fever pitch in the United States, and was a major theme of muckrakers and progressive social critics, to an extent never equaled subsequently ( Goldstein, 1989, p. ix). Leading reformers, like Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, argued that the commercial press was destroying democracy in its rabid service to the wealthy. As Henry Adams put it, “The press is the hired agent of a monied system, set up for no other reason than to tell lies where the interests are concerned.” Criticism extended across the political spectrum; in the 1912 presidential race all three challengers to President Taft—Debs, Roosevelt, and Wilson—criticized the capitalist bias of the press. In 1919 Upton Sinclair published his opus, The Brass Check, which provided the first great systematic critique of the limitations of capitalist journalism for a democratic society. Sinclair’s book was filled with example after example of explicit lying and distortion of the labor movement and socialist politics by the mainstream press. It is worth noting that he challenged those he criticized to find any error in his book, and he had no successful takers. The Associated Press even established a committee to evaluate the book so it could denounce Sinclair’s charges; but the committee quietly abandoned the project without comment (Sinclair, 2003). In short, it was widely thought that journalism was explicit class propaganda in a war with only one side armed. The parallel critique of the press argued that greedy publishers encouraged a fraudulent sensationalistic journalism that played very loose with the truth to generate sales. In combination, the widespread acceptance of these beliefs was very dangerous for the business of newspaper publishing, as many potential readers would find newspapers incredible, propagandistic and unconvincing.

It was in the cauldron of controversy, during the Progressive Era, that the notion of professional journalism came of age. 1 Savvy publishers understood that they needed to have their journalism appear neutral and unbiased, notions entirely foreign to the journalism of the republic’s first century, or their businesses would be far less profitable. They would sacrifice their explicit political power to lock in their economic position. Publishers pushed for the establishment of formal “schools of journalism” to train a cadre of professional editors and reporters. None of these schools existed in 1900; by 1920, all the major schools such as Columbia, Northwestern, Missouri, and Indiana were in full swing. The revolutionary and unprecedented notion of a separation of the editorial operations from the commercial affairs— termed the separation of church and state— became the professed model. The argument went that trained editors and reporters were granted autonomy by the owners to make the editorial decisions, and these decisions were based on their professional judgment, not the politics of the owners and the advertisers, or their commercial interests to maximize profit. As trained professionals, journalists would learn to sublimate their own values as well. Readers could trust what they read, and not worry about who owned the newspaper or that there was a monopoly or duopoly in their community.2 Indeed, if everyone followed professional standards, press concentration would become a moot issue. Who needed more than one or two newspapers if every paper basically would end up running the same professionally driven content? Owners could sell their neutral monopoly newspapers to everyone in the community and rake in the profits.

It took decades for the professional system to be adopted by all the major journalistic media. And during the 1930s and 1940s prominent journalists like George Seldes and Haywood Broun struggled for a vision of professional journalism that was ruthlessly independent of corporate and commercial influence, a vision that collapsed with the smashing of popular politics following World War II. The first half of the 20th century is replete with owners like the Chicago Tribune’s Colonel McCormick, who used their newspapers to advocate their fiercely partisan (and, almost always, far-right) views. When the Nazis came to power, for example, the Tribune’s European correspondent defected to the Germans so he could do pro-Nazi shortwave radio broadcasts to the United States (Bergmeier and Lotz, 1997, pp. 70–3). But by mid-century even laggards like the Tribune had been brought into line. In the famed Tribune Building in Chicago, urban legend has it that editorial workers and the business side of the paper were instructed to use separate elevators, so the editorial integrity of the newspaper would not be sullied. What is important to remember is that professional journalism looked awfully good compared to what it immediately replaced. The emphasis on nonpartisanship and factual accuracy, the discrediting of sensationalism, who could oppose that? It has been and is roundly hailed as the solution to the problem of journalism.

Over time it has become clear that there was one problem with the theory of professional journalism, an insurmountable one at that. The claim that it was possible to provide neutral and objective news was suspect, if not entirely bogus. Decision-making is an inescapable part of the journalism process, and some values have to be promoted when deciding why one story rates front-page treatment while another is ignored. 3 This does not mean that some journalism cannot be more nonpartisan or more accurate than others; it certainly does not mean that nonpartisan and accurate journalism should not have a prominent role to play in a democratic society. It only means that journalism cannot actually be neutral or objective, and unless one acknowledges that, it is impossible to detect the values at play that determine what becomes news, and what does not. The way journalism evolved in the United States was to incorporate certain key values into the professional code; there was nothing naturally objective or professional about those values. In core respects they responded to the commercial and political needs of the owners, although they were never framed in such a manner. To the extent journalists believe that by following professional codes they are neutral and fair— or, at least, they need not entertain the question of bias—they are incapable of recognizing and addressing this inherent limitation of the craft. Scholars have identified three deep-seated biases that are built into the professional code that journalists follow, and that have decidedly political and ideological implications. 4 These biases remain in place to this day; indeed, they are stronger than ever.

First flaw in journalism

First, to remove the controversy connected with the selection of stories, professional journalism regards anything done by official sources, e.g. government officials and prominent public figures, as the basis for legitimate news. In the partisan era of journalism, newspapers would stand behind story selection as representing their values, what they thought was important. Such an attitude was anathema in professional times. Relying on sources as the basis for legitimate news helped solve that problem. Then, if chastised by readers for covering a particular story, an editor could say, “hey, don’t blame us, the Governor (or any other official source) said it and we merely reported it.” It also has the important added benefit of making the news fairly easy and inexpensive to cover; merely put reporters where official sources congregate and let them report what they say. This is a crucial factor in explaining why coverage of the US presidency has grown dramatically during the 20th century: there are reporters assigned to the White House and they file stories regularly, regardless of what is taking place. In the late 19th century, coverage of the president occupied maybe 2 or 3 percent of the “news hole” in US newspapers. By the middle to late 20th century, the president dominated 10–25 percent of the news, depending upon the scope of the survey.

The limitations of this reliance upon official sources are self-evident. It gives those in political office (and, to a lesser extent, business) considerable power to set the news agenda by what they speak about and, just as important, what they keep quiet about. When a journalist dares to raise an issue that no official source is talking about, he or she is accused of being unprofessional, and attempting to introduce his or her own biases into the news. Shrewd politicians and powerful figures learn how to use journalistic conventions to their advantage (Ponder, 1998). Journalists find themselves where they cannot antagonize their sources too much, or they might get cut off and become ineffectual. Political journalism has often degenerated to simply reporting what someone in one party says, and then getting a reply from someone on the other side of the aisle, or who takes a dissenting position within the community of official sources. All in all, the reliance on official sources gives the news a very conventional and mainstream feel, and does not necessarily lead to a rigorous examination of the major issues.

As the old saying goes, the media do not necessarily tell your what to think, but they tell you what to think about, and how to think about it. If one wants to know why a story is getting covered, and why it is getting covered the way it is, looking at sources will turn up an awfully good answer a high percentage of the time. It is not just about whether a story will be covered at all, but, rather, how much attention a story will get and the tone of the coverage. In view of the fact that legitimate sources tend to be restricted to political and economic elites, this bias sometimes makes journalists appear to be stenographers to those in power; i.e. exactly what one would expect in an authoritarian society with little or no formal press freedom.

Many working journalists would recoil at these statements. Their response would be that professional reliance on official sources is justifiable as “democratic” because the official sources are elected or accountable to people who are elected by the citizenry. This is not a dictatorship. The reporter’s job is to report what people in power say and let the reader/ viewer decide who is telling the truth. The problem with this rationale for stenography is that is it forgets a critical assumption of free press theory: even leaders determined by election need a rigorous monitoring, the range of which cannot be determined solely by their elected opposition. Otherwise the citizenry has no way out of the status quo, no capacity to criticize the political culture as a whole. If such a watchdog function grows lax, corruption invariably grows, and the electoral system decays.

In addition to this reliance on official sources, experts are also crucial to explaining and debating policy, especially in complex stories. As with sources, experts are drawn almost entirely from the establishment. Studies on the use of news sources and experts invariably point to the strong mainstream bias built into the news. An analysis of national TV broadcast news for 2001, for example, found that the sources and experts used were overwhelmingly white, male, Republican, and wealthy. The emphasis upon Republicans can be explained mostly by the fact of a Republican administration. The news covers people in power. They also have seemingly accepted business domination of the political economy as legitimate. There were 955 representatives of corporations on the newscasts as opposed to 31 representatives of labor (Howard, 2002).

Second flaw in journalism

A second flaw in journalism is that it tends to avoid contextualization like the plague. This was the great strength of partisan journalism: it attempted to take every important issue and place it in a larger political ideology, to make sense of it. But under professional standards, to provide meaningful context and background for stories, if done properly, will tend to commit the journalist to a definite position and enmesh the journalist (and medium) in the controversy professionalism is determined to avoid. Coverage tends to be a barrage of facts and official statements. What little contextualization professional journalism does provide tends to conform to official source consensus premises. The way to assure that news selection not be perceived as ideologically driven, is for there to be a news hook or a news peg to justify a news story. If something happens, it is news. This meant that crucial social issues like racism or environmental degradation fell through the cracks of journalism unless there is some event, like a demonstration or the release of an official report, to justify coverage, or unless official sources wanted to make it a story so they talk about it repeatedly. For those outside power to generate a news hook was and is often extraordinarily difficult. The 1968 report of the Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders, for example, specifically cited the poor coverage and lack of contextualization by journalism of civil rights issues over the years as strongly contributing to climate that led to the riots of the 1960s (Commission on Civil Disorders, 1989, pp. 200–27).

Both of these factors helped to stimulate the birth and rapid rise of the public relations (PR) industry, the purpose of which was surreptitiously to take advantage of these two aspects of professional journalism. It is not an accident that the PR industry emerged on the heels of professional journalism. By providing slick press releases, paid-for “experts,” ostensibly neutral-sounding but bogus citizens groups, and canned news events, crafty PR agents have been able to shape the news to suit the interests of their mostly corporate clientele. Powerful corporate interests that have a distinct concern about government regulation spend a fortune to see that their version of science gets a wide play in the news … as objective truth (Ewen, 1996; Rampton and Stauber, 2001; Mundy, 2001). Media owners welcome PR, as it provides, in effect, a subsidy for them by providing them with filler at no cost. Surveys show that PR accounts for anywhere from 40 to 70 percent of what appears as news. Because PR is only successful if it is surreptitious, the identity of the major players and knowledge of their most successful campaigns is unknown to the general public. During the 1990s the PR industry underwent a major consolidation, and today the three largest advertising agency companies, which now offer full service corporate communication to their clients, own eight of the 10 largest US PR firms (Vranica, 2001, p. B7).

The combined effect of these two biases and the prominence of spin is to produce a grand yet distressing paradox: journalism, which, in theory, should inspire political involvement, tends to strip politics of meaning and promote a broad depoliticization. It is arguably better at generating ignorance and apathy than informed and passionately engaged citizens. 5 Politics becomes antiseptic and drained of passion, of connection to the lives people lead. At its worst, it feeds a cynicism about the value and integrity of public life (Cappella and Hall Jamieson, 1997). So it is that on some of those stories that receive the most coverage, like the Middle East or the Clinton health care proposal in the early 1990s, Americans tend to be almost as ignorant as on those subjects that receive far less coverage (Fallows, 1996). The journalism is more likely to produce confusion than understanding and informed action. This creates a major dilemma for journalism over time. It is well understood that democracy needs journalism; viable self-government in our times is unthinkable without it. What is less well perceived is that journalism requires democracy. Unless there is a citizenry that depends upon journalism, that takes it seriously, that is politically engaged, journalism can lose its bearings and have far less incentive to do the hard work that generates the best possible work. The politicalsystem becomes less responsive and corruption grows. Thus we can restate the paradox of professional journalism as follows: journalism in any meaningful sense cannot survive without a viable democracy. This implies journalism must become aggressively and explicitly critical of the anti-democratic status quo, it must embrace once again the old adage of “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.” In short, the logic suggests that to remain democratic, to continue to exist, journalism must become … unprofessional.

Third flaw in journalism

The third bias of professional journalism is more subtle but arguably the most important: far from being politically neutral, within the constraints of the first two biases, it smuggles in values conducive to the commercial aims of the owners and advertisers as well as the political aims of the owning class. Ben Bagdikian refers to this as the “dig here, not there” phenomenon (Bagdikian, 2000). So it is that crime stories and stories about royal families and celebrities become legitimate news. (These are inexpensive to cover and they never antagonize people in power.) So it is that the affairs of government are subjected to much closer scrutiny than the affairs of big business. And of government activities, those that serve the poor (e.g., welfare) get much more critical attention than those that serve primarily the interests of the wealthy (e.g., the CIA and other institutions of the national security state), which are more or less off-limits. This focus on government malfeasance and neglect of corporate misdeeds plays directly into the hands of those who wished to give more power and privileges to corporations, and undermine the ability of government to regulate in the public interest. As Ed Baker observes, professional practices, along with libel laws, “favor exposing governmental rather than private (corporate) wrongdoing” (Baker, 2002, p. 106). This, too, plays into the promotion of cynicism about public life. The corporate scandals of 2002 finally forced certain corporate excesses into the news, but what was immediately striking was how all the criminal activity had taken place for years without a shred of news media interest. The genius of professionalism in journalism is that it tends to make journalists oblivious to the compromises with authority they routinely make.

Establishing if there actually is a pro-corporate bias in the news is not an easy task, and has been a source of more than a little controversy over the years. Although studies show the topic of corporate power is virtually unmentioned in US political journalism, it is highly controversial to accuse journalism of a pro-corporate bias (Farah and Elga, 2001, pp. 14–7). In the 1990s, for the first time, what amounts to a controlled experiment shed new light on the debate. Charles Lewis was an award-winning journalist who left network television to form the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) in the early 1990s. Receiving funding from foundations, Lewis assembled a large team of investigative journalists, and had them do several detailed investigative reports each year. The purpose was to release the reports to the news media and hope for coverage and follow-up investigative work. Lewis notes that when his group releases expose´s of government malfeasance, they tend to receive extensive coverage and follow-up. The CPI broke the story, for example, about President Clinton’s “leasing” the Lincoln bedroom in the White House to major campaign contributors. When the CPI issues a report on corporate malfeasance, on the other hand, Lewis says the press conference is virtually empty and there is almost no coverage or follow-up. What makes this striking is that the exact same journalists do these reports. 6 Were Lewis unprincipled, he would logically discontinue doing corporate exposes. 7

Imagine if the President or the director of the FBI ordered news media not to issue any critical examinations of corporate power or class inequality in the United States. It would be considered a grotesque violation of democratic freedoms and a direct challenge to the viability of the republic. It would constitute a much greater threat to democracy than Watergate; one would probably have to return to the Civil War and slavery to find a comparable threat to the union. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) would go ballistic. Yet, when the private sector control of journalism, through professional practices, generates virtually the exact mark in the United States from the 1950s into the 1970s. During this era, journalists had relative autonomy to pursue stories and considerable resources to use to pursue their craft. There was a strong emphasis upon factual accuracy, which is all to the good. The best journalism of the professional era came (and still comes) when there were debates among official sources or when an issue was irrelevant to elite concerns. In these cases, professional journalism could be sparkling. Likewise, during this golden age of professional journalism, the political culture, official sources, especially though not exclusively in the Democratic Party, were considerably more liberal than they would become by the 1980s. Along with the increase in social activism overall, this opened up opportunities for journalists to take risks and cover stories that would be much more difficult as the entire political class became increasingly enthralled with the market. So, for example, someone like Ralph Nader routinely received extensive and fairly sympathetic press coverage for his consumer campaigns during the 1960s and early 1970s. The consumer and environmental legislation he is responsible for pushing into law during this period is little short of astounding by contemporary standards. By the 1990s he had basically been scripted out of the political culture, and journalism, leading him to enter electoral politics to express his frustration with the status quo.

But one should not exaggerate the quality of journalism or the amount of autonomy journalists had from the interests of owners, even in this “golden age.” Even at the height of the “golden age” there was an underground press predicated upon the problems in contemporary journalism, and hard-edged criticism of the flaws of existing journalism abounded. In every community there was a virtual Sicilian Code of silence for the local commercial media, for example, regarding the treatment of the area’s wealthiest and most powerful individuals and corporations. Media owners wanted their friends and business pals to get nothing but kid gloves treatment in their media and so it was, except for the most egregious and boneheaded maneuver. Likewise, newspapers, even prestigious ones like the Los Angeles Times, used their same outcome, it goes unmentioned and unrecognized in the political culture. It is a non-issue.

Although the professional code incorporates these three general biases, it is also malleable; it is not fixed in stone. Over the years it has been influenced by factors such as the rise of radio and television, or new communication technologies. 8 It is also true that the organized activities of the mass of people can have the ability to influence the shape of journalism. In moments of resurgence for social movements, professional journalism can improve the quantity and quality of coverage. Certainly there was a notable shift in coverage of issues surrounding African-Americans and women from the 1950s to the 1970s, reflecting the emergence of the civil rights and feminist movements. It works in the other direction, too. In the 1940s, for example, when the US labor movement was at its zenith, full-time labor editors and reporters abounded on US daily newspapers. There were several hundred of them. Even ferociously anti-labor newspapers, like the Chicago Tribune, covered the labor beat. The 1937 Flint sit-down strike that launched the United Auto Workers and the trade union movement was a major news story across the nation. By the 1980s, however, labor had fallen off the map and there were no more than a couple of dozen labor beat reporters remaining on US dailies. (The number is well below 10 and fast approaching zero today.) The story was simply no longer covered. Hence the 1989 Pittstown sit-down strike—the largest since Flint—was virtually unreported in the US media, and its lessons unknown. As the labor movement declined, coverage of labor was dropped. People still work, poverty among workers is growing, workplace conflicts are as important as ever, but this is no longer as newsworthy as it was when organized labor was more powerful (Meyerson, 2001).

The most important source of altering the professional code comes from the owners. Their constant drumbeat for profit, their concern with minimizing costs and enhancing revenues, invariably influences the manner in which news is collected and reported. We turn to this subject below.

Professional journalism hit its high water power to aid the economic projects of the newspaper’s owners (Fine, 2001, p. S1). And pressure to shape editorial coverage to serve the needs of major advertisers was a recurring problem.

If the system of professional journalism has had deep-seated biases built into its code that have deadened it as a democratic force, that does not mean that there have not been many good, and some great, journalists who nevertheless have done brilliant work. Decade after decade newsrooms have produced outstanding journalists whose contributions to building a democratic and just society have been immeasurable. 9 In recent times, one thinks, for example, of the work of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Donald Bartlett and James Steele. 10 Some of the most impressive work often has come in the form of books, ranging from those of Rachel Carson and Robert Caro to Studs Terkel and Betty Friedan. The list is really quite long. To some extent, this reflects the ability of books to convey detailed reports, but it also highlights how many great journalists had to leave the routine of standard newsroom journalism in order to do the stories they deemed important. Their work points outs what can be done but generally is not being done. Along these lines, it is worth noting than many of the 20th century’s finest journalists—e.g. Ben Bagdikian, George Seldes, A.J. Liebling, I.F. Stone, David Halberstam, Bill Moyers, and William Greider—have been among its foremost press critics. In short, the great work has been done not because of the system as much as in spite of it. As we discuss below, the degree of difficulty for committed journalists has only increased in the past two decades.

(continued...)
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