Partisan News Before Fox: Newspaper Partisanship and Partisan Polarization, 1881–1972Coauthor
Tim Groeling, University of California, Los Angeles
For those who view partisanship in the media as a worrying modern trend, a few historical facts might be horrifying indeed: In 1870 only 13 percent of the newspapers in the country’s 50 largest markets identified as independent, and partisanship among newspapers didn’t begin to decline significantly until after 1950.
Those are some of the findings in a study by Matthew Baum, Kalb Professor of Global Communications at Harvard Kennedy School, and his coauthor, Tim Groeling, of the University of California, Los Angeles.
The authors also examined the effects of partisan news on political polarization (a salient question in the age of Fox News and MSNBC): What happened to voting patterns when partisanship in the media was the norm? How did people change when media became more independent?
Baum and Groeling began with the difficult task of identifying and measuring how partisanship affects newspapers’ coverage of events, given that it’s not something that newspapers, interested in maximizing their circulation, would necessarily boast about. Categorizing news coverage, especially from decades ago, is challenging. The authors write, “Should news outlets (or researchers, more to the point) treat Benghazi, Watergate, and the Teapot Dome scandal as equivalent scandals? Is the passage of the Affordable Care Act equivalent in importance to the refusal to authorize U.S. participation in the League of Nations in 1920?”
The authors hit on an ingenious solution: Looking at nearly 200 years’ worth of articles from two newspapers with well-established partisan leanings—the Los Angeles Times, which was affiliated with the Republican Party until the 1960s, when it switched allegiance; and the Atlanta Constitution, which was affiliated with the Democratic Party—and comparing how they covered the deaths of U.S. senators. Which deaths were covered and the tone of that coverage illustrated the degree to which political leanings affected content.
“Newspaper content was heavily influenced by partisan affiliation,” says Baum. “For instance, when the L.A. Times’ partisan affiliation shifted in the 1960s, so too did the content of its coverage of partisan figures, in directions consonant with the paper’s party affiliation.”
Next, the researchers studied how partisan news affected voting. To do so, they compared the rise of independent newspapers with split-ticket voting (in this case, the divergence between presidential and congressional voting). Looking at 66 representative cities where party affiliation, circulation, and publication information could be gathered, they examined voting patterns from 1924 to 2004.
They found a significant positive correlation between a lack of partisanship and split-ticket voting, with the growth of independent newspapers invariably being accompanied by divergent voting. (The authors urge caution, though, explaining that more research will be needed to determine a causal direction.)
“It seems clear that the influence of nonpartisan news had huge implications for party politics in the post-war era,” Baum and Groeling write.
That began to change in the late 1980s, leading to what are now increasingly partisan media. The authors write, “Rather than representing a horrifying new reality on the American scene, however, it seems to foretell a return to a prior equilibrium, with the post-war period notable chiefly as an exception to a central tendency in American news.”
—by Robert O'Neill