Thursday, June 30, 2005

Newspaper Bias or Purpose?

For years now I have been shocked by the bias in the news media, especially papers, and have thought that they had all betrayed their principles. Now, I am not so sure. It hit me yesterday as I was reading a history book that newspapers have always reported news from a particular angle. Andrew Jackson created the Democratic Party in 1830, and he hand-selected an editor to run his paper. People then knew that if you wanted to find out the Democratic reaction or President Jackson’s reaction to something, you read The Globe. If you wanted to know what John C. Calhoun thought, well he had a paper, too. If you wanted to know about Henry Clay. . . yep, they all had editors doing their bidding, printing their spin on things. In 1860 if you wanted to know what the Fire Eaters of South Carolina thought, you read The Charleston Mercury. In 1900, the famous “Yellow Journalism” helped start a war with Spain. So I guess the question is, when did we as a country start to think that the newspaper business was supposed to be neutral and just report the facts? It seems from the history that I can see in America, papers were always established to serve a purpose, and that purpose included the spin and the bias that we all complain about now. Papers in the old days were up-front about their agenda, now they are not, and they pretend to be neutral. Have papers ever been neutral? Are they supposed to be neutral? When did they start pretending neutrality? And does anyone know a good book that answers these questions?


Anonymous said...


I recommend three books by Marvin Olasky, editor of World magazine. Olasky is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas, and these books were written at least in part for his class in journalism history. All three books are available online (but these texts are apparently scanned and contain a few strange typos, especially in footnotes).

First, in answer to answer your question about neutrality in reporting, read this:
That’s chapter 4 from Prodigal Press: The Anti-Christian Bias of The American News Media

Chapter 1 of this book contains an account of a New York Times successful effort through investigative journalism to hound an abortionist out of business. Believe it or not, the prominent liberal paper known today as the “Grey Lady” was founded by a Bible-believing Presbyterian named Henry Raymond.
Olasky points out some steps in the decline from biblical, Reformed influence in the newspapers to what we have today. A quote from Chapter 2:

...much of American journalism until the mid-nineteenth century emphasized God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. Kings who disobeyed God were exposed as sinful. Duelists were without honor because they thought esteem among men more important than following God's commands. Lightning storms taught spiritual lessons. Lack of repentance had murderous consequences. One minister said that he enjoyed opening up the newspaper to see what God had done that day.

Chapter 3 ( contains very interesting accounts of the lives of some of the most prominent newspaper men in the history of this country, including Horace Greeley, Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, and Walter Duranty.

Another book by Marvin Olasky is Telling the Truth: How to Revive Christian Journalism (

Of these 3 books, my favorite is Central Ideas in the Development of American Journalism: A Narrative History. Here is the link:
In this book Olasky traces the history of those who have sought to inform others of events and happenings and general news. One example of an early reporter that he cites is John Foxe who, in his Book of Martyrs, sought to glorify God in relating His faithfulness to His own in even the cruelest tortures and death, and to encourage us all that God's grace is sufficient in every trial.

This quote from Chapter 1 is interesting:

Modern journalism began in 1517 as the German prince Frederick the Wise was putting the finishing touches on his life's work of building up Wittenberg's sacred relic collection. Through purchase and trade he was able to claim a "genuine" thorn from Christ's crown, a tooth of St. Jerome, four hairs from the Virgin Mary, seven pieces from the shroud sprinkled with Christ's blood, a wisp of straw from the place where Jesus was born, one piece of gold brought by the Wise Men, a strand of Jesus' beard, one of the nails driven into Christ's hands, one piece of bread eaten at the Last Supper, one twig of Moses' burning bush, and nearly 20,000 holy bones.
Announcements of relic collection highlights were made regularly through proclamations and assorted announcements, the typical journalistic products of the time. Few people could read-most were discouraged from even trying, for reading could lead to theological and political rebellion-but town criers and local priests passed on official story messages promoting the goals of governmental authorities and the official, state-allied religion. In 1517 Wittenberg residents were told that all of Frederick's treasures would be displayed on All Saints Day, and that those who viewed them and made appropriate donations could receive papal indulgences allowing for a substantial decrease of time spent in purgatory, either for the viewer/contributor or someone he would designate. Total time saved could equal 1,902,202 years and 270 days.
Quiet criticism of the indulgence system was coming from Professor Martin Luther, who stated that the Bible gave no basis for belief in indulgences and argued that the practice interfered with true contrition and confession. But, despite Luther's lectures, indulgence-buying continued as champion salesman Tetzel offered altruism at bargain prices:
Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends, beseeching you and saying, "Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance." Do you not wish to? Open your ears. Hear the father saying to his son, the mother to her daughter, "We bore you, nourished you, brought you up, left you our fortunes, and you are so cruel and hard that now you are not willing for so little to set us free. Will you let us lie here in flames? Will you delay our promised glory?" Remember that you are able to release them, for "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,/ The soul from purgatory springs."

See Chapter 9 for history on yellow journalism and T. Roosevelt’s speech in which he connected “the Man with the Muckrake” (from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) with Hearst and his particular style of slanting news.

I enjoy reading your blog.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I didn't get the links posted correctly before. Here they are:

History of Journalistic Neutrality

Prodigal Press
Telling The Truth
Central Ideas in the Development of American Journalism


Lee said...

Thanks Daniel! I will be checking these links out over the holiday.