Ed Driscoll, Jr. explains how the consensus of the MSM originated, and how talk radio and the rise of the blogosphere re-opened public debate in the United States.
Prior to the 1920s, American newspapers and pamphleteers had a long, diverse history of vigorous, partisan debate. Which is why there are still newspapers with names like the Springfield Democrat and Shelbyville Republican.
That began to change with the rise of competition from the broadcast media. In the 1920s, because radio frequencies were finite, their allocation became heavily regulated by the federal government. As Shannon Love of the classically liberal Chicago Boyz (www.chicagoboyz.net) economics blog explains, the federal government â€œtook the radio spectrum, and instead of auctioning it off like land, essentially socialized it. And then they made the distribution of the broadcast spectrum basically a political decision.â€
That, combined later with the FCCâ€™s so-called â€œFairness Doctrineâ€”which required broadcasting networks to give â€œequal timeâ€ to opposing viewpointsâ€”compelled broadcasters to maintain at least a veneer of impartiality in order to get and keep their licenses. A de facto political compromise was reached, Love says, â€œthat the broadcast news would not be politicalâ€”it would be objective and nonpartisan, was basically the idea. And then that carried over from radio to TV,â€ and eventually to print media. (That conceit continues to this day, as the media toss around words like â€œunbiasedâ€ and â€œobjectiveâ€ as easily as Dan Rather tosses off hoary, made-up Texas-isms.)
Completely dependent on the federal government, the broadcast industryâ€™s most urgent priority became â€œdonâ€™t rock the boat.â€ And aping their broadcast competitors, newspapers began to adopt the mantle of impartiality, as well. A mass media that increasingly eschewed vibrant political debate helped FDR win four presidential elections handily, and Ikeâ€™s refusal to dismantle the New Deal in the 1950s only perpetuated its soft socialism. That eraâ€™s pervasive desire for consensus was symbolized by the ubiquitous Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and his centrist politics.
By the early 1970s, mass media had reached its zenith (if youâ€™ll pardon the pun). Most Americans were getting their news from one of three TV networksâ€™ half-hour nightly broadcasts. With the exception of New York, most big cities had only one or two primary newspapers. And no matter what a modern newspaperâ€™s lineage, by and large its articles, except for local issues, came from global wire services like the Associated Press or Reuters; it took its editorial lead from the New York Times; and it claimed to be impartial (while usually failing miserably).
Up until the Reagan years, Love says, â€œdefinitely fewer than one hundred people, and maybe as few as twenty people, actually decided what constituted national news in the United States.â€ These individuals were principally concentrated within a few square blocks of midtown Manhattan, the middle of which was home to the offices of the New York Times. The aptly nicknamed â€œGray Ladyâ€ largely shaped the editorial agendas not just of newspapers but of television, as well. As veteran TV news correspondent Bernard Goldberg wrote in his 2003 book Arrogance, â€œIf the New York Times went on strike tomorrow morning, theyâ€™d have to cancel the CBS, NBC, and ABC evening newscasts tomorrow night.â€
Love calls this â€œthe Parliament of Clocksâ€: creating the illusion of truth or accuracy by force of consensus.