History Slam Episode Ninety: American Journalism

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By Sean Graham

Of all the weird, wild, and crazy things that have happened during this year’s American election cycle, one of the strangest is how both parties have accused the media of being biased against their candidate. On the Republican side, the distrust of the ‘lamestream media’ has been a mainstay, particularly after Sarah Palin’s infamous Katie Couric interview in 2008. Given Donald Trump’s fondness for appearing on cable news programs, however, it might have been reasonable to expect that this would change, but he continues to criticize the media for what he claims is unfair coverage of his campaign. On the Democratic side, however, the extent to which Hillary Clinton has avoided the press, particularly her complete avoidance of press conferences, has been somewhat surprising.

One of the reasons why so many people think that the media is biased against their candidate is the media environment in which we currently live. There are so many outlets that a lot of people only consume media that is in agreement with their worldview and anything that challenges their preconceived ideology is viewed as biased. The result is an echo chamber in which the public is not fully informed.

One could argue, however, that some of the major changes we’ve seen in journalism can be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s. From the Kennedy administration to Vietnam to Watergate, the relationship between the American public and the media drastically changed during those twenty years. In addition, it was during this period that newspapers expanded to include more ‘soft’ news in an effort to increase sales. This commodification of journalism, led to some major changes in the way in which many people consume the news.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Matt Pressman about his forthcoming book on American journalism in the 1960s and 1970s. We chat about the definition of journalism, the state of newspapers, and the inclusion of ‘soft’ news into journalism. Matt is also a former JEOPARDY! champion, so we talk about his experience on the show and what you don’t see on television.

Sean Graham is a William Lyon Mackenzie King post-doctoral fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University where he studies the history of North American media and broadcasting. He is an editor at Activehistory.ca and host/producer of the History Slam Podcast.