Matthew Pressman. On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018. 336 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-97665-8.
Reviewed by Gwyneth Mellinger (James Madison University)
Published on Jhistory (March, 2020)
Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe
Just as journalism is recalibrating its professional norms in response to politicians’ brazen claims about the “fake news media,” Matthew Pressman offers a thoughtful, meticulously researched analysis of the construction of journalism values over the past seventy years. Through an examination of the history of objectivity and professional perspectives since the 1950s, Pressman contextualizes the news media’s present dilemma, when ideological polarization has fragmented the media audience and the moment demands factual reporting that interprets the news and holds the powerful to account.
In On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News, Pressman traces the evolution of journalism values from the straight-news reporting of the early postwar years, analyzing internal professional pressures and external social and political factors that, by the 1960s, had forced journalists to engage introspectively in a reconsideration of journalism standards. Pressman’s history is bracketed by the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose unsubstantiated and false claims were reproduced uncritically by a press committed to describing events and trends by quoting official sources, and by President Donald Trump, whose mainstream press coverage has been decidedly different. By the end of Pressman’s book, which concludes with the 2016 election, the mainstream press has moved from objective stenography to interpretive reporting by journalists whose values now require them to document and critique Trump’s deviations from democratic norms.
In addition to McCarthy’s abuse and manipulation of the press, Trump’s media relations have much in common with the Nixon administration’s attacks that press bias was responsible for allegedly inaccurate and unfair coverage of government. In the intervening decades, however, the audience has changed such that ideology, not class or geography, determines which news outlets a reader will select—and choose to believe. The internet and social media have encouraged a media environment in which much of the audience is distrustful, motivated by partisanship, and loyal to segments of the media that affirm their ideology.
Although On Press makes a needed contribution to our understanding of the news media’s recent metamorphosis, the book offers sound history grounded in deep primary-source research for a comparative analysis of the Los Angeles Times and New York Times as those newspapers responded to changes in their profession across the decades. Pressman frequently turns to the content of the newspapers, but his history is anchored in archives, including those of the Los Angeles Times, which house the correspondence of publisher Otis Chandler and the paper’s editors, as well as the correspondence and records of half a dozen editorial leaders and columnists for the New York Times.
The result is a well-told chronology of the papers’ evolution in content, within the context of changes in newspaper economics, politics, and the marketplace for news. In tracing this trajectory, Pressman offers seven chapters, each focusing on a moment of tension and impetus for change. In framing this discussion, he rejects the claim that conscientious and professional journalists exhibit liberal bias, drawing a clear distinction with liberal journalism values, which have informed news judgment. These values include a commitment to scrutinizing the powerful and wealthy, a belief that government has a role in solving social problems, and the ethic that journalism should seek balance and serve readers. Such values, Pressman argues, are not purely ideological, though they are more comfortable to readers on the center-left than to those on the right. The perception of bias, he says, is incidental.
Taken individually or as a whole, the historical essays that form Pressman’s chapters will be appreciated by scholars of journalism’s recent past and will be of use in the classroom. The first three chapters will be heavily cited, as they offer a general overview of the postwar debate over objectivity, specifically whether and to what degree journalism should interpret the news, followed by summaries of the arguments from both the right and the left. Following criticism from outside and within the profession, fairness became the preferred concept in the 1960s, but it still encompassed objectivity’s proscription against advocacy and requirements that reporting be balanced and that journalists correct for their personal biases. The next three chapters examine changes in newspapers in the 1960s through 1990s, when interpretive and explanatory reporting, as well as soft news—such as features, sports, and lifestyle reporting—became news staples; activism by and on behalf of women and nonwhite journalists changed news values; and journalists developed a more adversarial approach to their reporting on the wealthy and powerful. The concluding chapter returns the narrative to the present revolution in news values, making the case that the legacy media still embrace a form of objectivity but, rather than describing the actions of the president and letting readers decide what is true, journalists now have elevated their commitment to reporting accurately, not just impartially. Pressman does a particularly nice job of explaining the impact of social media on current news reporting and placing this development on a historical continuum that links the present to the earlier chapters.
If Pressman had written this book a decade earlier, his history would be missing its second revolution in journalism values. As it stands, the changes in journalism that accompanied the election of Trump are the logical next steps in an evolution of journalism values that was decades in the making.
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Gwyneth Mellinger. Review of Pressman, Matthew, On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News.
Jhistory, H-Net Reviews.
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