The media is one of the most important aspects of politics today. Mainstream media controls and spreads most of the information the American population consumes. Today, the media has become heavily opinionated and biased on both sides of the aisle, relying on the 24 hour news cycle (a reporting system based on constant relaying of new, surface-level information). However, this was not always the reality; the American media has drastically transformed itself in terms of form and purpose, from the start of the American Revolution to the 2020 presidential election.
To analyze the history of the media, one must go back to before July 4th, 1776. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, colonists “[debated over] the subject of British imperialist policy, especially taxes,” according to the American Antiquarian. This made the media an outlet for people to converse about multiple relevant issues, such as the fairness of taxes and if Britain’s mercantilist policies were a form of oppression. This early form of American media was primarily done through newspapers, church sermons, and broadsides (official notices). The media became especially important during the declaration of the Stamp Act, a form of taxation without representation, as well as many other injustices. Without this relaying of information, revolutionaries would never have banded together and united to form the Boston Tea Party, fight in the Revolutionary war, and create a new country.
Around fifty years later, a newly growing America continued to rely on the media. During the Antebellum period, the expansionist doctrine of Manifest Destiny was accompanied by an equal expansion of newspapers and media. From the years 1820 to 1850, the population boom and decentralization of government had the number of daily newspapers increase from only 24 to a whopping 254; the national government needed a way to spread information to local governments and a growing population. Furthermore, the Second Great Awakening, a religious “reawakening” in society, led to a question of morality in American society and numerous reform movements. The two most important were the women’s rights movement and the abolitionist movements. Both needed the media to spread and facilitate their messages. However, the growing abolitionist movement led to rising tensions leading up to the 1860s.
After enslaved African Americans used the Underground Railroad and other networks to escape to freedom in the North, many spread messages of their horrible experiences in the South at the hands of their previous owners. Through the news, Northerners became increasingly appalled at the violation of human rights that had been occurring for hundreds of years, which blatantly violated constitutional principles. The invention of more efficient printing presses only inflamed existing tensions. This became worse when the question arose of whether newly added states should legalize slavery, and the election of Republican President Abraham Lincoln only amplified conflict. Soon after, the South seceded from the United States, igniting the Civil War. During the war, the differences in media between the North and the South were apparent: less than 10% of America’s newspaper presses were in the South during 1860. Furthermore, due to the devastation in the South from the war, presses were destroyed, and disparities in education and wealth increased significantly.
Even as the South lagged behind the North, the 20th century brought many technological advancements which helped bring the media, and America in general, to the modern era.
During WWI, the U.S government began to utilize propaganda as a way to justify the war and the institution of the draft. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson passed the Sedition Act, which made it illegal to speak out or publish writing that portrayed the media in a negative light; not only did this highlight the growing influence of the media but also began a trend of the government controlling what information the media can spread, which continues to this day.
This theme continued even during the worst economic crisis in U.S history. In the Great Depression, the media demonstrated its potential for good. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was, for many Americans, a symbol of hope and reassurance that things would get better. During his presidency, the newly invented radio grew in popularity: according to White House History, “when he was first elected in 1932, forty-one percent of U.S. [households] had their own radio station. Five years into Roosevelt’s presidency, nearly ninety percent of the U.S. population had access to a radio.” The technology was revolutionary — now people did not have to be literate nor rich to know what was going on, and it gave FDR and future presidents an unprecedented power to speak to their constituents without the need for the newspaper.
During World War II, the press played an even more important role. After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the government used the media to bring people together for a unified cause through their shared fear and anger. The trend of manipulation of the news continued: all media covering the war had to be approved by the Office of War Information, a government agency which prevented most negative or derogatory statements about the war to be published. Most Americans had no idea about the creation of the atomic bomb, and when two were dropped on Japanese cities, they were portrayed as a necessary tool to end a catastrophic war.
After World War II, the Federal Communication Commission, which regulates the media, instituted the “Fairness Doctrine”, which prohibited biased news and ensured that both sides of the aisle would be fairly represented. Ironically, the press did just the opposite: during the Cold War, the media heavily antagonized communist Soviet Russia and glorified capitalist America. The public became so anti-communist that they vilified any politician or figure who displayed “communist” views in a largely illogical phenomenon known as the Red Scare. The U.S presented itself to its citizens as a superhero whose noble task was to liberate and free oppressed nations from their communist, tyrannical governments. One of the most famous examples of this was the war in Vietnam.
At this point in history, over 93% of American households owned a television. It was even more powerful than the radio since it could show the reality of events rather than tell, and the Vietnam war was the first war in American history where people could see the gruesome effects of the violence on soldiers and citizens alike. The U.S Military Assistance Command in Vietnam helped journalists “venture into the field and get their stories firsthand.” (Encyclopedia Britannica). Before 1968, most media coverage on the war was positive, however, after the war it became largely negative due to the public’s growing discontent with the war, as casualties kept increasing yet no significant progress had been made. Then, the most important development of the war occurred: the leaking of the Pentagon papers. The papers held top-secret information about the reality of the war and showed the American people that the presidents in office (and the government in general) had been lying to them for decades. Due to this, the people and media began to distrust the presidency and the entire government to a large extent. This led to the media becoming a “watchdog” on the government, monitoring it to make sure it did not overstep its boundaries or hide its actions from the people. Both these themes pervade the political atmosphere today.
After the Cold War, the Republicans and the Democrats became extremely polarized on the political spectrum. President Ronald Reagan repealed the Fairness Doctrine, citing that the doctrine violated the first amendment since it prevented article writers and news anchors from voicing their own opinions on the matter. The repeal transformed mainstream media into what is today: drastically more opinionated and biased than before. It became intertwined with the federal government, rather than a separate institution. While the news scrutinized the government, it also protected and still protects it from the public, ultimately deteriorating the presence of mainstream news from a credible source to sensational entertainment.
This development of news can be best captured during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, which involved President Bill Clinton in a sexual relationship with a White House intern. The media treated the scandal as a form of entertainment rather than a form of news, changing the people’s perception of the President and leaders in office from a figurehead to an individual.
The emergence of sensational news has plagued every president since Clinton. President Trump, in particular, has unprecedented media coverage, and his actions and words have directly added to the political polarization of the media, with news channels staunchly divided and reporting his every action and word. The invention of cell phones has only increased this, as videos and photos of real events are circulated throughout the media constantly. But regardless of political opinion, the media has ultimately deteriorated into a sensational form of entertainment rather than what it originally was and what it was meant to be: a factual, unbiased way to spread information.