Time, Tech Temper J-Ethics

America has a rich tradition of journalism — and shifting standard of ethics — going back to the pre-revolutionary era when the printer’s pamphlet was much like the modern blog: opionated, edgy and often irreverant. In fact one of the first stabs at journalism ethics could be Benjamin Franklin’s “Apology for Printers,” published around 1731.

In it Franklin argues that printers should not be blamed for putting out unpopular views, because they make a business out of printing ideas, and both they and society would be poorer if they became censors. In his own words Franklin said:

“If all Printers were determin’d not to print any thing till they were sure it would offend no body, there would be very little printed.”

If not quite an argument for objective jornalism, it was at least a call for a laissez-fair tolerance. As divisions sharpened around the Revolutionary War, however, it became harder for printers to avoid taking sides, as illustrated by this sequence from the E Pluribus Unum historical archive published by Assumption College :

“As the tensions between England and the colonies increased, so did the tensions between loyalists and patriots in America. Newspapers which had once indiscriminately printed items regardless of the viewpoint they presented found that such “objectivity” was no longer either desirable–or possible.”

The times that tried men’s sould were clearly a time of advocacy journalism. There were others. The leaders of the abolitionist movement included the publisher William Lloyd Garrison. The muckrakers of the late 19th century were crusading journalists who stirred up public opinion to end child labor, for instance.

But for the most part American journalism was not so obviously political. Neither was it objective. The spirit of American journalism might be exemplified by Mark Twain who was given to hyperbole and exaggeration. Consider his 1871 short story, “Journalism in Tennessee.” It refers to a common practice of the times in which the editor of one paper would skewer the editor of a rival paper in print. We join Twain as the responding editor makes this assessment of his own comment:

“”While he was writing the first word, the middle, dotting his i’s, crossing his t’s, and punching his period, he knew he was concocting a sentence that was saturated with infamy and reeking with falsehood.”

The rise of the popular press at the turn of the 20th century — based in part on technological improvements in printing presses that made large circulations possible — gave rise to the era of Yellow Journalism, so named because one of the chief elements of competition among the big rival papers of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Heart was a cartoon called the Yellow Kid.

By the beginning of World War II, the newspaper had become a fesity — but not entirely sober nor objective — fixture of American life. The spirit of the times, and the image of the “hard-boiled” reporter, is captured by the 1940 movie, “His Girl Friday” starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. As one online reviewer aptly said:

“This is one of the true gems of Hollywood’s most prolific era. It has incredible pacing, acting, photography and an authentic gritty feeling that would be associated with hard-boiled, “anything for a story” newspaper people.”

But technological change — in the form of broadcasting — was already redefining journalism and rewriting the rules of ethics.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media