Unpacking and Understanding Media Bias, Part 5: The Jacksonian Era
The first four parts of this series have discussed the basics of media bias, as well as press in the colonial, revolutionary and constitutional eras of U.S. history. This segment concerns a period of history during which American newspapers became more highly politicized and partisan, the Jacksonian era. Indeed, by 1850, political bias and partisanship were so ingrained in the newspaper industry that the U.S. Census estimated close to 80 percent of American newspapers printed news of a partisan nature.
The Spread of News in the Colonies and Early Republic
Throughout the colonial and revolutionary years, newspapers remained a scarcity. Few existed, and circulation was minimal. Even within metropolitan cities (the sites of most newspaper printings and distributions) where circulation growth mirrored population growth, this held true. And even as circulation grew, especially outside the cities, Americans remained averse to paying for news. Only through government subsidies, political patronage and loans could publishers continue to deliver newspapers to nonpaying customers.
In 1730, the colonies had just seven regularly published newspapers, but by 1800, that number had ballooned to 180. At a time when approximately 90 percent of urban Americans could read, publishers reached higher numbers of readers via second-hand circulation through the sharing of newspapers after reading them.
In an effort to unite the fledgling republic, the founders had adopted below cost postal fees for newspapers. Citizens who sent letters subsidized this system with their significantly higher postage rates.
As postmaster, Benjamin Franklin enacted postal laws during the 1700s that permitted publishers to participate in newspaper exchanges. Publishers could send papers to each other through the mail free of postage fees, and as the publications made their way from city to city, local publishers copied articles and included them in their own news offerings prior to sending them on to their next destination.
Although they accounted for less than 20 percent of the total number of newspapers delivered by the postal system, the newspaper exchange network formed the backbone of the nationwide information system. Prior to the advent of the telegraph, newspaper exchanges offered the only widely available political communication throughout the country.
Along the way, tavern readers brought the stories to the people, taking the news out of the hands of the elites in much the same way that the internet has increasingly done since the late 20th century. The practice of conducting public readings of newspapers had begun to take hold in the 1700s and continued well into the 1800s. Tavern readers elaborated on news by adding their own interpretations or perspectives. Public debate of newspaper articles became such a favored pastime for early Americans that Native Americans took to greeting and welcoming white visitors by holding up buffalo robes from which they pretended to read.
By 1840 newspaper circulation was growing at five times the rate of population growth. Such growth, it is important to note, had less to do with demand and more to do with political patronage, and newspaper editors were considered to be among the elite of the political parties they supported.
Political parties took on a more structured form throughout the 1820s. During the election of 1824, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Secretary of War John Calhoun and Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford drew upon their positions to garner the support of the press in Washington D.C. Senator Andrew Jackson and Speaker of the House Henry Clay, however, lacked similar access.
Jackson’s loss in the presidential election of 1824 prompted him and his supporters to found the Democratic Party (in 1825). Initially having no other purpose or principle but to put forth its own candidates for office in an effort to keep slavery out of American political discourse, the members of the new party came to be known by the name of their first presidential candidate, as “Jacksonians” or “Jacksonian Democrats.”
Martin van Buren understood that, as a party, the Democrats had to find a way to establish a loyal voter base and decided that the solution lay in promises of employment for those faithful to the party. The party’s policy boiled down to the idea of buying voter loyalty through “party favors and spoils.”
For their part, the Federalists had appointed nearly 1,000 editors loyal to their cause to positions such as postmaster over the course of just 12 years. So, while this practice was hardly new, Jacksonians effectively put it on steroids by formulating an entire political strategy around it.
The Jacksonians’ single greatest accomplishment, however, lay in the creation of a network of newspapers loyal to their causes and ideology. Upon losing the 1824 election despite having won the popular vote, Jackson realized that access to a newspaper in the nation’s capital was key to winning future elections. This realization led to the establishment of the United States Telegraph in 1826 with Duff Green at the helm as editor.
Despite the patronage of the Jacksonians and Jackson administration, Green articulated the hazards of partisan press and argued that a press reliant on the patronage of those in power is beholden to those in power. Such patronage acts as a bribe that is counterintuitive and counterproductive to the liberty of a free press.
“If liberty shall ever expire in our country, it will die of the poisonous draught of corrupt patronage.”—Duff Green
Green fell from Jackson’s favor when Jackson decided he was too cozy with Calhoun. Jackson replaced Green’s Telegraph with The Globe, which out-shined the Telegraph in its loyalty to the administration. The Globe existed for the sole purpose of supporting the Jackson administration, printing the marching orders by which the administration expected publishers and editors across the country to abide.
Unsurprisingly, many scholars consider the Jacksonian era to be the high tide of partisan press. Newspapers in the Jacksonian era primarily sought to advance the political agenda of their associated political party or benefactor, the primary purpose of which was to elect the party’s candidates.
The Evolving Role of Journalism in the Republic
In the mid-1800s editors viewed readers as voters who required guidance to motivate them to vote for the right candidates. Between 1847 and 1860, the percentage of editorial commentary in news stories more than doubled. For their part, readers had no illusions about the objectivity of the news they read.
At the local level printers and postmasters partnered with slave owners attempting to reacquire runaway slaves via advertisements that they permitted masters to print in the pages of their newspapers. They accepted such advertisements in direct conflict with Jacksonian initiatives to keep slavery off the radar of American citizens. As northern states moved to abolish slavery within their borders, the disappearance of runaway slave ads from northern papers resulted in a distinct differentiation between the northern “free” and southern “slave” papers.
Southern Democrats doubled down on their efforts to censor the topic of slavery in the press in an attempt to curtail the flow of abolitionist literature printed in newspapers. Southern newspapers came to rely less on reprinted stories obtained from the postal newspaper exchanges, due to the pervasiveness of both pro and anti-slavery editorialization within their news stories. They turned instead to the practice of printing reporter-generated content, the use of which doubled between 1820 and 1860. The result was a de facto gag order regarding discussion of slavery in southern newspapers.
Elected officials on both sides of the aisle benefited greatly from newspapers that provided them with extraordinary amounts of free advertising, alongside favorable coverage of them and their speeches. In return for their allegiance, newspapers received six-figure government contracts which, in today’s terms, would equate to many millions of dollars.
Interestingly, the partisan press of the 1800s likely played a critical role in party efforts to increase voter turnout as newspapers, with their postal subsidies, were the most efficient and cost-effective means for parties to communicate with potential voters in predominantly rural America. Editors articulated their parties’ platforms and publicized their associated candidates.
As the mid-1800s approached, two pivotal developments in communication began chipping away at the relationship between newspapers and political parties: the penny press and the telegraph, and that is where this story picks up in the next article.