Thomas Jefferson was looking for someone to write a hit piece. It was July 1793, just months after the U.S. declared neutrality in a war between Britain and France. The then-Secretary of State wanted a writer—or better yet, an entire publication—to criticize the government’s decision and respond to the colleague who had been publishing essays in support of it.
“Nobody answers [Alexander Hamilton], and his doctrine will therefore be taken for confessed,” Jefferson wrote to confidante James Madison, suggesting that they leak damaging information about Hamilton. “For god’s sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to peices [sic] in the face of the public.”
The legend of Jefferson, who preferred “newspapers without government” to “government without newspapers,” obscures his bare-knuckled, if covert, strategy to publish a version of the truth that fit his needs. Like pretty much every other powder-head in politics at the time, he was motivated by the oldest idea in American media: Every political project needs its own press organ. That playbook would guide the country’s media for much of the 19th century—and it’s now seeing something of a renaissance.
Take this summer alone: Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, started a “real news” video series to showcase White House accomplishments. The Republican Governors Association quietly began publishing The Free Telegraph, a propaganda rag to drag its opponents. And a Democratic operative, Peter Daou, launched a site called Verrit that aims to police facts with numerically coded cards. Those come in addition to all the other trolls and charlatans who’ve become media figures in the Trump era.
Such attempts to “inform the public” may feel like a fleeting expression of our absurd political moment. But they’re in fact symptoms of a broader, once-in-a-generation shift in media that in some ways echoes an earlier and weirder era. American history is full of media outlets like Verrit. And the continued splintering of “mass media”—both as a cultural driver and as a business model—is opening the door for more of them to follow.
“The existence of an independent, powerful, widely respected news media establishment is an historical anomaly,” Georgetown Professor Jonathan Ladd wrote in his 2011 book, Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters. “Prior to the twentieth century, such an institution had never existed in American history.”
This reversion to historical norms is partly because 20th century distribution networks are still being upended. Social platforms organize their users around particular identities or interests to maximize engagement, fracturing the media into tiny, often unrecognizable pieces. It benefits those hoping to make a buck off a highly targeted audience or speak to their own political tribe—not mainstream outlets. In turn, it’s reorienting the very concept of the press as a democratic institution: Just 32 percent of Americans trust “the media,” according to Gallup, though additional polling suggests they still rely on their favored media outlet.
The other aspect of this shift is political. Media fragmentation, coupled with historic levels of political partisanship, has created an American media audience that the Reuters Institute this year found was the most polarized of any Western country.
It’s partly why continuously devastating news coverage never pushes Donald Trump’s approval rating below about 35 percent. The emerging 21st century media, which has come into clearer focus over the past year, is fractured and weak, increasingly dependent on outside financial backing, with little public trust, and few agreed-upon standards.
It’s chaos, in other words, and some dynamics mirror those of the 19th century. Tech has both magnified the effects on how individual people experience media and enhanced their collective scale. The question now is twofold: What can and should we salvage from what’s left of “mainstream media”? And to what extent will the internet make the problems of the 19th century press even worse?
“We can take something out of mass media, which is the idea of credibility and objectivity as a process, rather than a product of false balance, and get a strong, independent press that’s not afraid to make decisions,” said Kevin Lerner, a media historian and journalism professor at Marist College. “What I worry about is that we would go back to the way things were in the early 1800s, when things were strictly partisan.”
Peer through the haze of celebrity now enveloping Hamilton, and you’ll see another a Bannon-esque operator of political media. He was among the most prolific bloggers of his time, writing fiery essays that asserted his worldview and condemned opponents through what he called the “diffusion of information.” Following his Federalists’ bitter defeat in 1800, Hamilton led the nascent party’s effort to fund a media mouthpiece to project its politics.
So began the New York Evening Post, which has since lost the “evening” and now prints more pictures of sideboob than Hamilton probably envisioned. It was just one of countless newspapers used to wage political warfare in the country’s first several decades. The grand vision of a free press that would inform citizens had immediately given way to overt partisanship and a Gamergate-like media culture of pseudonymously lobbed character assassination. The modern concept of “news”—information about the world reported accurately to readers—hadn’t materialized.
“It was a shock to the Founders when they learned that several truths could emerge, and not everyone could agree on them,” said Andie Tucher, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School. “Editors were party functionaries. Newspapers were very clear and open about it. No one was breaking any rules, because there were no rules.”
A Republican newspaper in Boston, the Independent Chronicle, called Hamilton a “slave to lust” in response to his sex scandal, the first in American politics. Thomas Paine, who energized the revolution with his famous pamphlet, Common Sense, would eventually describe George Washington in monarchical terms: “Monopolies of every kind marked your administration almost in the moment of its commencement….the chief of the army became the patron of the fraud.” In response to such repeated attacks, John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which outlawed “false, scandalous, and malicious writing”—fake news—about the government. They’d be used to target opposition newspaper editors.
One of Jefferson’s own media attack dogs turned on him in 1802, printing his then-rumored affair with a slave. He’d later decry “the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity, & mendacious spirit of those who write for them.”
As political conflict once again intensified in the 1820s, the partisan press was reignited. Weekly newspapers became a hot startup idea with the help of seed funding from political donors, government printing contracts, and patronage from rich merchants. The political and business elites who subscribed to them didn’t expect much in terms of accuracy, holding newspapermen in generally low regard.
“All the political journals of the United States are, indeed, arrayed on the side of the administration or against it; but they attack and defend it in a thousand different ways,” Alexis de Tocqueville would write in his 1835 book, Democracy in America. “They cannot form those great currents of opinion which sweep away the strongest dikes.”
That power would require piercing the filter bubble. The New York Sun sparked a revolution on this front in 1833 by seeking a mass, middle-class readership in a fast-growing city. An ad-supported business, it covered local news and sold copies every day. The so-called “penny press” to which it gave rise wasn’t objective, but independent, deriving power from readers rather than political patronage. It’s the common ancestor shared by many modern media outlets.
“It didn’t matter what the authorities or the party bosses thought...as long as the people voted for [the Sun] with their pennies,” Christopher Daly wrote in his 2012 book, Covering America. “In that sense, the Sun won an election every day.”
As the country’s urban centers ballooned over the course of the 19th century, such large-circulation newspapers grew in stature, taking on the politics of their individual editors. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, Joseph Medill’s Chicago Tribune, and Frederick Douglas’ North Star, in Rochester, New York, all campaigned against slavery. Others honed in on local political machines or abuses of power; neutrality was not an option when the competition still included partisan mouthpieces.
Iconoclastic editors duked it out in print—the original Twitter spats—if not in physical dustups. Sensationalized reporting became the norm. And some papers published occasional hoaxes to juice sales, like when the New York Herald reported in 1874, with a wink and a nod, that exotic animals had escaped the Central Park Zoo and were rampaging through Manhattan. Cities saw as many as a few dozen papers pushing competing narratives. Coverage of the Cuban War of Independence, including the bombing of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898, diverged widely depending on the newspaper. The premium was on entertainment and storytelling—clicks—not reporting facts.
After the turn of the 20th century, publications’ growing reach brought them both financial and political clout. That stability, coupled with a gradual decline in political partisanship, helped “the media” congeal into a more recognizable, if still amorphous, blob, complete with generally shared ethical standards like “objectivity.” Talk radio, cable news, and then the internet would eventually pull it all back into a state of entropy. Social platforms have more recently accelerated the process, and Trump has thrown the growing fissures into even sharper relief.
Regardless of whether you liked mainstream media 20, or even 10, years ago, you could at least make assumptions about its processes, biases, and blindspots. “There is so much media out there now,” said Tucher, the professor at Columbia, “and we’re losing the ability to make any type of assumptions about it.”
It’s the undercurrent running through the fake news panic that began last year and has crescendoed in recent weeks: No one really knows what’s out there or where it comes from. Professional journalists, bullshit artists, advertisers, and foreign propagandists all exist on the same plane. The “diffusion of information” to which Hamilton referred costs close to zero, allowing for organic growth of online communities that shape public opinion simply by existing.
Take extreme groups on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, 4chan, and elsewhere—the men’s rights movement or the #WhiteGenocide hashtag. They function almost like virtual publications in how they frame issues as they percolate up through more established outlets. Users with large followings, like Mike Cernovich, aren’t all that different from some fire-breathing 19th century editors who whipped up readers with disingenuous editorials.
“[These users] have a language,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters, the progressive group that monitors right-wing media. “They have an arc. They tell stories….That’s how history was made for thousands of years before we started writing it down. It isn’t that radical of a notion; it just feels weird to say it.”
The same basic principle applies across the internet, not just to radical communities. Power to shape media has moved away from professional gatekeepers—journalists—and more toward what New York University Professor Jay Rosen once termed “the people formerly known as the audience.” Small wonder then, amid partisan clashes that are unprecedented in modern history, that “the media” has been atomized.
The conservative press is well developed, with Fox News and much of talk radio effectively functioning as part of Trump’s communications shop. Wealthy conservative donors fund pro-Trump sites like Breitbart, while the market for right-wing conspiracy is booming. The administration, in its war with the idea of objective truth, has given sites such as Gateway Pundit and Infowars a Trumpian stamp of approval.
A corresponding closed-circuit Democratic media network has only just started to emerge, if not yet on the same scale. Some hyper-partisan social media accounts, like Occupy Democrats, reach millions of users while occasionally sharing fake news. The party itself has started fundraising to bolster its digital media arm. Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ standard-bearer in 2016, recently called for more in-house press organs “to get the coverage that’s really going to reflect the reality you’re facing on the campaign.”
We can argue forever about whether left- and right-wing partisan media are in any way equivalent—they aren’t—or to what extent mainstream or “nonpartisan” liberal outlets in fact tilt toward Democrats. But Trump, of all people, has provided a brief moment of clarity on this front.
He’s such a reprehensible figure, and the Republican Party has so firmly tied itself to his brand of intellectual dishonesty, that an oppositional editorial stance may in fact be the most accurate one. Even nominally centrist outlets, like CNN, feel obliged to constantly criticize him for basic incompetence and near-daily scandals. What happens after Trump is sure to be much more unpredictable.
What is certain is that the reliably center-left mainstream press will continue cracking up. And a slew of new progressive media have already starting taking advantage of it: Talking Points Memo has built out a small but seemingly viable subscription business; the podcast Chapo Trap House recently passed $1 million in yearly Patreon contributions; and YouTube-centric startup The Young Turks announced a $20 million funding round in August and boasts about 30,000 paying subscribers.
“If you’re authentic about your point of view, the audience will recognize it and love it and give you a bigger platform,” Cenk Uygur, founder and CEO of the company, told me. “You want your financial incentives aligned with your audience, so that you serve your audience.” The philosophy is not far off from that of some newspaper publishers more than 150 years ago.
Whether such ideologically driven outfits can maintain journalistic independence over the long term remains an open question. Crooked Media, one of the fastest growing podcast startups, was effectively started as a shadow communications arm of the Obama administration. But its new editor-in-chief, Brian Beutler, wrote in an editor’s note Wednesday that “the idea here isn’t to embody a specific political ideal or partisan goal, but to represent the whole swath of liberalism.” It’s an extremely tight needle to thread.
What’s more, such outlets are largely driven by commentary. The even bigger unknown is how media that produce much of the country’s accountability reporting will change in the coming decades. The New York Times and Washington Post have both started asking readers for more cash to support their work. It’s hard to believe their recent rebrands as tacitly anti-Trump, or at least Trump-skeptical, are mere coincidences. “The truth is more important than ever,” a Times ad says. “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” reads the Post’s new slogan.
In many other countries, such as the UK, publications are open about such institutional biases. But that rubs against 20th century American notions of objectivity. Criticism of the Times and Post has ticked upward among Trump supporters, and liberals howled when The Wall Street Journal seemed to be going soft on the president in recent months. (My counterpoint: Is a flagship conservative publication with high standards such a bad thing?)
What Trump has exposed is that editorial structures that enshrined neutrality—he said, she said; “both sides”—are untenable in a political system with asymmetric polarization. Look no further than CNN’s cringeworthy attempts to say something nice about Trump to view the phenomenon up close. Viewers can see through the act, and it casts a shadow over the outlet’s entire body of work. These sacred cows’ time has come.
Such behavior is a remnant of the disinterested school of journalism The New York Times pioneered in the late 19th century, which would eventually become the dominant form. The journalists who came before that understood that their readers took an interest in the outcome of stories they covered. Pursuing such outcomes openly and independently was in part how they differentiated themselves from their competitors in the overtly partisan press.
That ethos doesn’t seem so bad nowadays, particularly if it were coupled with high standards for intellectual rigor. Putting a premium on the appearance of neutrality, on the other hand, may just open the door to additional hacks who are far savvier than Peter Daou.