Hot Button Topic Series: The History of Bias in the American Press

Disclaimer: This article is more comprehensive than previous articles due to the fact that this was originally a comprehensive essay about a constitutional issue, done for a class I took called “Famous Trials in American history.” If it has an academic feel to it, this is why, though I did at least try to make it more reader friendly! I hope you enjoy, and please don’t forget to tell me what you think when you’re done!


They say we live in an increasingly polarized nation, but do we? Nowadays, if you don’t like the news you call it fake, or faux news. Both sides do it, but the truth is, we have always been a divided nation, dating back to our beginning. At one point, we even fought a war against ourselves. While America was leaving the 19th century and entering the 20th Century, a progressive consensus grew and took the nation by storm. Some folks might not like it, but during this era, even the “Conservative” Republican candidates were progressive, actually sometimes considered more progressive. Roosevelt was the great trust buster, Taft was an even greater trust buster. This progressive movement was well maintained into and following the second World War. Despite differing political parties, the nation had a common set of values that most people—not all—tried to abide by in their lives. With the rise of the scientific method, and the phenomenon known as yellow journalism—both at the turn of the 20th century—came the idea that journalism, should be done objectively, scientifically.

Dating back to Colonial America, political factions have used the press as a tool to promote their views, this custom has given consumers the ability to see the entire spectrum by reading papers from both sides, if they choose. As an American tradition this makes the press inherently partisan; the press in the United States is free but has always selectively chosen facts and omitted others to support their opinions and I argue that is not a bad thing. By analyzing trials in American history, we see evidence to prove the American press has a tradition of political bias and that the narrative, that there is a need to practice objectivity in journalism (Rogers) is a false misleading one.

The Struggle for a Free Press (1600’s-1700’s)


Shortly after Gutenberg invented the press, mass production took off in Western nations

The printing press was famously invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439, thus making printed materials available to the populace of Western nations before Christopher Columbus bumped into North America in 1492 (Briggs and Burke). In the early 1600s, when Great Britain become involved in claiming the “New World” newspapers and information were mostly commercial in nature. America did not see its first newspapers until the late 1600s and early 1700s. The first newspapers simply reported on ship arrivals and departures and included classifieds. Content related papers were typically controlled or censored by government giving readers a copy of official addresses made to and from legislative bodies and Royal Governors. Any dissidents attempting to set up shop were quickly disallowed by the government (Paper Age).

The New England Courant was America’s first independent newspaper

This did not become a significant problem until 1721 with the publication of “The New England Courant” by Benjamin Franklin’s older brother James Franklin. The New England Courant is accepted as America’s first independent newspaper, meaning it was not controlled by the government in one form or another. James printed humor, literary essays, and found people loved to see newspapers challenge authority. When a smallpox outbreak brought inoculation to the forefront of public debate, ironically ministers for inoculation and physicians against it, with the assistance of Benjamins popular, witty, pen name “Silence Doogood (The New-England-Courant)”—James gave the anti-inoculation crowd a pulpit of their own to express their views. The Boston elite become uneasy about the increasingly hostile newspaper. After a piece ran on June 11, 1722, subtly but essentially insulting the government council for being lazy cowards, James was brought before them on charges. The trial that followed ended in James Franklin being thrown in jail for two-weeks and being barred from publishing the paper under his name (Independence Hall Association). This forced him to find someone else to run the paper. To do this he devised a plan to sign Benjamin free of his indentured servitude, put the paper in his name, and sign a new indentured deal for the remainder of the original indentured time. This kept James in control of both the paper and his little brother, so he thought. Benjamin—sick of physical abuse from James—reneged on the deal by refusing to sign the new indentured papers. Benjamin, then just 17 years old, famously set sail for Philadelphia as a wretched, young, freeman. James Franklins’ trial is often overlooked in American history despite being closely followed by the Boston people. It is significant because it established a demand for newspapers that were not afraid to dissent against the government. The popularity of the New England Courant among the Boston population established an appetite for newspapers that reflected their opinions, even if those opinions were against the government. The demand for papers willing to challenge authority led us to the famous Zenger case just a decade later in 1733.

The Zenger case is famous because it is accepted by most historians as the establishment of freedom of press in America. After John Peter Zenger, publisher of a paper called the “New York Weekly Journal” allowed a series of articles to run in his paper lambasting the Royal Governor of New York, William S. Cosby, he was charged with libel and thrown in jail. A well-known Philadelphia attorney named Andrew Hamilton–not to be confused with Alexander Hamilton, who was not born for another 20 years–offered to defend Zenger. At the end of the trial, Andrew gave an emotional closing that is still considered by some to be that greatest argument ever made for the necessity of a free press (Linder). Despite being instructed by the Judge to rule only on whether Zenger was guilty of printing the material—not whether the material was true—the jury still come back with the verdict of “not guilty.” “Huzzahs” filled the air, and from that point on, dissenting papers across the colonies operated with little to no intervention from the government.

The Zenger Trial established freedom of press in the American Colonies

This paved the way for Americans use of the press to dissent against Monarchial policies throughout the 1760’s. Including the famous Boston Massacre trial when Paul Revere used a copied engraving to inaccurately paint the British shooters as the aggressors. Revere’s propaganda was published throughout the colonies and effective at turning the population against the British government. It was later found in court by a jury, that these men were justified. However, the political damage caused by the propaganda had been done. The American Revolution is the first time we can identify two rivaling political factions in America—the Whigs (Patriots) and Tories (Loyalist)—both utilizing the press to campaign for popular support.

This famous image by Paul Revere was not only found inaccurate by a colonial jury; but strong evidence (Crafton) suggest it was plagiarized from an almost identical engraving done by Henry Pelham, half-brother of famous portrait artist John Singleton Copley. (Click here to read more about Revere’s alleged misdeed)

Men like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine gained wide-spread fame after writing anti-British pamphlets that were widely-circulated to garner support for the war (Adams; Jefferson; Paine). Meanwhile, Tory papers were published throughout the colonies with just as much demand. Where dominant Tory populations could be found, in places like New York City and in the Southern colonies, you find an increase of Tory literature (Barnes), adding credence to the idea that, even before Americans were a nation, they demanded reading opinions they agreed with rather than ones they did not. Because of the press, the United States was born with partisan politics center-stage.

adams and jefferson and paine

[Left} John Adams, “Thoughts on Government” [Center] Thomas Jefferson, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” [Right] Thomas Paine, “Common Sense.”

On top of being a bloody, physical struggle for independence, this war was in many senses, a war of information. There being a long history of punishing dissidents by European tyrants, the “Patriots” established freedom press in the Articles of Confederation before they even established their sovereignty through winning the war (Continental Congress). In 1789, when a new constitution was debated, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay famously used the press to convince the public of its integrity (The Federalist Papers). After it was ratified, establishing a free press become the highest priority, as it was the first amendment added to the new constitution in the Bill of Rights (United States Constitution).


In order to get the Constitution ratified, leaders quieted the naysayers with a promise to add a “Bill of Rights.” The amendments were the first thing on their agenda under the new Federal Government. The newly elected Congress–headed by James Madison of Virginia–passed the Bill of Rights in the winter of 1791.


Partisan Politics and Sectional Conflicts (1800’s)

At the turn of the 19th century the United States was amid a very controversial election following some very controversial trials. Partisan fervor was at an all-time high, so bad fist-fights broke out in Congress. The Republican newspapers become so outrageous, the Federalist politicians in control of Congress and Federalist President, John Adams, passed the Alien and Sedition acts. These acts were in direct violation with freedom of press, as they punished dissident journalist from the opposing political party, the Republicans. Among many authors at the time, who were independently printing sensational material about Adams, James Thomson Callender, of the Richmond Examiner, was hired by Republicans to print libelous newspapers about the President. Thomson called Adams a ”repulsive pedant,” a “gross hypocrite,” privately “one of the most egregious fools upon the continent,” and worst of all a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman (McCullough).

Republican Paper accusing Federalist of being British Tories, suggesting a vote for them would be a return to Monarchy.

In addition to the Federalist fighting back in the press—calling Jefferson an atheist (Ferling)—they used their majority in Congress and control over the executive and judicial branches to round up, arrest, and jail eight Republican dissidents under the Sedition Acts, five of which were journalist including: James Thomson Callender of the Richmond Examiner, Mathew Lyon, a Republican politician and publisher of the Lyon’s Republican Magazine, Anthony Haswell of the Vermont Gazette, and Benjamin Franklin Bache, the grandson of the late Benjamin Franklin, of the Philadelphia Aurora (Miller; Stone). David Brown and Benjamin Fairbanks were arrested for setting up a “liberty pole” (a thin banner on a flag pole) in support of Jefferson and in opposition to Adams (Tise). Luther Baldwin was arrested at a parade the President attended, “I hope it hit Adams in the arse! (Smith)” he screamed drunkenly after the crowd heard gun shots. The trials that followed infuriated the nation. Not only was Jefferson able to win the election of 1800 with Aaron Burr stealing half the party votes, but turnout doubled, most of the new voters casting ballots for the Republican Party. (Goldfield, Abbot and Anderson)


A cartoon portraying the first fist-fight in Congress (1798). The fight started because Mathew Lyon (journalist turned Republican politician) purposely ignored Roger Griswold (Federalist politician) as he was trying to get his attention. Roger become increasingly frustrated and yelled out, “Scoundrel!” A profane word for the time. Mathew then challenged Roger to a fight. Roger asked if Mathew had brought his “wooden sword” for such a fight (reference to Lyons being dismissed from duty in the Revolution.) Outraged, Mathew spit a mouth full of chewing tobacco on Roger. At which point violence over took the room, resulting in this cartoon. From that point on Mathew would be know as the “Spitting Lyon (Miller).”

The Press in the 1800’s evolved with the rest of the nation. The first half the 19th Century is filled with different crises. These events fueled the national debate over slavery, deepening the divide between political factions. The climax was reached in the middle of the century with a few famous trials just years apart: Dred Scott and John Brown. The debate over these decisions spilled over into the press.

Taney Decision

This advertisement for a pamphlet exhibits Southern hubris following the Dred Scott decision. (Click here for an enlarged view)

In 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney gave an opinion in the Dred Scott case saying no negro whose ancestors were imported for the cause of slavery, could be a free citizen. Taney’s opinion said negroes who had earned their freedom were not U.S. citizens, would never be U.S. citizens and thus had no right to sue anyone, in any court, much less the Supreme Court (Dred Scott v. Sandford; Rehnquist, William H.). This decision also ruled the Missouri Comprise—an act of legislation aimed to neutralize the conflicts between slave states and free states—to be unconstitutional, only the second time that had been done in the nations short history (Tarr and O’Conner).


A study in the Voces Novae: Chapman University Historical Review researched the different reactions around the nation to Taney’s opinion and it vividly exhibits 19th century partisan politics in the press (Oswald).  Emotional reactions—not a hard-objective journal of events—can be found both North and South. The Chicago Daily Tribune was not trying to hide its party affiliation or opposition to Northern and Southern newspapers against its position. On March 19th, 1857 the tribune published an article directly attacking Southern papers by name and insulting northern papers supporting the Scott decision by labeling them, “Buchanan Journals.” Specifically, though they were upset with the use of the language “Sebastopol is Taken.” Due to a popular contemporary patriotic English song—titled “Sebastopol is Taken”—this was synonymous with the southern paper saying, the conflict (slavery) is finally over, for good (Library of Congress). 

“It is curious to read the comments of the leading slaveholding press on the decision in the Dred Scott case, and to observe how closely the Buchanan Journals [of the North, when they dare speak out,] echo the spirit of these comments. ‘Sebastopol is taken,’ shout the Richmond Enquirer. The Republicans ‘snap and start and howl: it is the last throe of fanaticism,’ exclaims the Times”

The article almost prophetically concludes by calling on readers to pack the legislative and executive branches with Republican candidates and prepare for a civil war,

“Let the Free States, then, have a unit in its Congressional Representation on the side of freedom, let the next President be a Republican, and 1860 will mark an era kindred with that of 1776, and the country and the Constitution be ruled and considered by men kindred in aim and principle with Washington, Jefferson and the Fathers! (Chicago Daily Tribune)”

Just two years following the Scott decision, a Christian abolitionist named John Brown failed to start a massive slave revolt. He and twenty-one other men, five of them negros, ambushed a weapons depot in Harpers Ferry, Virginia attempting to lay siege to the town. They were quickly surrounded, some captured, and some killed by federal soldiers led by Robert E. Lee (Foner).

John Brown and his men were quickly surrounded, some captured, and some killed by federal soldiers led by Robert E. Lee

Reaction in the South was pure paranoia. On October 21st, 1859, immediately following an enthusiastic, albeit both sectional and bias, article explaining implementation of the two-thirds rule and its implications to the Southern faction of the Democratic party (Ritchie, Dunnavant, Tyler & Wise); the Richmond Enquirer published a report about authorities uncovering Brown’s hideout in the mountains. It starts by saying the campsite included, “large tents, blankets, spades, and fifteen hundred Sharpe’s Rifle’s.” It continues by estimating the cost of the guns and ammunition and urging for answers about the financiers of the Brown plot. They continue with speculation, asking what is next? “

The late effort was made after passing into a slave State; but how long before the Abolition fanatics of Cincinnati may seize Newport, in Kentucky away from Marines at Washington, and within hailing distance of the depot of Western Abolitionism?

The paper concludes urging for remedies, but not without first blaming the North for the raid and prophesying with a warning to its readers of potential continued violence against the South,

“The aid of the Federal Government was near Harper’s Ferry, and was in hands faithful to the Constitution, but another year may place that aid in the hands of our assailants and then “higher law” of an “irrepressible conflict” urge on and strengthen the hands that murder our families and pillage our property (Ritchie, Dunnavant, Tyler & Wise)“

Despite later labeling Brown a martyr and symbol of racial justice, Northern reaction to the raid was reactive to Southern papers and politically motivated. The aim being to protect the Republican party from the work of the demented John Brown. Andrew Harris Jr. studied Northern reaction to the raid and published an article in the journal “The Negro History Bulletin,”

“a reaction was quite pronounced in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. The Republican Daily Tribune of New York City said: ‘The whole affair seems to be the work of a madman… Believing that the way to Universal Emancipation lies not through insurrection, but through peace, we deeply regret the outbreak’ … New York Daily Tribune remarked: ‘the Southern States today has [sic] an inflammatory article [sic] against Republicans as the responsible party to the outbreak at Harper’s Ferry, and hits at proceedings against Abolition sympathizers in the city (New York Daily Tribune; Northern Reaction to the John Brown Raid).’

These reactions to both the Dred Scott decision and the shocking revelations of John Browns raid in Harpers Ferry, illustrate a nation developing disagreements passed on to them by the founders. They also illustrate them conducting a national debate about those issues through the press, a practice also passed down to them by the founders.


The Rise and Fall of Objective Journalism (1900s-2000’s)

At the turn of the 20th Century, the nation was living through an age of amazing technological advances. This era is labelled by historians in many ways: The “Gilded Age,” the “Progressive Era,” the “Socialist Movement,” and even the “Rise of the Scientific School. (Kraus)” With the emergence of enormous wealth came the issues of income inequality and labor rights. This pitted the largely poor populace against a growing number of capitalist elite (Zinn). This movement, in combination with a looming World War, caused leading intellectuals including politicians and journalist to coalesce around ideas that resulted in somewhat of a consensus view of how the nation should operate. Dissidents? Sure. Still many people being treated unjustly and cut out of the system? Absolutely. However, for the first time in the nation’s history people generally agreed on the direction the nation should be going. So much in 1912, three Presidential candidates ran as populist candidates from three different parties. They all three ran their campaigns on progressive ideas, hoping to convince the nation they were the most progressive candidate. This made it nearly impossible to tell the difference between political philosophy based on a candidate’s political party (Schweikart and Allen; Zinn) and as late as 1963 you can find Democratic leaders espousing conservative ideas in their speeches. On top of this, nothing creates togetherness, and patriotism like World Wars. The generations making up the first half of the 20th Century faced two of them.


This cartoon pokes fun at the candidates for President in 1912 by suggesting there are not any differences in their political ideology.

The perceived rise of “yellow journalism” created a backlash against sensational newspapers, and technologies like radio helped to usher in the idea that the press should simply report facts (Lippmann). This is not how the founders intended the press to operate and it was not consistent with the American tradition. Still, men like Walter Lippmann promoted this idea vehemently (Dean), and in an age of conformity, subjective opinions took a back seat to majority rule (Blumental). Radio’s filled the airwaves with patriotic propaganda, and F.D.R.’s presidential addresses, while also completely omitting racial atrocities all over the nation. So, it was objective in theory, but not in fact.  Despite being a flawed and dangerous idea (Cunningham; Wijberg; Taibbi) and despite the press being a constitutionally-protected, adversarial-intended institution, built on top the foundation of freedom of speech; the idea was installed in journalism curriculum’s around the nation and it remains a part of the “five core principles of Journalism” taught as the  fair and impartial doctrine in journalism classes (Ethical Journalism Network).

Walter Lippmann had a distinguished career as a journalist. Certainly he should not be judged only by his flawed idea, that journalism be more “objective.” Click Here to read more about Walter

In 1949, the FCC implemented the “fairness doctrine” which was a censorship by the government, enforcing the press to be equitable, and balanced according to their perspective. (Matthews) Following World War II, in addition to the radio, television exploded. Pro-government, anti-communist journalist with good manners were invited into the living rooms of citizens all over the nation. Because the political landscape had been dominated by the Democratic Party through the progressive movement, a pro-democratic sentiment was established in most modern news agencies. It was not until the 1960’s—when issues over racial injustice and the Vietnam war become prominent—did we begin to see the government being looked at with a critical view by the press again. Though initially the attacks were leveled against Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson for his war policies, when Republican Richard Nixon took office in 1970, it was contemplated by many journalists to be a consequence of the assassination of Democrat, and press favorite, Robert Kennedy ( Staff). Thus, began an era where the press, again, acted as their supposed to act, as a check against those in power. Because of his own insecurities, Nixon refused to be open to the press during the Watergate Scandal. He was destroyed by investigative journalist and forced to resign. Despite having no prior knowledge of the crime and standing accused of doing only what his predecessors and many others in the executive branch were doing at the time; Nixon was forced to be the first and only President to resign from office. For good reason, the press had fell asleep at the wheel for so long, the Presidency was beginning to form a tradition of illegal and unconstitutional practices (Schweikart and Allen ).

The Watergate Scandal engulfed the nation and ended with the first and only President resigning in office.

Throughout the 1980’s and especially in the 1990’s the nation witnessed a return to our traditional press bias. The liberal ideology had dominated the major news agencies in America until 1987 when the fairness doctrine was eliminated in practice by the FCC (Boliek). With the emergence of conservative radio talk shows, the internet, and cable television the nation, again, began seeing adversarial voices in the press aiming their harsh words at one another. Though, it seems this is not new. Selectively citing facts and omitting others in a war of information, is not a practice held exclusively by 21st Century companies like Fox News and the MSNBC. “Fair and balanced?” “Most Trusted Name in News” These contemporary press slogans are in the eye of the beholder. Bias is an American tradition. Though one can argue it adds to the polarization of our nation, I ask, what is the alternative? I believe having news agencies aligned with political thought, guarantees us an adversarial press. No matter which political party is in power, having factions represented by news agencies, has always ensured that there are people out there looking upon the government with a critical view, and ensuring everyone has someone advocating for their viewpoint in the national discourse. This is the most effective way to expose corruption in our government, and it runs parallel to giving everyone a voice in our democracy.  So fake news to you, might actually be real news to someone else and the truth is, it has almost always been that way.


Works Cited

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