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The Passing of the 'High Modernism" of American Journalism Revisited

by Daniel C. Hallin

For about a generation, from the end of World War II into the 1980s, American journalism was dominated by a culture of professionalism, centered around the norm of "objective" reporting and rooted in the conviction that the primary function of press was to serve society by providing citizens with accurate, "unbiased" information about public affairs.   This culture of professionalism was what Siebert, Peterson and Schramm (1956) called the "social responsibility" model of the press, and it was widely seen by media scholars and practitioners alike, in this period when modernization theory dominated intellectual life, as the final result of the natural evolution of the news media as a social institution.   I called this the "high modernism" of American journalism because it shared with "high modernism" in other spheres of culture a strong faith in unity and rationality, a confidence that professionals and intellectuals could rise above social divisions and contradictions to produce knowledge of universal validity (Hallin 1992).  

What I argued in "the Passing of the 'High Modernism' of American Journalism" and in subsequent writings (especially Hallin 2000)   was that this professional model of media did not represent the end of journalism history, but a brief episode based on very specific historical conditions which are now passing away.   These conditions had to do in part with specific political economy of media industries in this period which reduced commercial pressures and allowed professional autonomy and the ethic of social responsibility to prosper.   Newspapers, still the central institution of the news media at the beginning of this period, were highly profitable monopolies under family ownership.   Broadcasting was a comfortable state-regulated oligopoly operating under under an obligation to serve the "public convenience and necessity," which the networks did primarily by expanding their relatively autonomous news divisions.   Corporate ownership of newspapers, the decline of newspaper readership, the deregulation of broadcasting and the intensification of competition in broadcasting and between traditional and new media undermined the "separation of church and state" on which the professional model was built.  

The other historical condition which made possible the consolidation of the "high modernist" model of journalism was the high level of ideological consensus which prevailed during this period, centered around the watered-down corporatism and welfare state which emerged from the New Deal and the "bipartisan" consensus of Cold War foreign policy.   The notion of "objective" reporting and of the journalist standing above political divisions to serve a unitary public interest which transcended them was only plausible in a context where ideological diversity and constestation was limited.   This is in part why the objectivity norm developed particularly strongly in the United States, in contrast with continental Europe (Hallin & Mancini 2004).

Two other elements of the political culture connected with the New Deal-Cold War political culture are also noteworthy.   First, public confidence in political authorities and institutions was quite high in the years when the "high modernist" model was consolidated.   This meant that "objective" reporting could be carried out mainly through the use of official sources, thus minimizing conflict between the media and other political actors, and reducing controversy over the role of journalists as mediators.   It made it possible for journalists--as for other cultural elites of the high modernist period--to see themselves simultaneously as part of the "establishment" and as independent.   Second, the dominant political culture of this period--the era of what Putnam (1996) has called the "long civic generation"-- was one in which public affairs had a high degree of prestige.   This gave plausibility to the idea that the journalist had a professional responsibility to make judgements about what informed citizens needed to know to about public affairs.

Again, the special historical conditions under which the high modernist model developed have substantially passed away.   The changes in political culture which have undermined it are complex, and have their roots both at the level of formal politics and in American culture more generally.   The New Deal and Cold War consensus was fragmented by Vietnam, by conflicts over race, and by neo-liberalism and the "post-Fordist" economy, among other factors.   Public confidence in political institutions and authorities declined.   Journalism both responded and contributed to this decline, shifting in the late 60s and early 70s toward more assertive forms of reporting, with the consequence that their own role as political actors became more visible and more controversial.   The prestige of public affairs declined.   Challenges to professional authority expanded in many spheres--in medicine, education, city planning, for example; it is important to remember that journalism was by no means the only profession to have its power and its claims of objectivity questioned.   Movements challenging hierarchies of race, gender and sexuality, and the "culture wars" that erupted in reaction to them--the Christian right should probably be seen as a social movement in its own right--undercut the notion that knowledge or a conception of the public interest could transcend social divisions.   The women's movement undermined assumptions about the division of public and private spheres on which professional norms of newsworthiness were in part based.            

Since the 1980s journalists have lost autonomy within news organizations increasingly dominated by the logic of the market, and have lost prestige within society. The role of the media has become subject to increasing political contestation.   And the unity of the old professional model has broken down, with the boundaries and social role of journalism becoming increasingly contested and ambiguous. A good symbol of the fragmentation of journalism is the famous appearance of Daily Show "anchor" Jon Stewart on CNN's Crossfire, where Stewart--who, as he pointed out, comes on following "puppets making crank phone calls"--played the role of upholding the ethic of public service against the hosts of Crossfire, representing a genre of infotainment dominated by opinion, and, as Stewart pointed out, having as much in common with all-star wrestling as with The New York Times.   Journalism has neither the unified identity nor the uncontested centrality to the public sphere it once had.  

For the most part it seems to me that the arguments I made in the early 1990s remain valid, and the trends evident then have continued. But I would like to expand on three points, which are in part connected with recent developments.   When I speak today about the decline of professionalism in American journalism, the first question asked is usually about recent scandals, particularly the Jason Blair scandal and that over the CBS report on President Bush's military service. Do these illustrate that ethical standards within journalism are lower today than in the past?   Perhaps; they may result in part from the increased pressure journalists feel to produce ratings, increased competition among journalists in an environment of job cuts, and perhaps also decreased resources for fact-checking.   But I have also been impressed through these scandals with the strength of the reaction within the news organizations involved, which suggests that ethical norms are still fairly strongly held by journalists themselves. For the most part I don't think journalistic professionalism is breaking down from the inside, by journalists becoming less committed to it; instead I think professionalism is being squeezed into increasingly smaller niches within the media field.   As Thompson (2000) says of the increased frequency of political scandals in recent years, it doesn't necessarily mean that politicians are more corrupt than they used to be; it may well be that the opposite is the case.   In part it is a result of much greater visibility and a less controllable flow of information.   The same is probably true of scandals within the media.   In the case of the CBS scandal, particularly, the increased level of political contestation over the role of the media and the wide range of participants in the flow of information--including partisan participants--would seem to be very important factors.  

Partisanship in the media is the second point I would like to add.   Since the 1990s it has become increasingly clear that the reemergence of partisan media is one of the most important forces straining the unity and identity of journalism. Fox news is the most obvious example of this trend; it is the first major news source in many years to show a clear partisan profile in its content and audience.   The trend is also manifested in partisan talk radio, where it first emerged, in the blogging culture of the internet, and in the increasing number of media companies which seem to have partisan--specifically Republican--alignment, not only Fox but also Clear Channel and Sinclair Broadcasting.   The shift toward partisan media is connected with changes in the broadcast industry, with deregulation and with the multiplication of channels.   It has sometimes been argued that commercialism of media leads inevitably to the decline of partisanship.   In fact, the relationship of the market to partisanship depends on market structure.   In concentrated local newspaper markets this is true.   But in the increasingly fragmented markets that prevail in radio, cable TV and the internet, partisanship can be an important strategy of product differentiation, just as it is in the competitive national newspaper market of Britain.              

Increased partisanship in the media is no doubt also connected with the increasingly partisan tone of American political culture. In the 1970s, when the New Deal/Cold War consensus was breaking down, it was common to interpret this in terms of partisan "dealignment."   When I wrote about the decline of political consensus in the early 1990s, what I had in mind was a shift toward ideological fragmentation and uncertainty, not polarization. In fact, however, it has become increasingly clear that partisan polarization has been on the rise in the United States for the past couple of decades (Bond and Fleischke 2000; Ceaser and Busch 2005; Jacobsen 2000).   In this context, media become increasingly subject to political pressures and controversy, and it is reasonable to expect some shift toward the kind of "political parallelism" which prevails in most European media systems, though how far this will go is hard to predict.   In the 2004 election Sinclair Broadcasting's decision to preempt network programming in some markets to show a documentary   attacking John Kerry's military record produced a very negative reaction from Wall Street; de-regulation has never been complete, and the regulated status of broadcast industries still probably makes open partisanship risky.            

Finally, a few comments about neoliberalism.   The changes in political culture which undermined the professional model of journalism were a joint product of the shift to neoliberalism and of social movements and the citizen activism they produced.   For the liberalism of the mid-twentieth century, professionalism played an extremely important historical role as a balance to the logic of the market.   Marx had claimed that capitalism drowned ethical principles "in the icy water of egotistical calculation;" liberal thinkers of the period pointed to the growth of professionalism, dedicated to an ethic of public service and to regimes of truth, as counter-evidence for Marx's judgement.   Neoliberalism, in contrast, tends to be cynical about any claim about values that cannot be reduced to market choices or of any notion of a "public interest" transcending particular interests. Neoliberals thus deride the idea that journalists serve a higher purpose than that of the market as "elitist'--language which clearly borrows from the very different critique of professionalism advanced by a variety of social movements which aimed to shift power from elites to citizens.   This coincidence of forces in the decline of professionalism reminds us that the consequences of that decline are complex, and in some ways can be seen as representing greater democratization–greater responsiveness of the media to the concerns and perspectives of various parts of society--and in some ways the opposite, an increasing subjection of the institutions of communication to the interests that dominate economic life.   It makes little sense to be nostalgic for the "high modernist" period of American journalism, which had many problems of its own, and which in any case belongs to a historical era that connot be recreated.   But it is true, I think, that the professional model of this period represented one plausible solution to a set of contradictions connected with the fact that the news media are simultaneously private businesses and institutions with important effects on society as a whole. The breakdown of that solution means that the kind of questions about freedom and accountability of the press debated in the middle of the last century (outlined most famously in the "Huthcins Commission Report" [Commission on Freedom of the Press 1947]) are likely to reemerge in this century.

Daniel C. Hallin is Professor of Communication at the University of California, San Diego.   


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Editor: David Ryfe , Middle Tennessee State University. Last Updated: January 23, 2006