The History of Hating How People Get the News

When it comes to where we learn about current events, our nation has gone from the Times to TikTok, from Cronkite to Quora. People have been decrying new media for hundreds of years, but instead of scorning it, can we make it better?

Clockwise from top left: Minnesota man reading the local newspaper, 1937 (Library of Congress); CNN correspondent reporting on Queen Elizabeth II’s death, 2022 (Shutterstock); Walter Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968 (National Archives); the TikTok app (Shutterstock)

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From outlets owned by political parties to TikTok, for the past two centuries Americans have been getting their news in ways that have often seemed distasteful or even disastrous.

Today, half of all adult Americans regularly learn about current events from social media, largely still from Facebook and YouTube, as well as from Instagram and Twitter. A third of younger Americans aged 18 to 29 get their news from TikTok, despite that platform’s controversy and the federal government’s de facto ban of it.

Many Americans find the idea that people are being informed mostly from the internet a little bit disconcerting, with the percentage of people worried about internet inaccuracies increasing recently. Others are concerned with the lack of quality news online. Then there are those who, exhausted by doomscrolling, are avoiding the news altogether.

But is getting your daily dose of news from TikTok or YouTube the five-alarm fire that pundits make it out to be, or is it just the latest round of handwringing over how young people learn about the world?

Partisan Papers and Trifling TV

Worries about how Americans get their news have been around since at least Alexis de Tocqueville’s visit from France in the 1830s. In his Democracy in America, Tocqueville observed that:

In America there is scarcely a hamlet which has not its own newspaper. It may readily be imagined that neither discipline nor unity of design can be communicated to so multifarious a host, and each one is consequently led to fight under his own standard.

Newspapers, especially “penny papers,” often with highly partisan points of view, proliferated throughout the 1800s. By 1860, the U.S. had more than 3,000 newspapers. (Library of Congress)

The media historian David Paul Nord, writing 200 years later, observed that “Newspapers represented and exacerbated all the lines of cleavage in the early Republic,” with most newspapers “usually outrageously partisan” for the first half century of the new United States. And for most of American history, it was political parties who sponsored or at least were affiliated with newspapers, until the early 20th century. Stories about politicians could differ wildly from one paper to the next, depending on whom the paper favored (and who was paying the bills).

Even as overt partisanship waned, journalists and scholars alike fretted about how their fellow citizens were getting the news (or not). More than 100 years ago, Walter Lippmann, a prominent news critic and public intellectual, bemoaned that there was so much information from too many sources and about too many crises all at once (sound familiar?); that soon ordinary people would become completely overwhelmed. The end result would be that our democracy would be endangered.

A reading room in a ten-cent lodging house on the Bowery, New York City, 1908 (Library of Congress)

New technologies such as the radio, and later TV, also caused concerns about democracy’s fate, especially with how key events such as elections might get covered. Radio and TV news excelled at reporting breaking-news events live and far more immediately than newspapers had been able to, but contemporaries thought it lacked depth, analysis, and context. TV news was especially prone, it was thought, toward visuals at the expense of substance. People feared that it just couldn’t carry the role of the fourth estate well enough to ever truly replace newspapers.

This was all during the so-called “golden age” of news, before cable and later the internet brought even more radical changes to how people consume information. Soon, news would be available 24 hours a day, instantaneous, and everywhere.

CNN’s broadcast of the Gulf War in 1991 was the first time a television station had brought 24-hour coverage of a war into American homes. (Uploaded to YouTube by CNN)

Questioning the Good Old Days, Fixing the Future

Even golden ages have their dark sides, or at least their flaws and blind spots. Newsrooms and journalism throughout the country could be racist in coverage, hiring practices, and the tendency to ignore the lives of people of color and their communities.

Journalism as filtered through the traditional gatekeepers of yesteryear, whether they were editors or producers, had a further tendency to listen first to the most powerful people and institutions in society, sometimes at the expense of readers, viewers, and listeners. There were fewer channels, yes, and more apparent consensus around facts, but also limited points of view that, again, favored the privileged.

The “Five O’Clock Follies” of the Vietnam War, in which Pentagon spokespersons tried to downplay American losses and play up victories, are just one example of how televised news started to be viewed skeptically. It took an on-the-ground visit by Walter Cronkite to show many Americans the messiness and moral ambiguity of that conflict. Of course, no story from history is necessarily that simple — President Johnson was ultimately undeterred from keeping the U.S. in the war — but it does show the sometimes fickle nature of TV news, at least as regarded by contemporaries.

Newscasters from the 1950s and ’60s were homogenous in their appearance, and often their points of view. Clockwise from top left: John Daly, 1956 (Library of Congress); David Brinkley and Chet Huntley, 1962 (Library of Congress); Walter Cronkite, 1954 (Library of Congress); Douglas Edwards, 1952 (Wikimedia Commons)

Still, despite such flaws, the industrial journalism of the twentieth century had some profound strengths, including the ability to sometimes resist corporate pressure and to hold corporations and governments accountable. Newsrooms could be (and still can be, even as they become smaller and more mobile) places of innovation and integration. Newsrooms and news organizations can marshal the resources needed to cover massive institutional failures, corruption, and abuse of power, as with The Boston Globe and its Spotlight team, famous for investigating sexual abuse in the Catholic church. It’s hard to imagine a volunteer podcaster or TikTok personality being able to do the same kind of thing, at least without a solid network helping out.

But all generations tend to believe that their particular good old days were the best, and that the future is bleak or at least not as great as it used to be, even if that’s not the case. From politics to pop culture, it’s insidiously human to think that the best times are behind us, and that includes perceptions of the “best” ways to consume journalism.

Granted, we are currently facing some pretty big problems. One is how good journalism can and should be funded, especially at the local and regional level. Another issue is credibility. TikTok in particular has a misinformation problem, even if it and other forms of social media can be used to drive fact-based storytelling, i.e. journalism. If the news has to meet people where they are, how do we make sure that the what they consume is accurate and trustworthy?

Media-literacy efforts take time, planning and hard work to be effective, and sustaining journalism in the future will likely take a clever combination of nonprofit initiatives, creative business acumen, journalism schools stepping into the breach to cover their local communities, and even some modest state support. Much more on these issues can and should be researched, written about, and addressed.

In the meantime, we can reflect on what Solomon once said about the good old days: “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For you do not inquire wisely concerning this.”

As a media historian, I’m as nostalgic as pretty much anyone can be about older media forms, but I’d agree. Instead of decrying new media forms, let’s make them better.

No pressure, but our future depends on it.

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  1. If media could just present the facts I think we all have enough discernment to draw our own conclusions. Just getting the unadulterated facts though is getting tougher and tougher from mainstream media.


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