I am old enough to remember when media coverage of politics – TV and radio only in those days – was governed by the FCC’s fairness doctrine. The fairness doctrine said, essentially, that if you wanted to report on an election, all sides, and all candidates, needed to be given equal time.
This was both useful, and boring. It was useful because it meant that the public at large could hear underfunded candidates, and get to know them. It was boring because vanity candidates and single-issue candidates got as much time as more serious contenders, and voters as a result, sometimes didn’t listen to everyone worth listening to.
By 1980, you could make a case that the fairness doctrine needed tweaking, perhaps along the lines of the two-tiered system in use for the 2016 Republican debates, but less arbitrary. Then Ronald Reagan was elected, and the fairness doctrine was thrown out entirely, for ideological reasons. This had a number of obvious effects, one of which was that it aided in the rise of what might be called prejudice-enforcing reporting, of which Fox News is the primary, but by no means the only, current example.
Newspapers and magazines were not subject to the fairness doctrine, and, historically, some newspaper owners, like Colonel McCormick in Chicago and William Randolph Hearst, used their papers for propaganda purposes, but by 1980, there was genuine consensus among newspapers that opinion belonged only on editorial pages, and that reporting should be fair and objective.
But the Reagan Revolution brought genuine change to the media world, and I would argue that it was felt locally. When I became active in Sonoma County politics in 1984, I began to notice something about the local paper, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. The headlines placed on stories, especially politically charged stories, often didn’t fit the content of the stories. Sometimes, the headline would flatly contradict the plain meaning of the story beneath. Sometimes, the story and headline would match well enough, but the effect would still be misleading because crucial facts would either be left out of the story (probably by an editor; reporters weren’t usually the problem), or crucial facts would be buried so that their significance would be easy to miss (editors again).
An especially suspicious use of the newspaper took place in 1992. For several election cycles, The Press Democrat had conducted two polls on the Santa Rosa City Council race – one three weeks before the election, to see what the voter’s initial choices were, and again one week before the election, to see what the changes were as the election drew near. In those pre-absentee-voting days, candidates had grown used to timing their mailers for this pattern. But 1992 was different – the first poll was taken four weeks before the election and, by an odd coincidence, the newspaper’s favorite candidate happened to be the only candidate to time her first mail piece to arrive exactly four weeks before the election date. The Press Democrat was then able to report that their candidate was comfortably in the lead…
In the 2016 election, the Press Democrat has apparently given up on such subtle tactics. Recently, in honor of Women’s History Month, the newspaper published a list of twenty-five “women who shaped the North Coast”. I was immediately interested – my late wife, Senator Pat Wiggins, was an obvious candidate, and so was my friend, Senator Noreen Evans. I looked at the article, but neither was on the list. “Oh, well,” you might think, “all the women who are on the list are worthy, and if you are limiting yourself to twenty-five, someone has to go. And besides, Noreen is running for Fifth District Supervisor; it wouldn’t be appropriate to give her free publicity in this context.”
A few days later, a second list was published in honor of Women’s History Month: “30 women you should know in Sonoma County.” Number 28 on that list just happens to be Noreen’s opponent in the Fifth District race, a woman who is supported by one of the owners of the Press Democrat and his friends. Apparently you should know her because she was the first to enter the race.
Sigh, it never ends.