Historians Say that American Politics Has Always Been Negative: Why This Claim Is Misleading





Mr. Patterson is author of The Vanishing Voter (2002).

In his new book, The Vanishing Voter, Mr. Patterson confirms the widespread impression that the media are negative. One survey he cites found that in the 2000 presidential election, network coverage of both Al Gore and George W. Bush was negative 60 percent or more of the time. Many historians--and journalists--have observed that negativity is hardly a new phenomenon in American politics. Mr. Patterson dissents from this analysis.

Some journalists claim it has always been that way and that Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln endured far worse [than Gore or Bush], but this is not the case. Although many early newspapers could be downright nasty, they were partisan journals that heaped on praise as they dished up criticism. Rather than the claim that"they're all a bunch of bums," the partisan press was based on the premise that the bums were all on the other side. In 1896, the San Francisco Call devoted 1,075 column inches of glowing photographs to the Republican ticket of McKinley-Hobart and only 11 inches to the Democrats, Bryan and Sewall. San Francisco Democrats had their own bible, the Hearst-owned Examiner, which touted William Jennings Bryan as the savior of working men.

Partisan journalism slowly died out in the early 1900S and a more neutral form replaced it. The critical style, in turn, gradually overtook its predecessor. Political coverage started to become more negative in the 1960s, and by the 1980s attack journalism was firmly in place. The tendency was interrupted by periodic bouts of patriotism. The press did an abrupt shift whenever the United States faced an international threat--for example, the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, the bombing of the marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, the Gulf war in 1990-91, the Balkan air wars of the 1990S, and the war against terrorism that began in 2001. Each time Americans rallied around the flag, so, too, did the press. NBC outfitted its peacock logo with stars and stripes following the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, and computer-generated flags festooned the other networks. Nevertheless, the long-term tendency has been decidedly negative.


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Frederick D. Clements - 11/7/2002

I think any fair and balanced review of American politics and campaigns in the past reveals a much more negative tinge in the past than in the present. What passes for negative today looks almost mild when compaired with journalism 100 to 200 years ago. The attacks then were much more personal and crude in nature and content and there was no journalistic outcry for moderation.


Craig Mathews - 11/7/2002

Quite insiteful. Of course the American public will not vote if all they hear is negativism without saying anything positive about any candidate. What would happen if the press went back to the way it was in the 1800's and 1900's? At least their bias would finally be out in the open. Contrary to what they think, no one can be completely unbiased in reporting news. It is inhuman not to be biased. What is sad is that the American public has bought that line completely.


Craig Mathews - 11/7/2002

Quite insiteful. Of course the American public will not vote if all they hear is negativism without saying anything positive about any candidate. What would happen if the press went back to the way it was in the 1800's and 1900's? At least their bias would finally be out in the open. Contrary to what they think, no one can be completely unbiased in reporting news. It is inhuman not to be biased. What is sad is that the American public has bought that line completely.