Professors Bruce Schulman and Julian Zelizer have edited a new book, Media Nation, following the American news media from the 1880s to present. The book comes out on February 7 and Zelizer spoke to TKNN about the book and the media landscape.
The following conversation was slightly edited for clarity.
1) What caused you to put this book together with Bruce Schulman?
there is very little historical scholarship on one of the most important aspects of our political system–the news media. Although everyone knows the influence that the media wields, only in recent years have historians started to understand its evolution and to explode some of the myths exist about how things worked in the past. We believed that there was a critical body of work out there and we wanted to bring it to the public.
2) The book starts in the 1880s. Why then and not before or after?
Well a book like this can be endless. There is so much to study about the media, we had to make a decision about where to start. We decided that we should start in the post reconstruction period when the modern government and modern political process took form. This is also when there are huge changes in the media as the era of the partisan press came to an end. We felt this really was the turning point to the path that led to today.
3) The final chapter lists several roles for the press like “partisan or advocate,” so how different and striking was it for Steve Bannon to say the media is the “opposition party?”
Yes in fact these attacks on the media are old. We have seen this in different forms and from different perspectives throughout the period we cover. But there are moments when the attack from within government are different in scale and scope. This was the case with Richard Nixon, when the administration targeted reporters who were seen as unfriendly. That’s what we are seeing today. The media today is also struggling financially, particularly print, so it comes at a time that reporters are more vulnerable professionally.
4) What is the top thing you hope readers take away from this book?
That the news media is a very influential part of our political system, and that politics and policy have influenced the media environment that we had.
5) Yellow journalism was a dark time for American journalism. Is today’s climate similar to that?
Very much so. We are at a moment when “fake news” and “partisan news” is making it difficult for the public to distinguish between fact and fiction. This creates a certain amount of instability in the political system as politicians are able to manipulate events to their advantage.
6) We are in a period of low trust in media and a massive amount of misinformation. Does the history of media provide any insight in how we move forward?
Sure. In the same way we should not have nostalgia about the media always being in great shape–such as how we forget that in the 1950s and 1960s the press often just echoed the world views of Washington officials–we should remember there are moments of great progress–such as the professionalization of the press in the early 20th century and the emergence of investigative reporting in the 1970s where the press improved. So journalists and media organizations can have periods of positive innovation.