The term “partisan press” commonly describes a pattern of organizing competing journalism outlets along party lines, but may also represent a period in emerging national journalism systems. In creating and distributing news, publishers and editors may work within or make arrangements with parties, resulting in reportage that openly espouses the positions of leaders or factions. In most countries, from France to Japan to the United States, Indonesia, and Senegal, some form of partisan or party-run press played a critical role in national political development. The partisan press, in both senses of the term, provides guidance to the general public and contributes to a country’s political consciousness.
Historically, partisan presses appeared in the process of national emergence. In 1766 in India, for example, a merchant displeased with the way the colonial powers regulated business attempted to establish the country’s first newspaper, though the government quashed it before inaugural publication. A few decades later, the bilingual Calcutta Gazette and the Bombay Gazette appeared, but acting as official voices of their respective governments (Karkhanis 1981). In other countries, such as Norway, newspapers would combat government intervention and oppression by taking such simple measures as renaming the same paper after the national government outlawed the original one. Continental European newspapers of the late 1700s exhibited varying degrees of resistance or bending to the will of the ruling courts. In an example of international partisanship, the French-language Gazette de Leyde, based in the Netherlands, was responsible for promoting the successes of the newly independent United States to the rest of Europe (Popkin 1989).
Partisanship became a key principle for organizing the popular journalism of some countries in the nineteenth century. The 1830s saw the founding of Telugu- and Tamillanguage newspapers in Madras, India (Karkhanis 1981). Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune served as a tool of the Whig party in its bid against Jackson in 1824. Political debates went beyond editorial pages to appear prominently on the front pages of Republican and Federalist newspapers. Exuberant partisan news coverage was also a progenitor of sensationalism in journalism, prevalent in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and continuing today.
In the period before the press secretary, politicians used newspapers to act as their sounding boards and official scribes. The Japanese government was quick to put restrictions on its national press following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, setting a precedent for government regulation of speech rights in the country. Political dependence on newspapers to broadcast party messages lessened considerably after Theodore Roosevelt held the first press conference in 1908.
Journalists have often made the leap from reporting to partisan policymaking. After their favorable coverage of his policies, American president Andrew Jackson appointed nearly 60 journalists to federal posts following his 1832 election (Baldasty 1984), a process called the “spoils system.” After the Hungarian revolution in 1848, Mihály Táncsics, an editor of a popular paper, was entrusted with explaining legislative issues and earning public trust and support (Kosáry 1986).
European publishers in the Victorian era commonly remained married to the political system, which provided their papers with subsidies and exclusive news reports. A partisan pattern of press organization in Europe blossomed before World War I and depended on the existence of more than one party. Newspapers linked themselves to the politics of one competing party and tended at times to sacrifice the ideal of objectivity in reporting to that political position.
Other forms of press organization may supplant a partisan press. For instance, some scholars indicate that Progressive Era ideals in the United States prompted journalists to eschew deliberate political affiliations. Newspaper editors came to think of such activities as conflicts of interest or barriers to making the craft more professional. In other countries, journalists also formed associations and press unions that served the dual functions of protecting smaller enterprises from government oppression and delineating what qualified as journalism.
It remains unclear whether the professional project in fact removes journalism from partisan involvement. For example, some scholars criticize the Japanese press for antigovernment bias, though others contend that the existence of press clubs – national professional organizations the government affords preferential access – reinforces the point that the press remains a government tool in Japan (Pharr & Krauss 1996).
In most Southeast Asian and African nations, press systems took shape after independence movements, most of which occurred in the middle of the twentieth century. To succeed, they needed to ally themselves with a political party or other special interest. Partisanship may take a darker form in one-party political systems. In 1940s and 1950s Liberia, the government was quick to employ sedition laws and other acts of oppression, culminating in the imprisonment of C. Frederick Taylor, the editor of the African National (Burrowes 2004).
Many nations developed in the context of the political leanings and activities of the press. In countries with a literate population throughout the world, some form of partisan press played a role in shaping political life and in forming journalism itself.
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- Karkhanis, S. (1981). Indian politics and the role of the press. New Delhi: Vikas.
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