Have We Been Spoiled by the Apparent Objectivity of Media in the Sixties?

Is the media more biased and partisan today than what we have a right to expect, or were many of us spoiled by the apparent objectivity of the media back in its glory days of the 1960’s? Common belief these days seems to be the former, but I suspect that it’s more of the latter. This informal paper explores this question a bit.

The five theses of this paper are:

  1. Yes, many of us have been spoiled by the apparent objectivity of the media in the Sixties.
  2. The subjectivity and partisan and ideological bias of the media today is more the traditional norm than an anomaly. The Sixties were the anomaly.
  3. The apparent objectivity of the media in the Sixties was more of an illusion than a reality. Today is more the norm and more real than the Sixties were.
  4. The fanciful notion that the media of today has an obligation to be objective is just that — fanciful, fiction, fantasy, illusion, and possibly even outright fraud. The media simply has no such obligation. Their obligation is to provide voice for alternative points of view to assure that government, business, and social policies can be more objectively evaluated by the people — the more alternative views, the better.
  5. It is the people themselves, average citizens, who have the burden, the obligation, to sift and sort through alternative views presented by a range of media outlets and to produce their own version of what they think is objective truth. Granted the views of an individual tend to be very subjective, but it is finally when those many diverse, subjective views are combined and aggregated in the voting process and the actions of consumers that collectively the people arrive at the closest approximation of objectivity that is possible in an exceedingly imperfect world. Yes, the media has a role, but not as a final arbiter.

Personally, it still feels as if the media was indeed a lot more objective in the Sixties, although my rational brain accepts that things are usually not as clear cut as they superficially seem or feel.

The real question is whether the media has any responsibility for objectivity at all.

Does the media have any proper role as a gatekeeper of the flow of information?

Or does the real burden of filtering subjective and biased sources of information lie instead on the shoulders of average citizens, who declare objective truth through their votes in the ballot box?

And is the true burden of the media simply to assure that as many disparate voices as possible get heard as widely and loudly as possible, so that citizens can then perform their own primary responsibility of filtering all those competing and conflicting voices? Not that any given media outlet will disseminate all voices equally, but that given enough media outlets, any particular voice will have at least some outlet.

Some see the media as a true gatekeeper whose mission is to correct for stupidity of average citizens, and others see the media as an attempt by its owners to subvert (AKA “inform” or “influence”) the will of common citizens. This paper will not resolve this gatekeeper debate, but will highlight its dimensions.

Asking, insisting, or demanding that all media outlets be strictly objective in all that they do (other than their editorial page) would seem to be too great a responsibility to ask of them.

In fact, it appears that traditionally, before the golden era of objectivity in the Sixties, objectivity was not even asked of them. Sure, media outlets have always generally trafficked in what we call news, but there was always some sort of slant, bias, interpretation, cherry picking, or point of view. The media was always free to pick and choose what news they would cover and how they would cover it.

But in the Sixties, that seemed to change. Objectivity became the watchword, or at least the illusion of objectivity seemed to be the goal.

And for awhile, it all seemed to work out that way. Kind of like the way the Kennedy presidency became known as Camelot.

But then things changed.

And now things are different.

Or at least different from the Sixties.

Or at least different from what things seemed in the Sixties.


It’s not so clear when the transition of reputation really occurred or how long it took, but somehow the media of the sixties seems so categorically distinct from the media of today. It may not have been an abrupt sea change or smooth gradual decline, but it sure has changed.

Take your pick of issues or technological or business model changes which might be the more significant culprit(s) of the transition away from strict objectivity (or the appearance thereof):

  1. The Vietnam war. Including publication of The Pentagon Papers.
  2. Apex and peaking of the civil rights movement.
  3. Assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King.
  4. Apex and peaking of the space program.
  5. Nixon and Watergate.
  6. Reagan and Iran-Contra.
  7. Advent of CNN.
  8. Media consolidation.
  9. The Internet.
  10. Decline of the compelling power of print journalism.
  11. Bush, Iraq, WMD, and the Global War on Terror.
  12. Fox News.
  13. Social media.
  14. Declining print advertising revenue.
  15. Trump and rise of Alt-Right.
  16. Peaking of internationalism and return of nationalism, populism, and nativism.
  17. And so much more.

Now what?

Not so fast.

Objectivity as an anomaly

Go back to the beginning of the 20th Century or the Civil War, or even before the American Revolution — was the media much more objective than today?

I suspect not.

In fact, I suspect that the media (minus television and without an Internet) in the old days before World War II were probably even more biased and partisan than today.


Or, maybe it is only with 20/20 hindsight that we are today creating an illusion that the media of the Sixties was so much more objective when maybe there was just as much bias, but with fewer media choices we just didn’t notice.

Who should be the gatekeeper of information?

The apparent objectivity of the media in the Sixties led many of us to believe that the media itself had that gatekeeper role.

But the truth of the matter is that it has always been average citizens themselves who shoulder that burden.

Job of the media

The media is certainly free to pick and choose what news or voices to focus on, and is indeed performing a gatekeeping role, but the distinction is that no single media outlet or collection of media outlets are the exclusive gatekeeper.

Citizens as ultimate gatekeepers

Each media outlet is free to pick and choose and present information as they see fit, but then it is the right and duty of each citizen to pick and choose and filter and synthesize the output of the universe of media outlets to determine their (the citizen’s) own personal views on all matters.

The media does indeed have a role, a very important and essential role, but it is neither the only role nor the most important role.

In a democracy, the role of the individual citizen is the most important role.

Exemplars of media objectivity from the Sixties

  1. The New York Times.
  2. NBC News with Huntley and Brinkley.
  3. CBS News with Walter Cronkite.
  4. Washington Post.
  5. 60 Minutes with Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace.
  6. The Twentieth Century with Walter Cronkite.
  7. Associated Press, Reuters, and other independent news wire services.
  8. TIME magazine.
  9. LIFE magazine.
  10. Numerous other major city newspapers.
  11. Numerous monthly magazines.
  12. Wire services such as Associated Press (AP), United Press International (UPI), and Reuters.
  13. BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation).

Again, those were just some examples, the paragons, the exemplars. The standards for objectivity and freedom from any obvious bias.

In fact, back in those days, the local newspaper in most markets was a very trusted source of information. In fact, quite a few markets had at least two strong local papers.

Trust in the media

Trust, integrity, and truth were expected of any news or media outlet. It didn’t occur to any of them to be anything different.

Memories of yellow journalism

But they were memories of a time past, no longer relevant to the present.

High professional standards for journalists in the Sixties

Journalists of the sixties had a sense that the story itself was the focus, not their role in covering the story, while today the journalists themselves them intent on being a story themselves.

Watergate was probably the watershed moment for that transition. And it has only gotten worse since then.

Nowadays, journalists themselves are being celebrated as stars in their own right. In the old, glory days, TV newscasters merely read the news, while today journalists go out of their way to be a center of attention themselves.

Simple facts vs. narrative and storytelling

The classic Five W’s — Who, What, Where, When, and Why something happened.

Whereas today the focus is on narrative and telling a compelling story.

Today the facts are mere props; it’s the story that matters.

Professional attitude and tone for journalists of the Sixties

What ever happened to truth?

To whom?

Truth still exists, but instead of objective, politically and ideologically-neutral facts, the emphasis is on more subjective, biased, cherry-picked slant on the truth.

Nuance and fairness mattered in the Sixties.

Whereas today, the emphasis is on finding a nuance and angle for interpreting and expressing facts which services a preferred partisan and ideological bias.

Readers, viewers, and citizens in general are more on their own than ever to ferret out what the real, objective truth really is.

Or not. Maybe that was a quality of the average citizen before the Sixties, that they took more for granted and were more accepting of what they read in the papers.

Or, since many larger markets had more than one newspaper, they simply picked the paper whose bias matched their own.

Media as a shill for the government?

The people are not served if media were to be merely a shill or mouthpiece for the government.

Until the Vietnam War and Watergate, the so-golden media of the Sixties may have tried a little too hard to defer to the voice of the government.

That may have made it seem that everything was rosy, that the government was only good, and that the media was objective, but that may have been a bit more appearance and illusion than actual objectivity.

That perceived objectivity of the media in the Sixties may have spoiled many of us.

But the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate began the process of breaking through the thin veneer of that apparent media objectivity.

Categories of media content

  1. News
  2. Analysis
  3. Opinion
  4. Advertising

Opinion can be categorized as either:

  1. Editorial. Views of the senior managers and owners of the outlet.
  2. Columnists. Staff views. Chosen for their specialized knowledge or area of expertise.
  3. Op-Ed. Views of noteworthy outsiders.
  4. Letters to the editor. Reader views.
  5. Online story comments. Blog-style reader views.
  6. Social media conversations. Blogs, tweets, etc.

Clearly technology has advanced since the Sixties in the opinion area.

The main point here is that opinion has begun to swamp and overwhelm basic news.

News was king, facts were king

It was the defining, main reason people sought out media.

Okay, entertainment was a major factor for interest in media in general, but interest in news was much more about interest in facts than in opinions of the staff of the news outlet.

Opinion is now king

These days, people generally or frequently seek out and choose media outlets based on the opinion, politics, and ideology (bias) of those outlets rather than basic news and raw facts.

Misleading headlines

Whereas today, headlines are frequently at least somewhat misleading if not outright misleading.

It is not uncommon to find stories with headlines which don’t match the gist of the story.

Commonly, the reported doesn’t get to pick their own headline for the story that they wrote. An editor will commonly choose a headline which is more in sync with the editorial bias of the media outlet.

Opinion and analysis mixed in with news

Whereas today, it is more common to see opinion and analysis interspersed with news.

Sure, there is commonly some minor annotation to highlight opinion and analysis, but it is usually fairly subtle so that it may not be instantly obvious at first quick glance, resulting in readers reading opinion or analysis when they were looking for unbiased news.

Analysis as opinion rather than news

Generally, that was left to specialized journals.

Today, analysis is all the range.

The emphasis is on finding angles to categorize disparate news elements in such a way that the reader gets a very distinct impression that is rather different from the impression they would get from the raw news stories.

The effect is to turn raw news into something much closer to opinion than news, but to still present it as if it were news.

Is the media the enemy of the American people?

And the notion of enemy would be in the context of imagining that the media did indeed have some sort of exclusive gatekeeper role, which they do not.

The media have a right to express their own views and even to cherry pick and present news in whatever manner they feel fits their own proprietary interests.

The real point here is not that the media is evil in some way because it has a bias, but the notion that the media has a role greater than the ultimate gatekeeper role of the common citizen is indeed evil, so to speak.

The point is that the role of the citizen is above and more important than the role of the media.

Too many in the media act as if the media had a more important role than the common citizen.

Again, that’s the whole point of a democracy — the people, the common citizens, they’re in charge, at the apex of the pyramid.

The real problem here is that the media of today is still colored with a bit too much of that glorified reputation for strict objectivity which they were misguidedly endowed with back in the Sixties.

The media is not the friend of the American people

The media does not have the best interests of the American people at heart.

Most media outlets are for-profit enterprises, which gives them a conflict of interest.

Granted, the media outlets of the Sixties had the same profit motives and inherent conflict of interest, but they at least tried to come across as having their interests aligned with the interests of all Americans.

And they most certainly did come across that way.

But that was then.

Now is different.

The media can indeed become the friend of the American people, but that would require a change in their mindset. They still see and feel that they alone are the ultimate gatekeeper for information that should be presented to common citizens.

To become the friend of the people, the media needs to make clear and repeatedly reinforce that they recognize that the people are the ultimate gatekeepers of the information.

The media needs to acknowledge that they can inform and influence common citizens but they need to cease and desist and abandon this arrogant elitist presumption that the media is in charge and controls the flow of information to common citizens.

Media sense of entitlement

The media of the Sixties did not come across with that intense sense of entitlement.

Granted, they may have been just as arrogant and elitist in the Sixties, but at least they kept that aspect of their personalities to themselves or in private. It was not something to be flaunted in public.

News as entertainment

News tended to be dull and boring — not entertaining in the slightest.

Whereas today, or maybe since the advent of CNN and even more intensely in recent decades and recent years news or at least the presentation of news is focused very intensely on being entertaining.

Sometimes even with a comedic tone, but most commonly as if the news were a soap opera or intense drama show, a theatrical production.

In the Sixties the raw words were the story, but today news is focused on active video, flashy graphics, and emotion-inciting music and acoustic effects. And very strained voices. Lots of strain in voices.

Focus on scandal

Whereas today, scandal is more the norm than the exception.

Not that there were not just as many scandals in the Sixties, but media is giving a much higher priority and profile to them these days.

Hyperbolic language of today

Whereas today, headlines are exaggerated and story text is worded in such a hyperbolic manner as to incite readers. In fact, many editors and reporters seem intent on inciting their viewers and readers.

The big downside is that this excess causes a good fraction of citizens to partially or even completely tune out the media, reducing their ability to remain informed.

I guess that’s a tradeoff for each media outlet these days — how many readers and viewers they might lose versus how many they can get so much more excited. It’s just a simple math problem.

24/7 news cycle outpaces rigorous objectivity

Whereas today, not so much when it comes to rigor, discipline, and anything resembling a sense of calm.

Today, everything is a rush.

The result is that nobody has the kind of time and patience to achieve anything remotely resembling objectivity in news coverage.

Competition is partly to blame, but the rush to compete aggressively is far beyond the more sedate and calm sensibility characteristic of the Sixties.

Heavy dependence on anonymous sources

Whereas today, anonymity is the watchword, and much more common.

Anonymous sources can have some value in extreme cases, but overuse is a really bad idea.

Actually, use of anonymous sources is a really bad idea in even the best of situations, although in extreme cases even a bad idea may be better than nothing.

The core problem with anonymous sources is that they set up the media outlet or the journalist as an extreme gatekeeper, and strip the reader, viewer, and citizen of their own essential role of being the final arbiter of the veracity and objectivity of the source.

A media outlet issuing a story based in part on an anonymous source is basically saying to readers, viewers, and citizens “trust us — we know what’s best for you!” That’s a horrible thing to do in a democracy, where the people are supposed to come first and foremost. Disclosure and transparency should be the watchwords for all public discourse in a democracy, not secrecy and anonymity.

Investigative journalism

Whereas today, it is a common and popular pursuit.

To be sure, investigative journalism did exist to a limited extent before 1971, but limited is the key word there. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that it became a more common and popular form of journalism.

The problem is that investigative journalism is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it supplements traditional law enforcement and civil action, but at the same time it can undermine confidence in traditional law enforcement and civil action.

The effect is to strip away the objectivity of the media. By acting as investigator, prosecutor, judge, and jury, the media cedes its own sense of objectivity in favor of taking a side in what should typically be a civil dispute adjudicated by an impartial judge and jury.


Fairness and balance were a thing.

Today? Not so much.

Point of view

The goal is less about providing people with information, but more about telling people what to believe.

Promoting a point of view is perfectly within the rights of a free citizen or business of the U.S., but so many of us got spoiled by the objective media of the Sixties, where facts reigned supreme.

An illusion in the Sixties?

That’s probably true to some extent, but at least it was a satisfying illusion whereas today even the notion of an illusion is gone.

The illusion is indeed still present, and people realize that it’s an illusion, but are in denial, hoping it will go away, and hoping that the strict objectivity of the Sixties will come back into vogue again.

Either way, so many of us were indeed spoiled by the seemingly objective media of the Sixties.

Sense of purpose for the media

Do readers and viewers share that same sense of purpose?

In the Sixties, the answer was a resounding yes.

But today, not so much.

Although in many cases the answer is still yes, but only because more people are more accepting of bias and manage to find media outlets matching their bias.

The questions, then and now, about the purpose of a media outlet include:

  1. Why does a given media outlet exist?
  2. Is the media outlet a strict business or organized for nonprofit public benefit?
  3. What were the founders thinking?
  4. What was the vision of the founders?
  5. What was the mission of the founders?
  6. What is the vision of the current owners?
  7. What is the mission of the current owners?
  8. Who are attracted as employees? What are their interests?
  9. How are employees trained and indoctrinated?
  10. How is the media outlet marketed?
  11. Does it have a preferred ideology? Partisan? How clearly identified?
  12. How objective is a particular media outlet?
  13. How partisan is a particular media outlet?
  14. Are they truly politically neutral?

The main problem today is that any particular media outlet and its staff tends to have some sort of partisan, politically-motivated, ideological bias.

Sure, there are exceptions, but the exceptions merely prove the rule.

Sometimes they are quite open about their bias, and sometimes they are in denial and insist they are fair, balanced, and objective.

Which is worse?!

Lack of alignment of stakeholders

  1. Owners
  2. Senior executives
  3. Middle managers
  4. Editors
  5. Reporters
  6. Advertisers
  7. Readers
  8. Viewers
  9. Citizens in general
  10. Politicians
  11. Businesses
  12. Business executives

Sometimes their interests align, but frequently they do not.

In the Sixties, the alignment of interests was more prominent and stable.

Today, the alignment is problematic at best.

The big losers in this new bargain are readers, viewers, and citizens in general.

Motivation of media

Today, not so much.

In fact, with competition from free media on the Internet, traditional media outlets are struggling to earn even a modest profit.

The net result is that the owners of media outlets are forced to cut corners and take all manner of extreme measures just to stay in business.

Readers, viewers, and citizens in general are the net losers in this new bargain.

Objectivity still lives in the wire services

Their whole reason for existence is simply to share raw news stories, which other media outlets pick and choose from to incorporate into their own news coverage.

Subjectivity and bias simply doesn’t have any significant value for such a bland, boring flow of raw news.

They don’t need to compete with the emotion-charged, partisan, and biased flavor of normal media outlets, precisely because those media outlets use the bland, boring news wire stories as filler to round out their own coverage. This is the one place where boring substance actually matters to your average media outlet.

This is not to say that wire service stories are always absolutely 100% objective, but simply that they are generally much more reliably objective since they don’t have any real incentive to be anything other than objective.

For me personally, seeing an attribution for a story of AP or Reuters is the gold standard seal for objectivity. It probably also means that the story will be dry and boring, but to me that’s an acceptable cost for objectivity.

Objectivity still lives at the BBC

Sixties or today or any year or decade between, through rain or shine, the BBC has been a relative Rock of Gibraltar for objectivity.

That is not to say that they don’t have their own more muted sense of bias, but that’s the point, that any tendency towards emotion, partisanship, or bias is much, much more muted than anywhere other than the wire services.

For me personally, the BBC is my main go-to source for news, especially for Europe and the rest of the world.

They also provide an excellent perspective on the U.S. given that they have some distance to give them some welcome, much-needed perspective that media in the U.S. can’t even begin to compete with.

Is the media of today obligated to be objective?

They can try to be objective, if they want, but I believe that such attempts will ultimately be a fool’s errand.

The fanciful notion that the media of today has an obligation to be objective is just that — fanciful, fiction, fantasy, illusion, and possibly even outright fraud. The media simply has no such obligation.

And if any media outlet feels that they have an obligation to be objective, that is more a perception than a reality. An illusion. Or possibly even a delusion.

Rather, the obligation of the media is to provide voice for alternative points of view to assure that government, business, and social policies can be more objectively evaluated by the people — the more alternative views, the better.

One can hope that collectively the media will present a composite of alternative views that covers the objective truth, even as individual media outlets fall far short of strict objectivity.

That may be more of a good thing than a bad thing. The better job a given media outlet can do at deeply covering and clearly articulating a particular view assures that a particular alternative view will have a louder, clearer, and more authentic quality to it. Better raw material for average citizens to work with as they evaluate and choose between alternative views.

Objectivity is the obligation of the people alone

The media’s collective role is to assure that as many alternative views as possible are presented to the people.

The people then have the responsibility to digest, analyze, and square all of those diverse views and decide for themselves what the objective truth really is.

That is not to say that every single citizen will do a great job at that task, but simply that they are the ones who have that task.

The good news for the media is that their own obligation is not to bear that burden of objectivity, but to pick and choose what news and issues to focus on and to do their best to present the best view that they can on any chosen issue. From their own perspective.

The core idea is not that any given media outlet will be objective, but that collectively the sum total of all media outlets will provide enough raw and partially digested information so that they collectively present an objective view, an objective view of the alternatives for citizens to evaluate.

From that collective objectivity, citizens can then sift and sort through the details to do their own best job of determining their own objective view.

Granted, citizen views are still rather subjective, but there as well, it is their collective view that gives the overall country a more objective view.

Yeah, I know, there is no perfection there, but a mediocre good may be the best that we can hope for in an exceedingly imperfect world.

The memories and impressions of the objectivity of the media in its golden era of the Sixties may indeed be at least partially an illusion or at least partially an anomaly.

That the media of today bears so little resemblance to the objectivity of the media of the Sixties should be a concern to some degree but shouldn’t be as surprising as it seems to feel like.

It is indeed highly unlikely that the media will return anytime soon to the degree of apparent objectivity of the Sixties.

The burden of filtering out the subjective, partisan, and biased aspects of the media today remains the burden of average citizens — where it always has been and always should be.

The suggestion or outright insistence that the media bears primary responsibility for such filtering is outright wrongheaded — the primary role of the media is to assure that competing points of view are presented widely and loudly. It is then the responsibility of wise citizens to filter all of those competing views, primarily through the mechanism of the ballot box, in democratic elections.

Shame on activists and arrogant elitists who characterize average citizens as dumb, lazy, ill-informed, and stupid — too stupid to vote intelligently and responsibly without some preferred media outlets dictating what and how they should believe.

The point is not that average citizens are smarter than arrogant elites, but that the very notion of elites as gatekeepers is inherently undemocratic and undermines the very notion of the kind of democracy that we seek to achieve and maintain.

The bottom line is that average citizens are the only people who are in an unconflicted position to filter all sources of information and cobble together something resembling an objective view of a path forward.

It is also especially important that the media not merely be a propaganda mouthpiece for the government. The government should of course speak directly to the people and provide the people with valuable information and even a point of view, but the government should nonetheless be only one voice among many on all matters.

So, yes, many of us were indeed spoiled by the apparent objectivity of the media in the Sixties. The good old media of the Sixties misled average citizens into believing that they, mere citizens, no longer had primary responsibility for determining the objective truth of our democracy.

And to me personally, it still feels as if the media was indeed a lot more objective in the Sixties, although my rational brain accepts that things are usually not as clear cut as they superficially seem or feel.

And finally, anybody who really does insist on objectivity can find ample solace in the stories carried by the wires services, such as AP and Reuters, as well as the fresh perspective of the BBC.

Freelance Consultant