Michael Schudson on political reform and the emergence of objectivity
Another factor in the eventual triumph of a professional journalism is that the very concept of politics changed from 1880 to 1920 under the impact of Mugwump and Progressive reforms. Liberal reformers began to criticize party loyalty. They promoted new forms of electoral campaigning, urging an ‘educational’ campaign with more pamphlets and fewer parades. Newspapers at the same time became more willing to take an independent stance. By 1890, a quarter of daily newspapers in Northern states, where the reform movement was most advanced, claimed independence of party.
By 1896, a reform called ‘the Australian ballot’ had swept the country, changing forever the way Americans went to the polls. Until the 1890s, American election days were organized to the last detail by the competing political parties. The state did not prepare a ballot. The parties printed up theirown tickets and distributed them to voters near the polls. The voter then did not need to mark the ballot in any way – the voter did not need, in fact, to be literate. He just took the ticket from the party worker and deposited it in the ballot box. The act of voting was thus an act of affiliation with a partisan cause (Schudson, 1998a: 168–74).
The Australian ballot symbolized a different understanding. Now the state prepared a ballot that listed candidates of all contending parties. The voter received the ballot from an election clerk and, in the privacy of the voting booth, marked the ballot, choosing the candidates from one or several parties as he wished. Voting was now a performance oriented to an ideal of objectivity, a model of rational choice, if you will. There was an increasingly strident rhetoric about the corruption of parties and the need for forms of governing that were above parties. Civil service reform, taking off in this same era, promoted this rhetoric powerfully in many nations around the world. But in the American case and in those other nations that adopted ballot reform, there was not only a verbal rhetoric but a kind of performative rhetoric in which millions of people acted out a social practice that incorporated a new model of objectivity.
With the Australian ballot, civil service reform, corrupt practices acts, voter registration laws, the initiative and referendum, the popular primary, the direct election of senators, and non-partisan municipal elections, politics began to be seen as an administrative science that required experts. Voting came to be seen as an activity in which voters make choices among programs and candidates, not one in which they loyally turn out in ritual solidarity to their party. This new understanding of politics helped transform a rabidly partisan press into an institution differentiated from the parties, with journalists more likely to see themselves as journalists, or as writers, rather than as political hangers-on (McGerr, 1986).9
From Michael Schudson, "The objectivity norm in American
journalism" Journalism Vol. 2(2): 149–170