History has been my professional life and I am still practicing it seriously. The newspapers have been a daily feature of my life for more than 60 years. As I have tried to point out in many posts here over the years, both have undergone remarkable transformations over the last fifty years or so. The nature of those transformations has gradually become clear to me, and I am going to try to summarize it today.
The first 200 years of US history marked an extraordinary change in human political development. Both the principles of the new polity--equality before the law, a series of assured rights for the citizenry, and a society without a privileged order--and its key procedures--governments chosen by regular elections--were almost entirely new. The American people believed deeply in their new experiment, and the nation's expansion and economic growth tended to validate that belief. Yes, the Constitution's guarantees did not initially apply to all Americans, but they were eventually extended to all. Having finished my forthcoming history of the United States based upon presidential addresses, I understand now that the national government, led by the president, assumed the task of defining the nation's domestic and foreign problems and mobilizing resources to solve them. This task became even more important around 1900, when the United States emerged as one of the leading world powers in a competitive international system. Despite considerable opposition, the nation in both world wars accepted a new role of protecting and sometimes spreading its principles around the globe. The same role carried almost seamlessly into the Cold War era, with the USSR replacing the Nazis and the Japanese militarists as the threat to American ideals.
Mainstream journalism, I would argue, generally respected the political leadership's right to define issues for the nation. It did not automatically support the party in power: Franklin Roosevelt, in particular, enjoyed the support of a majority of the nation's leading newspapers in the first of his four campaigns for re-election, but not in the next two. (I am not sure about the fourth.) But the newspapers accepted that what leading political figures said and did was news, because of the power they exercised. While the press in the nineteenth century had generally been very partisan, a new ethic of reporting the facts developed in the twentieth.
History meanwhile paid the political leadership similar respect by focusing on what it said and did. Both domestic history and international history were mostly political history--whether admiring or critical. They did not ignore intellectual, economic and social trends, but they focused on how they affected political controversies and government policies. History, David Hackett Fisher argued in one of the few theoretical treatments of the subject ever written in the United States, was properly about what happened, and his book Historians' Fallacies called upon practitioners to respect the integrity of the past rather than argue about whether things might just as easily have happened in a very different way. But that view was about to be pushed aside when he published that book in 1970.
The turning point for both journalism and history occurred in about one decade, from 1965 through 1974. It occurred thanks to the confluence of critical historical events--the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal--and the coming of age of the Boom generation, which had grown up in a rapidly growing economy, gone to college in unprecedented numbers, and chafed under the presumed authority of older generations in every sphere. In response to Vietnam and Watergate, new generations of reporters, editors, and opinion writers replaced the authority of political leaders with their own. Having exposed some crucially mistaken policies and a series of political crimes, they took moral authority away from elected leaders and conferred it upon themselves. That is why opinion writers--who are extraordinarily well paid for writing two or three columns a week--have emerged as the leading figures in every major newspaper over the last few decades. One of the many traditions that they have abandoned is the old admonition against reporters making themselves the story. Some opinion writers seem to feel they are paid to do just that. In the long run, Watergate has had more influence on reporting than Vietnam. The Vietnam debacle did not prevent a new generation of reporters, editors and opinion writers from lining up behind President George W. Bush in the run-up to the Iraq debacle, but newspapers have eagerly seized upon any breath of scandal involving any president or his minions from Nixon onward. The Trump administration marked a new climax of that pattern--and now the mainstream is so partisan that it is ignoring accusations against President Biden and his administration, even when the leadership of the House of Representatives is pushing them.
The transformation of the historical profession proceeded more rapidly because it was based explicitly upon an entirely new world view. The Vietnam War persuaded a good many Boomer activists that our whole society, economy and government were irretrievably corrupt. Following Herbert Marcuse's critical theory, they believed they had to transform the nation's consciousness to create a completely different kind of society. They did not of course have much impact upon the country, which turned Republican at the same time, but the traditional rightwing claim that they burrowed into academia and transformed it from inside is true. New ideas about gender and race--which argued that traditional views simply served the interests of straight white males--accelerated the process further. Historical scholarship on every time and place--if it can still be called that--now focuses on showing how poorly the past reflected today's views on gender, race, and sexual behavior--and thus ignores the political achievements of past generations that gave us the world in which we grew up. That is also why a new, huge generation of campus administrators shows so little respect for western intellectual, political and educational traditions--as shown in a current controversy at Barnard College involving an old friend of mine.
Where have these changes left us as a nation? I think they have made it impossible for our major newspapers to provide genuine coverage of what is happening politically in the United States. In my opinion, the new Republican ideology--which has become Republican orthodoxy thanks largely to Donald Trump--must be taken seriously for the simple reason that more than 100 million Americans appear to adhere to it, but on social issues, especially, our major newspapers deny any legitimacy to ideas that they disagree with. Partly for that reason, perhaps, the Democratic Party has essentially given up on the red states, where the Republicans are becoming more and more militant on neearly every issue. Meanwhile the changes in history have left even educated Americans remarkably ignorant about our post, and both sides of the political spectrum have given up any respect for our system as such, caring only about political outcomes. And although the foreign policy elite doesn't seem to realize it, the nation has largely given up on the idea that the United States must control political events all over the world. There seems to be less bipartisan consensus on foreign policy than at any time in my lifetime. And our leading newspapers approach foreign affairs the same way they do domestic ones, continually explaining to us--as they are right now discussing the near-coup in Russia--that outcomes must inevitably reflect their views of right and wrong.
These changes, and others as well, have made it impossible for the nation to put its resources to work to solve important problems. The latest of these is the recent collapse of our public schools--partly because of the pandemic--which almost no one seems to think we can fix. Both sides of our political spectrum have helped destroy all faith in institutions, and the institutions themselves haven't done enough to restore it. The survival of the American experiment, I think, is anything but assured.