Objectivity in an Age of Dissensus: Mainstream U.S. News in the Context of Fragmentation, Pluralism, and Polarization, 1958-2009

Sarah Stonbely

This dissertation is about how mainstream U.S. news has responded to three major developments in latter-twentieth century American culture and politics: the fragmentation of the journalistic field after the uptake of cable television and the Internet, the greater acceptance of pluralism after the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and the polarization of U.S. politics, beginning in the early 1980s. These three developments, I argue, were pivotal in re-shaping the public sphere from one where relatively few voices and viewpoints prevailed, to one where a greater diversity of voices and viewpoints are considered legitimate, thereby increasing the instances in which no one narrative becomes widely accepted as "truth;" or, stated differently, decreasing the salience of issues or ideas on which a broad majority of Americans are in agreement. This dissertation finds that mainstream news, with its mandate of objectivity, has increasingly imposed its own logic on a socio-political world with multiple, often conflicting, voices, while at the same time working to defend against successful challenges to the very institutions on which its own legitimacy rests. As such it highlights the historical contingency of the practice of journalistic objectivity - how it is indelibly marked by its formation in the crucible of the liberal-centrist twentieth century - and shows how "objective" news has adapted to the epistemological challenges posed by a pluralist and partisan political sphere.