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The Rise of the Fourth Estate: How Newspapers Became Informative and Why It Mattered

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  • Matthew Gentzkow
  • Edward L. Glaeser
  • Claudia Goldin

Abstract

A free and informative press is widely agreed to be crucial to the democratic process today. But throughout much of the nineteenth century U.S. newspapers were often public relations tools funded by politicians, and newspaper independence was a rarity. The newspaper industry underwent fundamental changes between 1870 and 1920 as the press became more informative and less partisan. Whereas 11 percent of urban dailies were "independent" in 1870, 62 percent were in 1920. The rise of the informative press was the result of increased scale and competitiveness in the newspaper industry caused by technological progress in the newsprint and newspaper industries. We examine the press coverage surrounding two major political scandals -- Credit Mobilier in the early 1870s and Teapot Dome in the 1920s. The analysis demonstrates a sharp reduction in bias and charged language in the half century after 1870. From 1870 to 1920, when corruption appears to have declined significantly within the United States, the press became more informative, less partisan, and expanded its circulation considerably. It seems a reasonable hypothesis that the rise of the informative press was one of the reasons why the corruption of the Gilded Age was sharply reduced during the subsequent Progressive Era.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 10791.

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Date of creation: Sep 2004
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Publication status: published as The Rise of the Fourth Estate. How Newspapers Became Informative and Why It Mattered , Matthew Gentzkow, Edward L. Glaeser, Claudia Goldin. in Corruption and Reform: Lessons from America's Economic History , Glaeser and Goldin. 2006
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:10791

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  1. Matthew Gentzkow & Jesse M. Shapiro, 2006. "Media Bias and Reputation," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 114(2), pages 280-316, April.
  2. Sendhil Mullainathan & Andrei Shleifer, 2002. "Media Bias," NBER Working Papers 9295, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Steven Berry & Joel Waldfogel, 2003. "Product Quality and Market Size," NBER Working Papers 9675, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Timothy Besley & Andrea Prat, 2006. "Handcuffs for the Grabbing Hand? Media Capture and Government Accountability," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 96(3), pages 720-736, June.
  5. Brunetti, Aymo & Weder, Beatrice, 2003. "A free press is bad news for corruption," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 87(7-8), pages 1801-1824, August.
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