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

In: Corruption and Reform: Lessons from America's Economic History

  • Matthew Gentzkow
  • Edward L. Glaeser
  • Claudia Goldin

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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This chapter was published in:
  • Edward L. Glaeser & Claudia Goldin, 2006. "Corruption and Reform: Lessons from America's Economic History," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number glae06-1, October.
  • This item is provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Chapters with number 9984.
    Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberch:9984
    Contact details of provider: Postal: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02138, U.S.A.
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    1. Timothy Besley & Andrea Prat, 2005. "Handcuffs for the Grabbing Hand? Media Capture and Government Accountability," STICERD - Political Economy and Public Policy Paper Series 07, Suntory and Toyota International Centres for Economics and Related Disciplines, LSE.
    2. Berry, Steven & Waldfogel, Joel, 2005. "Product Quality and Market Size," Working Papers 1, Yale University, Department of Economics.
    3. Matthew Gentzkow & Jesse Shapiro, 2005. "Media Bias and Reputation," NBER Working Papers 11664, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. Sendhil Mullainathan & Andrei Shleifer, 2002. "Media Bias," NBER Working Papers 9295, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    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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