Your question of “Where in the Constitution does it say that newspapers…must be neutral?” immediately piqued my interest. You’re right in saying that the Constitution makes no mention of press neutrality — only press freedom. So, in turn, the press has the freedom to not be neutral. In fact, America’s earliest newspapers were not only incredibly biased, but everyone knew they were biased. People knew which outlets were Federalist – early liberal–leaning and which ones were Democratic-Republican – early conservative–leaning.
In terms of why Americans started expecting neutrality from their press, I have a theory on that. It would seem to result from the biggest political scandal in American history – Watergate.
As you said, from World War II to Vietnam, the press swiftly fell in line behind presidents and their administrations. The American people’s faith in the word of the president was starting to waver, but it wasn’t completely gone. Newspapers, radio, and television were more akin to messengers than fact checkers.
However, Watergate changed all of that. A stark schism between the press and the president was America’s new reality. Did the president commit a crime? Who is right? Why is the media lying about Nixon? These were the questions resting on the lips of the American people.
From the end of the Watergate scandal onward, an unspoken pledge of guardianship and neutrality has been made by the press to the people – at least, that’s what the American people think. This imagined pledge makes Americans believe that the role of the press is, and has always been, that of a watch dog on Washington. However, only academics remember when publicity was warfare in colonial America – when word count was comparable to the number of rounds you just put down range.
However, the old tradition of journalistic combat has made its comeback.
I agree with you that some news outlets – The Huffington Post, MSNBC, NPR – do side with the Democrats in a big way. In the same way, Republicans have conservative news outlets, such as Fox News
It is now apparent that – just like the early days of our nation – the media is far from neutral, but instead made up of two opposing sides.