Our Unknowable World 2

Americans have to put some thought into their news consumption.

When Donald Trump tears into the "Fake News" media, our journalistic mandarins respond with an indignant huff and an appeal to the American principles they despise in nearly every other context.  We've all heard the famous Thomas Jefferson quote:

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

That was said before Mr. Jefferson became President.  Once in office, his views changed somewhat - indeed, they'd make a good modern tweet:

Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.

Mr. Jefferson's political maturation became even more profound:  while running for the presidency, he campaigned against the Sedition Act which made it a crime to publish false or malicious comments about the President and Congress.  This act had been passed by politicians who'd been around when the First Amendment was written, but somehow they couldn't refrain from attempting to destroy it to shut their opponents up just as student thugs at Middlebury and Berkley riot to shut conservatives up.  True to his word, once elected, President Jefferson promptly pardoned everyone convicted under the Sedition Act.

Then the media turned on him, and by his second term, as historian Ellis wrote,

...in response to serious criticism from the New England newspapers … he instructed the state attorney generals in New England to prosecute the newspaper editors for sedition in the same way he had opposed such behavior when it was done by the federal government.  [emphasis added]

Politicians have been at war with the press ever since there's been such a thing; it's nothing new, and even the Founders of our country weren't immune to this temptation.  Not without reason: the press has always been prone to inaccuracy and exaggeration and politicians have never been shy about abusing these tendencies.

Once again, this includes Thomas Jefferson himself, who called his opponent, fellow Founding Father, and ex-friend President John Adams

...a blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who is a hideous hermaphroditic character with neither the force and fitness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.

John Adams returned the courtesy, describing Mr. Jefferson as:

...a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.

Both these statements were riddled with lies and exaggerations; newspapers of the day happily printed both, accurately reporting that they'd been said while still furthering a falsehood, just as happens today.

Why does it seem so much worse now, though?  Because we have a situation the Founders never envisioned: a truly mass monopolistic media which is nearly unanimously supporting one side.

A Fear of Bigness

Consider the world our Founders grew up in.  By far the largest entity they were familiar with was the world-girdling British Empire, which they defeated in a costly war.  The largest (semi) private entity was the East India Company, which they held in just as much contempt.  The ships the Boston Tea Party attacked belonged to the East India Company, not to the British government.

There were rich men in the colonies, or what passed for them, but by today's standards they weren't that rich.  George Washington's mansion Mount Vernon is dwarfed by thousands of modern McMansions within an hour's driving time, and he was one of the richest men in the country.  The wealthiest Americans were mostly either farmers or merchants, but there was nothing resembling what we'd recognize as a corporation, much less a multinational.  Every "company" was owned and run by its owner or, at most, a handful of partners, save a few government-connected joint-stock companies in England which the Founders didn't like and didn't want here.

The same was true for journalism.  Major cities had newspapers, of course, but no newspaper had serious national reach.  This was because the technology of the day didn't allow for national coverage: when it took weeks or months of travel to go from one end of the Colonies to the other, any news from more than a few states away would necessarily be very old and stale by the time it got published.  Local newspapers published national or foreign news when they could get it, of course, but most news was strictly local because that's all they had.

This didn't mean that Americans were ignorant - most printed copies of just about anything were read countless times, in taverns, around fireplaces, and everywhere that people gathered.  But only the very wealthy could afford to have even a semi-consistent news source - primarily months-old copies of British publications sent over by their agents in London.

Thus, the political opinions of the average American were formed largely by his discussions with his neighbors, fed by a nearly random assortment of journalistic inputs covering an immense variety of views.  Ben Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette took a somewhat different perspective on current events from any London newspaper, to say nothing of George Washington's own army-controlled New Jersey Journal.

Even back then, some newspapers attempted to maintain a pretense of objectivity, but just like today, the human biases showed through.  What was different back then was, everybody knew it, and educated man made great efforts to obtain all sorts of different news sources.  Washington asked friends everywhere to send him whatever newspapers they could get, as a vital source of intelligence both military and political.

Monopolies Are Always Bad

It seems to have dropped out of our modern political discourse, but a hundred years ago, it was widely understood that a free people benefit from competition everywhere possible - from business, to different levels of government, health care, and yes, even to sources of news.  Every city had at least two newspapers and sometimes more, each with its own bias so people could read both and triangulate the truth.

In our modern world of sophistication, there is no news monopoly, per se: the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and CBS are owned by different companies and individuals who compete for profit.  From the financial perspective there is competition.

Is there, though, from the philosophical perspective?  With the borderline exception of Fox News and a few tiddler startups, nearly the entire staff of nearly the entire journalistic world comes from the same elite, metropolitan, far-leftist university indoctrination, who could no sooner seriously consider conservative views than they could discuss the Flat Earth Society openmindedly.

And we see the result: the entire media structure, backed by billions of dollars, entirely failed to see Donald Trump's victory.  Months later, they still can't understand what went wrong with their plan to anoint Hillary, other than the bigoted elitist idea that most non-metropolitan Americans are just plain racist and sexist and don't deserve to be listened to.

Our journalists need to get out more - or better yet, their editors need to be as aggressive about philosophical, geographical, and class diversity as they've been about gender and race.

What's truly needed, though, is for Americans to dedicate themselves to getting their information from multiple sources.  Thanks to the Internet, this is both possible and cheap, to the dismay of our ever-grasping elites.

With one tweet, Donald Trump can destroy a carefully-crafted narrative.  True, Mr. Trump has shown no proof that Mr. Obama tapped his phones, but the Democrat media has shown no proof that Mr. Trump conspired with Mr. Putin to steal the election.  The two utterly unsubstantiated allegations cancel each other out, a power no previously Republican president has possessed.

Ostriches and Prairie Dogs

Thus far, the reaction of our elites to Internet media upstarts has been to bemoan the idea that ordinary folks can simply seek out ideas and positions that match their own preferences, avoiding those they dislike - invariably the liberal ones the elites want to force down their throats.  This can be viewed as the "ostrich" theory of Internet media - people will hide out on websites that agree with what they already think and never be exposed to anything else, right or wrong.

We prefer to think of the Internet as allowing American citizens to be like prairie dogs - sticking their noses up out of their darkened TV rooms and looking all 'round the Internet at the multitude of things out there.  Some of them are true.  Some are false.  Some represent real threats, and some only phantoms.

Making sense of it all requires thought - which is what so many Americans have forgotten how to apply to their media consumption over the 20th century tradition of faux-impartial news feeding a steady diet of leftism.  Now that the mainstream media narrative can be so easily challenged and with its having been proven false so countlessly many times, no serious person can dare to be satisfied with whatever rot the New York Times is peddling today.

To be well informed, today's citizen must seek out multiple sources, just like the informed citizens of our Founders' day.  When presented with conflicting views, a person's only recourse is to think about them and arrive at his own opinion - not the one his betters want him to have, but the one he has arrived at through his own deliberations.

Just like the early Americans who thought about what kind of government they'd like to be governed by, thought about how to go about getting it, and thought carefully about what people to put in place to bring it about.

Trump's assault on the mainstream media is not the death of free speech or of the press - far from it.  It heralds its restoration!  And in the next article, we'll explore a little healthy skepticism and how society learns not to trust.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

You left out the most important fact. Jefferson paid a writer to write derogatory articles about his opponents or wrote them himself under a pseudonym and placed them in a gazette which he owned anonymously. This was done while he was VP to undermine president J A.

March 29, 2017 9:07 AM

"With the borderline exception of Fox News..." The Wall Street Journal does pretty well at avoiding the leftist love yet still providing good journalism.

March 29, 2017 1:53 PM

@Vincent Tedone - Would this be in any way similar to the paid members of various partisan think tanks? They generally write under their own names, which are not the same as the politicians' names, but one would find great difficulty inserting a playing card edgewise between their positions and the positions of the politicians.

The same seems to apply to most colleges - their lefty positions seem to meld imperceptibly into the positions championed by Democrats regardless of outcomes.

March 29, 2017 9:48 PM
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