“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore”

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Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer, co-authors of Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974, argue that the outrage displayed by television anchor Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network (and revived on stage starring Bryan Cranston) should not surprise present-day Americans.

Here is a taste of their piece in The New York Daily News:

The current play and the original film are clever parodies of the news industry. When the movie debuted in 1976, audiences were entertained by its prediction of a dark future of the evening news — a dystopia driven by commercialized, sensationalized, and celebrity-driven formats for delivering information.

At the time, ABC anchorwoman Barbara Walters insisted, “There’ll never be that kind of show-biz approach to the news. The entertainment side of television is more respectful of the news side than at any time in the past.”

Seen in 2019, however, Cranston’s performance largely confirms the reality of what we see and read on a daily basis. As the star said in an interview about the show, “talking about the packaging of news and manipulating audiences . . . being addicted to our televisions . . . that’s exactly what is happening.”

Beale no longer surprises us and, in some ways, even seems a bit tame. (One reviewer noted that the character doesn’t have access to Twitter, which would make things even worse).

While contemporary commentators have noted the ways in which the news industry has become increasingly partisan, they have not given enough weight to another, equally important aspect of the industry’s modern history — the ways in which news has become sensationalized.

Read the entire piece here.

Alexander Hamilton Biographer Ron Chernow Will Speak at White House Correspondents Dinner

ChernowNo comedian this year.  Here is the Daily Beast:

The White House press corps announced Monday that it will ditch comedians altogether for next year’s White House Correspondents Dinner. Pulitzer-winning presidential biographer Ron Chernow will be the featured speaker at the April 27, 2019 gala—marking the first time in recent history that the position has not been filled by a comedian.

“As we celebrate the importance of a free and independent news media to the health of the republic, I look forward to hearing Ron place this unusual moment in the context of American history,” wrote Olivier Knox, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. Chernow is famed for his biographies of Alexander Hamilton (which served as source material for the blockbuster Broadway show), George Washington, and John D. Rockefeller.

Read the rest here.  It is not clear as to whether Chernow will be telling any jokes.

What Trump Can Learn About “Witch Hunts” from the Pennsylvania Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal

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Paul Elie, a senior research fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, reminds us that sometimes “witch hunts” turn-up witches.

In 2002 , a Mexican cardinal said that the Boston Globe’s reporting on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church was a “witch hunt.”  We now have a similar sex abuse scandal in Catholic Pennsylvania.  (I have not seen anyone call this a witch hunt yet, but I could be wrong).  Elie argues the press, the prosecution, and the people remain the best way to keep powerful priests and politicians accountable.

Maybe Trump should head down to the White House cinema and watch Spotlight.  He might learn something about the essential role the press must play in curbing executive power.

Here is a taste of his piece at Time:

“Witch hunts” is what prominent cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras called the Boston Globe’s and other outlets’ reporting on decades of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in 2002, after the coverage led to accusations of a cover-up. He is now one of Pope Francis’ closest advisers. But they were not witch hunts. They told the truth and exposed the perils of unchecked power exercised by another cardinal, Boston’s Bernard Law. That reporting led to Law’s resignation, the removal and prosecution of priestly offenders, and a promise from U.S. bishops to install a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual abuse.

Sixteen years later, the phrase witch hunt calls to mind President Trump’s assault on the free press, the rule of law, and our constitutional system of checks and balances and the separation of powers. What happens when those curbs on executive power are weak or nonexistent? Too often we look to places like Vladimir Putin’s Russia to answer that question. Instead, we should look to the Catholic Church; we can see the consequences in the broken lives of thousands of victims and the anguish of our Catholic neighbors — because the crisis of priestly sexual abuse is a crisis of executive power run amok.

Read the entire piece here.

Trump: “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Janesville

When Lesley Stahl asked Donald Trump in an off-camera meeting to explain “his barrage of insults aimed at journalists.” Trump responded:

‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you…So, put that in your head for a minute.”

Read all about it here.  This guy is a tyrant.

Tweeting the History of Slavery at the University of Virginia

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The Daily Progress has a nice piece on Kirt von Daacke, Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the university’s co-chairman of the President’s Commission on Slavery, who has been tweeting the results of his research. Check out his tweets @slaveryuva

Here is a taste:

Kirt von Daacke, an assistant dean of history and co-chairman of the President’s Commission on Slavery at the University, writes most of the tweets. The periodic intrusion into Twitter timelines helps to keep the immediacy of slavery alive at the university, von Daacke said, and helps users get a sense of how interconnected and violent the system was in Central Virginia.

“Real people lived and died to build and maintain the U, it’s not just abt Jefferson. #SlaveryU,” he posted in January.

“I started tweeting out information eight or nine months ago just as a way to share it, promote our existence and begin to think about the evidence,” von Daacke said. “As I did it, I was struck by how useful it was as a way to begin to see patterns in all the data.”

So he kept tweeting between classes and meetings, sometimes enlisting students or other researchers to write a few posts about their own research.

“Each individual tweet doesn’t do much, but if you are following, it starts to creep in just how many people were involved, how much money, how much violence and misery,” he said.

Read the rest here.

This project is certainly fitting in light of what happened on the Charlottesville campus in August, but it also serves a great model for using Twitter to share snippets of historical research.

 

 

My Latest Piece in the Harrisburg *Patriot News*

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Here is a taste of my “The Press Was Way More Political in Jefferson’s Day–But He Defended It Anyway.”

President Trump has made a habit of attacking the press as being a promoter of “fake news,” part of a “corrupt system,” and the propagator of “lies.” His administration has made enemies of certain outlets, even locking them out of briefings.

In a speech in Melbourne, Fla., he made an appeal to American history to defend his stance, saying presidents Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln “fought with the media and called them out oftentimes on their lies. 

Trump even quoted a June 14, 1807, letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell in which Jefferson wrote “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

The President was correct about Jefferson. The Founding Father had his problems with the press. But what he didn’t note was that despite his agitation with the press, he defended a much more biased press as a necessary part of free speech.

In 1803, during his first term as President, Jefferson wrote to Pennsylvania Governor Thomas McKean suggesting that the editors of a newspaper critical of his administration should be prosecuted for “pushing its licentiousness and its lying to such a degree of prostitution as to deprive it of all credit.”

This is but one of many examples of Jefferson’s harsh words against a negative press.

But Jefferson also knew the press served an important role.

Read the rest here.

The Press Was More Political In Jefferson’s Day Than It Is Today. Yet He Defended It.

pasleyEarlier today, while speaking to a crowd in Florida, Donald Trump referenced Thomas Jefferson in a rant condemning the press and the media.  Here is what he said:

I also want to speak to you without the filter of the fake news. The dishonest media which has published one false story after another with no sources, even though they pretend they have them, they make them up in many cases, they just don’t want to report the truth and they’ve been calling us wrong now for two years. They don’t get it. By they’re starting to get it. I can tell you that. They’ve become a big part of the problem. They are part of the corrupt system. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln and many of our greatest presidents fought with the media and called them out often times on their lies. When the media lies to people, I will never, ever let them get away with it. I will do whatever I can that. They don’t get away with it.

They have their own agenda and their agenda is not your agenda. In fact, Thomas Jefferson said, “nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” “Truth itself,” he said, “becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle,” that was June 14, my birthday, 1807….

Trump is correct about Jefferson.  The founding father had his problems with the press. Here are some more Jefferson quotes to prove it:

“I deplore… the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them… These ordures are rapidly depraving the public taste and lessening its relish for sound food. As vehicles of information and a curb on our funtionaries, they have rendered themselves useless by forfeiting all title to belief… This has, in a great degree, been produced by the violence and malignity of party spirit.” –Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones, 1814. Read the letter and get the larger context here.

“Our printers raven on the agonies of their victims, as wolves do on the blood of the lamb.” –Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1811.  Read the letter and get the larger context here.

From 40. years experience of the wretched guesswork of the newspapers of what is not done in open day light, and of their falsehood even as to that, I rarely think them worth reading, & almost never worth notice. a ray therefore now & then from the fountain of light is like sight restored to the blind. –Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1816. Read the letter and get the larger context here.

Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day. –Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, 1807. Read the letter and get some context here.

As for what is not true, you will always find abundance in the newspapers. –Thomas Jefferson to Barnabas Bidwell, 1806. Read the entire letter and get some context here.

So as you can see Jefferson did have his moments with the press.

But Trump is only partially correct.  These quotes need to be considered in context with Jefferson’s other remarks about the press.  Here are a few more Jefferson quotes about the relationship between a free press and the success of the American Republic.  (These are from an earlier post on the subject):

…a hereditary chief strictly limited, the right of war vested in the legislative body, a rigid economy of the public contributions, and absolute interdiction of all useless expences, will go far towards keeping the government honest and unoppressive. But the only security of all is in a free press. the force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. the agitation it produces must be submitted to. it is necessary to keep the waters pure. we are all, for example in agitation even in our peaceful country. for in peace as well as in war the mind must be kept in motion.  —Thomas Jefferson to Marquis de Lafayette, November 4, 1823

The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers… [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.  Thomas Jefferson to G.K. Van Hogendorp, October 13, 1785

Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, January 25, 1786.

When faced with this second set of quotes, Trump supporters will probably agree that a free press is important. It is hard to reject the First Amendment.

But Trump supporters would also respond by saying that today’s press is politically biased against the POTUS.  Today’s press “is liberal.”  It is a “problem.”  It is “corrupt.”  Trump supporters would say that Trump’s new “enemy” is not a free press per se, but a free press that he believes to be tainted by opposition politics.

If Trump and his followers want to make such an argument against the press, and use Jefferson to do it, I think it is important for them to realize that today’s mainstream press (CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, the network news, etc…) is far closer to being objective than the press in Thomas Jefferson’s day.  The members of the press in the early American republic were openly political and they made no bones about it.

Read Jeffrey Pasley’s excellent The Tyranny of the Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic.  Here is the jacket summary:

Although frequently attacked for their partisanship and undue political influence, the American media of today are objective and relatively ineffectual compared to their counterparts of two hundred years ago. From the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, newspapers were the republic’s central political institutions, working components of the party system rather than commentators on it.

The lesson:  The press was actually MORE political in Jefferson’s age than it is today. Jefferson was often frustrated by it.  Yet he still found it indispensable to the success of the republic and was willing on more than one occasion to dogmatically defend it.

When the Minority Rules and the Press Doesn’t Matter Any More

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In the United States the majority rules and the minority holds the majority in check.

In the United States the press holds the government accountable.

According to historian Christopher P. Browning, neither of these things are happening in the age of Trump.

Here is a taste of his recent piece at Vox:

I am bewildered how to conduct political discourse and persuasion — about how to conduct politics, in short — when each political tribe lives in its own reality, increasingly incomprehensible to the other, and with no agreed-upon standards and measures concerning how we might ascertain facts and truth, much less agreement on even the desirability and relevance of such an effort.

Sadly, our democracy is challenged not just by the fraying of a democratic political culture through ever-intensifying polarization and demise of traditional norms. It is also challenged by a basic collapse of two vital institutions: rule through electoral majorities and a free media. That is the predicament we face today.

Read the entire piece here.

Does the Press Have Any Power in the Age of Trump?

Trump Hotel

Donald Trump’s Washington D.C. Hotel

Some of you may be familiar with Steven Waldman‘s excellent book Founding Father: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious LibertyI follow Waldman on Facebook and I thought one of his recent posts about the role of the press in a Trump administration was on the mark.

Here it is (quoted with permission):

I keep reading my journo friends urging the press to step up its accountability function. I definitely agree. But something is gnawing at me. What if it wouldn’t matter? To me the story of this election is not the news media’s mistakes but the news media’s irrelevance.

We’re in a new world where the informal information system is more influential than the network news. It’s not just Facebook but also email, pop-up websites, extremist soap boxes – all rising as trust in professional media and objectivity declines.

Think about this latest question of whether Trump is financially benefiting from foreign governments in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution. Let’s say The New York Times and the Washington Post report the hell out of this, and find that it’s true. Would it even matter? The power of the press is to influence public opinion. But what if the public – or the part of the public that just elected the president — is just not believing “the press”? What use is accountability reporting in that case?

I was thinking about this earlier when another Facebook friend asked if Trump’s practice of selling rooms in his Washington hotel (near the White House) to foreign diplomats, and his pressuring of Scottish officials to vote against an offshore wind farm because it obstructs views on his golf course, might be considered abuses of power.

In some ways it doesn’t really matter. Does it?  Who is going to prosecute Trump for such abuses?  Certainly not Congress.  And if Waldman is right, the press is irrelevant.  After what I witnessed during the campaign, Trump can essentially get away with anything for at least the next two years.