Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Freedom of the press doesn't mean an unbiased press

Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison wrote The Federalist in 1787 and 1788 as a series of newspaper articles to encourage New Yorkers to support ratification of the Constitution. My favorite bit of trivia about this is that the articles were printed in four of the five New York City newspapers operational at the time (Wills, ed. Bantam Classic Edition of The Federalist, 1982, p. x.).

Now with four papers in Gotham publishing these pro-Constitution essays in their entirety, do you think this indicates that the New York press had consciously and purposely sided with the Federalists against the Anti-Federalists, who opposed ratification?

Yes, as Jack Rakove sees it, the press was largely biased--at least in general if not specifically in New York City:

"Anti-Federalists rightly complained that many newspapers had begun to prepare their readers to accept the Constitution on trust; later they protested that a Federalist press was not acting as an impartial medium of debate. In some towns and even states--like Connecticut--Anti-Federalists found it difficult to gain access to the press; once they did, their essays were reprinted less frequently; and their speeches in the state conventions were less likely to be reported." (Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, 1996, p. 146.)

Daniel Farber and Suzanna Sherry report that the essays of "Brutus" were among the most influential Anti-Federalist writings and that these appeared in the New York Journal between October 1787 and April 1788. Thus, the "Brutus" articles appeared at the same time as The Federalist, which sounds like a concerted effort to present a balanced view of those who opposed constitutional ratification--but after all, "Brutus" only penned sixteen essays while there were eighty-five installments of The Federalist. (A History of the American Constitution, 1990, p. 189.) That doesn't sound very balanced to me.

So the press was in the tank for the Federalists, in much the same manner that today one hears complaints they are in the tank for Barack Obama. Michelle Malkin's pondering over what the press would have said if Dan Quayle had gotten the number of states wrong is the closest example of this at hand:


To elaborate on this analogy a bit more, remember that the Anti-Federalists were largely reasonable folks who had principled objections to the Constitution, in much the same way Obama has principled objections to McCain's positions and vice versa. It's well-known that the Anti-Federalists decried the absence of a Bill of Rights, and that their complaints led the first Congress to draft one, but did you know that another Anti-Federalist criticism was that the Constution mandated that senators be chosen by the state legislatures rather than by the people? (Farber & Sherry, p. 180.) In other words, in some ways the Anti-Federalists were more in tune with modern democratic concepts than their rivals. One hundred twenty-five years after ratification, America decided the Anti-Federalists were right, and the Constitution was amended to provide for direct election of the Senate (Amendment XVII).

It's a bit ironic, given their difficulties with the eighteenth century media, that the Bill of Rights, so yearned for by the Anti-Federalists, included the First Amendment, with its guarantee of freedom of the press.

But here's the point to remember: free press does not mean a balanced press. It never has. And although I've not studied the history of this thoroughly and objectively, what I have read suggests that instances such as the ratification of the Constitution--where one side seems to have been somewhat shut out by the press--are less common that situations where different papers unabashedly took different sides on an issue, or favored one party over the other. Here are a few examples:

--In the early days of our republic, the Philadelphia newspaper Aurora was virtually a partisan instrument of the Jeffersonian Republicans. The editor, Benjamin Franklin Bache (grandson of the guy who flew the kite in the storm) called John Adams "blind, bald, crippled, toothless (and) querulous" and denounced George Washington as "apish", "monarchical," "pompous," and "tawdry." On the other hand, the Gazette of the United States was on the side of Washington, Adams, and the Federalists; it criticized the Republicans as "dismal cacklers,"propagators of calumny," and the "worst and basest of men." (Stone, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime, 2004, pp. 35-36.)

--In 1856, the Supreme Court issued the notorious Dred Scott decision (60 U.S. 393). Chief Justice Taney declared in his opinion that: "The question before us is whether (people of African descent) compose a portion of this people, and are constituent members of this sovereignty? We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word "citizens" in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States." (Scott at 404).

The Chicago Tribune knew this was gruesome, and editorialized, "We scarcely know how to express our detestation of its inhuman dicta, or to fathom the wicked consequences which may flow from it." (Feherenbacher, The Dred Scott Case, 1978, p. 417.) Of course, that view wasn't shared by newspapermen on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line. The Constitutionalist out of Augusta, Georgia, praised Dred Scott, bragging that "Southern opinion upon the subject of southern slavery... is now the supreme law of the land... and opposition to southern opinion upon this subject is now opposition to the Constitution, and morally treason against the Government." (Fehrenbacher at 418). Nice use of the word "morally" in a sentence defending slavery, huh?

--Writing of the prevailing notions about evolution in Tennessee leading up to the 1925 Scopes Trial, Edward Larson states that the leading newspaper of Memphis, the Commercial Appeal, "could be counted on to endorse anti-evolution legislation." (Summer for the Gods, 1997, p. 48.) On the other hand, "Nashville's afternoon newspaper, the Banner, regularly denounced antievolutionism" and questioned William Jennings Bryan's motives for representing the prosecution (Larson at 49).

--During the school desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas in the 1950s, "(T)he Arkansas Gazette was waging an heroic, Pulitzer Prise-winning campaign to get the people of the state to 'do the right thing'; the rival Arkansas Democrat had become a virulent mouthpiece of the segregationists." (Rowan, Dream Makers, Dream Breakers: The World of Justice Thurgood Marshall, 1993, p. 248.)

Here's the interesting thing about the last two examples: each of them occurred just when a new media was getting set up as a rival to the newspapers. Radio was in its infancy in 1925; the decision by the Chicago Tribune to broadcast the trial live over its WGN radio station was quite the media milestone (Larson at 142). In the case of Little Rock, of course, it was television that was just beginning to exert its influence. (Alexander Bickel argued that it was images of racists shouting the "N" word at small African-American children being led to school, broadcast on TV for all the world to see, that happily helped bring down the segregationist cause, see The Least Dangerous Branch, 2nd ed., 1986, p. 267.)

So if in the 1790s you only read the Aurora, or if you only read the Gazette of the United States, you wouldn't really have a fair assessment of the positions held by the other side in the Federalist-Republican conflict. If you lived in Augusta in the 1850s, you wouldn't get a fair look at the opinions and arguments of the anti-slavery voices unless you read one of the Yankee newspapers. (Fat chance anybody in antebellum Augusta would do so; most southern states prohibited the distribution of an literature questioning the wisdom of slavery by that time, see Curtis, No State Shall Abridge, 1986, pp. 30-31.) The point is, it's always been the case that you couldn't rely on just one source for your news if you really wanted to know both sides of an issue. (Mind you--I'm not saying the side we now acknowledge as wrong on slavery or desegregation ever deserved to be given the time of day, but if you were around in the 1850s or the 1950s it would be helpful to know that such opinions existed, if only to formulate effective rebuttal.)

So that brings us up to today. The historical lesson appears unlearned. You hear people gripe that Fox News hired Karl Rove as an analyst. You hear cries of foul that Keith Olbermann not only reports the news on MSNBC, but that he also blogs on The Daily Kos. And to all that I have two replies.

First, "So what's new?" As I hope I've demonstrated, there have been media outlets favoring one political stance over another in this great country since its founding (and even before that, I'm sure).

And second, "So what?" period. It's not like when Bill O'Reilly and Karl Rove chat, everything they say will go unchallenged outside the confines of Fox News. You're welcome to log onto The Daily Kos afterwards, or pick up The New York Times the next day, and read the opinions and arguments of folks who don't see things as Bill and Karl do, and who would, in fact, enjoy seeing these two gentlemen standing directly under the rectum of an elephant with uncontrollable diarrhea. Or if you watch MSNBC, I would recommend a gander or two at olbermannwatch.com, where you'll learn that the old sportscaster generally only has Democrats appear on his show:


(I would like to have gotten the image of Olbermann out of the way to read the text underneath, but when you click on the picture you are directed to the amazon.com page on Bill O'Reilly's book Culture Warrior--that's actually pretty funny.)

The point is, if you're intelligent enough to watch a news program, or read comments on a political website, or even be one of the ever-decreasing minions who actually subscribe to a newspaper, you're intelligent enough to understand that there is very likely a position contrary to the one you're reading or viewing at any particular moment. Whether you choose to seek out that opposing viewpoint is up to you.

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