An October 12, 2018, commentary by journalist Rusty Cunningham in the Verde Independent begins with a 1787 quote by Thomas Jefferson:
“…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.”
Cunningham goes on to claim that journalists “share a passion, a mission, a quest.” They “search for the truth as watchdogs of the people elected and appointed to serve our citizenry.” They’re trained to make sure they “don’t become part of the story.”
But then he writes that journalism has itself become “the story—especially as President Trump calls journalists the ‘enemy of the American people.’”
“Journalism matters,” he writes.
Does it matter that Trump calls “fake news media” the enemy of the people, not journalists?
Journalists in general are not enemies of the American people, but they are not saintly watchdogs keeping government honest, either. Few can put aside prejudices or a desire to remain employed.
Cunningham quotes Thomas Jefferson, who preferred newspapers to government in 1787. But journalism preceding Jefferson’s 1800 presidential election was rife with partisan hyperbole. One journalist wrote that, if Jefferson were elected, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”
Obviously, most American voters did not believe it. But the rancor continued, and Jefferson wrote in 1807, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.”
In 1897-98, however, much of the nation did believe the “yellow journalism” promoting war with Spain. Fabricated stories of Spanish atrocities enabled the war that made Theodore Roosevelt a hero and a president.
Journalists also reported false claims of German barbarism that encouraged entry into World War I, prompting Congress to satisfy Woodrow Wilson’s requests for Espionage and Sedition Acts that put hundreds of people in prison for criticizing the government. Journalists did not publicly complain.
In 1932, Walter Duranty, respected New York Times Moscow correspondent and Stalin apologist, won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting the glories of Soviet Russia while millions of Ukrainians were being starved to death. His widely believed fake news helped convince FDR to recognize Stalin’s government.
Our current crop of journalists is not above confabulation.
When Elizabeth Warren released results from a DNA test showing she likely had a Native American ancestor 6-10 generations ago, she claimed Trump promised to “give $1 million to a charity of my choice if my DNA showed Native American ancestry.” Many mainstream journalists called on Trump to pay up.
But Trump made no such promise. He said that if “Pocahontas” ever mentions her ancestry in a debate, he’ll toss a DNA kit at her and offer a million dollars to her favorite charity “if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian.”
Senator Warren is not an Indian. What her DNA test shows is that she falsely listed herself as “minority” in the Association of American Law Schools directory, and that faculty who claim they always knew she was white were complicit in Harvard University falsely touting her as their “first woman of color” in order to meet demands for diversity.
Yes, journalism matters, and it would help quash claims of fakery if journalists strove a bit harder for a complete story without bias.