Respecting the Press

 

The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and 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.

 

Thomas Jefferson’s observation from 1787, has always stood out for me as a personal favorite. Jefferson, obviously, did not view the issue as a binary proposition for he understood that absent a government, we would lack a civil society. Instead, the comment highlighted the importance and priority that Jefferson placed on the Fourth Estate. Understandably, journalists and political writers frequently utilize the sentence in their defense of a free press.

The quotation, however, does not end there and writers frequently omit the subsequent sentence from Jefferson’s letter to Edward Carrington. Jefferson continued, “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” For Jefferson, the priority of newspapers is directly connected with the broad availability of that information to all and, just as importantly, everyone is capable of reading and, implicitly, understanding that information. This second sentence is important because the ability to critically read information is slowly evaporating for many.

We have achieved the first half of that second sentence. Satellites and cable lines make the news immediately available to everyone across the nation. We have entered an age where an individual sitting on a front porch in Vermont can read about a robbery in San Diego or a woman celebrating her 100th birthday in Arizona. A natural disaster half a world away is broadcast in nearly real time with experts and pundits explaining the consequences as you watch and a Japanese businessman sitting in Paris can start or end his day reading the Asahi Shimbun.

A significant percentage of the U.S. public, however, remains unwilling, unable or incapable of assessing the information before it. Perhaps because it arrives to individuals over the same data stream, people fail to assess or weigh the merit or quality of the information before them. People equate individual blogs to The Chicago Tribune or NPR. Someone driving home listening to Mark Levin on the radio believes that they are equally as informed as someone who read The New York Times over lunch.

News sources are not equal. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post offer both the best journalists and leading opinion writers in the country. If you wish to see the best that U.S. journalism has to offer, these are the places to look. Conversely, many turn to entertainers for their news. Sean Hannity freely acknowledges that he is not a journalist and that he brings a specific bias to his shows (and, Rachel Maddow offers the flip side of Hannity). While talk show hosts and programs will offer viewers and listeners some information, the top newspapers and some news programs are the place to go for obtaining quality information and analysis.

Inexplicably, many reject the best in the business and rest their opinions on the views of the unqualified. From Gov. Palin’s attacks on the “lame stream media” to Trump’s denouncement of the Times, and others, as “fake news,” people have rejected informed, accurate representations for palatable propaganda. In our assessment of information, a significant portion of the population has taken to rejecting the medical advice of the Johns Hopkin’s trained doctor and, instead, stand devoted to the snake oil sold to them and view the con man better qualified than the doctor to identify and address their ills.

No rational explanation exists for this rejection of the better qualified individuals and embrace of the lesser informed. While the information is now readily available to all, in Jefferson’s words, many are proving incapable of reading them.

An example may serve to illustrate the point. A former neighbor frequently posts pieces from Breitbart, the Washington Examiner, Frontpagemag.com, Dailycaller, Fox or other a wide variety of hack sites to denounce the evils of the world, the threat of immigrants to the nation, the horrors of leftists, the risk of an Islamic attack, the intrusion of Sharia law in the United States and a variety of other problems. More frequently than not, these pieces are little more than click-bait chum and either the lead paragraph itself or the next few paragraphs contain assertions that are factually inaccurate or take a statement significantly out of context. Given my own preference for accuracy, I will frequently respond to these pieces with an explanation as to why the central thrust of the piece is false or the assertion unfounded.

At the start of the year, this individual attempted to reverse the process.

At the end of January, Nicholas Kristof published an op-ed piece in the New York Times discussing the nation’s past history of over reacting to immigrants, how the new President’s travel ban might bar entry to individuals who had served the country and how the ban might have impacted his own family and I shared the column on Facebook. About fifteen minutes later, a comment appeared from the neighbor accusing Kristof of lying and offering the column as another example of the lying media.

So what her complaint?

The neighbor challenged a single clause out of long op ed piece related to the travel ban. From the sentence, “We make bad decisions when we fear immigrants we “otherize.” That’s why Americans burned Irish Catholics alive, banned Chinese for decades, denied visas to Anne Frank’s family and interned Japanese-Americans. And yes, The New York Times sometimes participated in such madness,” she labeled the charge that Americans burned Irish Catholics an ugly lie. I asked her if she had any proof for her charge, and received no direct response. After repeated assertions of falsification, I directed her to contact Kristof directly. I repeated the direction the following day. Her only response was to denounce the lying media.

Two days later, I received a demonstration of the distinction between credible, first-class journalism and third-rate manipulative hacks. On January 30, I e-mailed Kristof at the Times, identified the specific clause in question and asked for the source of the statement. The following day, I received a response that provided a link to an 1857 book that referenced such attacks happening in Philadelphia in 1844. Yes, the man who has received Pulitzer Prizes for both international reporting and commentary offers reliable information which one can confirm as accurate.

While President Reagan famously adopted the Russian proverb “trust, but verify,” and although we should all adopt this approach to all of the information we read, their track records repeatedly demonstrate that The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post are worthy and deserving of that trust. Few others merit the same respect.

 

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