A selection of American newspapers from 1885, with portraits of their publishers. / The United States Library of Congress's photo.

Published Monday, July 20, 2020

U.S. founders wrestled
with bias news, too

By James Brodell

Politically driven news outlets are not new. In fact, they are as old as the United States. Just as today, there were financial motives.

The political scene after 1780 and U.S. independence was tumultuous. Politicians relied on pamphlets and the small number of newspapers to carry their messages. This was the time when the U.S. Constitution was being written and governments were in uncharted territory. Most newspapers were part-time affairs being run by local printers who were financially stressed.

To the rescue of printers came the politicians prepared to provide money to insure an outlet to their political views. The so-called party press, although vital, certainly was one-sided and, at times, vicious. Politicians recognized the growing number of newspapers as the social media of the day and fought many of their political battles in the pages, including the shape of the new Constitution. The criticism became too much for some, and during the administration of the second president of the United States, John Adams, a federal law prohibited criticism of the government. Several prominent editors faced arrest and imprisonment.

Most of the political leaders of the time faced scathing criticism for their personal failings. An example is Thomas Callender, a Virginia editor, who failed to get a good government job from Thomas Jefferson, who became president in 1800. So he railed against Jefferson for adultery, financial misdealings and the president's long-time relationship with his young slave Sally Hemings.

Not until the founding of the daily New York Sun in 1833 did publishers reached the masses and become vehicles for lucrative advertising. Still, newspapers continued to support one party or another in the turbulent days that followed.

Support for objectivity in reporting did not develop until the Civil War years when managers of the fledgling Associated Press realized they could broaden their commercial appeal for the news service by adopting an impartial line. That trend continued as sensationalism and marketing sense forced blatant political opinion to the editorial pages. Still, newspapers in the 20th century still had a political tone, which is how the Chicago Tribune in 1948 published the infamous headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” in early editions.

Today most newspapers are overshadowed by television news and pervasive social media, which seems to be setting the daily agenda. Television producers, also feeling financial strain, seem to be presenting what they perceive their viewers want to hear. That is why Fox News viewers are thought to be Republicans, and the Democrats are thought to be watching CNN and MSNBC.

There is a downside to this trend because it may promote incorrect ideas, but ideas that favor the opinions of readers and viewers.

That was demonstrated clearly in the United States when false claims appeared on various social media sites relating to the Michael Brown case in 2014 and then were picked up by television outlets.

What followed was a preview of the protests and rioting that have become common this season in the United States and elsewhere. The false narrative also led to the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Soon after the 18-year-old black man died by a police bullet in Ferguson, Missouri, witnesses and others claimed he was shot while on his knees or while standing with his hands up. Later forensic evidence showed conclusively that Brown fought with a white police officer, fled briefly and then turned and charged the policeman. Eric Holder, then the U.S. attorney general verified this after an extensive federal investigation. In addition, witnesses who promoted the narrative of a defenseless black man being shot by a white officer recanted under oath before a grand jury.

Still the phrase “Hands Up” remains part of the current narrative, and the facts have not yet caught up.

Although U.S. President Donald Trump is a lightning rod for criticism, the attacks do not seem to rise to the level experienced by Adams and Jefferson.

With even the respected Associated Press appearing to repeat unverified material and both The New York Times and the Washington Post promoting progressive causes in the news pages, the average citizen is left struggling to cut through the fog for facts.


Editor's note: Mr. Brodell, founder and long-time editor of A.M. Costa Rica, can be reached at jay@amcostarica.com