The title of the oldest continuously published newspaper in the United States is claimed by The New York Post. It was founded in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton for the simple and express purpose of smearing the name of Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson survived. The Post survived. Freedom of the press survived. The nation survived. Hamilton, well, not so much.
His creation of the Post, perhaps, was buyer’s remorse.
Less than a year before, the still prototype Electoral College was deadlocked between Jefferson and (minor key foreshadowing music here) Aaron Burr. Hamilton used his considerable influence to tip the presidency to Jefferson as the lesser of two evils. Or, in Hamilton’s words, “not so dangerous a man.”
It was a foreshadowing of what conservative political humorist P.J. O’Rourke said in 2016 when he sided, less successfully, and less fatally, with Hillary Clinton against the flimflaming poseur who had captured the Republican nomination.
“She’s wrong about absolutely everything,” O’Rourke said of Clinton, “but she’s wrong within normal parameters.”
Hamilton’s move was good for the country. Not so good, in the long run, for Hamilton. Really good, in the much longer run, for Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The history of The New York Post is a reminder that the people who wrote the First Amendment to the Constitution, the bit about protecting free speech and a free press, had never in their lives seen, heard or smelled a newspaper, broadsheet, handbill, periodical, gazette or flyer that claimed to be or was intelligently seen as free of political bias. That’s not what they were for.
There were there to promote a party, a philosophy, a movement, a business model, a religion or a scam. Literate people generally knew that and considered everything they read accordingly. Unless they agreed with a particular publication, in which case its word was unassailable.
Democracy, more or less, worked.
Later came a historic interlude in which the growing expense and cut-throat competition involved in putting out a newspaper collapsed the business into local monopolies or, in the case of broadcasting, a few national networks. That drove a belief, among publishers and readers, that journalism should, except for specially labeled content (like this bit here), be non-partisan and unbiased.
Well, that was fun.
Comes now an era that Hamilton and the current owner of The New York Post — Fox News boss Rupert Murdoch — would appreciate. Atomized by cable TV and the internet, much of our communication has returned to the state the founders knew. Wide open, uncontrolled, slanted, biased and, far too often, flat out untrue.
Legacy newspapers (like this one here) generally try to stand athwart this trend in history in the belief that a more neutral — or, at least, a more honest — news medium has both a higher purpose and a sustainable business model.
The downside of 21st century mass media is that it has been loosed on a population that, unlike their 19th century ancestors, is not inoculated against its poison with an understanding of its nature, and which knows to read, and listen, not cynically, but skeptically.
A good place to learn this necessary skill of citizenship is, of course, a university campus. But that has not been without its failings.
Students and teachers of various political hues have been moved to ban the presence or ideas of students, scholars or visiting speakers with whom they disagree.
And, from beyond the groves of academe, foundations and rich folks are using their influence to promote certain philosophies and beliefs.
Up Logan way, enterprising student journalists on the staff of the Utah State University University Statesman have done yeoman’s work laying out the concerns that big bucks from the Koch Foundation are buying faculty, respectability, influence and the opportunity to warp the minds of the next generation.
Their work, picked up the other day by The Guardian, was well done and well worth doing. It explained the concern that the Koch money is being used at USU and elsewhere to promote such ideas as all government is bad and renewable energy is stupid.
Missing from this conversation is one crucial angle.
Of course people are messing with you. Of course people with money, or axes to grind, or true beliefs, or deranged neural pathways, are attempting to brainwash you. In school. On TV. On Facebook.
Young people who are clever enough to win prestigious scholarships at USU, or Stanford, or the University of Woolamaloo (“I’ve told him he’s welcome to teach any of the great socialist thinkers, provided he makes it clear that they were wrong.”) should be, or should be learning to be, smart enough that they can read a couple of semesters of Randian extreme libertarian philosophy and come away with the understanding that it is immoral, unethical, unscientific bull pucky.
That’s the faith our founders had in us. We should live up to it.
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, clings to the belief that, if he is ever wrong, most people will be smart enough to see it. firstname.lastname@example.org