Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Poisoned Pen

Jefferson and the Republicans had their own (early) version of FOX news.

I am reading the McCullough biography of John Adams, which is a real hagiography. But it is also well-written, packed with information and insightful in many respects. His portrait of Thomas Jefferson is particularly harsh, as would be natural because he and Adams became bitter antagonists. Jefferson's main tool in their fights was the press. Specifically, secret relationships with the National Gazette, and its successor, the Aurora General Advertiser.

The polical parties of that time broke down along centralizing, pro-government (Federalist) and pro-agrarian, decentralizing, and Southern (Republican / Democratic). The latter were also, at least in the person of Jefferson, much more enamored of the French Revolution. Adams immediately saw the mob nature of that revolution, so different from that of the Americans, and forsaw chaos as well as its eventual descent into dictatorship. But there were many other sources of conflict such as the basic party splits over Southern vs Northern interests and ideologies, personal enmities, and personal ambitions.

The vitriol that came pouring out, once the founding era was swept away and the two-party system was established, is truly disturbing to behold. Secretary of State Jefferson employed Phillip Freneau in the State Department as a translator, but with little work. Freneau spent his main energies as publisher of the National Gazette smearing Jefferson's (and James Madison's) enemies within the administration, including Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and George Washington. (On the other side, Hamilton gave his favored printer, John Fenno of the Gazette of the United States, a large government printing contract.)


They made a great deal of hay out of a long debate fostered by John Adams as vice president on the proper forms of address towards the president. Adams favored something a little more grand like his highness, or something of the kind. For this he was painted as being a monarchist and wanting to subvert the independence that had so recently been achieved. Also that his lengthy stay in Europe as ambassador to France, the Netherlands, and Britain may have turned his head.

The language of these attacks was often hyperbolic and scurrilous. A birthday party for Washington was described as "a forerunner of other monarchical vices." Adams was described as being among the men who proposed "the principles of monarchy and aristocracy, in opposition to the republican principles of the Union and the republican spirit of the people." There was a reference to the "corrupt sqadron of the Treasury," and to Hamilton as "a vile sycophant". The Federalists proposed laws that are "injurious to liberty and enslaving to the happiness of the people." And Republicans concluded that "our Constitution was galloping fast into Monarchy."

It was a combination of party rivalry and tribalism, along with honest fears that the fragile experiment of American self-government could, if entrusted to the wrong hands, or blown off course by a crisis, end in tears. Today, we have a more settled system, indeed well-neigh an imperial system with its own problems of vast size, corruption, and unmanageability. And, thanks to the poisoned press of our own age, a president-elect far from the founder's ideals.

A lot has been made of how the elite media was out of touch from the angry Trump voters. But Trump was covered incessantly during the campaign, with the helpless passivity of a star-struck media long-used to a commercial role and to reality-TV imperatives. Just as in the founder's day, there were political operatives pulling the strings behind the faux-news curtain, such as Roger Ailes and Steve Bannon- operatives whose regard for the system and nation as a whole took a distant back seat to their vitroloic personal and tribal campaigns.

For all the complaints about political correctness, which seems to be the animating animus of the alt-right troll brigade, political correctness was a stranger to this campaign, and we are now the worse for it. Civility and decorum are not just fusty relics of a puritanical age, but basic ingredients, even institutions, of an operating political system. Strength and manliness are not indicated by grossness of expression, nor are honesty and truthfulness. There was no better con man than the insurgent candidate, Trump, whose obvious contradictions, lies, and mean-ness seem to have been swallowed with equal relish by media and supporters alike with the complimentary condiment of "controversial".

When the going got really rough, during the Quasi-War with France in the late 1790's, Adams and the Federalist party passed the Alien and Sedition acts, which allowed the administration to jail and fine anyone, especially those in the media, who insulted the President or otherwise made what were deemed false statements critical of the government. And Adams has rightly been pilloried then and since for not vetoing this obviously unconstitutional legislation, hardly a decade after passage of the first amendment.

So the internet is not a new thing, in its capacity to foster rumors, spread lies and invective, and keep its readers in thrall to a mean-spirited and partisan echo chamber. We have survived such media from the start. But that doesn't mean it isn't a problem. The US was blessed with a special period of media civility in the mid-twentieth century, due to the cultural bonds of the world wars and depression, and also to the uniquely restrictive technical landscape of radio and TV, which only allowed a few channels and thus special federal rules for equal time and public interest in media behavior. That was a time when corporatism in the media industry largely served the stability of political system.

Now is different, and we need to think hard about ways to preserve some sanity in a media landscape so incredibly diverse and free, yet at the same time so starved of resources that in-depth reporting, balanced perspectives, and public interest investigations are disturbingly scarce. Where corporatism has turned the media into a thoughtless race for clicks, if not the plaything of retrograde billionaires, and where trolls use twitter to win political office. We need to fight against this creeping post-truth condition, which was a continues to be exemplified by the information practices of the Soviet, and now Russian, state.

While the first amendment prohibits government from meddling with the freedom of other's speech, it does not prohibit it from sponsoring public interest media. We need a segment of distinterested media that is not driven by an ulterior agenda such as greed, partisanship, or more obscure ideology. Non-profits would be ideal purveyors of this, but they do not on their own have the resources to address this quite large need. The public providers PBS and NPR stand as great accomplishments of the last fifty years. This is where we can build a better media landscape, perhaps expanding them into print and enhanced, deeper reporting. The BBC is a model of such expansion, to evolve towards broader news organizations.

The danger, of course, is that the wrong hands at the top could break down the barriers of independence at these institutions, and turn them into especially powerful cudgels of partisan warfare- new Ministries of Truth. On the other hand, even if not explicitly directed by the government, their government funding might make them reluctant to look too deeply into offical corruption and instritutional breakdowns. One can already see this in the tendency of PBS and NPR news to avoid breaking dramatic stories about government problems. Yet who broke the Flint water crisis story? It was the ACLU, reported by NPR affiliate Michigan Radio.

The landscape we face now desperately needs better media. Abigail Adams wrote a remarkable passage to Thomas Jefferson late in his presidency, after a newspaper writer whom he had previously supported and colluded with to smear John Adams turned against him, extorted him and exposed Jefferson's correspondence as well as his relationship with Sally Hemmings:
"The serpent you cherished and warmed, bit the hand that nourished him, and gave you sufficient specimens of his talents, his gratitude, his justice, and his truth. When such vipers are let loose upon society, all distinction between virtue and vice are leveled, all respect for character lost."

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