Philip Graham, the owner who put The Washington Post on its path to becoming a world-class newspaper, once described journalism as the “first rough draft of history.” Now that the role of “the media” is under full-throated attack, how about a reasoned defense based on that premise?

Can we start by stipulating that “media” is a plural noun? It represents more than one medium of communication. They range from metropolitan daily newspapers and broadcast media to obscure cable channels and websites, and even tweets on Twitter. These media differ widely in purpose, style, intent, quality and reliability.

Lumping them together as a single entity is not only imprecise but often reflects a malicious intent to blame all for the perceived sins of a few.

Next, can we postulate that, as it says in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “there is nothing new under the sun”?

According to Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow, media even used to beat up on the Founders—sometimes with the active assistance of two of those great men themselves as they disputed the destiny of the new nation.

Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson each started a newspaper in Philadelphia when it was the national capital and they were both members of George Washington’s Cabinet. It might be better to say “foment” rather than “start,” because they tried to keep their support of their creations covert.

Although ostensibly colleagues as heads of the Treasury and State Department, respectively, they grew increasingly disputatious over both turf and ideology. Hamilton favored a strong central government, whereas Jefferson’s dream was an agrarian society. Hamilton espoused strong ties with Britain, while Jefferson favored revolutionary France.

Hamilton’s faction evolved into the Federalist Party, while Jefferson’s followers became first Republicans, then Democratic Republicans and finally Democrats. Thus began the American two-party system.

That development was accompanied by overt partisanship in the media. The Cabinet rivals’ differing visions for the Republic were reflected in the newspapers they instigated, albeit often murkily through articles signed with pseudonyms.

Historian Chernow notes that newspapers of the 1790s “did not feign impartiality. With the population widely dispersed, newspapers were unabashedly partisan organs that supplied much of the adhesive power binding the incipient parties together. Americans were a literate people, and dozens of newspapers flourished. The country probably had more newspapers per capita than any other.”

The ideals of “impartiality” and “balance” came later, and might not be all that helpful. Even if desirable, those goals are clearly more difficult to achieve than, say, the simpler ones of accuracy and fairness.

Nor is beating up on the media all that new. Amid bad news about urban riots, government spying and a costly war in Southeast Asia, for example, the administration of Richard Nixon chose to target the messengers bearing the messages. Vice President Spiro Agnew called them “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals” and as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

In 1973, though, Agnew was charged with having accepted bribes totaling more than $100,000 while holding office as Baltimore County executive, governor of Maryland, and vice president. On condition that he resign, he was allowed to plead “no contest” to a single charge that he had failed to report $29,500 of income received in 1967, and he was sentenced only to three years’ probation and a $10,000 fine.

Agnew was the one who turned out to be discredited, not the reporters who had been reporting on his corruption. (The curious coincidence of a public official complaining about “the media” and then being caught with his or her hand in the till, or somewhere else it doesn’t belong, has been played out again and again at state and local levels in our history.)

Agnew’s disgrace was merely a blip. The Nixon administration’s strategy of attacking the media continued throughout the Watergate scandal, which unfolded gradually between 1972 and 1975.

The strategy’s principal targets were The Washington Post and two of its young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who produced a succession of stories uncovering Nixon administration officials’ roles in instigating a break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington, DC, and then in orchestrating a cover-up.

Targeting the media wasn’t enough to save Nixon and his aides, though. Their attempt to use Executive Branch powers to hijack the U.S. government ran afoul of the other two branches. Both the Judiciary and Congress did their jobs, and the U.S. Constitution worked as it should.

Presiding over the trial of the Watergate burglars, U.S. District Judge John Sirica voiced doubt that the defendants were being fully truthful. He got them to name higher-ups, who then faced prosecution. In 1973 Sirica ordered President Nixon to turn over his secret tapes of White House conversations to a special prosecutor and congressional investigators. The Supreme Court upheld his ruling in July 1974.

All this time, the House and Senate had been pursuing their own investigations, which ultimately resulted in impeachment proceedings. Facing involuntary removal from office, Nixon resigned in August 1974.

Along the way, other members of newspaper and broadcast media came to realize Woodward and Bernstein were onto a real story. They too began to cover it, thus increasing public pressure on Congress to act.

Nixon escaped criminal charges because his successor, Gerald Ford, exercised his presidential prerogative to grant Nixon a pardon for any offenses he “committed or may have committed or taken part in” as president. Other conspirators weren’t so lucky. Trials on a range of charges ended with findings of guilt for 48 officials, including two who had held the office of U.S. attorney general, the highest in the U.S. Department of Justice.

Our Constitution had worked as intended, with the Article I and Article III branches of government providing checks and balances that curbed the Article II branch.

Meanwhile, “the media” kept the process open to the public. They could do so because of another part of the Constitution, the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of the press.

Not every nation enjoys all these protections. More than fourscore years ago, a megalomaniac was elected to lead a nation with a far older and deeper culture than ours—but a weaker constitution. He quickly got rid of rival political parties and appointed a propaganda minister who dictated what publishers had to publish. That nation was brainwashed into following this leader into the worst war in history, resulting in its defeat and devastation.

The Founders probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn the First Amendment has produced messy results, ranging from memorable scoops and insights down to claptrap and outright falsehoods. They evidently figured We the People would be up to the job of separating the wheat from the chaff.

It’s not easy, so most providers of today’s media try to help by providing editing—or in today’s jargon “curating.” The better they do that job, the more trusted the publication, broadcast, website or Twitter feed.

Which brings us back to Philip Graham. His full quote is on page 324 of the paperback edition of Personal History, the autobiography of Katharine Graham, his widow and successor as head of the newspaper, magazine and broadcasting empire he put together. He was talking to his staffers at Newsweek about processing “the daily and weekly grist of journalism.”

“Much of it, of course, is pure chaff. . . . But no one yet has been able to produce wheat without chaff. . . . So let us today drudge on about our inescapably impossible task of providing every week a first rough draft of history that will never be completed about a world we can never really understand.”

Graham took the long view. Maybe we should all draw a deep breath and do the same.

© 2017, J.V. Reistrup

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