Elected Leaders vs Media: It’s Historic

Curt-lineby Curt Kovener

Donald Trump’s combative relationship with what he calls “the dishonest media” is nothing new.
Politicians, elected officials, and bureaucrats have been complaining about the press since the very first days of our country.
Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s third president and the man who penned the Declaration of Independence, wrote in a letter to an early US Congressman, “I deplore … the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them. As vehicles of information and a curb on our functionaries, they have rendered themselves useless by forfeiting all title to belief.”
Seven years earlier, Jefferson had written a letter to John Norvell, an aspiring journalist who went on to become the co-founder of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” Jefferson said. “Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.”
By comparison, Trump’s criticism almost sounds tame. On his first full day in office, Trump told a crowd of CIA employees he had “a running war with the media.”
“They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth,” he said.
The fact is that presidents and journalists aren’t supposed to be friends. Jefferson said as much in 1787 in a letter to Edward Carrington, a delegate to the Continental Congress.
“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people,” he wrote, “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.”
Journalists are the watchdogs on government. As Wilbur F. Storey, editor of the Chicago Times put it, “It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news, and raise hell.”
Chicago Evening Post journalist and humorist Finley Peter Dunne gets at least partial credit for another old saying, that “a newspaper’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.
Ken Paulson, then the editor of USA Today, wrote in May 2006 that the media’s role as a guardian of our freedoms had not always been embraced by the American public.
“After all,” he wrote, “politicians and public officials have stock speeches about media bias and favoritism, all in effect saying: ‘Ignore the barking. The watchdog is rabid’.”
The challenge for journalists, he said, is to keep at it.
“When we do our jobs the right way, striving every day to publish reports of integrity and balance, when we ask the tough questions, when we fight to keep the public’s business public and when we provide the kind of watchdog reporting that is the lifeblood of a democracy, we fulfill our promise to that first generation of Americans who believed that one of the best ways to guarantee a democracy was a free and vigorous press.”
That was true in Jefferson’s day, and it’s true today.
– – – – –
Our thanks to Kelly Hawes, assistant editor of CNHI’s Indiana news service for the research.