Fake news. Biased reporting. Commentators and pundits everywhere are wringing their hands predicting the fall of the fourth estate, and with it the end of American democracy. They are blinded by the myth of objective journalism and, consequently, they all miss the point.
In fact, all press is biased and we should not expect it to be otherwise. Today’s crisis is not the demise of journalism, but our failure to educate citizens. American citizens are not critical enough, analytical enough, or investigative enough to evaluate information, conduct an open honest debate with each other, and discern a viable path for the collective future.
We humans are shaped by life experiences—our interactions with each other. There is nothing objective about that human experience, especially when it comes to making decisions in our social and cultural interactions. The human condition requires that we express a bias when we interact with the world. Each woman and man trudges forward in life lugging a host of unique individual experiences that inform each and every step we take. Reporters, news editors, producers, managers, corporate officers, the corporations who own them, and the individuals who consume the news are all part of this human process. It is not possible to live otherwise.
Historians have long understood this aspect of humans and their expressions. As we unravel the past, we constantly identify the bias of our evidence. The author of the letter, the composer of the music, the craftsman who created the table, the laborer in the field, all left evidence of their life. The historian examines that evidence trying to uncover the life of those past individuals and extract meaning from it. But we understand that when a slave owner wrote a letter lauding the institution of slavery, they did so with the bias of an individual whose life experience affirmed that they had a right to own other human beings as property. We know that the patron who commissioned the symphony biased the work of a composer. We understand that the table expresses its maker’s lifelong synthesis of creativity, style, form, and practical use. And we know that the marks and artifacts people leave on the landscape are a product of their circumstances as well as their choices. Just as important, we also understand that our own life experiences influence which stories of the past we choose to tell and color how we tell those stories.
The history of free press in America is a study in humanity—in bias and partisanship. Our country was created because colonial American printers articulated a biased view of the world to American patriots. We are proud of that heritage. In the 1760s, Virginia legislatures worried that the single printer publishing in the colony was biased, owing his allegiance to the royal governor. They sponsored a rival printer, William Rind, whose masthead motto was “Open to all Parties but Influenced by None.” But it was not long before Rind too was subject to accusations of bias.
Federalist and Jeffersonian presses were rife with bias and outlandish accusations. Jeffersonian plots to confiscate Bibles, close down churches, and bring the horror and spectacle of the French Revolution’s guillotine in the public square were the grist of the Federalist press. In 1800, the Jeffersonian press tagged John Adams—who in 1776 was a member of the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence—as a secret royalist hoping to ascend the throne of America and pass it along to his son. It was fake news and biased reporting.
The 1820s and ’30s were no better. Jacksonians attacked the “corrupt bargain” and Nicholas Biddle, President of the Second Bank of America. And Jackson’s opponents, too, accused him of monarchical tendencies. Partisan press railed against immigration in the 1850s and saw the rise of the American or “Know-Nothing” Party, with their secret oaths and pledges to vote only for “American born” candidates. Nor should we forget how partisans employed the press to demand the immediate abolition of slavery while at the same time the Southern press, just as vehemently, insisted on the continued enslavement of African Americans. It was biased reporting to influence people’s political opinions and it was a staple throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—through muckrakers and Jim Crow and Cold War McCarthyism and civil rights protests and the counter-culture. It continues today.
But sadly, most Americans are ignorant of this history because we don’t teach it to our children. We don’t teach our children that the issues shaping America are hard-fought battles about ideas. We don’t teach students that generations of patriots used biased partisan press to convince other patriots that one or another idea was best for America’s future. Perhaps worst of all, we no longer cultivate the crucial skill of critical thinking in our future citizens. We no longer teach them to evaluate evidence and make critical judgments. They, consequently, do not understand that it is their responsibility to examine the news carefully, critically, and from all sides. And because we don’t teach these basic skills of citizenship, they are susceptible to fake news and biased reporting. Worse, too many Americans are so stupid that they read fake news and biased reporting as objective fact.
We must improve the education of our citizens—children and adults. This thing we call the “American experiment” cannot continue without work and investment. Dedicated citizenship is the required investment—citizens dedicated to self improvement and education, to investigating the news, learning from diverse opinions, engaging in civil civic debate with those who disagree, divining a course through critical analysis.
The founding generation understood that a free press provided information both accurate and inaccurate, partisan and impartial, inflammatory and calming, divisive and unifying. We see the same thing today today. Still, men like Thomas Jefferson believed free press with all its flaws was essential because the people were the depository of “ultimate powers.” The people held in their hands the “true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” In 1820, Jefferson wrote, “If we think them [the people] not enlightened enough to exercise their controul with a wholsome discretion, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”