December 2019 Spot of Parchment

Happy holidays! I hope this season is a happy one for you, regardless of your celebrations of choice.

Last month, I shared that my most frequently-asked question is about George Washington’s business practices. Want to know the second one? It usually goes something like “what were newspapers and the press like in the Early Republic? Has it ever been so partisan?”

Then I usually chuckle because it gives me an opportunity to share one of my favorite newspaper/Washington stories (see below). So to start, yes the press was crazy partisan in the 1790s. Hamilton wrote (anonymous) vicious op-eds about Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, Madison wrote equally nasty replies back.

There are three key differences between newspaper practices between the 1790s and today, however, that make all the difference. First, everyone, and I mean everyone, understood that the presses were partisan. There was no illusion that the editors were unbiased in selecting their publications. If you were a Republican you subscribed to the Republican press. If you were a Federalist you subscribed to the Federalist press. It was verbal or written warfare and they approached the process accordingly. For example, in the 1796 election, Jefferson’s supporters accused Adams of having a hermaphroditic character, while Federalists reported that Jefferson would round up and burn all of the bibles in the country.

Washington was no different. He was a huge news junkie and subscribed to several newspapers from all over the country. When Philip Freneau created the National Gazette, Washington initially subscribed for a daily delivery. However, Freneau quickly became a vocal critic of the administration, especially Hamilton and his treasury legislation. Dismayed by the vociferous criticism, Washington cancelled his subscription. Undeterred, Freneau continued to deliver three copies of the Gazette to the President’s House every single day, just to mess with the president. When Benjamin Franklin Bache founded the Aurora, he followed Freneau’s example. After Washington cancelled his subscription to the Aurora, three copies continued to mysteriously arrive every morning, six days a week, on his doorstep—which he hated.

Second, there was no expectation of journalistic ethics or unbiased reporting. A journalistic ethos about true and fair reporting didn’t really emerge until the turn of the twentieth century. So editors in the eighteenth century felt free to print whatever scandalous reports came their way and might sell copies, regardless of the validity of the reports. For example, opposition newspapers would sometimes report that Washington would be traveling through a local town on a specific date. Either they had received erroneous reports or they hoped that citizens would turn out expecting to see the president and then turn against him when he failed to show up. This lack of truth particularly galled Washington because he worried that the lies would sway citizens to denounce his administration.

Finally, there is a significant difference in information literacy and consumption. 1790s readers primarily received their news through letters, newspapers, and word-of-mouth from visiting family and friends. They understood that anonymous reports in newspapers were inherently untrustworthy and they needed to be skeptical. They extended this skepticism to reports from more trusted sources as well, often asking friends and family to confirm information they received in letters from other acquaintances.

The rise of journalism as a profession, newspapers that prided themselves on unbiased reporting, and television reporting that was largely trustworthy changed everything. Americans began to trust information they received, especially from printed and television sources, at face-value. 

The creation of the internet again transformed the exchange of information. There is no vetting source for news posted online, anyone with a website can write anything they want. Algorithms tend to prioritize articles and posts that receive attention and interactions, so scandalous information, regardless of its veracity, spreads more quickly. The spread of false information, especially on popular networking sites like Facebook, has been in the news lately and I’m sure you’ve heard about it. We can no longer trust that just because someone says they are a journalist they will follow the same ethics and standards that once guided the field. (Although there are countless journalists that are still doing incredible and important work!)

That’s one of the reasons history education is so important—or at least one of the reasons think it’s so important. At its core, the study of history is the analysis of evidence. In history classes, students learn to evaluate evidence produced by imperfect historical actors (after all, we are all flawed and deeply human). For example, when studying a letter, they consider which audience the author was trying to reach and for what purpose. What were their motivations? What biases might they have? What does this correspondence tell us about larger social, economic, political themes? These are critical thinking skills that can be applied to the world we live in and are valuable in every profession.

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