Posted tagged ‘Thomas Jefferson’

Blame the media? Keep looking.

August 4, 2015


Everyone blames the messenger. Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton do it, former president Richard Nixon did it (not to single him out), the National Rifle Association and antigun groups both do it; heck, even some Founding Fathers did it. Reporters Without Borders is tracking 363 official or unofficial journalists killed or imprisoned this year alone, so a lot of people, movements, and regimes are acting against messengers as well.

About the June murder of nine South Carolina churchgoers, amNY columnist Liza Featherstone wrote in the Observer, “The mainstream media gave us all the tragic facts about Charleston last week and promptly became a scapegoat. People felt angry and sad about what happened and didn’t know what else to do besides blame the messenger. Media criticism stood in for politics—since gun control is seen as hopeless and racism (in isolation from other problems) has no policy solution. The travesty, though, was not the news coverage but that [admitted shooter Dylann] Roof’s awful crime happened at all.”

There’s commentary—opinion—and then there’s news. In all reputable media operations, they don’t mix. A newspaper or radio station can run opinion pieces, of course, but they must be clearly labeled and separate from news. (Before cable, television stations sometimes ran opinion pieces, which held to the same rules. Then came entire channels devoted to commentary.) Some official media opinions, such as this Des Moines Register editorial, have called out Trump for cheapening political discourse. Not recognizing the line between news and opinion (or possibly not caring), Trump is now refusing press credentials to the paper’s reporters. Dan Snyder has pulled the same thing with sports reporters from the Washington Post, for obvious reasons.

You can complain about media bias; we know, for instance, that unintentional racial, gender, and other bias occurs in coverage. (Stylebooks aim to avoid language such as “a 60-year-old grandmother” when the description is irrelevant and, in DC, “across the Anacostia River” when it assumes readers are downtown/to the west.) You can complain about overcoverage, as when TV stations from Philly to Richmond focused on a burning Baltimore block hour after hour recently. You can complain that local and even national TV goes by “if it bleeds, it leads” or “if we have video, it really leads.”

But complain about the fact of coverage? No. “The mistake we make when we blame or excuse the media’s role in tragedy is in missing the fact that the media play a role rather than running the whole show,” wrote social psychologist Karen Dill-Shackleford in Psychology Today. News coverage should be looked through, like glass, rather than glared at, like a picture. That way you see what you’re really upset about.

“When activists complain about the nature of media coverage, they are actually demanding that the media abandon an independent journalistic stance and champion their cause by reporting what they want reported,” William Domhoff, a sociology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, wrote online. “This is in effect what people from the left and right constantly do: attack the media with the hope that they will bend in their direction, then blame the media if their program fails.”

The right, generally speaking, believes in a “liberal media,” in part because despite long-held and long-taught standards of neutrality in journalism, some polls have shown that more journalists personally lean left than right politically. The left, generally speaking, distrusts corporate media because companies are owned and run by very wealthy, often very conservative groups and individuals for whom advertising dollars outweigh balanced coverage.

Domhoff warned fellow radicals that “the media can magnify the message of the powerful and trivialize and marginalize the claims of the powerless. But the media don’t cause some people to be powerful and some people to be powerless.” And no side in any argument has a monopoly on confusing cause and effect.

Benjamin Franklin set forth probably the Colonies’ first explanation of freedom of the press and equal time (Pennsylvania Gazette, 1731): “Printers are educated in the Belief, that when Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter ….” Decades later, Thomas Jefferson added, “Information is the currency of democracy.”

Sometimes it’s hard to hear such reasoning over the din of media blamers on all sides. But the Framers’ words have lasted two to three centuries; I imagine they too will be an overmatch for the latter.

(c) 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

My sympathies to Mr. Jefferson

June 27, 2014

Th. Jefferson has been on my mind lately. My book club’s June selection was Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, which weighs in at 759 pages including index and notes but not including prologue. And July 4 is a week off, which always brings to mind my favorite musical, 1776.

Having grown up with the Broadway cast album and the script in paperback, I’d all but memorized 1776 before the family drove to Boston to retrace the Bicentennial trail. My sister and I sang the entire score and recited dialogue from memory in the back seat. I wonder now about the proportions in which this impressed, pleased, and aggravated our parents—whom I don’t recall saying much of anything except the occasional “volume, please.”

1776 brings America’s origins to life. The Founding Fathers are fully formed, real warts-and-all humans. The show is astoundingly funny—all the more given how little many of the lines are changed from letters and other things these folks actually wrote. And much of the “plot” is essentially as it happened. Sure, Martha Jefferson didn’t go to Philadelphia, and John Adams is a composite of himself and his cousin Sam, and a bunch of congressmen are left out, but again, a lot of the lines are paraphrased from what they or contemporaries really said, and overall, it’s a gripping history lesson. Not to mention it has William Daniels and Howard Da Silva and two of the most chilling, tearjerking songs ever and ….

But I digress from showing how I came to cringe along with Mr. Jefferson as he suffers an agonizing public editing by two dozen friends and foes. A writer, editor, or both today can observe the following:

–how he’s flattered, then bullied into drafting the Declaration[1]

–how his “editor” gripes about his procrastination[2]

–how he drags his feet until deadline[3]

–how others nitpick his wording choices[4]

–how others question why he included this and left out that[5]

–how others threaten to withhold support unless crucial sections are cut[6]

–how he feels beaten down by all these … revisions[7]

–and how, occasionally, the author wins the day[8]

Sound familiar?

A decade before becoming a writer and editor, at least professionally, I felt—through the words, music, and Ken Howard’s award-winning portrayal—the pain of having his carefully constructed work shredded hour by hour.

Yet, as Meacham points out in the book, “For all his momentary discomfort, Jefferson exercised an extraordinary measure of power by taking on drafting duties. However many changes came in, it was still his voice at the core of the enterprise. … With the power of the pen, he had articulated a new premise for the government of humanity: that all men were created equal.” (All white men of property, but hey, even that was a first.)

That’s a darned good legacy. He knew it—it was the first point of pride he wrote for his tombstone. And it underscored the importance of being the original writer, no many how much editing might be involved.

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.


[1] Jefferson: “Mr. Adams, I have not seen my wife these past six months! I beg of you, Mr. Adams—”

John Adams [quotes from memory]: “ ‘And we solemnly declare that we will preserve our liberties, being with one mind resolved to die free men rather than to live slaves.’ Thomas Jefferson, ‘On the Necessity of Taking Up Arms,’ 1775. Magnificent! Why, you write 10 times better than any man in Congress. Including me. For a man of only 33 years, you have a happy talent of composition and a remarkable felicity of expression.”

[2] Adams: “I came here expecting to hear a pen scratching, not a bow.”

[3] Adams: “Do you mean to say that it is not yet finished?

Jefferson: “No sir. I mean to say that it is not yet begun.”

Adams: “Good God! A whole week! The entire earth was created in a week!”

Jefferson [drily]: “Someday you must tell me how you did it.”

[4] Adams: “Mr. Jefferson? It so happens that the word is un-alienable, not in-alienable.”

[5] Joseph Hewes: “Mr. Jefferson, nowhere do you mention deep-sea fishing rights.”

Adams: “Oh good God! Fishing rights? How long is this piddling to go on? We have been here for three solid days! We have endured, by my count, more than 85 separate changes and the removal of close to 400 words. Now, would you whip it and beat it ’til you break its spirit?”

[6] Edward Rutledge: “Remove the offending passage from your Declaration.”

Adams: “If we did that, we would be guilty of what we ourselves are rebelling against.”

Benjamin Franklin: “… First things first, John. Independence; America. If we don’t secure that, what difference will the rest make?”

Adams [long pause]: “Jefferson, say something.”

Jefferson: “What else is there to do?”

Adams: “Well, man, you’re the one who wrote it.”

Jefferson: “I wrote all of it, Mr. Adams.” [stands and goes to the Declaration, crosses out the clause]

[7] Adams: “Oh, be sensible, Bartlett; remove those phrases and the entire paragraph becomes meaningless! And it so happens that it’s one of the most stirring and poetic of any passage in the entire document. … Good God, Jefferson, when are you going to speak up for your own work?”

Jefferson: “I had hoped that the work would speak for itself.”

[8] Jefferson: “Just a moment, Mr. Thomson. I do not consent. The king is a tyrant whether we say so or not. We might as well say so.”

Charles Thomson: “But I already scratched it out.”

Jefferson: “Then scratch it back in!

John Hancock: “Put it back, Mr. Thomson. The king will remain a tyrant.”