by Daniel Mallock (August 2018)
Untitled, Robert Rauschenberg, 1972
We live in a world of data overload. In technology circles it’s called “big data.” This is a misnomer; a more accurate description is “totaloverwhelmingridiculouslyslantedinformationexcess.”
In this divisive and highly charged environment of political and cultural conflict one might consider the availability of information from innumerable sources as beneficial. In large measure this is not the case. The idea that easy access to vast amounts of information might be detrimental rather than laudable may seem counterintuitive at first glance. But, what if the truth of the matter is that much of the information so readily accessible is biased, slanted, misleading, and outrightly fake? Here’s the rub: what happens when the majority of Americans of whatever party or political viewpoint are unable to tell the difference between a factual statement and opinion/bias in news stories?
The disturbing results of a Pew Research Center survey released on June 18th, results that were widely ignored in the press and across the internet, provide crucial hints as to what is happening in the United States and why. This important survey that examined whether or not respondents could discern factual statements from opinion in news reports validates fears of systemic failures, most particularly in education that, consequentially and altogether, put the republic itself at risk.
It is incontrovertible that the media of the country is drowning in bias, both of the left and of the right (though certainly skewed left). That news outlets that purport to be honest, accurate, and objective are none of those things—yet sustain the pretense that they are—is sure evidence that the profession of journalism is in collapse.
Thomas Jefferson had a similar contentious relationship with the media much in the same way as the current president does now. President Trump has said on numerous occasions that he only wants to be covered fairly in the press and that criticism, if substantive and legitimate (that is, evidence-based), is certainly acceptable and even welcome. This is, after all, one of the essential roles of the press—to act as watch dogs of the government and of officials. Every chief executive knows that they will be scrutinized by members of the fourth estate, all of them want it done fairly.
The press is meant to be an observer of the government and of the world and report their findings to their fellow citizens and readers. The foremost purpose of journalism is not to influence any segment of the reading public but to serve as a source of truth so that readers can make up their own minds. In past decades editorializing was reserved for a specific segment of newspapers, and biased commentary was clearly shown as such. Those days of close adherence to journalistic ethics and a clear demarcation between reportage and opinion/editorial are over. The consequences of this shift from “opinion is editorial” to “opinion is news” are significant and universally negative.
The press harassed and attacked Jefferson in much the same way that it is doing daily to President Trump. Regardless of what he perceived as harassment and libel in the opposition press Jefferson was a great supporter of the first amendment and of the press; he understood its essential importance to the functioning of the republic and correctly believed that credibility was essential for the American press to fulfill its important role. When readers no longer believe what they read in the news media, the press cannot operate in its essential watchdog role, and the concept of the “fourth estate” collapses. Jefferson was adamant on this point even surreptitiously causing, through the agency of a state governor, the trial of a Federalist editor on charges of libeling the president.
Politicized fake journalism is not new. John Adams had similar concerns with the press, with both presidents nominally desiring to sustain the office of the president (and therefore the occupant) as immune to certain kinds of public criticism and rebuke—all to protect the office itself. There is no doubt, too, however, that both men were thin-skinned when it came to public (and often highly personal) criticism in the press; their sensitivities do not negate the fact that they were essentially in the right in desiring protections for the office of president from a hostile press.
Jefferson considered the matter so important that he discussed it at length in his second inaugural address (March 4, 1805).
During this course of administration, and in order to disturb it, the artillery of the press has been levelled against us, charged with whatsoever its licentiousness could devise or dare. These abuses of an institution so important to freedom and science, are deeply to be regretted, inasmuch as they tend to lessen its usefulness, and to sap its safety; they might, indeed, have been corrected by the wholesome punishments reserved and provided by the laws of the several States against falsehood and defamation; but public duties more urgent press on the time of public servants, and the offenders have therefore been left to find their punishment in the public indignation.
Nor was it uninteresting to the world, that an experiment should be fairly and fully made, whether freedom of discussion, unaided by power, is not sufficient for the propagation and protection of truth — whether a government, conducting itself in the true spirit of its constitution, with zeal and purity, and doing no act which it would be unwilling the whole world should witness, can be written down by falsehood and defamation. The experiment has been tried; you have witnessed the scene; our fellow citizens have looked on, cool and collected; they saw the latent source from which these outrages proceeded; they gathered around their public functionaries, and when the constitution called them to the decision by suffrage, they pronounced their verdict, honorable to those who had served them, and consolatory to the friend of man, who believes he may be intrusted with his own affairs.
No inference is here intended, that the laws, provided by the State against false and defamatory publications, should not be enforced; he who has time, renders a service to public morals and public tranquility, in reforming these abuses by the salutary coercions of the law; but the experiment is noted, to prove that, since truth and reason have maintained their ground against false opinions in league with false facts, the press, confined to truth, needs no other legal restraint; the public judgment will correct false reasonings and opinions, on a full hearing of all parties; and no other definite line can be drawn between the inestimable liberty of the press and its demoralizing licentiousness. If there be still improprieties which this rule would not restrain, its supplement must be sought in the censorship of public opinion.
Jefferson was clear about the dangers that a false and biased, activist, politically-motivated press presented to the republic. He believed that, though the press had been libeling him and destroying its own credibility (in his view), the electorate had rejected the heavily biased, negative messages of the press—his reelection serving as solid proof of the assertion.
Perhaps one of the important lessons that can be garnered from Jefferson’s reelection and his criticism of the press is that the press, at least in 1804, were perhaps not the significant opinion-makers that they aspired to then just as they do today. The 2020 election will show if this lesson is to be repeated for our generation. More importantly, though, as exposed by the Pew study of mid-June, is this matter of the inability of the majority of today’s readership to accurately analyze the output of the press.
It is clear that the current practitioners of journalism, that is, fraudulent and biased-heavy opinion masquerading as reportage, are fully aware that they have abandoned previous standards and concepts of journalistic ethics and best practices; they know well what they are doing. What is also clear is that the consumers of legit “news” (fact-based reporting) and outright fake news (slanted, biased, loaded editorializing pretending to be legit news) are generally unable to effectively tell the difference.
Building a healthy skepticism, the ability to reason and discern, and excellence in critical thinking in students is the job of educators. If the American public cannot tell the difference between opinion and factual statements then their critical thinking skills and healthy skepticism are insufficient for the challenges of modern life. This signals a fundamental and extraordinary failure in American education.
While the perpetrators of the frauds are known, and the origins of readers’ lack of discernment skills can be readily blamed on failed education, the consequences of this dangerous intersection of fraud and failure has not been widely discussed.
This intersection of false reporting and ineffective analysis on the part of consumers has serious consequences. Readers are easily confused—thus ill-informed/ignorant, but most damning is this: people are purposefully being manipulated. The authors at Pew Research Center suggest mutedly that the study findings “raise caution.” It must be noted that the problem is not only limited to the inability to accurately analyze press reports. Without the ability to accurately and confidently discern truth from opinion the world of politics, of culture and most everything else of importance becomes a great mire of confusion and generates more opinion and bias-based conclusions, much (perhaps most) of it unsubstantiated and inaccurate.
But with the vast majority of Americans getting at least some news online, gaps across population groups in the ability to sort news correctly raise caution. Amid the massive array of content that flows through the digital space hourly, the brief dips into and out of news and the country’s heightened political divisiveness, the ability and motivation to quickly sort news correctly is all the more critical.
. . .
When Americans see a news statement as factual, they overwhelmingly also believe it to be accurate. This is true for both statements they correctly and incorrectly identified as factual, though small portions of the public did call statements both factual and inaccurate.
When Americans incorrectly classified factual statements as opinions, they most often disagreed with the statement. When correctly classifying opinions as such, however, Americans expressed more of a mix of agreeing and disagreeing with the statement. (Pew Research Center)
There is cause for hope, however. Foremost is that this issue of credulity and poor analytical skills in the news consumer population, long suspected, is now validated by the Pew study. Knowledge is power, after all.
Since much of American news is now disseminated and consumed via internet channels the dramas around mass manipulation of people by fake news is often played out in social media and other online outlets. Facebook chat rooms, blogs, vlogs, articles, YouTube videos, comments sections on articles in mainstream and alternative sources all display similar arguments between believers and skeptics, left and right, etc. The dichotomies of the present hour are all played out online for all who are interested to see and, if so inclined, to participate in.
Those with the strongest opinions, views often shaped by fraudulent journalists, sometimes take it upon themselves to become active members of the opposition both online and off. This phenomenon of the left whereby embittered and sanctimonious people become Social Justice Warriors (SJW) has ruined friendships, coarsened political discourse, and put a deep chill on academic and intellectual exploration and freedoms in many American universities and colleges. But this disturbing aspect of today’s culture wars in which those of the bitter left stand in judgment of those on the right and those not-quite-left-enough is being challenged.
A recent article in the online journal Quillette sets the stage for a reversal of the SJW nightmare and a reexamination of leftist tactics and ideology. Nominally a testimonial of shock, regret, self-examination and reassessment by a former SJW this fascinating autobiographical snapshot of the pits of American political conflict is in fact an indictment of the false moral superiority of the modern left itself. Once an active online soldier of the left, shaming and browbeating those with differing viewpoints and those not sufficiently “woke,” the author describes how he himself became a target and his life and profession ruined.
I drive food delivery for an online app to make rent and support myself and my young family. This is my new life. I once had a well paid job in what might be described as the social justice industry. Then I upset the wrong person, and within a short window of time, I was considered too toxic for my employer’s taste. I was publicly shamed, mobbed, and reduced to a symbol of male privilege. I was cast out of my career and my professional community.
. . .
In my previous life, I was a self-righteous social justice crusader. I would use my mid-sized Twitter and Facebook platforms to signal my wokeness on topics such as LGBT rights, rape culture, and racial injustice. Many of the opinions I held then are still opinions that I hold today. But I now realize that my social-media hyperactivity was, in reality, doing more harm than good.
. . .
I mobbed and shamed people for incidents that became front page news. But when they were vindicated or exonerated by some real-world investigation, it was treated as a footnote by my online community. If someone survives a social justice callout, it simply means that the mob has moved on to someone new. No one ever apologizes for a false accusation, and everyone has a selective memory regarding what they’ve done.
This extraordinary confessional, impossible even months ago, is a signal of a changing political culture. Additionally, the power of journalistic and political manipulation is also being directly challenged. There appears a great internal war and crisis on the American left as both leaders and followers continue to refuse to accept the results of the 2016 presidential election and double-down on leftist concepts like identity politics, globalism, and utopianism that are inherently contrary to what the country is about and how our government is supposed to function. The unfortunate and newly enlightened former SJW is a modern-day Camille Desmoulins.
Desmoulins at the Palais Royale, Paris, July 12, 1789.
A radical Jacobin “journalist,” pamphleteer, revolutionary agitator, member of the National Assembly and personal friend of Maximillian Robespierre, Desmoulins is generally credited with being the spark that started the French Revolution. Jumping on a table outside the Café Foy in the Palais Royale when the dismissal of popular Finance Minister Jacques Necker was announced in Paris, Desmoulins harangued a growing and angry crowd against the king. Ratcheting up the rhetoric and exhorting his already angry listeners to arm themselves, the crowd, which became a mob, did so and growing larger along the way arrived at the Bastille. The rest, they say, is history; but, it’s a tragic and ugly history.
A true believer in the Revolution, the loudest proponent for execution of the king during the trial of Louis XVI in the National Convention, Desmoulins ultimately became disillusioned at the cruelty and brutality of the Jacobin regime during the Terror period, Year II of the Revolution (1793). Criticizing in public (through his “newspapers” and pamphlets) the trials and executions of political opponents, Desmoulins (with Danton) called for clemency and an end to the horrors. This call for humanity was in direct opposition to the rule and authority of his friend Robespierre who had been a witness and signatory at Desmoulins’s wedding. Offering Desmoulins an opportunity to recant during a meeting of the Jacobin Club, Robespierre made it clear that such opposition—even from a friend—would not be tolerated. Desmoulins strongly refused to withdraw his criticism. Brought before the revolutionary tribunal where acquittal or death were the only possible outcomes, Desmoulins and Danton were both condemned and executed. Not content with Desmoulins only, his wife Lucile, entirely innocent, was also condemned and executed. Her courage and serenity on the way to the guillotine was in marked contrast to her husband’s (understandable) horror and panic and stands as an undying tribute to her extraordinary character.
The conversion of some elements of the left into “the mob” akin to the Jacobin revolutionaries of France, stoked by outrageous and violent rhetoric from politicians and public people (e.g., Democrat Congresswoman Maxine Waters) is a disturbing and dangerous development. The article in Quillette is important, enlightening, and revelatory and appears to validate the old clichéd adage about “history repeating itself.”
Not only are the group think and mob mentality aspects of the current crisis of the left being challenged, the manipulation of the masses by leftist politicians and journalists is also being noted—and, in this case, creating a reaction that is a potential direct threat to the left itself.
Thousands of people are now involved in a growing movement called “#Walkaway” which is based on Facebook and was started by a young (openly gay) man in New York City. Disillusioned by extreme rhetoric, intolerance to opposing views, and what they perceive as “party line” manipulation by Democrat political leaders, leftist entertainers, and fellow traveler “journalists,” thousands of Democrats around the country are publicly “walking away” from the party and even from liberalism itself.
This is not to say that these former liberals of the WalkAway movement now self-identify as conservatives, generally they don’t. (Dr. Swain, quoted above, is now a conservative.) It means that a large segment of the democrat base is completely alienated from the party and from the liberal ideology that they once supported and are now essentially unrepresented in the political process; this is how political parties lose relevance, are swept aside and new political parties are born.
The rise of the American liberal revolutionary ideology is at least 50 years in the making—the election of Trump marks the greatest challenge to both the ideology and the party that promotes it, thus this hysterical over-reaction from the left and anger, bitterness, frustration, and intolerance that now characterizes liberals. That the country is in revolutionary times is not worth contention because our American revolution itself never really ended. Only those without a complete grasp of the world and of politics cannot see that the American republic is an experimental marvel. This current phase is the latest culmination of many revolutionary moments and periods. This however does not diminish the dangers that it presents. A slow, sometimes imperceptible, leftist revolution has been happening in the country for decades—now we are in the counter-revolution period.
The cycles of history meander and twist and can be difficult to track. One of the repeated accusations from today’s modern leftists is that the election of Trump was somehow unfair, that the election was somehow stolen from the leftist candidate (foreign “meddlers” anybody?), and that therefore President Trump is “not their president.” This, in a sense, is a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the political system in the United States—when election results are unfavorable simply reject the results and the winner. There is a past presidential election that is worthy of review: the election of 1824.
William H. Crawford, Secretary of the Treasury, appeared to be the leading candidate in the election until he suddenly became gravely ill. Clearly no longer physically capable of serving, the question of who Crawford’s supporters would shift to became paramount. The two leading candidates for the presidency were John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts and Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, both of the same party (Democratic-Republican). Henry Clay was third. The outcome of the election produced no outright winner (electoral majority not being gained by any candidate) forcing the election into the House of Representatives. The mood of the country was clearly in favor of Jackson, rather than Adams. Most (including the candidates) expected, based on this mood, that the election would go to Jackson.
Henry Clay of Kentucky, then Speaker of the House and losing presidential candidate, was insightful and ambitious enough to realize that his position as the lessor of three candidates polled placed him in the powerful position of deal maker. If Clay (knowing that the Crawford people supported him) ordered his supporters in the House to back either Adams or Jackson, Clay could leverage such a deal into a new position for himself, say, Secretary of State. The situation became one of backroom meetings and political strong-arming to sway support among members of the House toward a specific candidate of Clay’s choosing. The supporters of Crawford would follow suit.
Jackson was approached by James Buchanan, representing Clay, with the message that if Jackson were to promise to make Clay the Secretary of State, then Clay would steer his own people and Crawford’s toward Jackson and make Jackson the president. Jackson’s response was unhesitating and unconditional refusal. Representatives of Clay approached Adams and made the same offer which Adams, to his swift regret, accepted. John Quincy Adams was elected president in the House vote, Jackson resigned his Senate seat and returned to Nashville.
The Adams-Clay deal became known almost immediately as the “Corrupt Bargain.” This destroyed John Quincy Adams’s reputation and did little good for Mr. Clay’s. Popular feeling for both men throughout the Adams administration was low, and the “Corrupt Bargain” charge appeared again and again in public and private—to the shock and dismay of both men. Jackson, on the other hand, knew that popular opinion was in his corner, he knew that like his father John Quincy Adams would not likely have a second term; he knew that he himself would most likely be the president to follow Adams. At his home “The Hermitage” he planted cotton and waited. (It should be noted here that the tombs of Jackson and his wife at the Hermitage were vandalized in April, 2018. This had never happened in the history of the tomb.)
Jackson knew that the election had been stolen by Adams and Clay, everyone in the country knew it. This became the great shadow upon John Quincy Adams’s otherwise positive reputation and a lifetime of impressive and valuable public service.
Jackson’s reaction to the “Corrupt Bargain” was muted and restrained. Jackson and his supporters were confident that his time would come. Though the election turned out against him Jackson did not call the system itself into question; Jackson did not “resist” the new president as illegitimate. Jackson bitterly (but quietly) accepted the outcome and prepared for the next election, which he won. His response to his election defeat set the standard for every defeated presidential hopeful and their supporters.
There is a portrait now of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office of the White House. President Trump laid a wreath on Jackson’s tomb at the Hermitage shortly after the election of 2016.
The crisis within the American left which fuels all the controversies and ills of American political life today involves the rejection of the presidential result of 2016, declarations of “he’s not my president,” and bizarre and dangerous deconstructions of the political system itself and of the unity that is its foundation. Identity politics, rejectionism, and relentless agitation and deconstruction are meant to do one thing: destabilize the society.
We need a swift reappreciation of and reconnection with the value of our history and the imperative of supporting a strong and stable American government and unified nation. This is such an important matter that I surrender the podium to General Jackson for the last word.
I had esteemed [Mr. Adams] as a virtuous, able and honest man; and when rumour was stamping the sudden union of his and the friends of Mr. Clay with intrigue, barter and bargain I did not, nay, I could not believe that Mr. Adams participated . . . When the election was terminated, I manifested publicly . . . my disbelief of his having had knowledge of the pledges which many men of high standing boldly asserted to be the price of his election. But when . . . Mr. Clay was made Secretary of State . . . I could not doubt the facts . . . I do not think the human mind can resist the conviction that . . . Mr. Adams by the redemption of the pledge stood before the American people as a participant in the disgraceful traffic of Congressional votes for Executive office.
From that moment I withdrew all intercourse with him, not however to oppose his administration when I think it useful to the Country . . . Mr. Adams is the Constitutional President and as such I would be the last man . . . to oppose him on any other ground than principal.
 Jackson to Henry Lee, October 7, 1825; The Life of Andrew Jackson, by Marquis James, (Bobbs-Merrill, 1938), two vols in one, p.452. This extraordinary two volume biography won the Pulitzer Prize, 1938. Ellipses in original.
Daniel Mallock is a historian of the Founding generation and of the Civil War and is the author of The New York Times Bestseller, Agony and Eloquence: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and a World of Revolution. He is a Contributing Editor at New English Review.
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