A free press, not a fair press

Brion McClanahan Author, The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution
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In the modern age, the general public expects their news to be “objective” and “unbiased.” We want the “facts” and believe that the talking head, newspaper reporter or cable news correspondent is interested in the same thing. The members of the mainstream media tell us they are unbiased, even when reporters engage in coordinated attacks against political figures they dislike.

Of course, most astute observers understand that the media leans left. Tim Groseclose wrote a book on the issue in 2011. Conservative media outlets consistently hammer their liberal counterparts on their bias, only to receive jabs from the president and other liberal politicians for their “venomous” behavior.

To those who have grown up with the fantasy that American media has, until recently, been the mecca for objectivity, it seems our media outlets are falling apart, warped by the same supposed partisanship that clouds the American political process. If only we could return to the glory days of early news reporting when we could trust the “facts” and receive the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They need a swift kick of reality. The First Amendment — and the 50 state amendments on the issue — guarantee a free press, but not a fair press. The press has always been a snake pit.

George Washington was savagely attacked in the press, with Thomas Paine, his one-time ally, publicly wishing for his death. The relentless attacks in the press against John Adams in 1800 were financed by his long-time friend Thomas Jefferson. In return, Jefferson was publicly roasted by James Callender, the man he paid to filet Adams. In the mid-nineteenth century, Thomas Ritchie, editor of the Richmond Enquirer, was a one-man wrecking ball against his political opponents. Horace Greeley used his New York Tribune as a sounding board for the Republican Party and his various social crusades in the ante and post bellum periods. Some of these newspapers were in fact financed by the members of Congress that their editors supported! Everyone knew it and no one expected an “unbiased” story, for as historians have understood for years, “unbiased” stories do not exist. Even reporters’ story selection shows bias.

Yet, Americans like biased news. Historical data proves it, as do the current television cable news and talk-show ratings. We like to know what our “newsmen” think before they give us the scoop. People like to hear their own thoughts reaffirmed and echoed. As long as the press remains free — and the Internet is the key — then Americans will generally gravitate toward the news that suits their worldview. This should come as no surprise, and Americans should and do embrace it. Let the “mainstream” media tarnish its image by cozying up to the Obama administration. There are counterweights, and Americans have found them in large numbers. The founding generation and those that followed in the nineteenth century understood that only a free press mattered. Fair was subjective and unnecessary. We should agree.

Brion McClanahan holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of South Carolina. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers (Regnery, 2009), The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution (Regnery History, 2012), Forgotten Conservatives in American History with Clyde Wilson (Pelican, 2012), as well as the forthcoming Politically Incorrect Guide to Real American Heroes (Regnery, 2012). You can find his Facebook fan page here.