Haste Makes Waste

Video Essay: A History of American Journalism

13 March 2024

I’ve made good on my threat to release a video essay. The script is below if you’d prefer to read it, instead!

This is part one of three; an educational series on the history, methodology, and ethics of journalism. Inside: a code of conduct, a jailbreak, and some light cannibalism.

Oh, and here, take this. You’ll need it.

The Timeline:

You might need to open this in a new tab, it’s a long boi.

Content Warnings:

Police Violence (00:00 - 02:08)

Mass Shootings (02:08 - 03:50)

Alex Jones, Tucker Carlson (02:08 - 03:50, & 1:30:22 - 1:30:43)


The Script:

(Please note, I was flexible with delivery when the video was in production, so this may not be 100% verbatim! I didn’t originally write this to be read, but thought it would be a nice accessibility option, so cleaning it up and moving the citations to be in-line is on my to-do list.)


In 2009, newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson was killed on his way home during the G-20 summit protests. The London Metropolitan Police initially reported the death a heart attack resulting from a pre-existing condition, blaming the crowd of protesters for blocking medical responders. This was repeated uncritically by The Evening Standard with the headline, “Police Pelted With Bricks as They Help Dying Man”.

Unconvinced by the official account, Paul Lewis at the Guardian began investigating Tomlinson’s death, soliciting the public for evidence and witness testimony. And he got it. Just eight days later, the Guardian released photos and videos showing that the Met struck Tomlinson multiple times before he died, that they lied about doing so, and that they were well aware they were directly responsible for his death. This is only scratching the surface.

Suddenly those bricks became plastic bottles. The heart attack, internal bleeding. The coroner had a record of professional misconduct. The IPCC had lied about contacting the family, reprimanded Lewis for doing so, and actively blocked the press’s investigations while resisting calls to conduct their own. But by this point, the messaging was out of their control.

The public was demanding answers.

The Guardian’s reporting brought international attention and some measure of accountability to an ongoing police cover-up, which would otherwise have gone unnoticed forever.

For a brief instant, a handful of determined writers in a room somewhere were more powerful than the concept of law enforcement. I think that’s extremely cool.

Unfortunately, the aesthetics of journalism can confer similar power to people who would wield it for personal gain. And the public can’t always tell the difference.

In September of 2012, twenty students and six school staff of Sandy Hook Elementary were slain by an active shooter. In the weeks of coverage that followed, internet conspiracy theorist and dubious supplement salesman Alex Jones claimed on his web show, which superficially resembles a news broadcast, that the families of the victims were just crisis actors. Even after being corrected, Jones continued to repeat this lie relentlessly until and sometimes after, being sued clean off of this plane of existence. All the while, he profited from the attention and the outrage, using it as an opportunity to fundraise and hock bogus merchandise to his loyal but intellectually vulnerable fanbase.

He didn’t just scam his viewers. His “reporting”, which I can only bring myself to say with the heaviest of scare quotes, has had dire consequences for the survivors. Those families continue to receive harassment, abuse, and threats of violence & death to this day, with one family reportedly having to move seven times to keep themselves safe from a nation of hoax adherents that follow them wherever they go.

Where Lewis and his team exposed a monster, Jones created one. Using many of the same tools.

At the very least, he seems to think he’s a journalist. (Sometimes. When it’s convenient.)

Journalism is the lost art of speaking truth to power. A good journalist can shine a light on the most hideous aspects of society, spark a revolution, instigate positive change. A bad one can just as easily cover it up, or bury an innocent person for a buck.

If I’m seriously going to do this whole video essayist thing, (hi I’m Val by the way) it seems like the skills I would need, and the skills of a journalist, a good one, overlap a whole lot. We both seek to teach and to inform public opinion, we’re skeptical of power, and are driven by the joy of telling an interesting story.

But what are the tenets of professional journalism? As determined by whom? Are we actually adhering to them? Have we always? Who or what are they meant to serve?

I’m asking. I don’t know anything.

But I do have a library card!

So let’s find out.

PART ONE: METHODOLOGY

The purpose of these videos, the thing that I’m really dying to talk about, is the ethics of reporting; I want to dissect codes of conduct that the industry abides by, and the parts that it doesn’t.

I spent over 200 hours researching to make a video about just that, by itself. But the more I learned, the more I realized it would irresponsible and frankly ineffective to do so. If I jump directly into philosophy without the necessary context, the people who need to hear it most will probably leave.

In the United States, where you get your news has become a strong element of individual identity, and that makes them difficult to critique. The moment I provide any specific, real-world example of good or bad reporting, I run the risk of being dismissed by the passive consumer as merely partisan.

At the same time, journalists today are already constantly under fire from every direction, and for their every decision. Sometimes its warranted, sometimes its not. But in either case it’s exhausting to receive such a high volume of feedback from people who are essentially outsiders to your discipline. At that point, what choice do you have but to become numb to it, and tune out?

So both of my target audiences are going to be hyper-sensitive to feedback, I know this. The best salve I could think of for both parties was to demonstrate my good faith first; to prove that I’m willing to put in the time to learn what I’m talking about, and that I’m not just here for sweet sweet internet dunkaroos.

And I think it’s fair to ask me to show my work.

So, while I’m aware it is…inadvisable… for a first time essayist’s opening salvo to be a six-hour mega-documentary, I made this decision with intention: because I hate myse-

Because this topic is important to me; because I want to create something truly comprehensive; and because I realized if I cut corners, then the people who need to hear it most won’t listen.

This video essay is one of three.

This first one is focused on the history of the news from roughly the 1500’s til today. We’ll talk about how the field has developed, and the challenges its faced along the way. You might be surprised by just how familiar some of them sound. My hypothesis is that this will help convince the passive consumer of news that my interest extends deeper than red team vs blue team partisanship.

In the second video, we’ll learn the fundamentals of practical journalism for ourselves. Step by step, what techniques would you use to conduct, investigate, and write a story of your own? What tools and resources are available to you? What are the technical and legal considerations for professionals in this space, and what should your final product actually look like? My hope is that this demonstrates to the journalists in my audience that I’m taking this seriously, that I’m not just a spectator or backseat driver, but took the time to understand how they do their work.

Then, having done our homework, the third video will be dedicated to those principles of ethical reporting. We’ll talk about the standards of care journalists apply (and sometimes fail to apply) in the field, and topics which are still points of disagreement even between seasoned professionals. We’ll interrogate the responsibilities of a journalist, by close reading contemporary examples. We’ll talk about how the craft must evolve if it is to survive the coming onslaught of digitally augmented disinformation, and what we can do, both as journalists and members of the public, to reform and safeguard the institution.

I’ll have succeeded if by the end, you care about the craft even just a little, if you begin to hold the news you consume to a higher standard, or if you feel empowered to personally be that change.

Next, let’s talk sources and limitations.

I’ll provide in-line citations like [this] where appropriate and you can find a full list in the doobly do, but having literally just watched Hbomb eject someone into space while filming this, I thought I’d take a second to explain which sources I chose and why.

By far the most important book was The Elements of Journalism, which is basically required reading for anyone in the profession. Our section on ethics will be structured around each of its ten principles of responsible reporting, but we’ll use it a little bit today, too.

I chose both the third and fourth editions, because they were published just before and after the 2016 presidential cycle. I thought it would be interesting to compare them and see how best practices have shifted, within our own lifetimes, in the age of fake news and disinformation.

I wanted a textbook to approximate the undergrad experience and see what a formal student of journalism might learn, so I also picked up Principles of American Journalism: An Introduction. Frankly I may as well have just read Elements a third time because that’s kind of what it was.

To teach myself the craft, I referred to two versions of The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook, not for any academic reason this time but because the Internet Archive got sued while I was researching and had to take down the entire National Emergency Library. Thanks a lot, Hachette. You bastards.

I also used the 56th edition of the Associated Press Style Guide, the Handbook of Independent Journalism by Deborah Potter, and Carole Rich’s Writing and Reporting News: a Coaching Method. (The 2009 one, I went on this whole adventure to get the newer one and it was a mess, do not get me started.)

My primary source for history up to about the 1940’s is Frank Luther Mott’s American Journalism, because it’s old enough to be free and Hachette can pry my books from my cold, dead hands.

And as much as possible, I restricted myself to historical examples drawn from archived reporting I could read myself, which mostly worked although some of them are exceptionally rare or illegible even in digital form. Mott’s well known in the field so I allowed myself to use excerpts he provided, but from other sources I did not use them, unless I could track down the original and verify the context myself.

As for limitations: my observations will be focused on American journalism. I am vaguely aware that other countries exist, but unfortunately, I live in this one, and I only speak English fluently, and the world’s on fire, and my time on it is mercifully finite.

I’ll do my best, but it will necessarily be a bit US centric and I’m sorry about that.

Additionally, even history isn’t neutral. Relying on any historical account is opening myself up to the bias of the writers. I made sure compare other sources when accounts seemed open to interpretation.

I would love to come back someday to look at the history of other countries in more detail, and double back with a more recent history textbook to see how our understanding has changed, but at some point you do have to like…stop, and film the essay?

Finally, I have no idea what I’m doing. This is my first essay, so it’s probably gonna be bad. But I want this to be a space where it’s safe to not know things or be bad at them, so, I forgive me, and we’ll learn together.

PART TWO: THE PART OF THE VIDEO WHERE I DEFINE THE PROBLEM SPACE AND PROVIDE VIEWERS WITH THE NECESSARY CONTEXT TO ENGAGE WITH IT

(Editors note, come back and replace this with a shorter title later.)

If you had asked me at the start of this project to define journalism, I would have just answered, it’s the news. If you’d pressed harder and asked well what’s the news then, I’d have said it’s the thing that journalists make?

But that’s not very satisfying, is it?

We should probably get a second opinion. Preferably from an adult.

Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect is among the most influential and authoritative texts in the profession. Let’s start there!

It has two authors, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel; both are veterans in the field themselves. Kovach was a bureau chief for the New York Times and curator for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, while Rosenstiel was the executive director of the American Press Institute for nearly a decade, and today teaches the craft at the University of Maryland.

Elements was originally published in 2001 and is now in its 4th edition. If you’re studying journalism in the US, first of all I am so sorry, from one English student to another you are never going to pay off that debt. But chances are one of these will be required reading for you at some point in your career. In fact, the only textbooks that didn’t directly reference Elements during my research were the ones written before its publication.

Which, you know, makes sense.

Kovach and Rosenstiel hypothesize that there is a deeply rooted drive in humanity to see and understand for themselves what’s happening in the world.[1] They call this drive the Awareness Instinct, defining news as information which satisfies that need for understanding.

They also observe that the traits people tend to desire from that news have remained largely consistent throughout history, regardless of where you live, who is in power, or the technology available to you. They argue that while you can have news on its own, there’s a secret sauce to it, a necessary act of discovery that makes it satisfying, which people will seek out in its absence. That act is journalism.

By way of example, they point to the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981. In response to demonstrations from labor unions, Prime Minister Jaruzelski authorized a military junta to suppress the movement by establishing mass curfews, closing borders, controlling media broadcasts, and censoring civilian mail.

In response, many Polish citizens refused to watch government mandated programming, and instead developed an underground press of homemade videos and pamphlets to replace what was taken from them.

Kovach and Rosenstiel would say that their Awareness Instinct was unsatisfied with news from official sources, and compelled them to create a new network of public opinion. This is a pattern that they claim is repeated not just in Poland but throughout history whenever access to information is restricted.

So the authors argue that news and journalism are definitely not synonymous. While news is the end product, the thing in cinnamon toast crunch that kids go crazy for, journalism is the methodology; the process by which news is produced responsibly, which must prioritize the interests of the listener over those of the speaker. They can exist separately, but news produced without that methodology is, at best, propaganda.

Okay, so who does the press actually work for? This one’s less straightforward. The answer has changed pretty dramatically over time, and while there’s maybe an ideal answer it still isn’t totally settled yet.

Kovach & Rosenstiel ultimately synthesize two competing schools of thought, from each Walter Lippmann and John Dewey, who we’ll learn about a bit later.

They write that “The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free, and self-governing”, and they add that “societies which want to suppress freedom must first suppress the press”.

You can’t effectively control or create change in systems that you don’t understand. And the world definitely isn’t getting any less complex. The average citizen doesn’t have the time or the skill to be an expert in all things, or to constantly monitor everything they would need to know in order to vote effectively.

So, a journalist distributes that load, by acting as detective of the people. They do this by identifying events of public interest; gathering all of the information and evidence that they can through a combination of research, recording, interviews, and deductive reasoning; and then condensing their findings into something the public can use to make informed decisions about their lives.

In this way, journalism is a kind of public good, like access to water, or parks, or the internet. Performed properly, it is a necessary component of democracy, acting as antidote to misinformation and a counterweight to established power.

According to Kovach and Rosenstiel, a journalist doesn’t even work for their own boss. Not really. They should actually work for the public.

The answer to “who is journalism for”, at least ideally, is you.

Like, you. I mean you you.

[Get up from your seat and poke the camera]

How did you get in there, anyway?

So, who was the first journalist?

You could make an argument that journalism as a discipline has to at least be as old as the first historian. They have a lot in common; historians fulfill a similarly universal human urge by telling stories. They create records of events like journalists do, which help citizens understand the world, they literally shape public record, and it’s definitely a kind of public good.

Thucydides was an Ancient Greek historian, who in the fifth century BCE wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War. His approach to fact-finding became the foundation for the modern historical method, and it closely mirrors that of the journalist. So maybe he’s the first one?

Rather than framing events as the will of intervening gods, Thucydides was unique in that he strictly attributed them to cause and effect: the behaviors of individuals and relationships between nations.

He also applied a novel set of standards to evaluate whether accounts were credible enough to warrant inclusion into the historical record. Thucydides sought multiple sources for each claim, and while he committed to reproducing their accounts faithfully, he also maintained a healthy skepticism, treating their contributions more as hypotheses to be tested.

“…far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible.

My conclusions have cost me some labour from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eye-witnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other.” - Thucydides, A History of the Peloponnesian War

Thucydides is one of the progenitors of the most critical skill for any journalist: verification. And if we asked a modern journalist to investigate the Peloponnesian War, they would follow the same playbook he did; seeking testimony from as many parties as possible, comparing their statements for inconsistencies while managing their own biases, and publishing a report on their findings.

The problem with conflating these two disciplines, is a conflict of interests.

If journalism primarily serves the public, as a watchdog keeping power in check? The opposite is often true of classical historians, many of whom were members the clergy or under the employ of political rulers of their time; Thucydides himself was a general in the Athenian military.

When printing something critical of the church or government can get you executed for heresy or treason, this proximity is going to have an impact on the things you’re willing to say. Doubly so if they’re the ones paying you to write it.

Plus, no matter how impartial they may strive to be, accounts from historians wouldn’t have been independently verifiable by subjects in those systems, who in addition to being unlikely to be able to read them, were particularly vulnerable to the whims of those same commissioning rulers. Since they couldn’t be safely questioned, historical accounts just didn’t serve quite the same purpose to the public. In most cases, they weren’t even the target audience.

The old adage is “history is written by the victors”, right. Ideally, journalism is written by the people, and for them, too. So, at best, historians wrote yesterday’s news. In the opinion section.

Maybe we’ll have better luck narrowing our focus to the history of the newspaper?

The Acta Diurna of Rome are sometimes credited as the world’s first gazette. Although many of the details of what the Acta contained, and who they were for, are matters of …spirited academic debate.

They’re generally described as a set of notices inscribed in metal or stone and displayed in a public forum, basically a bulletin board. They are thought to have primarily contained news authorized by the Roman government, such as decrees from the emperor, but also notices of civil affairs such as births, deaths, and marriages. They’re most often attributed to a decree from Julius Caesar in 59 ADE, and are thought to have been used until 222 ADE.

Now you may have noticed I used a lot of weasel words just now, and that’s because there are no surviving copies of the Acta Diurna. The one source which was believed to contain one, a set of biographies called Historia Augusta, has since had its authenticity, authorship, and date of publication called into question. So everything we know about the Acta is really our best guess, based on unrelated correspondence and secondhand references in other literature. It doesn’t help that word acta has multiple meanings and so even that is a journey of interpretation by scholars.

What I can tell you is that despite the superficial resemblance, a crucial factor disqualifies the Acta Diurna from being works of journalism: state authorship. It definitely contained elements we would consider news, and was a step forward in regards to accessibility, but you can bet nothing was getting printed there that made the ruler uncomfortable.

Some of the earliest recorded writing from the public that we would consider news today were the Roman avvisi; these were handwritten accounts of primarily economic and military nature, which began circulation in the 1500’s. Although Johannes Gutenberg had already invented the printing press by this time, the avviso remained mostly handwritten until advancements in automated printing made doing so more practical, in the 17th century. And this has an impact both on the kind of information they contained, and the way they could be distributed.

This one was called the—

…god help me, how do I say this…

[cut to Google translate audio]

“Notizie scritte.”

Thank you.

It was distributed monthly in Venice beginning in 1556, and contained an arrangement of approved political, economic, and military news. And some scholars do point to this as the first newspaper.

Like the Acta Diurna, the word approved there is doing some lifting. I wouldn’t rule them out completely, though, there’s some nuance, and it really depends on who you ask.

History professor and author Mario Infelise disputes that the Notizie scritte [I tried] qualifies as a work of true public opinion because of how heavily they were censored. Avvisi throughout Europe were prohibited from printing unapproved political news, or dissent of any kind against the church or government. Violators of these laws would be tortured or executed, so that definitely has a chilling effect. But that doesn’t mean no one tried; just the opposite was true.

Much like 1980’s Poland, an underground press of “secret” avvisi developed, particularly in Rome. Information leaked from top-secret meetings with cardinals and politicians would be distributed alongside more mundane decoy copies containing only un-objectionable information. Sometimes those got mixed up and the writers were… [hanging motion]

But the really cool thing about these was you never knew who was leaking them. It could just as easily have been a servant as a disgruntled participant, and reading about it I really got the sense that politicians of the time were exasperated by it to the point of paranoia.

The Roman public was especially rebellious, and thus their avvisi are in some ways closer in spirit to the journalism of today. They tended to be written in a more attractive style, with refined language and liberal use of sarcasm and irony.

Per Infelise:

“Thus Roman avvisi of the period were often very lively documents which spoke of the political realities of the moment; they were not restricted to formal descriptions of external facts, but rather tried to illustrate intrigues and behind-the-scenes events in a spirited way.”

In exchange for that liveliness, though, they tended to be significantly less factual, and impartial. In fact, I would go so far as to describe them as spicy. Let me just…give you a taste.

“On 19 November [1667] the death of [the cardinal’s] brother Mario was reported: Don Mario Chigi died’ …as he had lived, with no confession, communion or extreme unction… he ruled like a lion, lived like a wolf and died like a dog.’ And the reporter went on to describe the public jubilation at his death.”

So, lots of fun to read. So much so the Pope himself liked to read them!

And that’s the other thing; on the other end of political censorship, even these underground avvisi could be used to further the state’s goals. They were sometimes used to sabotage political rivals, by intentionally leaking incorrect information which was just too tempting to resist spreading. In other words, the Romans invented fake news.

So whether the notizie scritte qualifies as a newspaper is also up for debate. The public ones were heavily censored, and the secret ones lacked verification or editing until roughly the 1700’s. At the very least, they were an impressive effort in crowdsourced espionage. That’s kinda like journalism.

Our final contender for the title of first newspaper, is this one, called: no I’m not even trying that.

[cut to Google translate] …

…which is otherwise known as The Relation. It was written in Germany a few decades later, by Johan Carolus around 1609. I struggled to find a translated version of it anywhere and eventually had to settle for a summary.

The Relation is unique in that it was more or less a private operation by Carolus, who had saved enough money to assemble his own printing press.[6] It contained primarily political and economic news, and very little editorializing, especially compared to the notizie scritte. It assumed that the reader was well versed in domestic and foreign affairs, and didn’t offer anything in the way of context on the individuals and events it covered.

Even as an independent writer, Carolus was not completely immune from government oversight. One particularly controversial article landed Carolus in hot water, and led to sanctions requiring official authorization before printing certain types of political news.

To the extent that any consensus can ever be reached with academics, it is generally agreed upon that the Relation is the first newspaper. For sure. Almost definitely.

Unless it was actually the Oxford Gazette in 1665…? No, we’re moving on.

We can learn a lot about what journalism is, by looking at these examples that didn’t quite hit the mark.

If we accept the premise of the awareness instinct, then it isn’t enough for news to simply summarize current events. In order to fully embody the journalistic methodology, it must be produced independently from the government. Its account should be thoroughly and skeptically vetted, and the end product must prioritize the interests and needs of members of the public above all other parties. Ideally, it can be distributed without fear for one’s safety or retaliation from established power. And it should be self-authorizing; it shouldn’t need to be approved by any source which might have a vested interest in its contents.

I think this is why it’s so difficult to answer the question of, who was the first journalist? Or even, what was the first newspaper? It’d be great if we could point to, I dunno, Tom Journalsmith or whatever and say definitively, yeah, it’s that stuff. But the truth is messier than that. Lots of things resemble early journalism, but with one or two essential conditions missing.

All that is to say, the early history of the craft is a bit of a moving target.

To Kovach and Rosenstiel’s point, you can find traces of it throughout human history, and no matter which spot you pick, it always seems to be mid-refinement. Its origins seem to defy definition; journalism is at once both old and new. Ancient, but still in beta. Kind of like Dwarf Fortress.

PART THREE: LETS DO THE TIME WARP AGAIN

Every couple of decades, something new comes along and forces the profession to re-evaluate and redefine itself, and we can use those changes to build a timeline of broad eras in the craft’s history.

As far as I can tell, most of them don’t have formal names… and anyway it’s my video essay which means I get to name them.

We don’t really know each other yet but, uh, trust me, this is not gonna end well.

So first, we have what I have decided to call the Fuck Around, and Find Out era of American journalism, which begins with the by-now-familiar story of government suppression and ends with a backfiring legal case accidentally securing freedom of expression for the press, instead.

Okay, so, the first truly original newspaper in the American colonies was called Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, printed in Cambridge in 1689. It was authored by Benjamin Harris, who would go on to write the first American textbooks. A fun fact about Harris: he was at that time fleeing England to escape fines; he had just been jailed for sedition after publishing the Popish Plot, which claimed that the Catholic Church planned to destroy London.

Ah, conspiracy theories; an American tradition.

Publick Occurrences was three pages, and covered a handful of the most pressing issues for colonists at the time, like smallpox outbreaks, local crime, and the execution of French and Native American prisoners of war. The rest of it was left blank, so local news could be added by hand whenever it got where it was going.

Publick Occurrences was originally set to release monthly, or even faster if a lot was going on. It ran for one issue.

See, the colonial government was not happy about having its treatment of PoW’s aired out in “publick”, so shortly after its printing Isaac Addington, then secretary of a colonial record keeping committee, ordered it to be suppressed and for existing copies to be destroyed.

It also asserted that any future printed work needed a license from the government, which he just made up and would be approved exclusively by him.

There’s one surviving copy of Publick Occurrences today, and it’s in London because the UK has this thing with collecting other country’s historical artifacts. But honestly the author sounds like a bit of a toad so as far as I’m concerned they can keep him.

For at least the next ten years, each new publication in America would face the same swift end as Publick Occurrences. Eventually continuous publications were permitted, but they remained officially or unofficially under government supervision, and ever at risk of being shut down the instant they offended the wrong person.

If you’re like me, you may have been taught growing up that the First Amendment to the United States constitution fixed all of this. My history classes skipped straight to 1791, where in a quintessentially American display of patriotism, we solved Freedom of the Press forever.

But that’s not really accurate, and anyway a bunch of interesting things happened in that 100 year gap. So let’s talk about the origins of freedom of the press, not in America, but in England, and the weaponization of libel law.

For context, England’s relationship with the press in the 1600’s was tenuous. The Printing Act of 1662 required all written work to be licensed, just like the sanctions placed against Publick Occurrences. Its enforcement waxed and waned over the proceeding decades depending on the needs of power, and it was periodically renewed until 1695.

So, this is the environment that the idea of freedom of speech, for the press or otherwise, would originate, in the form of Cato’s Letters.

Between 1720 and 1723, writers Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard penned a series of 114 essays in The London Journal under the pseudonym Cato.

Enraged by flagrant political corruption, corporate abuse, and the tendency for courts to smother criticism of them, Cato argued the truth ought to serve as an absolute defense against charges of libel. English common law traditionally held the opposite; in fact, in many cases, the greater the truth, the greater the libel, because the truth was more believable.

“The exposing therefore of publick wickedness, as it is a duty which every man owes to truth and his country, can never be a libel in the nature of things; and they who call it so, make themselves no compliment.

…I must own, that I would rather many libels should escape, than the liberty of the press should be infringed…

…Freedom of speech is the great bulwark of liberty; they prosper and die together: And it is the terror of traitors and oppressors, and a barrier against them.” - Thomas Gordon

Their novel arguments for an innate freedom of speech were reprinted many times and survived the voyage to the American colonies, where it would be used in a couple of different contexts before its incorporation into its developing constitution.

In 1735, German-American immigrant Peter Zenger was charged with seditious libel after printing several unflattering pieces about the governor in the New-York Weekly Journal. Notably, Zenger didn’t write them, he was the newspaper’s printer, but he was the one that the Cosby administration targeted with this lawsuit.

Because normally, all the jury would be responsible for deciding in a case like this is whether or not the allegedly seditious statements were printed by Zenger. The question of whether the statements were actually seditious as alleged, would be at the sole discretion of the judge, who in this case happened to be a known supporter of the plaintiff. Zenger’s own lawyers were essentially disbarred for pointing this out. He looked pretty screwed.

But his final lawyer Andrew Hamilton, did something unexpected. Instead of arguing his case to the judge, he spoke directly to the jury, against the judge’s wishes.

His arguments were remarkably similar to those made by Cato before him. He asked the jury to decide whether the statements Zenger had printed were truthful, and whether the common person should have the right to speak truth to power.

“It is natural, it is a privilege, I will go farther, it is a right which all freemen claim, and are entitled to complain when they are hurt; they have the right publicly to remonstrate the abuses of power in the strongest terms, to put their neighbors upon their guard against the craft or open violence of men in authority, and to assert with courage the sense they have of the blessings of liberty, the value they put upon it, and their resolution at all hazards to preserve it as one of the greatest blessings heaven can bestow.

… If you should be of opinion that there is no falsehood in Mr. Zenger’s papers… you ought to say so… It is your right to do so, and there is much depending upon your resolution as well as upon your integrity.” - Andrew Hamilton

The judge told Hamilton off for doing this, and forbade the jury from considering any factor other than whether Zenger had printed the statements to begin with. Zenger had very obviously and verifiably done this, so their job was to rubber stamp it.

But the jury did not comply. They returned a verdict of Not Guilty, one of the earliest examples of jury nullification, and Zenger was subsequently acquitted after nearly a year of imprisonment.

Notably, the Zenger trial did not have the weight of legal precedent. It did not create a new law or right for anyone; it did not create the First Amendment. But it directly influenced the way future cases would be argued, and how the public thought about the press.

And these arguments would need to be repeated and refined even after the establishment of the First Amendment. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but in the 1804 case People v. Croswell, a journalist was charged with libel for criticizing Thomas Jefferson, and a different lawyer with the last name of Hamilton made an impassioned argument that the truth can’t be defamatory.

And look, we got there eventually, but that’s why the more interesting part of this story to me personally is the way these works came to shape the public’s perception of a journalist’s role in society. We can see a lot of modern ideas forming here.

Cato’s letters describe the inevitability of powerful institutions to protect their own interests by controlling the flow of information. And Hamilton asserts that it is in fact the duty of any citizen to look out for their neighbors, by sharing what they know.

These ideas differed from what came before because they viewed the press as having an ongoing relationship with and responsibility to the public. They weren’t just arguing that a law should be different in this specific circumstance, but that a public service whose mission was to hold power to account was valuable and even necessary for healthy civilization.

This is hundreds of years before Manufacturing Consent was written, or before the Hutchins Commission would deliberate who exactly journalists ought to be loyal to. And it’s really cool to see the seed of this idea in a place you wouldn’t expect. Not in our constitution, but the debates that informed it.

Okay, enough about freedom of the press; we should cover some of the other stuff in this period.

The next major newspaper in America was The Boston News-Letter, hyphenated like Spiders-man, in 1704. I guess they hadn’t invented the letter S yet cause the masthead looked like [this]. Bofton!

It was also the first one to successfully run for multiple issues, so it is my honor to bestow upon it this coveted Haste Makes Waste “You Didn’t Die Immediately” award, which I made out of Playdoh. Congratulations kid, you earned it.

The Bofton News-Letter was a little bigger than Publick Occurrences, and modeled after the publications the colonists were most familiar with, like the London Gazette. It relied on outside correspondents throughout the colonies, which was unique, but that means some stories were vetted more carefully than others. It wasn’t very successful financially either, but it was the first one in the colonies to last more than one issue.

Regardless of its accuracy, the News-Letter attempted to serve as a record of current events. You might wonder why I even bother to point this out, surely that’s what newspapers are meant to do?

The New-England Courant went in a slightly different direction. It was first published in Bofton in 1721; Mott describes it as “one of the most brilliant and interesting of eighteenth century American newspapers”. And when he says this I feel like he had to have meant more “awe-inspiring” than “aspirational”.

According to Mott, what set the Courant apart was its identity as a scrappy outsider without official government affiliations, and that it appealed directly to the interests of the public. Where most news produced in this time was meant to be informative first, either as a record of history or update on current events, the Courant was one of the earliest papers which prioritized being entertaining, and echoing popular sentiment.

In an exciting example of history repeating itself, the Courant amplified anti-innoculation anxieties during the smallpox epidemic, and dedicated a great deal of space to harassing its advocates.

So that’s an American original, too.

It was also the first paper to publish essays by Benjamin Franklin, under the pseudonym “Silence Dogood”. The owner had no idea who was writing them at first, which is especially funny because the owner was his brother, James Franklin. Benjamin was just an apprentice at the time; and according to Mott, he snuck his essays into the building, and then just listened to his colleagues compliment them and speculate who the brilliant author could be. What a little shit, right?

The Franklins fucked around, but they also found out. Their paper eventually flew a little too close to sun in its political commentary, which saw James jailed and then banned from publishing the Courant ever again. I think the spirit of this sentence was that the Courant would stop. Instead James just signed it over to Benjamin and he published it instead.

Government obstruction like this is probably why he would go on to become such a vocal supporter of the idea of freedom of the press.

Fun side tangent, Mott mentioned a specific article in the Courant about the final duel of Blackbeard, and I was like, oh hell yeah, I wanna read that.

And I did find it, it’s not quite as fun of a read as I was expecting. Despite being written in old-timey speak, it still manages to have that “and then my buddy Maynard says he did a cool flip, whoa” energy.

But I did trip over this blog by one Ryan Beckwith, who reprinted it with the observation that this might be history’s most egregious example of burying the lede. It actually doesn’t tell you that the article is about Blackbeard dying until the last sentence, 333 words in.

I just thought that was funny, and it made me smile, so thanks Mr. Beckwith.

You can thank journalism of this time for viral imagery, too.

In 1754, the Pennsylvania Gazette published what may be the first political meme, at least in the American colonies. You’ve probably seen this one; the woodcut “Join, or Die”. It’s often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, as well, but that’s actually incorrect, we don’t know who the original artist was.

What we do know is that it was an effective method of communicating the idea; variations of this image would be used not only in the American Revolutionary War, but in the Civil war that followed. It was pervasive enough that both the Confederacy and the Union saw a bit of themselves in it, and it’s still instantly recognizable today.

But while we tend to teach it as pure-hearted, star-spangled patriotism, that wasn’t how it was originally intended. Franklin had first used it in a pamphlet in 1747, in an attempt to rally colonists against Native American resistance and French loyalists. The design may actually be lifted from the French to begin with, as a similar image appears in this 1685 text by Nicolas Verrien. (Recueil d’emblemes)

Regardless of its origins, it proved to be really memorable and would go on to be used in many different contexts throughout the American revolution, and later the Civil war.

We already talked about a few of the major victories for freedom of the press that were won during this time, but it was uphill battle.

The Sedition Act was passed by a Federalist-controlled Congress in 1798 in order to intimidate the opposing party’s press. It criminalized making “false, scandalous, and malicious” statements against the Government, with the argument being that as long as you tell the truth, you don’t have anything to worry about.

Keep in mind this is not only seven years after the First Amendment, it was almost a hundred years before the Supreme Court would establish the presumption of innocence. So in reality, you would have to prove every statement to be unerringly true, which is exceedingly difficult if not impossible. Even if you were sure you’d succeed, the stress of litigation would be enough to chill speech.

While the Sedition Act was eventually found unconstitutional, and is today used as a lesson to law students on exactly how NOT to behave, it was used multiple times until then, with editors and private citizens alike jailed and fined.

One last interesting note: during the American Revolution, printers were already starting to operate at a loss. Depending on where you lived, prices varied wildly, and apparently they struggled quite a bit with subscribers who skipped out on payment.

Mott mentions an anecdote of James Rivington pleading with fleeing loyalists to please pay for the paper that supported them on their way out? Unfortunately the edition of the Royal Gazette that appears in doesn’t appear to have been scanned anywhere. But I think it’s a funny mental image.

Anyway, to compensate, papers started taking on more ads and classifieds, and this is also where editors start having trouble striking that balance between their financial and educational needs.

Between the ads, illustrations, and first dedicated editorial sections, newspapers are starting to look a bit more familiar.

Print media as we recognize it today really came into its own in the late 18th and 19th centuries, coinciding with the proliferation of mass-distributed newspapers and increased access to education and literacy in the general population.

Mott calls this period the Party Press, followed simply by the “later period”, but I think it could be improved with a bit of descriptive dysentery so I’m going with the Oregon Campaign Trail.

In the 1800’s, the landscape of politics in the US was split between the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties, and this is reflected in the highly partisan newspapers of the time. Most publications were explicitly loyal to one party or the other, presenting the issues of the day from the perspective of either business owners or farmers, respectively. So this has happened before, how nice!

The primary purpose for the news at this time was to mobilize voters. Not necessarily to sway them; most newspapers were owned along party lines, and focused on active campaigning. That’s not to say that independent publications didn’t exist, or that cultural or commercial features were never printed, but they were fewer and farther between.

At the same time, newspapers became cheaper, faster to make, and more widely available than they had ever been, as printing presses transitioned from being hand-operated, to steam powered. The telegraph was invented in the 1830’s, which allowed information to travel at speeds previously thought impossible.

The combination of these two factors led to the formation of the Penny Press, so named because that’s what one copy of the average paper would cost.

The resulting newspapers were called tabloids, which didn’t mean the same thing yet that it does today, but is probably where we got the term. Back then it was in reference to their size; it just meant they were compressed. However, they absolutely were sensationalized, just a hot mess of political spite lobbed back and forth. Mott goes so far as to describe this period as “the dark ages of partisan journalism”.

“Should the Infidel Jefferson be elected to the Presidency, the seal of death is that moment set on our holy religion, our churches will be prostrated, and some infamous prostitute, under the title of the Goddess of Reason, will preside in the Sanctuaries now devoted to the Most High.

“Look at your houses, your parents, your wives, and your children. Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames, hoary hairs bathed in blood, female chastity violated, or children writhing on the pike and the halbert? … Look at every leading Jacobin as at a ravening wolf, preparing to enter your peaceful fold, and glut his deadly appetite on the vitals of your country. . . Great God of compassion and justice, shield my country from destruction.”

Then there were the Coffin Handbills, distributed during the lead-up to the 1828 election between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. One of the more famous examples of dirty politics, they alleged that Jackson had been a terrible military leader who had ordered the execution of soldiers and Native Americans for funsies. It also claimed that he was an adulterer, and included cute lil’ cartoons which depicted him straight up stabbing a man in the street.

My friends, these are the normal parts. They get better.

“Now, ‘gentle reader’, prepare yourself to receive a shock, which I fear will prove more than you can bear! Shortly after these unfortunate American Militiamen had been consigned to the earth… they were accordingly disinterred and… I shudder whilste I relate it! Would you believe it, ‘gentle reader’, this monster, this more than cannibal Gen. Andrew Jackson, he swallowed them whole, coffins and all, without the slightest attempt at mastication!!!!!!

If you place him at the head of the government, what pledge can you have, that if he should at any time be displeased with his cabinet, that he will not have all four of his secretaries roasted, and eat them for his dinner!!!!”

They went on to claim that after a bloody battle, he would sleep amongst the corpses, that he had once attempted to feed the human meat of his enemies to the men in his command, and that all those around him were in danger of being roasted and eaten alive.

Which is ridiculous. Everyone knows the proper way to prepare human flesh is via sous vide. You wanna cook it evenly and conserve the moisture.

This isn’t representative of everything that was printed, there was real news, too, but this is a lot of it. As you might expect, the press took some serious hits to its credibility in this time.

So much so that in 1807, Thomas Jefferson wrote this in a letter to an aspiring journalist:

“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

Mott only even mentions this in passing in a footnote, but I think if he were to rewrite this textbook today he’d give this quote a bit more prominence.

Because this observation is surprisingly salient to modern discussions of our post-truth media environment. Having to constantly remain vigilant to false information is exhausting; if you concentrate enough of it in one space it really does taint everything, and eventually, people just give up. This isn’t the last time we’ll see this theme.

So, yeah, from where I’m standing in 2023, this little blip resonates with me a lot.

One of the most famous hoaxes was also printed in this period.

In 1835 The New York Sun ran a story by one Richard Adams Locke, who claimed an astronomer had discovered life on the moon using a very powerful telescope. But oops, wouldn’t you know it, he says the telescope got damaged so unfortunately I can’t show you right now and also my uncle works at Nintendo…

A bunch of the Sun’s competitors picked it up, too, and it ran for four articles describing various moon Pokemon until it was exposed. According to Mott the public was weirdly cool about it, treating it almost like performance art. Allegedly Edgar Allan Poe abandoned a similar fiction story having read Locke’s and decided he wasn’t gonna top it.

In the mid to late 19th century, the first reporters began developing regular beats, that is specialized areas of coverage. They also started coordinating with foreign correspondents, and covering breaking stories and Wall Street developments in a way we would recognize today.

Starting here, you might also recognize some of the more enduring news brands. The New York Times was founded in 1851, and they’re still around at least in name. In fact, a lot of newspapers were founded during this time, as frontier towns relied on them to post and legitimize land claims as folks spread westward.

Women started to gain entry to profession in the late 1860’s; the Sun hired Emily Battey as their first female reporter in 1868.

In the 1880’s and 90’s, publications such as The New York Tribune began to advocate for an important principle of contemporary journalism; independence from the subject, more specifically from political parties.

It didn’t come into fruition all at once yet; folks who criticized their own party would still find themselves outcast, branded as “mugwumps”. Which is a real word, I didn’t make that up.

Crucially neither did they. The word was appropriated from an indigenous tribe, originally meaning something closer to “person in a position of importance” and used sarcastically until the meaning was corrupted entirely.

I feel like I had something else I wanted to say about it? Oh well, maybe I’ll think of it later.

Anyway, papers began to explore the idea of independence, and while there was resistance, many of those that did eventually found financial success.

We’ll close out this period with a new piece of technology: the linotype machine, which was invented in 1886, and that was a big deal.

It used hot metal to print entire lines at a time, which allowed newspapers to be developed even faster, and remain legible at smaller font sizes than could previously be produced. The linotype continued being used well into the 1970s, until they were finally replaced by digital typesetting.

PART FOUR: HEY, WAKE UP, WE’RE FINALLY AT THE MODERN STUFF

Our next era of note is Newspaper Puberty. That awkward period when reporters were trying to figure out their place in the world. A time of edgy humor, experimentation but eventually maturation. Also hair started growing in strange places.

In the 1890’s, a rivalry was developing between William Randolph Hearst and his former mentor Joseph Pulitzer, who owned The New York Journal, and New York World, respectively.

As the papers competed with each other for attention, they steadily slashed the price of each issue to undercut each other. They had to make money somehow, so Hearst and Pulitzer leaned harder on the ad-revenue model, optimizing for stories that were explosive or salacious. The more eyeballs you could attract, the more your ad space was worth.

Hearst started poaching Pulitzer’s staff, and due to a copyright mix up both ended up with the rights to their most famous comic strip, which they both stubbornly continued to print.

All this led to what was probably the wildest circulation war in US history, and a divisive style of reporting which came to be known as yellow journalism.

Yellow journalism describes roughly six years of history, from 1885 to around 1901, depending on who you ask. The practice is typified by three things: investigative reporting, unrepentant pursuit of profit, and most commonly, sensationalism.

The full history of this period is extremely complex. I genuinely want to gush about it, there are so many interesting things to talk about, but I’d never release the video. So let’s narrow our focus; understand I am flattening quite a bit of nuance in the interests of time. And it is killing me inside, I am appropriately sorry.

Frank Luther Mott describes five distinguishing characteristics for news of this time:

First was the use of “scareheads”; dire headlines given to disproportionately unimportant news, in type that could be seen from space. Next, a high-concentration of unnecessary pictures, many of which were stolen from other sources or even faked entirely. The stories themselves could also be fraudulent in nature, relying on pseudoscience, misrepresentation, and interviews which never happened. Fourth is what Mott describes as the Sunday supplement, featuring a surplus of “colored comics and superficial articles”, and finally, the tendency to champion an underdog, inventing one if necessary.

Yellow journalism is fun to read about; I fell down more rabbit holes in this period than any other. Its easy to treat this just as this goofy, immature period in reporting history. But these changes also had real-world consequences.

Common consensus among scholars of this period, is that the circulation war between Hearst and Pulitzer directly instigated the Spanish-American war. How much depends on who you ask, but even Mott, who seems generally disinterested in playing the hypothetical history game, admits that this is probably the case.

What Hearst and Pulitzer found, was that war imagery and specifically the implication of “Spanish atrocities”, could sell papers like little else. So they went hard on it.

Events in Cuba began to receive disproportionate amounts of coverage from papers like The World and The Journal, devoting massive resources and bigger, bolder headlines to it in a constant battle to out scoop each other. They each sent foreign correspondents, and lowered their standards for verifying “eye witness” testimony as long as they brought back shocking stories or photos to sell.

A possibly apocryphal tale from this time is a cablegram that is alleged to have been sent between Hearst and one of his correspondents, whom he had equipped with a yacht called the “Vamoose”. (Love that name) The story goes like this:

HEARST, JOURNAL, NEW YORK:

EVERYTHING IS QUIET. THERE IS NO TROUBLE HERE. THERE WILL BE NO WAR. WISH TO RETURN. REMINGTON.

REMINGTON, HAVANA:

PLEASE REMAIN. YOU FURNISH THE PICTURES AND I’LL FURNISH THE WAR. HEARST.

Author John Winkler disputes that this exchange occurred on the basis that it is so lurid it obviously would have been censored. But he also wrote his biography with the cooperation of the Hearst family. Mott calls him a dummy. Hearst’s employee’s say it happened, his descendants deny it. I dunno, I wasn’t there.

But it’s undeniable that a war was furnished, and the exchange summarizes the priorities of many news organizations in this time quite accurately. They didn’t just fabricate facts or uncritically repeat rumors; they also manufactured intense emotional investment in the public.

Some examples: the Journal embellished a story about the incarceration of teenage rebel Evangelina Cisneros for multiple issues, playing on American anxieties of the helpless woman, and lingering awkwardly on her beauty and chastity. Hearst eventually hired a reporter to physically travel to Cuba, break her out of prison, and smuggle her back to America to meet the President.

We love prison abolition, but I doubt that was Hearst’s motivation as opposed to the spectacle of it.

Just a year later, the Journal would claim, without verifying, that the U.S.S Maine was destroyed by a Spanish mine, pushing public sentiment even further in support of the war. It published inflammatory articles about President McKinley just prior to his assassination, and then clippings from the Journal were found in the assassin’s pocket.

I’m picking on the Journal because Hearst makes it easy, but they were not the only paper like this. Despite their reputation, a lot of people read this stuff. It was captivating, and it absolutely influenced their behavior.

Mott emphasizes that not all of the practices of Yellow Journalism are necessarily bad. Some elements, such as the incorporation of illustrations, consideration for the interests of readers, and elevation of the struggles of common people, would eventually benefit the craft.

And in fact a tremendous amount of quality investigative reporting was done in this time, creating a public appetite for it.

Although it is rarely covered in the (traditionally male-dominated) historical canon, an increasing number of these contributions were made by women, including Native American, Black, and Jewish American women who had previously been denied access.

Their methodologies formed the bedrock of many of the standards we use today, and legislation that we take for granted.

According to Carol Batker, author of Reforming Fictions: Native, African, and Jewish American Women’s Literature and Journalism in the Progressive Era, there are astoundingly few secondary sources for the work of these authors, despite their broad impact and importance. Unlike similar work by white men, you either know about the originals, or they pass you by completely. You could, as I nearly did, spend hours and hours studying progressive era reporting without encountering these names or works at all.

We’re going to rectify that problem right now.

For example, in 1892, reporter and suffragist Ida B. Wells published Southern Horrors, a comprehensive investigative report on lynching in the United States. By compiling accounts of the extra-judicial murders of Black Americans, she exposed a selective lack of enforcement of the US legal system (sure glad we fixed that) as well as a national pattern of White Southerners falsifying claims of sexual violence in order to oppress the economic growth of communities of color.

“The strong arm of the law must be brought to bear upon lynchers in severe punishment, but this cannot and will not be done unless a healthy public sentiment demands and sustains such action.

The men and women in the South who disapprove of lynching and remain silent on the perpetration of such outrages, are particeps criminis, accomplices, accessories before and after the fact, equally guilty with the actual lawbreakers who would not persist if they did not know that neither the law nor militia would be employed against them.” - Ida B. Wells, Southern Horrors

Wells also saw the futility of asking a deeply prejudiced government to police itself. Something unique to her work which we haven’t seen much of yet, is that she ended with an explicit call to action:

The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.” - Ida B. Wells, Southern Horrors

Wells’ writing was key in the efforts to codify anti-lynching laws across the US, but as you might imagine, many white readers felt threatened by it.

She continued to work in this area throughout her life despite regular threats of graphic violence. And many of those threats were from the State.

In her autobigraphy, Wells wrote that she was repeatedly threatened by the secret service with charges of treason for things like handing out buttons protest ing the hanging of African American soldiers.

It was only by balancing her activism with highly visible war relief work, that she was able to avoid arrest and continue her advocacy.

Then there was civil rights activist Alice Dunbar-Nelson, (who was also bisexual, go team!) and who wrote for a variety of papers, journals, and magazines from 1910 to 1935. She was published in The Wilmington Advocate, the A.ME. Church Review, and had her own column in The Washington Eagle called “As In a Looking Glass”. Dunbar-Nelson’s work advocated for a variety of human rights topics of the time, from anti-lynching laws to voting rights and disaster aid, and she helped to document the contributions of Black Americans to World War I.

Next, Cecilia Razovsky was a Jewish-American activist and editor of the National Council of Jewish Women’s The Immigrant beginning in 1922. A great deal of her published work focused on providing guidance to prospective immigrants and helping them navigate those systems.

In 1932, she wrote a 27 page pamphlet called Handicaps in Naturalization, which was an investigation of the impact of increased fees imposed upon immigrants seeking entry to the US. It was published by the National Council on Naturalization and Citizenship, and according Mary McCune, Associate Professor of History at the State University of New York at Oswego, eventually influenced Congress to reduce those fees.

Unfortunately, that’s all I can tell you about her, because the paper simply does not exist on the internet, and nobody seems to have written about it. This is exactly what Batker was talking about, by the way.

Finally, in 1924, Zitkala-Sa co-authored Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes, Legal Robbery. She spent five weeks meticulously documenting abuses of Eastern Oklahoma’s guardianship systems. The list of these crimes is incomprehensibly vast; from theft, to kidnapping, assault and outright State-sanctioned murder.

The report revealed an officially sanctioned scheme to declare perfectly healthy Native American residents incompetent, in order to “legally” seize control of their land and property. Court-appointed guardians would, without consent, inherit sole control of a ward’s assets, which they used to pay themselves for its management, at a rate they set themselves.

“…excessive and unnecessary administrative costs, unconscionable fees and commissions, are allowed ~by many of the County Courts to professional guardians, attorneys, et al.

… [Native American] children have been allowed to - die for lack of nourishment because of the heartlessness and indifference of their professional guardians, who had ample funds in their possession for the care of the wards.” - Zitkala-Sa”

The cruel irony of this story is that something similar would later happen to Zitkala-Sa. Just three months after her death in 1938, the The Sun Dance Opera, for which she had written the original songs, debuted on Broadway. Her white peer William Hanson erased her name from the project when registering with the US Copyright Office, and her work was effectively stolen, papered over by a predominantly white cast.

All that is to say, we didn’t learn shit, and if the names of any of these women are new to you, that is not an accident.

In 1906, Roosevelt coined the term muckrakers to describe reporters like these who were primarily motivated by exposing corruption. It was meant to be a pejorative, like they were stirring up scandal for the hell of it, but was almost immediately reclaimed as a badge of honor. I would even go so far as to call it the journalist equivalent of the word queer, and that’s an association I don’t make lightly.

The reporting of early muckrakers held accountable people who were previously thought untouchable, companies which were notoriously secretive, and entire industries which had thus far evaded public scrutiny.

Now that we understand the state of the craft in the early 20th century, we’re ready to talk about the Dewey Lippmann debate.

And it’s worth spending a little extra time on their background, because their ideas formed two competing schools of thought on the role of journalism in a democratic society, which have remained massively influential, yet never been fully resolved.

First: Walter Lippmann. Born in the Upper East Side of Manhattan in 1889, he was a journalist and political philosopher who would have been growing up during the height of New York City’s circulation wars. He can be tough to pin down, because his views shift a lot in a very short time.

In 1920, he co-authored A Test of the News, which was a qualitative analysis of over 3,000 reporting errors made by the New York Times over a three year period covering the Russian Revolution. While their findings were damning, this report wasn’t meant to be an indictment of the Times specifically, but rather a case study of a wider problem in the profession.

Lippmann attributed most of the inaccuracies to the unconscious biases of the reporters, who he claimed had, in a display of unwarranted optimism, reported on the world only as they wished to see it, rather than as it was. He criticized the Times for its over reliance on official sources, which had led them to uncritically regurgitate government propaganda that aligned with what reporters had wanted to hear.

If even the most reputable papers in the world, with the most investigative resources at their disposal, were susceptible to this, then Lippmann reasoned that every institution was.

He called upon the industry to develop a set of professional standards, which would be enforced not by government regulation but the unstoppable might of the free market. /s

“Primarily, we believe, that the professional standards of journalism are not high enough, and the discipline by which standards are maintained not strong enough, to carry the press triumphantly through a test so severe as that provided by the Russian Revolution.

We do not believe that the press can be regulated by law. Our fundamental reliance must be on the corporate tradition and discipline of the newspaper guild…

But while the technical code of journalistic standards, the tradition and the discipline belong to the guild, newspapers must be prepared for an increasing supervision from the readers of the press…They will speak through organizations which will become centers of resistance.” - Walter Lippmann, A Test of the News

And you know, so far so good.

Then, in 1922, Lippmann expanded on some of these ideas in his own book, Public Opinion, which was less about news than it was about political philosophy and structuralist pop psychology.

The first third or so of the book is consistent with his findings in A Test of the News. He distinguished between news and truth, which he saw as different things. Every human being’s understanding of the world is limited by their perceptions, judgments, and past experiences, creating a truth which is personal to you. These personal truths are inevitably applied to the production of the news.

There are a lot of other enduring ideas in this section; Lippmann is the one who coined the term “stereotyping” as we use it today, as well as the idea that the press could manufacture the consent of the public through its coverage.

But this is where the similarities end. Because by this point, just two years later, he had come to form a much dimmer view of society.

In Public Opinion, Lippmann argued that the average citizen not only lacked the context needed to vote effectively, but that they didn’t even care to learn. In his view, human beings were inherently selfish and motivated by their own interests; their attention was fleeting and arbitrary; and the fallacy of democracy was that the government shouldn’t attempt to match public opinion, because the public was stupid.

“…the outsider, and every one of us is an outsider to all but a few aspects of modern life, has neither time, nor attention, nor interest, nor the equipment for specific judgment.”

..You cannot take more political wisdom out of human beings than there is in them.” - Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion

Instead, Lippmann explicitly called for the formation of a governing class. And this is a guy who wrote speeches for Woodrow Wilson, so you know where he saw himself fitting in all this. For some reason nobody ever says “I think there should be a governing class, but it shouldn’t include me”.

He proposed that decisions in society should be entrusted only to experts who had the necessary context. They should operate solely on objective measurements of what was best for humanity, without regard for the will of the people.

“…The purpose, then, is not to burden every citizen with expert opinions on all questions, but to push that burden away from him towards the responsible administration.

“..There is no prospect, in any time which we can conceive, that the whole invisible environment wilt be so clear to all men that they will spontaneously arrive at sound public opinions on the whole business of government…The only prospect which is not visionary is that each of us in his own sphere will act more and more on a realistic picture of the invisible world, and that we shall develop more and more men who are expert in keeping these pictures realistic.” - Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion

The role of the press in Lippmann’s new worldview was also substantially diminished. Keep in mind this is coming from a former journalist.

He accused the field of primarily indulging in the common man’s, quote: “hunger for sideshows, and three-legged calves”. In his view, the only purpose of a newspaper should be to print scientific fact for the sole purpose of preparing the public to vote yes or no, between two pre-determined options. Not to provide context, certainly not to editorialize. Give the public exactly what it needed to consent to policy, and be done with it.

If it sounds like this might contradict with earlier laments of manufacturing consent…yeah. It does. He doesn’t really grapple with that, sorry. His position seems to be more “it’s inevitable that people in power will do this, so we might as well resign to doing so with intention”. For good things.

By 1925, his stance had hardened even further with his publication of The Phantom Public. To call him disenchanted with democracy would be an understatement at this point. I would go so far as to call his relationship with the public actively antagonistic.

“These various remedies, eugenic, educational, ethical, populist, and socialist, all assume that either the voters are inherently competent to direct the course of affairs or that they are making progress towards such an ideal. I think it is a false ideal. I mean an unattainable ideal, bad only in the sense that it is bad for a fat man to try to be a ballet dancer.

… The public must be put in its place… so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd.” - Walter Lippmann, The Phantom Public

Reading Lippmann’s work back to back today, feels sort of like watching your friend from high school circle the drain on Facebook, growing more conservative and more angry at everything until you kinda don’t want to talk to him anymore?

And I’m definitely being a little uncharitable, skipping over some of the finer points in the interests of time. Not everything he says is super fashy, and there’s some good stuff in there. But between 1920 and 1925, I don’t think it’s unfair to observe a rapid descent toward authoritarianism in his work.

Dissatisfied with democracy, he would go on to advocate for the creation of a world government instead, run by the most meritorious of society. Of which he almost certainly saw himself a member.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because, surprise; Lippmann is also one of the founders of neoliberalism! [blow a kazoo off-key, and drop exactly two pieces of sad confetti]

So, to summarize Lippmann’s view: public opinion is fake, people are irrational cattle, the role of the press is to disseminate only objective fact, and democracy is a doomed enterprise, so fuck it.

So then comes this scholar named John Dewey, and he’s like whoa man, are you alright, you seem to be going through some stuff? He responds directly to Public Opinion and The Phantom Public a couple of times, most famously in his book The Public and its Problems in 1927, which is actually an anthology of lectures he had given in this time.

Dewey is all in on the way Lippmann identified the problem, he has a lot of praise for him in this regard. He just isn’t satisfied with the conclusion. Because where Lippmann looked at it from the perspective of a jaded journalist, Dewey was an educator.

He concedes that yes, democratic systems can be gamed, and it’s true that most people lack the knowledge and skills to engage with them right now. But actually that’s a good thing; that just means we get to teach them.

“It is true that those who have ability to manipulate social relations for their own advantage have to be reckoned with. They have an uncanny instinct for detecting whatever intellectual tendencies even remotely threaten to encroach upon their control.

…No man and no mind was ever emancipated merely by being left alone. Removal of formal limitations is but a negative condition; positive freedom is not a state but an act which involves methods and instrumentalities for control of conditions.

… a thing is fully known only when it is published, shared, socially accessible. Record and communication are indispensable to knowledge.” - John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems

He sounds like a real lucky ten thousand kinda guy.

Dewey was especially skeptical that it should be the sole responsibility of an aristocratic class to hand select who is worthy of knowledge. In fact, he believed this was already being done by capital, and was part of the problem.

Dewey proposed that capitalism and industrialization were to blame for any perceived lack of curiosity in the public; according to him, labor had become so compartmentalized, as to actively discourage learning. He reasons that of course individuals will seem disinterested, feel dis-empowered when actively prevented from seeing the complete picture or directly affecting the outcome.

It also didn’t escape his attention that big business owned the means of disseminating information through its ownership of the press. If the public was misinformed, this wasn’t because of an innate lack of intelligence. It was a problem created artificially and intentionally, by the press and the businesses which owned them, who would stand to directly benefit from an disengaged public.

Reading his lectures you really get the sense he’s being polite about calling Lippmann out. Like, okay, I see what you’re doing, you’re saying you should be the boss of me. I know it, you know it, but okay, I’ll entertain the idea. Let’s see where this goes.

So what did he think we should do instead?

Well, when it comes to the press, Dewey says it isn’t enough to just print objectively measurable facts. He questions whether those even exist, and identifies this as a core contradiction to Lippmann’s proposal. Deciding what is good for humanity, what warrants measurement or even repeating is inherently a subjective act. To claim otherwise is a common tactic for gaming democracy and manufacturing consent.

“…The moral is to drop all doctrines of this kind overboard, and stick to facts verifiably ascertained.

The remedy urged is simple and attractive. But it is not possible to employ it. Political facts are not outside human desire and judgment…”

…There is a social pathology which works powerfully against effective inquiry into social institutions and conditions. It manifests itself in a thousand ways; in querulousness, in impotent drifting, in uneasy snatching at distractions, in idealization of the long established, in a facile optimism assumed as a cloak, in riotous glorification of things “as they are,” in intimidation of all dissenters, ways which depress and dissipate thought all the more effectually because they operate with subtle and unconscious pervasiveness.” - John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems

Instead he sees the journalist as a kind of teacher. He argues that the purpose of the news is to put facts in context with what happened before, so that they can be properly understood and interrogated. He says that the sensationalism Lippmann experienced was the failure to provide that context, that the press should celebrate ambiguity, and earnestly engage with it in an attempt to find meaning in the world and prepare the public to be better critical thinkers.

“The catastrophic, namely, crime, accident, family rows, personal clashes and conflicts, are the most obvious forms of breaches of continuity; they supply the element of shock which is the strictest meaning of sensation ; they are the new par excellence, even though only the date of the newspaper could inform us whether they happened last year or this, so completely are they isolated from their connections.

…The alternatives before us are not factually limited science on one hand and uncontrolled speculation on the other. The choice is between blind, unreasoned attack and defense on the one hand, and discriminating criticism employing intelligent method and a conscious criterion on the other.” - John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems

This is the core of the Dewey-Lippmann debate; is the purpose of the press to recount events using objective fact, or to help the audience parse and contextualize those events on the world stage? Should the journalist be a teacher, or merely the gatekeeper of knowledge? And how much of one’s personal beliefs should be permitted to affect the production of news?

Your answer to this is invariably tied up in whether you believe human beings are inherently good, or inherently evil, and whether the purpose of government is to empower them or control their basest instincts. Its Locke vs Hobbes, two centuries later.

This is the needle that Kovach and Rosenstiel were trying to thread in Elements of Journalism. If you’re clever you’ll have already recognized bits of both in our earlier definition of the craft.

When we said,“No one can possibly know everything they need to vote effectively”, that was a Lippman idea. That “journalists distribute the load”, was from Dewey. “News and truth aren’t synonomous?” That’s Lippmann again. “Journalism as public good”, we’re back to Dewey.

It wasn’t just these two bickering with each other, we’re still trying to figure this out. And the modern idea of journalism is a weird hybrid of these two philosophies, the exact balance of which changes between papers, and sometimes within papers over time as they change hands.

Moving on from these two:

In the 1931 Supreme Court Case Near v. Minnesota, SCOTUS reversed a ban on The Saturday Press in Minneapolis, ruling that a state law on prior restraint (that is, government censorship on types of expression) which had been used to ban the sale of the paper was unconstitutional. This case would later serve as a precedent protecting the New York Times and Washington Post in their publication of the Pentagon Papers, which we’ll talk about in a minute.

The early twentieth century also saw the creation of a completely new medium with the invention of the radio.

Technically the first entertainment broadcast would have been in 1906, but it would be almost twenty years before it really caught on as a means to deliver news. One of the major drivers of this shift was the UK’s General Strike in May of 1926.

Most of the press had been shut down by striking print workers, so the BBC, who enjoyed a broad monopoly due to licensing restrictions, began broadcasting via radio instead. The immediacy provided by radio proved immensely popular, and print sources couldn’t keep up. Suddenly, news could be distributed instantaneously through common consumer electronics, and interviews could be delivered with more emotional impact, directly from the source.

The speed and accuracy with which audio could be recorded also allowed publications to employ more of their own correspondents abroad, which resulted in faster coverage of international stories and greater availability of eye-witness accounts.

By 1938, the medium’s use in news broadcasting was ubiquitous enough that a Halloween episode of a radio drama, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, was allegedly mistaken as an actual report of an alien invasion. Narrated by Orson Welles, the episode was actually just an adaptation of The War of the Worlds by HG Wells, which had been localized for an American audience by replacing the original place names with American ones.

Historians actually dispute the extent of the panic; it likely didn’t occur on a nationwide scale as was reported in the media afterward. But at the very least, the folks in the studio had a rough night. And it’s fun so I wanted to talk about it.

Anyway, within just a few more years, the radio was being used to deliver news from the front lines of World War II, and its popularity as a medium would remain uncontested until well after the invention of the TV.

PART THREE: A DARK PORTENT OF THINGS TO COME

Which brings us to our last era, from the 1940’s, to today. Starting here, some of my viewers will have been alive. Hello!

I’m calling this period Prometheus Burns Himself, because more than anything it is characterized by the acceleration of technology, and the press’ attempt to learn to use and control it.

And I’m actually going to take a step back, and cover these events more broadly for now. We’re going to spend the entire third essay talking about their impact. And I want you to have a reason to come back so I’m going to make you wait for it.

Say, thank you, Mistress.

Okay, so, the first dedicated news broadcast on American television was in 1940, although TV’s had been commercially available for about a decade. The first ever breaking news bulletin in the US was coverage of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Coordinating a live interruption was an novel problem and an impressive technological feat for its time. Still, it would be another decade before TV news really caught on here.

To the extent that a consensus on professional standards was ever reached, it would have been as a result of the Hutchins Commission of 1947, also known as the Commission on Freedom of the Press. By this point in history, for reasons that are probably pretty obvious by now, the craft was in crisis.

Amusingly, the media landscape looked very similar to today’s. Monopolistic news organizations had consolidated a great deal of power; only one in 12 daily papers studied had competition in their city at all. Public faith in journalism was extremely low due to inaccuracies and abuses, and now the US government was considering stepping in to regulate it.

To avoid this, the founder of TIME magazine funded 13 scholars, one of which being Robert Hutchins, to deliberate the responsibilities and best practices of the press and its owners and propose a formal code of ethics. Interestingly, none of the members were journalists themselves, and this was done on purpose out of concern that the old guard might resist reform if they had the wheel. They did however take formal testimony from 58 members of the press, studied recorded interviews from 225 more, and reviewed 176 documents over the course of 17 multi-day workshops. This took four years to accomplish.

Just saying that out loud is giving me flashbacks to all those tech on-sites. [shiver]

The final report was titled A Free and Responsible Press. It wasn’t the first code of ethics, but was unique for its conclusion. It proposed that journalists had an ethical obligation to improve society by holding power to account, providing an avenue for public forum and free expression, and actively protecting the rights of citizens. These obligations would supercede profit motive, as the free market had proven incapable of filtering organizations with more money than sense. This ethical framework was called social responsibility theory; they likened the craft to more of a public service than business, which was not a popular idea.

It also included five specific demands that the press must satisfy in order to be considered effective, and avoid government regulation. The principles in Elements of Journalism still mirror them closely. We’ll talk about those another time, but if you’re curious how the whole Dewey vs Lippmann thing was shaking out, this sums it up pretty nicely:

“It is no longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact.”

I think about this quote a lot, and not to spoil too much on our ethics chapter but this informs my view of the purpose of the news more than any other perspective I’ve read so far.

I think it neatly synthesizes the most salient points of Dewey and Lippmann’s arguments; that facts are not inherently as neutral as we like to believe; that they can be arranged in a way which is manipulative and that furthers the aims of the speaker; and that the true value of news arises from putting that information in context with what came before.

Let’s move on.

The 1960’s and 70’s were something of a renaissance for investigative journalism.

This is by far my favorite period to actually read work from. Throw a rock at the topic of your choice and you’ll hit an explosive expose on some kind of corruption, it’s incredible. If you want to learn the craft for yourself, or if you’re the market for some new role models, I implore you to start here.

Just to give you a taste:

In 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which exposed the danger of pesticides like DDT and resulted in the creation of the EPA.

In 1969 Seymour Hersh blew the lid off of the US government’s coverup of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, in which over 500 unarmed civilians were murdered in cold blood. The public rightly lost its shit, drawing intense scrutiny to the Nixon administration and further fueling the anti-war movement.

For a lot of reasons that we’ll discuss later, this couple of decades was just a kind of lightning in a bottle that would be difficult to reproduce today. Although I hope that it will someday.

We also need to talk about a style of journalism which was developing at this time, helpfully called New Journalism. Well, sometimes. Actually that name has come to refer to a lot of different periods; I’m going to talk about the most common usage, which concerns the bleeding of fiction writing techniques into the newsmaking process, in the 60’s and 70’s.

New Journalism combined traditional shoe-leather fact-finding with first-person narration and the subjective observations of the reporter. New journalism was often produced by closely and intensely shadowing a subject; it’s the method acting of reporting.

For an example of this, you could look to Tom Wolfe’s collection of essays, The Kandy-Kolored Tangeringe-Flake Streamline Baby.

No, you’re not having a stroke, that’s what it’s called.

It’s a collection of unconnected essays, beginning with a piece published in Esquire magazine, which Wolfe wrote in deliberately transgressive, stream-of-consciousness styles. He experiments with nonstandard language, punctuation, and format, and it’s as much reporting as it is creative writing.

Kurt Vonnegut’s review of the book neatly summarizes a lot of work from this time: “Excellent book by a genius who will do anything to get attention.”

New journalism challenged a convention which is still taught to English students today; that the author should at all times be invisible to the reader. It sought to immerse the reader in the reporter’s world, not by removing themselves, but by breaking down the walls of traditional, third-person narration, and allowing the reader to experience events as if they were there. It explicitly attempted to capture the context behind events, to explain them rather than reciting a list of objective measurements like Lippmann would have prescribed.

And the result was uniquely engaging.

But I don’t mean to give you the impression that these were the good old days where every development was positive.

This blurring of the line between prose and news remains divisive today; while it had the potential to draw in readers who otherwise would not be interested in a given topic, it could also encourage bad behavior on the part of writers more concerned with being a character in their own work.

You might even have heard another term for it; Gonzo Journalism, and this one is generally a pejorative when we use it today. It’s closely associated with reporter Hunter S. Thompson, who deeply immersed himself in the often seedy communities he was covering. He also took a lot of, let’s call them creative liberties?

[insert clip from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas]

He created an author stand-in character, who he named Raoul Duke, that served as sort of an alter-ago in his work, and he blended literary flourishes like this into his reporting in such a way that was really interesting as art, but also made it difficult to distinguish fact from embellishment.

Actually this one’s complicated because even Thompson considered himself more of an author than a reporter in the end. And I’m actually flattening a lot of academic debate about what does or does not constitute New or Gonzo Journalism; they aren’t necessarily synonymous.

We’ll definitely come back to these ideas later in the series. But in the interests of building a shared language here today; New Journalism is the deliberate experimentation with the format of news, and how closely a subject could be shadowed by a reporter without impacting editorial independence. To mixed success.

Let’s move on for now.

Next, there were a handful of landmark Supreme Court cases in this era which contribute to our understand of freedom of the press today. A lot of them are thanks to the New York Times.

In 1964, New York Times v. Sullivan established “actual malice” standards for libel and slander lawsuits when the plaintiff is a public official or candidate for public office. The Times had published an advertisement during the Civil Rights movement which alleged police in Montgomery Alabama had engaged in misconduct when apprehending protesters. The broad strokes of the ad were correct, but some of the specific details were not, and the police commissioner used this opportunity to sue the paper.

In turn, the Supreme Court ruled that public figures upset with reporting on their official business must prove that the false statement was made on purpose or with reckless disregard of whether it was true, in order to avoid chilling the press.

Then in the 1971 case New York Times Co. V. United States, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protected newspapers right to publish a leak of the Pentagon Papers, overturning a restraining order to suppress the leaked documents on bogus grounds of national security. A year later, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward built upon that leak to break the Watergate scandal, leading to Nixon’s resignation.

It doesn’t get much more high-impact than that.

The 70’s also saw the first significant instances of collaborative journalism between competing news organizations. In 1976, Don Bolles, reporter for the The Arizona Republic, was murdered in a car bombing in Phoenix, in retaliation for his investigative work into local organized crime syndicates.

In a display of solidarity, a newly formed organization called the Investigative Reporters and Editors, or IRE, who we’ll be hearing a LOT from today, picked up the work in his stead. Dozens of reporters, who declined individual credit, completed the The Arizona Report within just one month. It outlined ties between Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater and numerous cases of fraud and organized crime, dissuading future attempts to bury stories by killing journalists.

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky published Manufacturing Consent in 1988. That title was derived from Lippmann’s work in Public Opinion, and it outlines how mass media can and is being misused to disseminate propaganda and quietly coerce members of the public to behave against their own interests.

Fun fact, the pair had a previous book on this topic suppressed and pulped by Warner Media, who reneged on a promise to publish it because they were afraid it might be another “Pentagon Papers” situation. Funny how these things all end up connected.

The internet was made available to the public in 1990, and this is widely agreed upon to have been a mistake.

Much like radio and television before it, it would drastically change the speed and volume at which information could be shared… but it would several years before the news would fully adopt it and change its method of distribution in any meaningful way. For now, it was for FogCam and Spacejam.

At that same time, the structure of television broadcasting dramatically changed. Prior to this, the news had been more of a segment than a channel, running in between other programming in the evening when folks were off of work. Now, in an effort to capture finite viewership and cash in on the growing popularity of cheap-to-produce infotainment, news organizations shifted to a 24 hour news cycle.

And that…did some things to the way that news was produced. Things we’re still reckoning with.

Then in 1994, the pilot for Gargoyles was released on VHS. This has nothing to do with journalism but I thought it was pretty cool.

The 2000’s mark the beginning of the greatest financial crisis in journalism history. And I don’t even mean the 2008 recession. This one’s complicated and we’re gonna talk about in more detail later because it’s really important, but for now here’s what you need to know.

The business and investigative sides of the news had been in tension for a really long time. In the early 2000’s, owners of major news organizations began to deliberately prioritize profit margins over investigative resources. Execs started raising prices, while slashing staff and scaling back research intensive stories. Quality rapidly declined, but until 2005 when newspaper subscription revenue peaked, short term profits increased.

Meanwhile huge, and I mean enormous, swathes of professionals lost their jobs.

Between 2000, and 2013, a third of reporting and editing jobs evaporated. Kovach and Rosenstiel claim that in TV reporting alone, newsrooms shrank by more than half. According to Census data, in 1980 the ratio of PR staff to journalists was 1:1.2 By 2018, it was 6:1.

There’s never a good time to be laid off (ask me how I know), but the timing here is especially terrible. Because another huge change was coming.

Facebook launched in 2004, and introduced an algorithmically curated feed in 2011. It wasn’t the only social network and in the early days, the impact of networks like this was small. But as demand for news in these spaces grew, news organizations began to rely on them to reach their audiences, eventually becoming dependent on it entirely.

The mass cancellation of print news subscriptions at this time, combined with the expectation of “free” digital services that are actually subsidized by ads, meant that already understaffed news organizations slowly bled their only sources of income whenever the rules of engagement on these networks changed. Newsrooms either didn’t notice or didn’t care that the door had been closed behind them. They committed to a small handful of platforms, fighting over eyeballs with increasingly less direct contact with their audiences or visibility into their own performance. Again, this was largely in pursuit of short-term profits.

The ones that didn’t go this route set up paywalls, operating with a hybrid subscription and ad model. While some have found success doing this, not all of them did. Their quality didn’t always recover, and now their competition was free.

For all of the admittedly incredible benefits social networks could provide through instantaneous connection, a perfect storm of professional brain drain, the shift in advertising models, and the ease of access to the quick, low-effort controversy those models incentivized, permanently changed the way that news was made, and the kind of articles that were profitable to produce.

At some point in the aughts, major tech companies and multiple governments caught wind of coordinated attempts to sway elections through the mass generation and distribution of misinformation and fake news on social media. This is not a solved problem; it worked, it has only accelerated since then. Newspapers had dealt with misinformation and tabloid rags before, but the scale at which it could now operate was unprecedented.

In 2016 Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States, and he was very nearly our last. Though not a journalist himself, the great Pumpkin and the ghouls in his orbit have also had an outsized impact on the decline in journalistic standards. According to the Washington Post, he broke all previous land speed records for lying, with 30,573 false or misleading claims made in one term, most of which were repeated breathlessly and uncritically by an enraptured, click-chasing media.

As even mainstream news outlets did so, it became difficult to trust anything, and exhausting to even try. The overton window shifted, not just to the right, but down in terms of quality.

Believe me, we will get to that.

Speaking of which, I honestly don’t even know where to put the development of networks like Fox news in this timeline. For my non-American audience, Fox is a conservative news station here that was founded by Rupert Murdoch in 1994. It’s always been a mess, but these days is actively airing fascist propaganda, including hit lists under the veil of plausible deniability. That’s not a joke, that happened, and the worst part is it’s normal now.

I think people really underestimate how huge of an impact Fox has had on the profession. The problem with trying to map Fox on this timeline is that putting them anywhere before literally today’s date is a gross misrepresentation of how unbelievably toxic it is and the harm it’s causing. They’re constantly pushing the limits of just how bad journalism can get, so the only safe way to handle it is to put it here, where X equals whatever date you’re watching this in the future. I’m sure they’ve outdone themselves by now.

Finally, ChatGPT was released in November of 2022. If the launch of the internet was Prometheus bringing fire home, and social media was him playing with it, this is where he learns about accelerant.

ChatGPT was not the first large language model, but at time of writing is the most advanced and popular one. It was accompanied by incredible advancements in the automated generation of images and video based on deep learning technology. Products like OpenAI, StableDiffusion and Midjourney scraped the collective knowledge and labor of all of humanity off the internet and fed it into an algorithm, which it remixes without accountability or attribution.

The most obvious impact it has had so far is making the generation of misinformation faster and easier than it’s ever been. We can now fake photos without needing to personally hone one’s ability to manipulate them manually in Photoshop. Deepfake audio and video of your target of choice is trivial to produce with sufficient training data, which is freely available despite our parents warning us not to share personal information on the internet.

It’s easy to imagine a million dystopia scenarios in which trust in journalism is eroded, and make no mistake, many of them are already happening. But how this technology will continue to shape the future of the craft is anyone’s guess.

It’s literally a developing story, and the day I publish this video, anything I’ve said about it will instantly be out of date, so that’s fun.

PART SIX: SO WHAT, NERD

Phew. Okay.

With that, we have very sloppily condensed 500 years of reporting history into about 40 minutes. I’m sure I did a terrible job, but that should get us going.

So, what can we learn from this, and what are we actually going to use it for? (If it wasn’t clear, you are now firmly in the opinion zone, and I just wanted to flag where the experts stop and my amateur conclusions start.)

First: Resistance to journalism is exactly as old as journalism itself. No sooner had the first story been written than its very subjects tried to bury it. To discuss its origins, you necessarily must discuss censorship in the same breath. We like to think of this as a historical thing, but that struggle was never actually resolved.

Journalism is still, at its core, an eternal arms race between abusers who would prefer to operate in secret, and the absolute nosiest bitches you know. Those in power will always be incentivized to protect their own interests, and by definition they have the most resources to do so. They can afford to influence the law and flex its full weight in a way the average citizen can’t.

We’ve lived through attempts to roll back freedom of the press, jail whistleblowers, and control the spread of information. We’ve seen powerful institutions, up to and including the United States government itself, invoke seemingly neutral sounding slander and libel laws in order to smother reporting on its mistakes, even after the ratification of the First Amendment when it theoretically should have been impossible to do so.

We’ve seen Congress and the Supreme Court, not even the icky contemporary one, pass and enforce obviously unconstitutional laws in order to chip away at the press as an institution. And it doesn’t really matter who’s in power; the temptation is always there, and you only have to drop your guard for a moment.

In this environment, journalists are perpetually on the back foot. The few rights and protections that they have clawed today are not privileges or rewards for good behavior, they weren’t bestowed by mistake, and they aren’t even safe. They are necessary checks and balances on individuals with disproportionate power, who would very much like to see them disappear, and are actively trying to do so. If they succeed, that can only harm you. There is no world in which you benefit from having less information, or less ability to hold others accountable.

So we should be skeptical of attempts to weaken the power of the press, or to lower the public’s confidence in its value. Not in its efficacy, we need to be able to discuss and evaluate that honestly; I mean the importance of the press in a healthy society.

We have at least five centuries of precedent to point to, to understand what people are trying to do when they do this, and what they stand to gain from limp reporting.

Secondly: we can see that this isn’t the first time the news has been polarized. I’m not even sure it’s more polarized today than it was in the Party Press of the 1800’s. It’s honestly a pretty close call. But there are a lot of really interesting parallels between then and now, and I wonder if there’s something we can learn from that.

One thing we have in common with that period, is the explicit allegiance of news organizations with specific political parties. Then, as now, many citizens gravitated toward those papers which reflected their political views, and coverage of current events was filtered through them.

An ever-increasing volume of personal attacks ran alongside convenient misinformation and it became difficult to distinguish those things from actual news. The Coffin Handbills wouldn’t be out of place today; I wouldn’t even blink at this point if someone accused a politician of cannibalism. Surely someone has done that recently?

And remember that word, mugwump? Well, I left something important out earlier. It was used to refer to individuals who didn’t toe the party line… specifically, members of the Republican party who opposed candidates like James Blaine on grounds of government corruption, and shaming them out of the party entirely.

I think this shares a striking resemblance to contemporary use of the term “RINO”, or Republican in Name Only, which we’re seeing members of the press use today to shame those who oppose Donald Trump.

And this makes me really question the idea that the polarization of the news, then or now, is a reflection of the will of the people.

It’s popular for editorials today to ruminate on how divided we are as a nation, as if its the fault of readers for refusing to meet in the middle. But golden mean fallacy aside, maybe it’s the other way around. News organizations often align themselves this way. Maybe readers followed?

We know that’s possible. In the 1900’s, we saw how targeted coverage could sway public opinion toward or away from political causes; Hearst and friends toward the Spanish American War, and Seymour Hersh away from Vietnam.

The effects this has on the public also seem really similar to me. I got a feeling of dejavu reading about how critical coverage of McKinley may have motivated his assassination. It reminded me of recent acts of stochastic terrorism, like Pizzagate, calls to hang Mike Pence or the break-in at the Pelosi home.

Taken together, I really feel like we’re watching a repeat of that period of history.

I know these don’t all map perfectly, and maybe this is a stretch. But if I’m right and things are trending the same way today, then how did we get out of it last time?

Well, the rigor and independence of investigative and New Journalism emerged largely as a response to the deficiencies of the party press and yellow journalism before it. It took intentional and concerted effort from major publications to separate themselves from political candidates and shake their dependency on government sources. And not to let us off the hook, it also took public demand, rewarding outlets that made those changes with financial success, and making it clear that doing so was viable.

I’m curious whether we’ll navigate these problems the same way today.

Third: It’s clear that news organizations have always struggled with financing.

Journalism is a public good, but it’s unique in that it can’t be funded like one, at least not any of the ways we’ve tried. Accepting money from any organization, whether it’s a government entity or a private one, inhibits your ability to cover that source without pulling your punches.

From subscribers skipping town without paying, to the competitive urge to slash prices to basically nothing, to reliance on sponsorships and advertisements from the entities you may someday need to investigate, there’s always something in the way. And know that I’m underselling it right now, we’re gonna talk a lot more about the money and its effect on the newsmaking process in the ethics video.

But what it comes down to, is that news is expensive to produce, almost nobody wants to pay for it, and a lot of people would be willing to pay to suppress it. Those people also happen to be the ones with all the money.

This is going to continue to be a problem under capitalism, and it’s a tough one to solve.

And finally: We’ve had crises of credibility before. I would argue we have always had one. One of the things that surprises me reading the history and philosophy of the discipline, is nobody really seems to acknowledge that. It’s all very optimistic, rose-tinted “things used to be be bad but not now, now we know better and things are good”, and then the very next period is characterized by rampant misconduct, and I just don’t think that bears out.

Individual papers and individual reporters have pulled in the other direction over time, but if you asked me to point to the good old days of journalism, I guess I’d say maybe the 60’s and 70’s? Even that wasn’t perfect.

To the extent that such a time ever existed, it was very short-lived. That’s not to denigrate the incredible reporting that people in the field have produced throughout history, in fact I think that makes it more impressive. They were swimming upstream.

If we really want to improve the craft, it’s clear to me we need to aim higher than many of us have personally been alive to experience, higher than where we started.

If you were alive in the 60’s then congratulations, you don’t count, you’re perfect and I love you.

Maybe the industry is overdue for another Hutchins Commission. Assuming we can actually stick to its recommendations. The need to remain separate from government influence also creates some complications here, because there’s no enforcement mechanism.

I don’t know the answer to this one, either.

My point is that while the causes may be different, the problem isn’t new. We’ve realized our mistakes before, and improved things, even if only temporarily. There’s nothing stopping us from doing it again.

But we’re coming dangerously close to prescription in this conclusion aren’t we?

I don’t think we’re qualified to offer solutions yet. We’re still on the outside. We’re backseat driving.

If we’re going to offer critique, then we need to be able to do it better, ourselves. We need to learn not just what journalists have done, but what they currently do, and how, and why.

Barring that, we’re just pundits.

So the next video will be dedicated to learning the craft. We’ll learn how journalists choose their stories, the tools they use, how to run an investigation, how to interview people, organize your research, and structure the final product. We’ll learn about things we didn’t even know that we needed to know.

Where this video was strictly academic, the next will be practical. I’m really excited it, it’s been a ton of fun to work on.

So if that sounds interesting to you, too, I hope you’ll come along.

Until then, keep honing that Awareness Instinct, and don’t sleep with any dead bodies.

Yeah that’s the outtro I’m going with.

Bye, fam! 👋

Works Cited

[1] Kovach, Bill and Rosenstiel, Tom. The Elements of Journalism, 4th Edition. Crown, 2021

[2] Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War. As translated by Richard Crawley. Project Gutenberg, 2004

[3] Baldwin, Barry (1970). The Acta Diurna. Chiron. Mitteilungen Der Kommission für Alte Geschichte Und Epigraphik Des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, 9, 189–204. https://doi.org/10.34780/a69f-bfn2

[4] Syme, Ronald. “THE ‘HISTORIA AUGUSTA’: THREE RECTIFICATIONS.” The Journal of Theological Studies, vol. 21, no. 1, 1970, pp. 101–04. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23957341. Accessed 4 Mar. 2024.

[5] McIntosh, Matthew. A History of Journalism Since the 16th Century. Brewminate, April 2021. https://brewminate.com/a-history-of-journalism-since-the-16th-century/

[6] Infelise, Mario. Roman Avvisi: Information and Politics in the Seventeenth Century. Court and Politics in Papal Rome, 1492-1700. Cambridge, 2002.

[7] Pettegree, Andrew. The Invention of News: How The World Came to Know About Itself. Yale University Press, 2014

[8] Tietz, Tabea. Johann Carolus and the First Newspaper. Scihi, 2021. Shame on you for using a blog Val http://scihi.org/johann-carolus-first-newspaper/

[9] Mott, Frank Luther. American Journalism: A History of Newspapers in the United States through 250 Years, 1690 - 1940. Macmillan, 1942.

[10] McDaniel, Robb. Cato’s Letters, The First Amendment Encyclopedia. The Free Speech Center, Middle Tennessee State University. August 2023 https://firstamendment.mtsu.edu/article/catos-letters/

[11] Gordon, Thomas. Cato’s Letter No. 32, Reflections Upon Libeling

[12] US National Park Service. The Trial of John Peter Zenger. 2015 https://www.nps.gov/feha/learn/historyculture/the-trial-of-john-peter-zenger.htm

[13] Vile, John. John Peter Zenger, The First Amendment Encyclopedia. The Free Speech Center, Middle Tennessee State University. January 2009 https://firstamendment.mtsu.edu/article/john-peter-zenger/

[14] McNamara, Peter. Alexander Hamilton, The First Amendment Encyclopedia. The Free Speech Center, Middle Tennessee State University. January 2017 https://firstamendment.mtsu.edu/article/alexander-hamilton/

[15] Historical Society of the New York Courts, “Crown v. John Peter Zenger, 1735”. https://history.nycourts.gov/case/crown-v-zenger/

[16] Hamilton, Andrew. “Closing Arguments”, Crown v. John Peter Zenger. Old City Hall, New York. August 1735.

[17] Vile, John. People v Croswell (1804), The First Amendment Encyclopedia. The Free Speech Center, Middle Tennessee State University. January 2009 https://firstamendment.mtsu.edu/article/people-v-croswell1804/

[18] Beckwith, Ryan. Read the Epic 333-Word Lede From a Boston Newspaper’s Account of the Death of Blackbeard. Medium, August 2016. https://ryanbeckwith.medium.com/how-a-boston-newspaper-covered-the-death-of-blackbeard-10c9a06f39b9

[19] Lemay, J.A Leo. An American Aesthetic of Franklin’s Visual Creations. Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol.111, No.4. October 1987. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20092154

[20] Hartford Courant. Mudslinging in its glory in 19th century politics. August 2021 https://www.courant.com/1992/04/28/mudslinging-in-its-glory-in-19th-century-politics/

[21] Dooley, Patricia L. The Early Republic: Primary Documents On Events from 1799 to 1820 (Debating Historical Issues in the Media of the Time). Greenwood, December 2004.

[22] Author Unknown. The Hudson Bee & New England Palladium, 1802.

[23] Author Unknown. Coffin Handbill, Account of Some of the Bloody Deeds of General Jackson. 1828. Accessed via Tennessee State Library

[24] Poe, Edgar Allan. The Balloon Hoax. New York Sun, 1844.

[25] Wood, Mary. Selling The Kid - The Role of Yellow Journalism. The University of Virginia. 2006. (Deprecated) https://web.archive.org/web/20221024190724/http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA04/wood/ykid/yj.htm

[ 26 ] The Kid That Launched the Comics. Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, Ohio State University. 2020.

[27] Winkler, John K. William Randolph Hearst: A New Appraisal. Kessinger Publishing, 2010.

[28] Campbell, W. Joseph. Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies. Praeger, 2001.

[29] Yellow Journalism: Topics in Chronicling America. US Library of Congress Research Guides. https://guides.loc.gov/chronicling-america-yellow-journalism

[30] Batker, Carol. Reforming Fictions: Native, African, & Jewish American Women’s Literature and Journalism in the Progressive Era. Columbia University Press. 2000.

[31] Wells-Barnett, Ida B. Southern Horrors, Lynch Law in All Its Phases. Pamphlet, 1892.

[32] Yang, John. The Writings And Activism of Black, Bisexual Feminist Alice Dunbar Nelson. PBS News Hour. 2023. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/the-writings-and-activism-of-black-bisexual-feminist-alice-dunbar-nelson

[33] Rosenbach Museum & Library. Alice Dunbar-Nelson: Woman of the Press. 2020. https://rosenbach.org/virtual-exhibits/exhibition-sections/woman-of-the-press

[32] McCune, Mary. “Cecilia Razovsky”, The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. Jewish Women’s Archive, 1999.

[33] Zitkála-Šá:. Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians : an Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes, Legalized Robbery. Philadelphia, Pa. :Office of the Indian Rights Association, 1924.

[34] Lamberson, Nicole. Zitkála-Šá: On Creativity, Copyright, and Cultural Empowerment. Library of Congress. 2021 https://blogs.loc.gov/copyright/2021/03/zitkla-on-creativity-copyright-and-cultural-empowerment

[35] Lippmann, Walter & Merz, Charles. A Test of the News. New Republic, 1920.

[36] Lippman, Walter. Public Opinion. George Allen & Unwin LTD. 1922.

[37] Lippman, Walter. The Phantom Public. Transaction Publishers. 1925.

[38] Dewey, John. The Public and its Problems. Holt Publishers. 1927.

[39] Near v. Minnesota (1931). Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School. 2020. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/near_v_minnesota_(1931)

[40] Starkey, Guy and Crisell, Andrew. Radio Journalism. SAGE Publications, 2009.

[41] A Free and Responsible Press. The Commission on Freedom of the Press. 1974.

[42] Wendland, Michael. The Arizona Project. Blue Sky Press, 1988.

[43] Doctorow, Cory. The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation. Verso, 2023.

[44] Doctorow, Cory. TikTok’s Enshittification. Pluralistic, 2023.

[45] U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “Senate Intel Committee Releases Bipartisan Report on Russia’s Use of Social Media.” 2019

[46] Kessler, Glenn & Rizzo, Salvador & Kelly, Meg. “Trump’s False or Misleading Claims Total 30,573 Over 4 Years”. The Washington Post, 2021.

[47] Bollinger, Alex. “Tucker Carlson Calls for Violence Against LGBTQ Supportive Teachers and Doctors”. LGBTQ Nation, 2022.

A Little Extra:

I ended up cutting this part for the video, because I couldn’t figure out how to represent this on-screen; there aren’t many photos or surviving copies of these works which are visually engaging. I’m really bummed out about it; maybe I can come back with a video devoted to this specifically someday.


Okay, so remember earlier when I said I would be limited by the biases of my historical references?

Mott’s work on this period in particular is a great example. By now you’ve probably noticed his most glaring omission, which almost became mine; the numerous and historically significant contributions of people of color at this time.

In fact, Mott only acknowledges the existence of Black people 14 times across the full 800 pages, almost all of which are stuffed into a single, five-paragraph aside at the back of the book.

It would be unconscionable to leave you with the impression that the only significant things printed in this hundred year period were a bunch of white dudes slagging on each other like a kindergarteners, so let’s do some more homework.

The first African-American owned and operated newspaper was Freedom’s Journal, which began publication in New York City in 1827. It was founded by Reverend John Wilk and Reverend Peter Williams Jr., in direct opposition to a rapidly growing body of anti-Black, anti-emancipation propaganda.

It uplifted the work of fellow Black creators and thinkers to counter the myth that Black people were biologically inferior, and through its coverage dismantled narratives that they were disproportionately responsible for violent crime.

Freedom’s Journal ran for approximately 103 issues, in 11 states. It was eventually banned in the South following a series of four articles, written by David Walker in 1829, which openly called for rebellion by enslaved people.

He observed this of newspapers of the time:

“You will scarcely ever find a paragraph respecting slavery, which is ten thousand times more injurious to this country than all the other evils put together; and which will be the final overthrow of its government, unless something is very speedily done; for their cup is nearly full.

Perhaps they will laugh at or make light of this; but I tell you Americans! that unless you speedily alter your course, you and your Country are gone!!!!!“ - David Walker, Freedom’s Journal

This is also interesting because it demonstrates that even before the consolidation or even formation of major news organizations, the press was already becoming reluctant to print stories which might harm the interests of capital.

It also shows how the objectivity of the press can be impacted beyond its text; the decision of what is newsworthy, what is worth covering or excluding is an often invisible form of editorializing.

In 1847, African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass established his first newspaper, called The North Star, which in addition to the abolitionist movement, covered the Mexican-American war.

No complete archive of the North Star exists today; many issues were tragically lost in a house fire. But what we do have is powerful stuff.

Its mission statement:

“to attack slavery in all its forms and aspects; advocate universal emancipation; exalt the standard of public morality; promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the colored people; and hasten the day of freedom to the three millions of our enslaved fellow countrymen.

If you haven’t read any of Douglass’ work, he’s just a phenomenal writer, and he opened with a particularly bold fuck-you in this first issue: his “Letter to Thomas Auld”, the white man who had previously enslaved him, on the anniversary of his emancipation.

“What you are, I am. You are a man, and so am I. God created both, and made us separate beings. I am not by nature bound to you, or you to me…

Your wickedness and cruelty committed in this respect on your fellow-creatures, are greater than all the stripes you have laid upon my back, or theirs. It is an outrage upon the soul—a war upon the immortal spirit, and one for which you must give account at the bar of our common Father and Creator.” Frederick Douglass, The North Star

I can only assume that Auld turned to dust immediately after this was published. There’s no other possible response.

In that same piece, he also advocates for the right of the press to publicly condemn corruption, echoing the ideas of Cato that we discussed earlier:

I intend to make use of you as a weapon with which to assail the system of slavery—as a means of concentrating public attention on the system, and deepening their horror of trafficking in the souls and bodies of men. I shall make use of you as a means of exposing the character of the American church and clergy—and as a means of bringing this guilty nation with yourself to repentance.” Frederick Douglass, The North Star

We owe a great deal of our modern conception of journalist as watchdog to Black writers like Douglass, who directly opposed and documented systemic oppression before it was cool.

By 1861, there were over 40 black-owned and operated papers across the United States.

And they deserve a bit more than a footnote.

[X1] Southard, Sofia. Honoring African American Contributions: The Newspapers. Library of Congress blogs. 2020. https://blogs.loc.gov/headlinesandheroes/2020/07/honoring-african-american-contributions-the-newspapers/

[X2] Freedom’s Journal, the First US African-American Owned Newspaper. Wisconsin Historical Society. https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS4415

[X3] Walker, David. “Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, Written in Boston, State of Massachusetts, September 28, 1829.“ Boston, 1829 (obviously). https://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/walker/walker.html

[X4] Douglass, Frederick. Letter to Thomas Auld. The Liberator, September 1848.


Credits:

Original pixel art by @Misnina.

Music by @wormswormswormsworms

Special thanks to @Ive for teaching me the fundamentals of video editing!

And also to the Essay Library for your guidance and pleasant company.