The Huffington Post was envisioned from its inception as a progressive answer to conservative talk radio and various right-leaning voices being amplified by new technology. Most specifically, it was designed as a counterpoint to the Drudge Report, a widely read and highly profitable website with populist sensibilities. The players involved in planning the new venture belonged to a select clique of Hollywood liberals and political activists in Arianna Huffington’s orbit.
Among the cast of characters were film mogul David Geffen, a prodigious Democratic Party donor, along with Democratic political consultants Peter Daou and James Boyce. Jonah Peretti, a 30-year-old marketing whiz kid (and future BuzzFeed founder), was present at HuffPo’s inception, as was Kenneth Lerer, a New York investor who secured most of the money for the new venture.
The least likely member of the core group was Andrew Breitbart, a creative and energetic conservative blogger in his mid-30s who had worked on the Drudge Report himself. Although he passed muster with the group because he was relatively liberal on social issues, Breitbart’s real connection to the enterprise was that he had known Arianna Huffington since the 1990s — when she was still an outspoken conservative. The most charismatic collaborator, of course, was the eponymous founder herself.
“Arianna,” as everyone called her, first attained prominence in California politics as the wife of one-term Republican Congressman Michael Huffington, heir to a family fortune made in oil and gas exploration. Michael Huffington lost his 1994 Senate campaign, and the couple divorced in 1997. By 1998, Arianna was rejecting party labels and asserting that conventional “left-right divisions are so outdated.” Her evolution was just beginning. In 2001 she joined forces with environmental activist Laurie David in an endeavor dubbed the Detroit Project, which sought to shame automakers (and the Bush administration) into phasing out gas-guzzling cars and trucks.
By April 2004, Arianna was endorsing Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.” In July of that year, when asked during an interview in her stylish Brentwood home what she wanted out of life, Arianna replied, “I want George Bush defeated.”
Although this answer struck Los Angeles magazine writer Steve Oney as glib, it turned out to be sincere. When her wish didn’t come true — when Bush won reelection by defeating Kerry — Huffington pursued the online journalism venture that still bears her name. Meeting in that same house in the weeks after the 2004 presidential election, a new and overtly partisan outlet was fast-tracked. It launched on May 9, 2005.
Many traditional reporters and editors were troubled by the new direction journalism seemed to be taking. It wasn’t only the creation of the Huffington Post. Veteran political writers at venerable news organizations complained privately how sneering at Republicans, President Bush in particular, had become commonplace in their newsrooms. The legacy media had been considered left-of-center for decades, but something was changing. Conservatives had long complained about their treatment in the press (while progressives simply denied the existence of “liberal bias”), but open partisanship in newsrooms had long been discouraged.
The Huffington Post didn’t engage in any such charades. As it gained traction in the first decade of the new millennium, its editors made no pretense about which side of the ideological spectrum it occupied. Arianna certainly didn’t.
“We are opposed to the war in Iraq,” she told Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz in 2007. “We think the troops should come home. [Huffington Post] headlines are going to reflect what is in the best interests of the country.”
A handful of media critics considered this trend not just refreshing for its candor, but an improvement over the old journalism model. For starters, they found it more intellectually honest. Also, at a time when the old advertising foundation was cracking, Huffington Post’s ability to quickly attract a huge readership showed that the Fox News business model might translate to the Internet. “Attitude is a huge positive, not a negative,” Ken Lerer told Kurtz. “People don’t have to love you. Maybe people come to you because they don’t love you.”
“Attitude” was only part of the Huffington Post formula. Initially, celebrity journalism was an ingredient of its secret sauce. Well-known Hollywood liberals such as Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Robert Redford and Julia Louis-Dreyfus graced its pages with their (typically liberal) takes. HuffPo gave space to prominent progressives ranging from Dennis Kucinich and Melinda Gates to Alec Baldwin and Bernie Sanders. Lefty activists Ralph Nader and Michael Moore were contributors, as were more traditional Democrats Gary Hart and John Conyers.
Their work was supplemented by the hiring of respected journalists such as Thomas B. Edsall and Mickey Kaus. The success of the enterprise also depended on the sheer volume of the site’s content. This was accomplished by several additional strategies. One was aggressively appropriating other outlets’ work, a practice that gave way to the slightly more kosher ploy of doing quick rewrites of other journalists’ work. (“Lynn Sweet: Obama Reorganizing Campaign, Reinforcing Leadership Ranks”). Finally, traffic was also driven by an army of “citizen journalists” who reported and wrote for HuffPo without remuneration.
All these efforts were overseen by a cadre of editors who carefully monitored readership traffic and changed headlines or swapped out stories that weren’t doing well. The site’s success inspired copycats, some of them on the right. Just as HuffPost was a response to Drudge, conservative properties such as the Daily Caller were launched as antidotes to what their founders considered a mostly liberal landscape, including Arianna Huffington’s new online powerhouse. (Once again, the ubiquitous Andrew Breitbart was in the middle of it.)
For the most part, these imitators mimicked the ideological imbalance of HuffPo. This view of the press — as a weapon for political advocacy — has only gained traction in the ensuing years, among partisans on both sides of the political divide.
“One reason conservatives hate the ‘mainstream media’ is that it pretends to be something it isn’t,” British columnist Nathan Robinson wrote in The Guardian. The editor of Current Affairs, an online socialist publication, Robinson suggested in his 2019 essay that readers are alienated by hypocrisy more than ideology. “The best course of action is to acknowledge where we’re coming from,” he wrote. “If we show an awareness of our own political leanings, it actually makes us more trustworthy than if we’re in denial about them.”
Some conservatives arrived at the same conclusion. Amid the feeding frenzy accompanying the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation process, a headline in The Federalist gave voice to this view: “The Entire Media Is Biased: They Should Just Embrace It.”
It’s a provocative point of view, but it raises other questions. Let’s start with one point raised by Nathan Robinson: “more trustworthy” to whom? Ideologues who agree with you already? Partisans who despise you, but give you credit for being honest? Perhaps. But what about moderates or political independents — or fair-minded partisans who crave a more fact-based diet of political news without the relentless spin? This cohort, which ranges from a significant minority to a plurality of the voting public depending on the issue, seems vastly underrepresented in the new landscape of political journalism.
Yes, it’s true that Fox News’ regular viewers generally find the network credible. Ditto for devotees of MSNBC. But these audiences are, by design, self-selecting peer review panels. Fox News’ motto since 2017 has been “Most Watched. Most Trusted.” The logic here is circular. Fox is trusted by those who watch it precisely because they know they’ll see what they want, which is bashing of Democrats and liberal elites and reflexively defending conservative personalities, politicians, policies, and culture. MSNBC and an increasing bloc of legacy media companies are Fox’s mirror image.
The original slogan at Fox News, coined by Roger Ailes when he and Rupert Murdoch launched the network in 1996, was “Fair and Balanced.” This claim, which has resurfaced recently, induced apoplexy among liberals, which was partly Ailes’ intent. But that’s not all it was meant to signify. Inside the network, the mantra was understood to represent an intention that wasn’t cynical at all. Operating in a predominately liberal media landscape, Fox was promising to be “fair” to Republicans and their voters by providing the “balance” conservatives found missing in the rest of the press.
One prominent Fox News journalist told me that those who dismissed Fox programming as being targeted to “a niche” market revealed the problem — and the key to Fox’s success. “Quite a niche,” he quipped. “Half the country.”
Profitability of a Partisan Press
Modern journalism — or, at least, modern American journalism education — dates to 1908 at the founding of the journalism school at the University of Missouri. The “J-school” is situated in the heart of the sprawling campus, which is fitting because the program has long been a source of pride for Mizzou graduates as well as journalists who’ve never even visited the college.
Walter Williams, the visionary who started the program and later became president of the university, wrote a “journalist’s creed” that has been etched in bronze at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., since 1958, the 50th anniversary of the founding of Missouri’s journalism school. Some of its language sounds stilted today, but the larger question is whether the values of the creed are considered outdated in the 21st century.
Let’s consider three items memorialized by Williams’ creed:
- A media property is “a public trust … and acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust.”
- “Clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism.”
- “Suppression of the news, for any consideration other than the welfare of society, is indefensible.”
Powerful forces in contemporary America are working to undermine those tenets. Financial considerations are one of them. In 2008, Fox News surpassed $500 million in annual profits. This was nearly as much as CNN ($410 million) and MSNBC ($148 million) netted combined — and a $200 million increase over 2007.
What happened in the centennial year of America’s first journalism school that made a television network with a readily identifiable point of view so profitable? Here’s part of the answer: A national political campaign took place featuring two Democratic presidential candidates whom Bill O’Reilly and other Fox News commentators pilloried relentlessly. These attacks appealed to conservatives, who flocked to Fox for the nightly skewering of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Higher ratings translated into higher advertising revenues.
Executives at rival networks noticed. Progressive commentators, too. One anchorman in particular had been seething over Fox’s influence for years. As Howard Kurtz noted, MSNBC anchorman Keith Olbermann had already consciously positioned his nightly program as “a liberal alternative” to O’Reilly’s show. Years before Donald Trump arrived on the political scene, Keith Olbermann conducted public discourse like a New York insult comic.
Once, at a television award show, Olbermann gave O’Reilly a Nazi salute. When he wasn’t saying George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had committed impeachable offenses and should resign, Olbermann was accusing the president and vice president of being stupid, dishonest, cowardly, and hypocritical. Olbermann framed one segment on Bush thusly: “Pathological presidential liar or an idiot-in-chief?” On Valentine’s Day in 2008, he called Bush “a fascist,” and later that year urged John McCain to “suspend” his campaign. Most incongruously — and in an eerie foreshadowing of Trump’s own slurs against McCain — Olbermann declared that the acclaimed Vietnam War hero displayed a “disturbing lack of faith in America.”
Periodically, the suits at NBC would give lip service to reining Olbermann in, but their hearts weren’t in it. For one thing, the feud he initiated with Bill O’Reilly led to skyrocketing ratings. Liberal audiences loved it, and his show was one of the few MSNBC ever aired that made money. And after his contract was not renewed in 2011, it was clear that MSNBC had found its own niche. Olbermann’s place was taken by Rachel Maddow, a colleague he had mentored. The new anchor was brainy and hard-working, but just as liberal in her commentary. MSNBC had moved on from Keith Olbermann’s style, but not his substance. By August 2012, New York Times media critic Alessandra Stanley wrote a story titled “How MSNBC Became Fox’s Liberal Evil Twin.”
The context for Stanley’s essay was MSNBC’s coverage of the Republican National Convention that nominated Mitt Romney. Stanley wrote that the network’s “hyped up panelists” routinely dismissed Republican assertions as “lies,” while taking various cheap shots (Chris Matthews claimed that the GOP looks upon welfare recipients as “looters”). Stanley noted that in “recasting itself as a left-leaning riposte to Fox News,” MSNBC drew significantly more GOP convention viewers than CNN.
“That’s because,” she added, “MSNBC offers counterprogramming, not coverage.”
Four years later, Donald Trump’s victory pushed CNN into the MSNBC camp. The New York Times followed suit. What had once been known as the “mainstream media” began to feature entire platoons of Keith Olbermanns not only among commentators and anchors, but even among supposedly nonpartisan White House correspondents tasked with covering the news.
In the runup to Trump’s reelection campaign, journalist Matt Taibbi wrote a book about this development called “Hate, Inc.” In it, Taibbi attributed much of the press partisanship to bottom-line concerns. I initially thought his book title was too strong and that what openly partisan journalists were selling was indignation and outrage — and fear, maybe — but not hate. The events of Jan. 6, 2021, and their aftermath revealed that this may be a distinction without a difference.
Whatever one calls it, this much can be said: In contrast to New York Times owner Adolph Ochs’ 1896 vow that his newspaper would “give the news impartially without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interest” (and unlike Walter Williams’ creed calling suppression of the news “indefensible”), 21st century media outlets have a habit of hyping and inventing negative information harmful to the political faction they disapprove of, while downplaying or censoring facts detrimental to the side they favor. For much of the 20th century, this wouldn’t have been considered journalism at all.
It’s not a cop-out to concede that the arrival of the digital age posed historic challenges to the economic model and cherished assumptions of traditional media. Amid the chaos, novel arguments were proffered. Many were simply acknowledgements of new realities. Some were conscious challenges to the status quo, while others sought to rationalize problematic behavior on the part of the media. Here are four such arguments:
- Defenders of the new free-wheeling style of journalism point out, not inaccurately, that for much of America’s history the press was unabashedly partisan. Objective, non-biased reporting aimed at a mass audience was a post-World War I development that is no longer relevant to modern audiences, or even economically viable.
- In an unfettered media landscape, news consumers can find a multitude of views and choose from among them. What could be more egalitarian? If you dislike Rachel Maddow, switch to Tucker Carlson. The old model was staid and boring, these advocates say — and elitist. If one disparages television or radio shows or podcasts with high ratings, isn’t one denigrating the American people?
- Reprising a theme from the 1960s, another critique of the traditional model comes from those who attack the very concept of objectivity. Arguing from the standpoint of identity politics, these critics dismiss the term as a standard “that was dictated by male editors in predominately white newsrooms and reinforced their own view of the world.” In this school of thought, the exigencies of covering race, sexual identity — and even climate change — necessitate going beyond what’s disparagingly called “bothsidesism.”
- The trend of conflating opinion and news was a defense mechanism to cope with a presidential candidate who arrived on the scene with no experience and no desire to tell the truth — and who used social media to circumvent the media’s traditional gatekeeper role. This point of view was notably offered in an influential August 2016 column by New York Times media critic Jim Rutenberg, who framed the dilemma this way: “If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?” Although he posed the dilemma as a question — and pointed out the pitfalls of appearing partisan — Rutenberg suggested that reporters who found the idea of a Trump presidency a danger would naturally “move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional.” Many did just that.
For purposes of this essay, let’s stipulate that those reasons are offered in good faith by people who care about the civic life of this nation. That does not make them right.
Back to the Future
Whatever one thinks of partisan journalism, those who say that it’s not a new phenomenon are correct. The first newspaper to cover politics on these shores, the New York Weekly Journal, is not only the publication that inspired the name of this series. A partisan organ, it helped foster the idea of a free press on this continent in 1735.
It’s also true that a partisan press helped bring America into existence. In 1776, the American Colonies had 50 newspapers, many of them agitating openly for revolution. By the time George Washington completed two terms as president, this number had quintupled. The Colonial-era press took sides in the nation’s most fractious disputes: The Federalist Party we associate with Alexander Hamilton and John Adams (and the Democrat-Republicans of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) were identifiable by the newspapers that supported them. Six decades later, partisan newspapers stoked the passions that led to civil war.
“Editors unabashedly shaped the news and their editorial comment to partisan purposes,” Harvard historian William E. Gienapp noted in a study of 1850s American newspapers. “They sought to convert the doubters, recover the wavering, and hold the committed.”
“Partisanship was extreme on both sides,” Lincoln scholar Richard Allen Heckman wrote a century after the Civil War ended. In what seems like a contemporary description, Allen added, “Republican and Democratic papers often arrived at opposite conclusions after witnessing the same event.”
Does this sound familiar? It should. After Hunter Biden’s business partner Devon Archer testified before the House Oversight Committee, most of the legacy media issued a verdict: Nothing to see here. Echoing Democratic Rep. Dan Goldman, The New Republic put this headline on its story: “New Transcript: Star Hunter Biden Witness Refuted Every GOP Talking Point. Hunter Biden’s former business partner, Devon Archer, undermined all of Republicans’ claims in his testimony.”
Meanwhile, Fox News had an entirely different take: The headline of its online story was “Devon Archer Transcript Shows How Democrat Rep. Goldman Spun ‘Illusion of Access’ Narrative.” Mind you, these are competing stories reporting on the very same transcript.
Not everyone sees this as a problem. But the events of Jan. 6, 2021, show what happens in a hyper-partisan political environment when “red” America and “blue” America have fundamental differences of opinion on something as basic as whether a presidential election was honest or a sham.
Americans of different races, creeds, generations, religions, geography, and political affiliation have always differed in their perceptions of politics and culture. But having a baseline set of shared facts turns out to be important. Political parties deliberately skew those facts for their own purposes. However, when journalists repeat those partisan narratives word for word — or, worse, amplify them — they are interfering with the prime directive.
Earlier this year, political scientists David Broockman and Joshua Kalla released a study showing how many Americans dwell in media “echo chambers” that not only bolster their existing political biases, but deepen their level of partisanship.
“Most people who tune in to Fox News lean to the right, but Fox draws them further to the right,” Broockman explained. “Likewise, MSNBC is pulling those to the left further left. And neither side almost ever watches the other.”
This is the succinct rebuttal to those with laissez-faire attitudes about partisan news coverage. Americans can get the other side of the story, if they try, but don’t often do so. Ken Lerer’s expressed hope that conservatives might read the Huffington Post to know what the other side is thinking is not how most people consume media.
It was always thus. In “The Press Gang: Newspapers and Politics, 1865-1878,” scholar Mark Wahlgren Summers wrote how common it was for publishers to knowingly print lies or simply ignore newsworthy events that reflected poorly on their party. “The truth was not suppressed,” Summers wrote. “It was simply hard to get in any one place.”
Readers who wanted to know what was really happening in local as well as national politics had to read several newspapers, not just one. The problem is that this is not how most citizens consume news, and it never was. My point here is that journalists in this country haven’t always even attempted to provide their readers, listeners, and viewers with the complete story. They haven’t always tried to tell the truth. But this elusive quest is the implied promise that helped create the idea of a free press in the first place.
‘The Best Cause’
Although rarely invoked today, the name John Peter Zenger still lingers in the recesses of American journalism’s institutional memory. The University of Arizona gives an annual award in his name. The National Press Club has a room named after him. A bronze plaque in New York City signifies the site of a local election, in 1733, covered by Zenger’s newspaper, The New York Weekly Journal.
For the better part of three centuries, Zenger’s sacrifice was praised whenever freedom of the press was mentioned. Arrested in November 1734 on charges of “seditious libel” after his newspaper criticized the royal governor of New York, Zenger persisted in publishing from jail with help from his wife and sons — and the political provocateurs who wrote the offending material. Nine months later, Zenger was acquitted in a sensational jury trial. Fifty years after that, Gouverneur Morris, a signer of the U.S. Constitution, wrote: “The trial of Zenger in 1735 was the germ of American freedom, the morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America.”
Although there is truth in this characterization, the story is not that tidy.
Peter Zenger, as he preferred to be called, arrived in New York harbor in 1709 speaking little English and facing daunting prospects. The Zenger family — Peter, his parents and two younger siblings — were among the 2,200 German refugees from the Palatinate region who sailed in a 10-ship flotilla to America in search of religious freedom. The crossing was harrowing: Some 470 of the migrants perished, among them Peter’s father. At 13, the oldest Zenger child needed to find a trade to help support his family.
The boy landed an apprenticeship with a publisher named William Bradford, a kindly Quaker who had followed his own father’s footsteps. In the early days of manual typesetting, publishing was an exacting, highly technical craft. There were other obstacles, too, including the scarcity of ink and paper. The biggest danger was running afoul of the authorities.
“To understate the matter, the printing trade was not much encouraged in colonial America,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Kluger noted wryly in his authoritative 2016 book, “Indelible Ink: The Trials of John Peter Zenger and the Birth of America’s Free Press.”
William Bradford knew this lesson well. He’d essentially been chased out of Pennsylvania for running afoul of William Penn and the Quaker elders who controlled every aspect of life in the colony. Bradford’s sins — for which he was fined, briefly imprisoned, and had his printing presses confiscated — included the mere mention of Penn’s name in an annual almanac and daring to reprint the colony’s official charter.
But on both sides of the Atlantic, the most dreaded accusation was “seditious libel,” a felony. The American Colonies were ruled by Britain, where libel simply meant defaming or criticizing another person, especially someone associated with government. Under British common law dating to the notorious Star Chamber proceedings, truth was not a mitigating factor to the crime. “It is not material whether the libel be true or false,” the Star Chamber judges had ruled.
That’s because the aim of libel law wasn’t to regulate civic discourse in a way that made it more honest. The law’s intent was to preserve order and prevent rabblerousers from riling up the populace. The controlling legal authority in British common law, and by extension in the Colonies, was titled “A Treatise of the Pleas of the Crown.” Written by an English barrister named William Hawkins, it held that printers and authors were guilty of defamation if they wrote or printed words that exposed any person, alive or dead, “to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule.”
It did not matter if the defamed person already had a bad reputation. Taking Star Chamber logic to its ultimate, and ultimately perverse, conclusion, Hawkins explained “that it is far from being a justification of a libel that the contents thereof are true … since the greater the appearance of truth in any malicious invective, so much the more provoking it is.”
Political factions were just getting started in New York, then a city of 10,000 souls. Newspapers were a rarity as well. The only two printers in the colony were Willam Bradford and his former apprentice, Zenger. Neither man was much interested in the news business. Mostly they reprinted religious tracts and government-approved legal notices and texts, much of Zenger’s in Dutch and German. Eight decades before the dawn of the great New York publishing houses, all books in New York were imported from London.
This somnolent arrangement was disturbed by King George II’s 1732 appointment of a minor aristocrat and British military officer of little distinction named William Cosby to be the governor of New York and New Jersey. It was not an inspired appointment and Cosby’s preening nature and obvious greed immediately alienated the locals.
His initial grift, which ignited the political fires in New York, was his insistence that the previous acting governor turn over the portion of his salary from the time Cosby was named to the job — even though he didn’t arrive in New York for many months. His predecessor, a well-connected Dutchman named Rip Van Dam, sued Cosby. When the colony’s chief justice, Lewis Morris, ruled against the new governor, Cosby simply replaced Judge Morris. A powerful and formidable lawyer with a habit of holding grudges, Morris used numerous machinations to fight back. One of them was teaming with his friend and ally James Alexander, another powerful lawyer, to persuade John Peter Zenger to publish a new newspaper.
Appearing on Nov. 5, 1733 — 272 years before The Huffington Post — the first issue of the New York Weekly Journal carried the account of Lewis Morris’ political comeback: his election to the Assembly. For the next 10 months, in articles almost exclusively ghostwritten by James Alexander, the Journal published satire, limericks, and opinion pieces critical of Cosby, though never by name.
Nobody was fooled, however, least of all Cosby, who variously ordered the newspapers burned, pressured the colony’s other printer to respond in kind, and finally had Zenger arrested and charged with a crime. In preparation for trial, Cosby tried to pack the jury with his allies and installed a crony named James De Lancey as chief justice in the colony. When lawyer William Smith and his co-counsel James Alexander (the anonymous author of the anti-Cosby material in Zenger’s broadsheet) made a pre-trial motion for De Lancey to recuse himself, the judge instead kicked them off the case — and disbarred them on the spot.
This heavy-handed move backfired. Alexander sought the services of a Philadelphia lawyer named Andrew Hamilton. A native of Scotland, and not high-born, Hamilton had arrived in Virginia in his early 20s. He married into a Quaker family in Virginia, then moved to Maryland, where he helped write that colony’s laws and served in the legislature. After relocating to Pennsylvania in his 40s, Hamilton came to represent the family of William Penn, served as a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, and supervised the construction of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Hamilton’s career signified the possibility of upward mobility in the New World. He was also considered the best trial lawyer on these shores. He would need to be.
As expected, the prosecutor argued that the libel laws of England were the de facto libel laws of New York and that any defamation against the crown — or its agents — was merely a matter of proving the identity of the author. In other words, insofar as the jury was concerned, there was no real defense at all.
Without exactly explaining why, Hamilton challenged this logic. He posited that the laws of England should not necessarily apply to New York. Judge De Lancey was utterly unpersuaded. “The jury may find that Zenger printed and published those papers and leave to the Court to judge whether they are libelous,” he responded. But the defense strategy was to talk past the judge — straight to the jury and, by implication, the wider court of American public opinion. Addressing his argument to Zenger’s peers, Hamilton was going for jury nullification: “I know that [the jurors] have the right beyond all dispute to determine both the law and the fact,” he intoned.
In his summation, Hamilton went further: “The question before the court and you, gentlemen of the jury, is not of small or private concern. It is not the cause of the poor printer, nor of New York alone,” he said. “No! It may in its consequence affect every free man that lives under a British government on the main of America. It is the best cause. It is the cause of liberty.”
The jury agreed with defense counsel. It returned quickly from its deliberations, and foreman Thomas Hunt called out the verdict: “Not guilty!” Hurrahs rang out through the courtroom, drowning out the demands of the judge for order. Something had been started that would be hard to quell.
As early broadcaster Westbrook Van Voorhis liked to say, time marches on. In the 1960s, a questioning era like our own, a slew of revisionist historians tossed cold water on the John Peter Zenger legend. For starters, he didn’t even write the material he was jailed for, they noted. And Gouverneur Morris, the Founding Father who eulogized the Zenger trial as “the germ of American freedom” and “the morning star” of liberty on these shores, was hardly an impartial chronicler: Lewis Morris was his grandfather.
Pulitzer Prize-winning constitutional scholar Leonard Levy characterized the image of Colonial America as a society that cherished freedom of expression as “a sentimental hallucination.” Stanley Katz, a star Princeton historian, wrote that libel laws were reformed, in due time, but not because of anything James Alexander wrote, Peter Zenger printed, or Andrew Hamilton argued to a New York jury in 1735. It was, Katz claimed, “as if Peter Zenger had never existed.”
Today, a more subtle kind of rethinking is taking place. Richard Kluger, who persuasively debunks the 1960s-era Zenger debunkers, gets to the heart of the matter. “William Cosby was almost surely an ignoble character during his 3½-year tenure in New York, but if he was in fact half the villain his colonial critics claimed, they failed to marshal firm evidence of it.”
Moreover, after its inaugural issue, the New York Weekly Journal never covered another election after Lewis Morris’ return to the Assembly. Instead, its pages were used to compare Cosby to Nero, refer to the governor as “our affliction from London,” and accuse him of cluelessly escorting a French naval officer around the town so he could see the city’s defenses. Consorting with the enemy was a serious charge then, as it is today, but Zenger’s paper wasn’t calling Cosby a traitor. It was accusing him of being “but one degree removed from an idiot.”
It was this kind of thing that prompted veteran newsman Bill Keller, in his New York Times review of Kluger’s book, to compare the New York Weekly Journal to the now-defunct gossip website Gawker. It was not intended as a compliment. More generally, ideologues on both sides invoke the style of America’s earliest newspapers to question the legacy, and even the virtue, of nonpartisan journalism and the striving for objectively.
In an interview with “Frontline” in the early days of online journalism, Scott Johnson, co-founder of the conservative online outlet Power Line, put it this way: “The fact that the press was partisan and wild and outrageous during the Revolutionary era, during the era in which the Constitution was ratified, was not only true then; it really is the tradition of the American press up until the Progressive Era, essentially yesterday. The press was always partisan.”
He’s not entirely wrong, but using this historic fact as an excuse to cover the news in a one-sided way today — trying to shape outcomes instead of merely to inform — misses the point of the jury’s verdict in the 1735 trial of Peter Zenger. His lawyer didn’t merely argue that government shouldn’t muzzle a free people. Andrew Hamilton compared a libel case in which a defendant couldn’t argue the truth of his statements to a murder trial in which the defendant couldn’t offer evidence that the victim was actually still alive.
This gambit was a bluff. No witnesses could prove the truth of the contention that Gov. Cosby was “but one degree removed from an idiot” any more than Keith Olbermann could prove the same about George W. Bush. In the Zenger trial, Judge De Lancey didn’t buy it anyway. Nonetheless, Hamilton risked contempt of court by pivoting directly toward the jury and saying, “Then, gentlemen of the jury, it is to you we must now appeal for witnesses to the truth of the facts we have offered and are denied the liberty to prove.”
Actually, neither side called any witnesses in that trial, but the jury took Hamilton’s point. Their verdict wasn’t an endorsement of defamation. It was a recognition that if a people are to be free, they have the right to pursue the truth and tell it as best they can — and that neither government nor any political faction has a monopoly on veracity. Pursuing truth, not partisanship, was the principle that carried the day in a New York City courtroom on Aug. 4, 1735.
The Zenger saga has an instructive postscript. It occurred 273 years later, just three years after the launch of The Huffington Post.
As it turned out, Arianna Huffington’s interests went far beyond creating an online media counterweight to George W. Bush’s presidency. Focusing on the future of journalism at a time when the old media’s business model was already under financial stress, Huffington joined forces with well-known New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen to create an army of “citizen journalists.”
Launched in early 2007, the venture was named “OffTheBus,” a sly reference to Timothy Crouse’s classic 1973 book on presidential campaign reporting. This endeavor was a subversive response to the good-old-boy reporting network Crouse immortalized. OTB’s tag line was “Campaign coverage by people who are not in the club.”
Ultimately, it engaged some 1,700 unpaid writers to cover the 2007-2008 presidential cycle. This all-volunteer army was overseen by a tiny staff of professionals. One was Marc Cooper, a progressive political writer and University of Southern California journalism professor. Another was Amanda Michel, who today is director of global engagement at The Guardian but in 2007 was a 29-year-old wunderkind with no formal journalism training. Her talent was harnessing online communities, which she’d learned while working on the Howard Dean and John Kerry presidential campaigns.
Their team would produce thousands of stories and countless page views and attracted some 5 million unique visitors to Huffington Post’s website in October 2008 alone. Its best-remembered story, by far, was an account of an April 6, 2008, political fundraiser in Pacific Heights, a toney San Francisco neighborhood. The candidate was Barack Obama. The HuffPo citizen journalist in attendance was Mayhill Fowler, a 61-year-old native Tennessean who lived across the bay in Oakland.
In the decades since she’d graduated from Vassar and moved to the Bay Area to study at the University of California at Berkeley, Fowler had wed and worked sporadically, by her own account, as “a teacher, editor and writer, but mostly raised two daughters.” An uncommonly thoughtful person, she had quickly emerged as a favorite among OTB’s editors — and readers. In an October 2007 piece on OTB, New York Times political writer Katharine Seelye singled Fowler out as one of the site’s “emerging star correspondents.”
Fowler took a particular interest in Obama. She contributed the maximum $2,300 to his campaign, which was not only normal for OTB citizen journalists, but was encouraged, as it granted them increased access to campaigns they were covering. Fowler had previously traveled at her own expense to see Obama campaign in the Midwest and in Texas, but the San Francisco event was close to home so she wrangled an invite to the fundraiser, which was closed to the mainstream press. With Obama leading Hillary Clinton in pledged delegates, the conversation that night turned to the looming Pennsylvania primary. From the audience, some of whom were preparing to go east for the faceoff, came a question: What could they expect when they went to campaign in the Rust Belt?
“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them,” Obama replied. “And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate and they have not.”
So far, so good. Then Obama added: “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Fowler had covered Obama when he campaigned across Pennsylvania and that’s not what he had said to the faces of those voters, and she was “taken aback” by his judgmental tone.
“I’m a religious person, and I grew up poor in a very wealthy family — sometimes we didn’t have enough to eat, but my larger family was rich,” she told Seelye in an April 2008 story, adding that her father was a hunter. “Immediately, the remarks just really bothered me,” Fowler added. “For the first time, I realized he is an elitist.”
Fowler had a dilemma. She was smart enough to know the sneering remarks about rural Americans might hurt the candidate whom she still wanted to win. She confided in her husband, who didn’t see anything particularly wrong with what Obama had said. But it nagged at her and she called Amanda Michel. To Michel’s credit, she advised Fowler, “If you’re going to cover the campaign, you have to not be partial or your coverage isn’t worth as much as it could be.”
So, following her gut feeling and her editor’s supportive advice, Fowler blogged about the incident. Hillary Clinton’s campaign pounced, and the mainstream media jumped on the story (often omitting Fowler’s name). Some Obama fanboys attacked her for being disloyal, but Team Huffington rallied behind her. Arianna defended her reporter in a blog post while vacationing on a yacht, lambasting Clinton’s campaign. Jay Rosen, one of the most level-headed advocates of the proposition that disclosure of bias is preferable to feigned objectivity, examined the ethical questions thoroughly on his blog. After the campaign was over, Michel did something similar for Columbia Journalism Review.
Almost two years later, Fowler published an e-book on the election, “Notes From a Clueless Journalist: Media, Bias and the Great Election of 2008.” It’s a nuanced and informative book, as anyone who read Fowler’s blog would expect. In the preface, she explains her motives, not just for writing about the Pacific Heights fundraiser, but also chronicling the inspiring saga of Barack Obama himself. “All I cared about,” she wrote, “was getting the election story.”
Notwithstanding the title of her book, traditional reporters who read it or followed her writing found Fowler anything but clueless. She came across as committed, empathetic, curious, intellectually honest, and highly ethical. It gave many of us hope for the future.
But here’s the rub, the postscript to the postscript, if you will: If something like that happened today, would an online media outlet with a clear point of view deign to report it? For that matter, would the legacy media? The treatment of the Hunter Biden laptop story suggests an answer, and it is not an encouraging one.