Bias ... the First Trait of American Journalism

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There is bias in the elite media! How often do you hear that on cable talk shows? Yes, George Bush gets criticized by the press. Clinton before him took it on the chin and every president before him felt the sting of slings and arrows. Truman and Roosevelt got it, Lincoln certainly did and so did Adams and Jefferson. It started before all the aforementioned presidents because the very first “victim” of presidential “media” bias was none other than George Washington.

And what provoked the media bias that plagued the man who has been revered thoughout our nation’s history?

First a little background...

The tap root of American journalism was sunk into partisan soil when Patriot and Tory hurled invectives across a widening line of intolerance over the Stamp Act in 1765. The twenty three papers in the colonies then were four-page weeklies of local advertising, local here-say and large sections of European news, cut verbatim from the London press. News as we know it was non-existent.

When the Stamp Act created the furor in the colonies, letters of opinion were published by printers who would run pieces submitted by someone - anyone - who had something to say. As the patriot presses from Boston to Charleston rattled out words of defiance to the British crown, the idea of being a British subject was being replaced by a new self-image as writers in journals began to refer to themselves and everyone else as Americans. Led by the printers and their contributing writers, this new mind-set was being developed as opposition to the crown grew.

After the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, the power of the press was realized. Colonials, intrigued with the idea of independence from Britain, saw it as a weapon and in Massachusetts, the Boston Gazette and Country Journal were in the forefront of agitation. Two fiery coals in the “hotbed of sedition,” Benjamin Edes and John Gill, opened their doors to a deliberately obscure group called the Caucus Club. Consisting of men like Sam Adams, his cousin John Adams, James Otis and John Hancock, club members would meet at the Gazette where they “cooked up paragraphs,” and “worked the political engine,” frustrating the Tories who, so embittered, circulated a letter to British troops quartered in Boston urging “those Trumpeters of Sedition, the printers Edes and Gill,” and their writers for their paper, “should be put to the sword.”

And one of them, James Otis, perhaps the least radical of the patriots, suffered such an assault after writing an article for the Boston Gazette in which he took the Governor and some of his commissioners to task for accusing he and Sam Adams of treason. Shortly after the piece appeared, Otis entered a coffee house for some morning refreshment and came upon one of the commissioners and several British army, naval and revenue officers. Robinson, the commissioner, it was reported, led the charge at Otis with his cane, the sword-wielding military right behind amid shouts of “God damn him! Kill him! Kill him!” After Otis took a beating and a sword slash to the head, the combatants were separated by others present fearing Otis would be killed. Otis sued and won damages of three thousand shillings but gentleman that he was, he refused the money on the basis that Robinson had atoned for his action.

Otis’ gentlemanly gesture and Robinson’s mea culpa were rare for the dividing line was stretching towards Lexington and Concord. Rancor in the press came from both sides, intolerance underlining every word. “Tories are,” one man wrote to the Boston Gazette “...the most despicable beings, that ever appeared in human shape.” A Tory writing to the New York Gazette penned a poem in which he wrote of the Patriot values, “Cheating and lying are puny things, Rapine and plundering venial sins.”

And the “venial sin” of plundering did came to pass right after Lexington and Concord. When James Rivington, a Tory publisher, wrote of the battles at Lexington and Concord in his newspaper Rivington New York Gazeteer, partisanship showed up at the newspaper office in the guise of Isaac Sears and a cavalry contingent. The press was plundered and the type was carried off to melt down for patriot bullets. Partisanship had taken a firm hold in the colonial America. It would never let go. Looking back thirty two years after Yorktown, John Adams, the nation’s second president, wrote:

”What do you mean by the Revolution? The War? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.”

The few had influenced the many. And the newspapers were there.

Stay with this now and we’ll soon get to George Washington.

After the War for Independence, the tap root of the partisan press had sunk deep into American soil and the tree growing from it was struggling to find the sun. Most of the papers that had beat the drum of revolution, or tried to muffle it with opposition, did not survive. Perhaps their reason for being no longer existed but a few survived the turn of the century passing on the legacy of partisanship to a new form of newspaper, the party organ, and a new form of partisanship, that of the political party.

Together, tightly embraced, they would wend their way forward, for eighty or so years, on the pathway to civil war, stumbling on the sharp edged rocks of bank panic, depression and slavery.

The first step of this coupling was the first organ, The Gazette of the United States. Operated by John Fenno who set the paper up in New York City as the official voice of the Federalists, the nation’s first and only party. The Gazette was the national voice of government establishing propaganda and the shaping of public opinion as the guiding spirit of American journalism.

Designed to preach the party line and supported by Hamilton and John Adams, the Gazette did just that, publishing official documents and announcements thus becoming the first political paper and it followed the seat of power as it moved first to Philadelphia then to Washington. Its Federalist line smacked of an elitism and a pro-British posture that ran contrary to the Jefferson and Madison perspective and it aroused the need for an opposition paper. Enter the editor, Philip Freneau, adventurer, scholar, warrior who “did more than anyone else to make American political journalism, a kind of Donnybrook Fair of broken heads and skinned knuckles.” That he did, with The National Gazette.

As the voice of the French Party, the name Jefferson’s Republican’s were often called, he attacked Alexander Hamilton’s financial measures and brought John Adams to ridicule but the paper was on weak financial ground and was soon to be out of business.

And now we come to George Washington.

Soon another Republican paper similar to Freneau’s National Gazette, one called Aurora and edited by Benjamin Franklin Bache, a grandson of Benjamin Franklin, opened shop. Called “Lightening Rod Junior,” a tribute to his illustrious grandfather, Bache who was educated in France and sympathetic to the French Republic soon found himself in Jeffersonian circles. Before he was through, his partisanship and his passion launched a verbal cannonade at no less a person than George Washington. Yes, this is it. George Washington.


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