Thursday, May 26, 2005

All I Know Is What I Read in the Newspapers

“All know is what I read in the papers,” Will Rogers told his audiences. And then he began to fill in the spaces between the lines of what he read with extremely funny analyses. It is a cinch that Will did not have access to blogs. Blog writers may have their biases but they are faster. Often you will know their biases because they will tell you, up front. But with newspapers, it is more difficult to pick out the biases.

Once, I ran across a newspaper that made clear its biases. It was the Lexington, MO, American Citizen, a newspaper that lasted from about 1855 to 1857. I was doing research on a project when I came across filmed copies of its pages.

What, you ask, was its bias? The American Citizen was devoted to telling the truth about slavery. It wanted the world (at least its small readership) to know that slavery was a good, constitutional part of American life.

While its forthrightness was commendable, the newspaper’s political goals and attachments were suspect. It wasn’t long before it was out of business and so was slavery. The Civil War determined the rest of the story.

I suspect most newspaper writers have been more economical with the truth about their goals and agendas since 1857.

If, like will Rogers, all you know is what you read in the papers, then your knowledge is a bit on the short side. Newspaper writers do not want to appear biased, while at the same time they have an agenda they want to sell the reader. Such writers are aware that newspaper readers are quite likely to vote. If they can be convinced of a particular stance, perhaps readers will vote the way the newspaper writers would like. It worked for the Lexington, MO American Citizen’s readers for a while. But then the readers found other papers and soon decided there was a better truth.

It is well established that President Lincoln, through his agent General Burnside, attacked some 200 northern newspapers that dared to print news he didn’t like. Many printing presses were totally destroyed. President Lincoln well knew that newspapers had the ability to move people, so he chose to crush those who might move people in the wrong way. He kept a stranglehold on news of his time.

But nowadays, there is too much news delivered in too many ways for a politician to control. It is probably the first time in America’s history that news cannot be controlled. The solidarity between television, radio and newspaper writers seems to have been shaken partially because foreign news media is abundantly available to Americans and partly because there have sprung up alternate sources of news within the formerly closed ranks of the old news oligarchy. Blogs are an increasingly larger part of the alternative source.

But I could be wrong. All I know is what I read in the newspapers, hear on the radio and TV, and read on the blogosphere.

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