The left apparently has taken to heart the admonition of former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to "never let a serious crisis go to waste."
In the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy that killed six and wounded 14 others, the left has attacked talk radio, Fox News, Sarah Palin and anyone else it can smear. Never mind there is not a shred of evidence that the accused gunman, the mentally disturbed Jared Lee Loughner, ever watched Glenn Beck or listened to Rush Limbaugh.
Even if Loughner had watched and listened to conservative media, what does that prove? Millions do, but they don’t go on a shooting rampage. What do other murderers and terrorists watch on TV or listen to on the radio? Why isn’t the media they consume a matter of interest? Answer: Because it doesn’t further the left’s agenda.
Since the left lost its monopoly of the U.S. media, it has repeatedly tried to suppress speech it doesn’t like. Thus, we hear calls by Democratic Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina for the resurrection of the Fairness Doctrine. Rep. Robert Brady, Pennsylvania Democrat, reportedly plans to introduce legislation that would make it a federal crime to use language or symbols that could be perceived as threatening or that incites violence against a federal official or member of Congress. Who would police that and based on what standard?
In the 1980s, when conservative groups tried to “clean up” the bad language, sexual references and violence on TV, the left cried “censorship.” When conservatives campaigned against pornography and “music” that encouraged violence against women and racial epithets, they were told a healthy First Amendment required that even the most offensive speech be tolerated. It was the same argument used to allow the burning of the American flag at political protests. But the left is intolerant of speech it disagrees with and so wishes to censor what it cannot overcome with superior argument.
Eric Burns wrote a book titled “Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism.”
Compared to 18th-century journalism in America, today’s media are tame. Burns writes of the Gazette of the United States that its editor, John Fenno, was an ardent supporter of the federalism represented by George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Fenno’s newspaper served as a counterweight to the Republican slant of the National Gazette.
Burns sums up Fenno’s journalistic philosophy: “He would cajole his readers, deceive them when necessary, rile them when advisable; he would praise public officials and other newspaper editors who agreed with his positions and drub those who did not, assailing their intelligence, their character, their patriotism; and he would publish the records of legislative proceedings that advanced the federalist agenda while either ignoring or deriding or sometimes even falsifying documents to the contrary.”
Such things were to be found on the “news” pages, not the opinion page. Entire newspapers were opinion pages. To have a page designated “opinion” would have been redundant.
The 1790s were, according to historian John Ferling, “one of America’s most passionate decades.” The nation’s journalism, notes Burns, could not help but reflect the heat.
One paper, named the Philadelphia Aurora, engaged in what Burns describes as “journalistic savagery ... not caring about accuracy or even the illusion of it.” The Aurora published a series of letters supposedly written by George Washington while he was encamped at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778. The letters “portrayed Washington as a lukewarm patriot at best, a loyal subject of George III at worst, and at least a skeptic concerning independence.”
It would have been a great story if true, but Washington wrote no such letters. That didn’t bother Benjamin Franklin Bache (Ben Franklin’s grandson and the owner of the Aurora), who was not about to retract something that served his anti-Washington political ends.
Journalism survived, even displaying responsibility on occasion. The public can sort out the good from the bad and ugly. They don’t need politicians doing it for them.
Cal Thomas, a columnist for Tribune Media Services, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.