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CONNECTIONS: In America, truth has never gotten in the way of politics

Fomenting fear to drive policy is a political technique older than our country. It has never lost favor with the power hungry and never varied.

As annoying as hyper partisan news reports are, neither the 24-hour television news cycle nor the internet created them.

Two hundred years ago, before television or electricity, the newspapers made their political affiliations part of their mastheads. Three newspapers in our area were called The Hampshire Federalist, The Berkshire County Republican, and The Berkshire County Whig. They enthusiastically slanted the news in favor of their political beliefs and energetically slammed their political rivals. What their arguments lacked in clarity, or sense, they made up for in heat.

In 1787, Pittsfield’s American Centinel, blatantly Federalist, urged adoption of the Constitution and creation of the United States: “Thus will America … be all united, firm as one, and shall always seek the general good.”

Neither accurate nor predictive, the Centinal did articulate an ideal.

While the Centinel and other proponents were painting images of utopia, opponents of ratifying the Constitution were sowing seeds of fear. If the states were united, the new country would crown George Washington king; once again, they warned, “we will be subjects not citizens.”

Fomenting fear to drive policy is a political technique older than our country. It has never lost favor with the power hungry and never varied.

In Washington, D.C., in 1904, commenting on his colleagues’ penchant for obfuscating, President Theodore Roosevelt said: “When they call the roll in the Senate, Senators do not know whether to answer ‘present’ or ‘not guilty.’”

Maryland, 1970: A politician running for office was confronted by a reporter at a public meeting. There was a marked disparity between what the politician had claimed and what proved to be true. The reporter wanted to know, “In light of the new information, have you changed your position?”

“I have made up my mind,” the candidate said, “don’t bother me with the facts.”

Summing up the problem of a politician’s allergy to truth, in 2014, Paul Krugman wrote: “there are Zombie ideas; ideas that the facts should have killed long ago, and yet they refuse to die.”

It is a trend in American politics: The truth never got in the way of a good story or a great campaign strategy.

There is a difference between the 18th- and 21st-century news outlets: hypocrisy. Early newspapers were loud and proud in proclaiming their biases; they did not claim to be fair and balanced, or to be the only ones telling the truth. From the masthead to the last drop of ink, they told the reader that they were peddling their own beliefs.

It took a while for the American media to travel from transparency to hypocrisy. The road wound from bravado straight through a commitment to objectivity to a brief rest stop at slanted reporting delivered with the wink and the nod of “full disclosure,” and, finally, to the modern divided highway. The divided highway is the faithful reporting of two opposing sides of every bit of news as if everything were debatable.

Think a flack, a spin doctor, and a fuming and fawning media are modern inventions? Consider:

The first public-relations professional was the son of a preacher born in Georgia in 1877. Mr. Ivy Lee first bent the truth beyond recognition for the almighty dollar at the age of 24. It was 1901. So financially remunerative was the exercise that, by 1905, he had his own public relations firm. He continued to gloss over the truth under the company slogan: “Accuracy, Authenticity, and Interest.” It had taken almost 200 years for American media and public relations to discover the power of hypocrisy: simultaneously lying and denying it. Ivy Lee was eventually and inevitably called “Poison Ivy.” He was also, inevitably, wildly successful.

In 1914 Lee marched head-high into the “big time” when hired by John D. Rockefeller. The press labeled Rockefeller “the malefactor of great wealth.” Malefactor was gentler than criminal, but not by much. Lee was hired to make Rockefeller appear less like a greedy bully and enemy of the public and more like an inoffensive old grandpa who loved his fellow man.

Lee’s plan was to gather street urchins around Rockefeller, and when the cameras were ready, have the old man hand out dimes to the (presumably) hungry and (ultimately) grateful children. Was everything counterfeit but the dimes? You bet, but it worked.

Like the internet today, taverns were the centers of communication 200 years ago. At taverns, word got out: Stagecoaches brought the earliest word of events outside Berkshire County; locals brought the latest gossip; legal notices and minutes of town meetings were posted; newspapers and letters were delivered; and the politicians campaigned. The Arab spring was fueled online; in taverns our revolution was plotted. Taverns were partisan: A patriot didn’t drink with a loyalist; a Federalist tavern would not serve an Anti-Federalist.

That is what will never change: people. In 18th-century taverns, or on the 21st-century internet, we like to listen to those who agree with us. Liberals don’t tune into Laura Ingram; MAGA doesn’t watch Rachel Maddow; and conservatives don’t know where to turn. The delivery of the message may have changed but the experience they seek is the same: People like to be told what they believe is true.

Here is what has changed, and herein is the danger: In the taverns and the newspapers, what they argued was opinion, and what they agreed upon was fact. Not everything is debatable. Today, dangerously, we argue fact as if a fact were one of multiple opinions. Even as they argued about ratifying the Constitution, they agreed upon who won the Revolutionary War.


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