By Dave Vergobbi
The 2016 presidential election was the seventh one I’ve taught through here at the University of Utah, and this one has impacted my courses unlike any previous election. What I’ve found is that journalism history has never been more central to educating not just students, but citizens. Because when the democratic process and democracy itself becomes the constant touchstone of a course, the Fourth Estate’s historical checking value provides students purpose, context, meaning, and application for those courses outside the classroom. Journalism history provides students a way to understand how and why the ideal of democracy is supposed to work.
A recent media law class session on newsgathering exemplifies my point. Students were polarized on the Freedom of Information Act. The only thing they seemed to agree upon was that it wasn’t needed, and why was I bothering them about it. The larger group argued that the government is in charge of government information and if the government doesn’t want to release the information then it knows best; that’s why we put those people in charge. Appalled, the smaller group argued for full transparency, exemptions be damned. History proffered the common ground for resolution and understanding.
We discussed the long 11-year battle to pass the FOIA, and how two historically adversarial institutions, sharing a common frustration over lack of access to administrative agency records, became highly unlikely confederates to wage and win that battle. I shared how the pre-FOIA press had to rely on agency handouts that favorably summarized detailed information when the reporters wanted to see the original documents. Students were more surprised to realize that Congress itself—The Federal Government—could not get information out of the federal administrative agencies, which consistently refused requests from Congressional investigators. The two institutions finally came together in 1955 thanks to Representative John Moss from California, chairman of a House subcommittee on government information and an access-to-information bulldog. After 11 years of hearings, debate and deal-making the bill passed and, even though every administrative agency asked President Lyndon Johnson to veto it, Johnson made it law in 1966. And the students yawned.
But when my students understood the democratic motives that drove Congress and, especially, the press, the discussion shifted. We started with the United States ratifying the First Amendment in 1791, when James Madison reasoned in the National Gazette on December 19 that “[w]hatever facilitates a general intercourse of sentiments, [such] as…a free press, and particularly a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people, is…favorable to liberty.” Also, how Madison maintained his view in an 1822 letter concerning “Public Instruction” to William Barry that emphasized citizen access to government information as the basis of self-governance. “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both,” Madison wrote, “a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
I passed on a quote from a 1960 report of the House Committee on Government Operations right in the middle of the FOIA battle that said, “Secrecy—the first refuge of incompetents—must be at a bare minimum in a democratic society, for a fully informed public is the basis of self-government,” then showed the students how the report channeled John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s influential 1720 “Cato Letter No. 15.”
I reminded students of how our friend from early in the semester, Thomas Emerson, connected past to present in “Colonial Intentions and Current Realities of the First Amendment” (1977) when he clarified that a key democratic function of the press was as purveyor of critical information. “The public, as sovereign, must have all information available to instruct its servants, the government,” Emerson wrote. “[T]here can be no holding back of information; otherwise, ultimate decision-making by the people, to whom the function is committed, becomes impossible.”
With these and other historical arguments, students started to see and discuss how the democratic self-governing process depends upon an informed citizenry, which in turn depends on the free press — Herbert Altschull’s Democratic Assumption. They began to see and discuss how the news media use open record laws and their First Amendment guarantee to bare the secrets of government and inform the people, and why they have to inform the people. That 40-minute visitation with journalism history showed students how and why news media earn their constitutional protection by providing citizens a marketplace for discussing diverse, often conflicting ideas; a voice for public opinion; surveillance of the political scene and politician performance; and a public watchdog or checking value that uncovers governmental misbehavior, corruption and abuses of power.
This discussion did have an impact. I didn’t get to all the issues and points I wanted to make that day, but it has been one of the semester’s most rewarding and successful class sessions. My bet is that you’ve had similar experiences in your courses this year.
However incorporated in whatever class, journalism history provides students purpose, context, meaning, and application for our courses outside the classroom. Journalism history is more relevant than ever because it produces informed, engaged citizens. Go make that argument to your chair, dean, RTP board, provost, vice president and president. To assist you in that argument, I’ll be emailing you the AJHA Board of Directors’ draft of guidelines “that identify important considerations historians can use to provide context for evaluating their work.” Please look for it and provide the board input and suggestions. Thank you, and enjoy your spring.