By David Vergobbi with Ross Collins, Debra Van Tuyll, Patrick Cox.
At this time of political and societal upheaval, I’m reminded of a chapter I wrote a few years ago. So I ask you to consider two scholars named Alex separated by 174 years.
As he traveled around the United States in the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat with liberal leanings, observed how ideas and aspirations diffused among America’s social and economic groups. He believed identifying the methods of diffusion would explain what political and economic aims each group would pursue, what institutions they would establish and operate, and with what success. He paid little attention to government separation of powers and much attention to which social groups might sustain a democratic outlook. In his considerations, Tocqueville became one of the first observers to recognize the press as a powerful force for promoting and sustaining democracy.
“[The press’s] influence in America is immense. It causes political life to circulate through all parts of that vast territory,” he wrote in 1835’s Democracy in America. “Its eye is constantly open to detect the secret springs of political designs and to summon the leaders of all parties in turn to the bar of public opinion.” Tocqueville argued that the press “rallies the interests of the community round certain principles and draws up the creed of every party; for it affords a means of intercourse between those who hear and address each other without ever coming into immediate contact.”
As he reviewed the state of American news media in 2009, our second Alex, Alex S. Jones, an American journalist with democratic concerns now at Harvard, also observed how ideas and aspirations diffused among America’s different social and economic groups. Jones did pay attention to government separation of powers, and he reinforced a long-held belief in the United States that the news media exist as the public’s check and balance on its political system by diffusing “accountability news.”
“Traditional journalists have long believed that this form of fact-based accountability news is the essential food supply of democracy and that without enough of this healthy nourishment, democracy will weaken, sicken, or even fail,” he wrote in Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy (2009). “[T]his core of reported news has been the starting place for a raucous national conversation about who we are as a people and a country.”
The similarity of Tocqueville and Jones’s comments — separated by nearly two centuries — reveals how deeply the perception of the press as democratic catalyst is embedded in American political thought. J. Herbert Altschull called it “The Democratic Assumption.” “Indeed,” Altschull wrote in Agents of Power (1984), “we can say with a large measure of certainty that one of the primary assumptions held by the American citizen is that democracy thrives in part because of the information disseminated by the news media.” Altschull himself italicized his words to drive home their significance. This assumption considers the news media “indispensable to the survival of democracy.” Political scientist Timothy E. Cook showed us in Governing with the News (1998) that even politicians accepted the Democratic Assumption to the point of planning their campaign and governance strategies based on voter media consumption.
And, yet, today “politicians and opinion-leaders, led by the president of the United States himself, have seriously questioned the need for the press,” reports AJHA 2nd Vice-President Ross Collins. “They show skepticism of a presumption that, after more than two centuries, professional journalists ought to continue to play a central role in American democracy. Debates over the credibility and basic veracity of legacy journalism have spilled down from the politicians’ rhetoric and into day-to-day rumblings around the country at most levels, and in most venues — social media to television commentary. People in general are questioning journalism, perhaps more than they have ever before.”
“Or perhaps not more than ever before,” Collins continues. “Because the one aspect to this central discussion of journalism in democracy that is usually missing is the historical perspective.”
Agreed, argues AJHA Board Member Debra Van Tuyll.
“Given that most Americans have scant knowledge of their own history, much less global history, historical context is vital to providing full, fair, and accurate coverage that gives readers/viewers/listeners/surfers what they need — and have a right — to know,” says Van Tuyll. Plus, “given that history is susceptible to being used and manipulated in the service of those who neither understand it nor value it, historians have an ethical obligation to speak out to correct the record when it is presented in a way that cherry-picks facts, exaggerates, indulges in flag-waving, or offers half-truths and obfuscation.”
Such an ethical obligation directly serves our organizational principles, as well, says AJHA veteran Patrick Cox.
“AJHA members can provide a valuable public service during these fractious times by providing historical perspectives on present events to a much broader audience than our membership and our respective educational institutions — for media professionals, educators at all levels, business and nonprofit organizations, and the public,” explains Cox. “Many AJHA members are doing this at the local, regional and national level. [AJHA can] establish and maintain an easy-to-use online resource for identifying and contacting AJHA member historians who can provide their insight and expertise.”
Establishing such an online resource is exactly the focus of this year’s President’s Panel at AJHA’s national convention in Little Rock titled “Journalism History News Service: A series of historical perspectives on contemporary journalism.”
Ross, Debbie, Pat and I will propose a series of member-produced public essays, editorials, and podcasts on historical topics that could illuminate today’s divisive news media discussions. These essays would appear on the association’s website, on social media, as live online chats, and as articles circulated widely to the legacy press. The service would also offer an online resource of Distinguished Media History Leaders — historians available to speak, collaborate, consult and provide historical context on issues involving press freedom, civil rights, and other relevant issues of the day. The goal is to proliferate a national understanding of and need for our two Alex’s “fact-based accountability news” and to revitalize a Democratic Assumption that the news media are indeed “indispensable to the survival of democracy.”
Join us. Provide your input. And together let’s build an effective AJHA service.