Get Off Jefferson's Lawn: On Election Day, an Ode to the Free, Diverse, Annoying Press

Op-ed piece by Princeton professor Kevin M. Kruse in this morning's New York Times argues the real loser in this election cycle was the truth.

Kruse marshals instances on both sides of the line but comes down clearly in the camp that sees Mitt Romney as the biggest fattest pants-on-fire liar ever. He cites as a cause of truth's general demise the erosion of public trust in major institutions, including newspaper reporters.

Who knew? If I'm a major institution, then I'm putting on my best bow tie and heading out this morning to borrow money. Before it goes away.

There was a story in Harper's last August that I still haven't read because I still haven't been able to make my quivering right index finger right-click on a subscription, which I should do, and which I applaud Harper's for trying to make me do, but which I can't do because of cheapness. But I have read a lot about the article for free, whatever that tells you.

By blogger/talker David Sirota, the article is summed up and somewhat scooped in a headline to Sirota's own blog, "Stop Sucking Up to Bloomberg." (Note to editors with pay-walls: never trust a blogger.)

Sirota is making what feels to me like something I would think is a very persuasive argument, were I to pay to read the full piece: that newspaper reporters don't deserve much respect anymore because in most markets they have become quavering toadies to the few rich bastards who still own papers in one-newspaper towns, a more and more common condition. So afraid are they of offending this handful of potential employers that they have brainwashed themselves into believing the bastards are great journalists.

There is some blow-back already from the toadies, including a piece by Joanne Ostrow of The Denver Post arguing, I think, that the Post is run by really great people and Sirota is just pissed because they stopped carrying his stuff.

The Denver Post is owned by Billie Dean Singleton. I've worked for Singleton. I remember it well. I remember standing outside Home Depot looking at this trailer they were selling that was all loaded up with new lawn-care equipment, figuring up the monthly payments in my head, estimating how many lawns I would have to do per day, totting up how much I would have to pay the illegal aliens who would do all the actual work, thinking to myself, "It would be so honorable."

This business of a free press has always been complicated in our history. My favorite observer of and philosopher on the American press will always be Thomas Jefferson. I own sort of a small collection of books about it. One of the best is Jefferson and the Press by Frank Luther Mott, published almost 70 years ago by Louisiana State University Press.

One of the most important messages for any reporter reading the book is that Jefferson, the great champion and architect of American free press, absolutely hated us. Jefferson wrote, "Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some way such as this. Divide his paper into four chapters, heading the 1st, Truths. 2d, Probabilities. 3d Possibilities. 4th, Lies. The first chapter would be very short ..."

Other great Jefferson quotes on what we now call the media: "I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens, who, reading newspapers, live and die in the belief that they have known something of what has been passing in the world of their time..."

"I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth that he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors..."

So he hated the press, right? Right. He goes on and on. I wish he could come back for just one day to say something about Singleton.

But, wait. He also said the press -- a free, diverse and competitive press - is the single most essential element in the preservation of democracy and freedom in America:

"Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe."

Three years before his death, Jefferson wrote in a letter: "But the only security of all, is in a free press."

My own favorite Jefferson quote on the media is this: " ... were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

I mean, that's serious, right? I ought to be able to borrow some money from you on that one. A modest amount? Ah, but no. It was never me he trusted, never the journalist. It was you, Dear Reader.

Jefferson put all his trust in you, the free American reader. You were always skeptical of loud voices of authority, including the press. You were always his secret ingredient: "The firmness with which the people have withstood the late abuses of the press, the discernment they have manifested between truth and falsehood, show that they may safely be trusted to hear everything true and false, and to form a correct judgment between them."

He said this of days like today, election day: "The experiment has been tried, you have witnessed the scene; our fellow citizens have looked on, cool and collected; they saw the latent source from which outrage proceeded; they gathered around their public functionaries, and when the constitution called them to the decision by suffrage, they pronounced their verdict, honorable to those who had served them, and consolatory to the friend of man, who believes he may be entrusted with his own affairs."

This was always your day, never mine. Curses! Look, you know I'm good for it.