“It is the absolute right of the State to supervise the formation of public opinion.”Joseph Goebbels
Journalism in the United States has always been a bit of a mess. Not as worrisome as it is now, but it always had its rogues, liars, and scoundrels. Likewise, it always had its biases. In the nineteenth century, newspapers made little or no pretense to objectivity. It is hard to imagine now, but the “progressive” Los Angeles Times was once a hard-line, right-wing, Republican journal under the management and editorship of Brigadier General Harrison Gray Otis from 1882 until his death in 1917. His reputation for being right-wing was so pervasive that it was rumored he had a canon mounted on his armored 1910 Franklin Model H automobile. This rumor even fooled famous writer, journalist, and historian David Halberstam, who repeated the claim in his book, The Powers That Be (1979).
From the beginning of the American republic until the early twentieth century, almost all newspapers were clearly and unapologetically attached to specific political parties. The Democrats had their newspapers and the Republicans had theirs. In the early years of the United States, the Federalist Party had its newspapers. The Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans had their newspapers. The Anti-Masonic Party had its newspapers. The Whig Party, the Free Soil Party, and the Socialist Labor Party of America had their newspapers. Teddy Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” Party (the Progressive Party) had its newspapers. Everyone was partisan and everyone knew it. Journalistic partisanship was generally accepted and expected.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that there was a significant increase in the practice of objectivity in the field of reporting. The New York Times and other major institutions rose to prominence on the promise of presenting the news in a fair and objective manner. Whether they actually did so is another question entirely. The universities established Departments of Journalism, and it became a field of academic study grounded in the dream of universal objectivity.
From the early to mid-twentieth century until Walter Cronkite and shortly after, most Americans tended to believe that the news they received, whether on television or on paper, was more or less honest. Cronkite was widely considered the “Most Trusted Man in America” and his nightly sign-off for CBS News was the confident assurance that, “that’s the way it is.” By the 1970s, however, the American public was losing faith in both journalists and politicians.
It became increasingly clear that each individual news outlet, even the high-profile and “objective” newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Chicago Tribune had their distinct ideological tendencies. This also became accepted as true for the more serious political magazines such as the New Republic, which came to be known as the “in-flight magazine of Air Force One.” The New Republic also had its shifting ideological tendencies over the decades before its deterioration into irrelevancy in relatively recent years.
The New Republic was founded in 1914 by leaders of the Progressive Movement, and its stated purpose was “a liberalism centered in humanitarian and moral passion and one based in an ethos of scientific analysis.” For many years the New Republic was a well-respected left-leaning political magazine. In 1974 it was purchased by Harvard University instructor, Marty Peretz, a former member of the radical New Left who became alienated from that movement after it allied itself with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) following the Six Day War of 1967.
Decades later, in 1998, Stephen Glass was perhaps the hottest young journalist in Washington, D.C., and at the age of twenty-five was the youngest journalist at the New Republic and had already published in various magazines including Policy Review, George, Rolling Stone, and Harper’s. Everyone in the magazine seemed to like Glass because he was both modest and fun. His stories were a kick and they pulled no punches. In “Spring Breakdown” (March 21, 1997), for example, he tells the story of young conservatives at the Conservative Political Action Conference. In their room at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington D.C., young conservatives drank to excess, smoked pot, snorted coke, and engaged in sexual harassment of an innocent young woman whom they lured to their room for the purpose of sexual humiliation.
Seth, a meaty quarterback from a small college in Indiana, and two others will drive to a local bar. There, the three will choose the ugliest and loneliest woman they can find. “Get us a real heifer, the fatter the better, bad acne would be a bonus,” Michael shouts. He is so drunk he doesn’t know he is shouting. Seth will lure the victim, whom they call a “whale,” back to the hotel room. The five who stay behind will hide under the beds. After Seth undresses the whale, the five will jump out and shout, “We’re beaching! Whale spotted!” They will take a photograph of the unfortunate woman.
The problem is that Glass made it all up.
He wrote fiction for the New Republic and passed it off as fact. And it was not merely that one story. In the end Glass either wholly, or partly, fabricated twenty-seven articles for the New Republic through the end of the 1990s.
In the 2003 film, Shattered Glass, drawn from the 1998 Vanity Fair article of the same name by H. G. Bissinger, we see one writer-editor speaking with another and it is quite telling, even though it is a movie representation. She also was young, as were most staff writers on the magazine at the time and was a little intimidated by the rise of Stephen Glass. She felt that she did not have enough pizzazz to compete with the emerging style of personalized journalism that he represented. This trend owes much to what they called the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s as represented by such well-respected writers as Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Tom Wolfe, of The Right Stuff and Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test fame. The difference between these renowned writers and journalists and Glass is that they generally did not fabricate material, although in Thompson’s case you could probably dig up a few factually questionable, tongue-in-cheek claims at a politician’s expense in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.
At the time, the New Republic, under editor-in-chief Charles “Chuck” Lane, had the integrity to fire Stephen Glass from the magazine despite the uncomfortable disapproval of much of his staff, due to their loyalty and friendship to Glass. Glass, however, merely represents one example of a journalist taking the New Journalism—which reified a blending of objectivity and subjectivity for the purpose of turning journalism into art—to its final destination, i.e., lying for fame and profit. He did it, however, strictly on his own. There was no collusion with his employer or the government in his deceptions.
Journalists with similar tendencies who came later, particularly out of Europe, are even less nuanced in their occupational malpractice. What Boston University historian Professor Richard Landes dubbed Pallywood is a perfect example. Pallywood is when Arab-Palestinian activists, in collusion with the Western press, defame the Jewish State by faking and staging incidents of IDF brutality. Although there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of other Pallywood productions, it was the Muhammad al-Durrah case in September, 2000, that gained world-wide fame, in large part due to the efforts of anti-Israel French journalists partnering with anti-Semitic Arabs in Judea and Samaria.
In a March 26, 2008, article titled “One on One: Framing the debate” for The Jerusalem Post, Ruthie Blum Leibowitz tells us that Pallywood represents “productions staged by the Palestinians, in front of (and often with cooperation from) Western camera crews, for the purpose of promoting anti-Israel propaganda by disguising it as news.” There are countless clips of Palestinian-Arabs filmed by local and foreign film crews demonstrating obvious journalistic fraud.
On September 30, 2000, during the opening round of Arab violence in the Second Intifada, Muhammad al-Durah and his father Jamal apparently found themselves between IDF forces and Arab-Palestinian fighters and terrorists in the Gaza Strip. Talal Abu Rahma, a Palestinian cameraman, filmed the scene for France 2 News on French national television. They broadcast fifty-nine seconds of that footage resulting in international outrage against Israel and violence toward Jews, both in Israel and the diaspora, even as the bloody Arab “Intifada” raged throughout Israel.
Talal Abu Rahma later claimed that the al-Durrahs were under Israeli fire for forty-five minutes before they were murdered by the IDF. This, of course, is not a possibility because if the IDF wanted to kill these two people, crouching behind a barrel, they could easily have done so and it would not have taken forty-five minutes. Furthermore, other footage shows cameramen running up just behind the al-Durrahs to get footage, something that no one would do if under direct fire. There is a very interesting documentary titled “Muhammad al Durah: The Birth of an Icon,” laying out the al-Durrah case as an instance of Pallywood collusion.
The same cannot be said for Judith Miller of the New York Times or the Bush Administration during the lead-up to the Second Iraq War. Miller used the war and her connections in the White House, including Dick Cheney, to advance her career. No one accused the White House of ordering her to write that Saddam Hussein was hiding “weapons of mass destruction.” Or that the Iraqi government purchased aluminum tubes for the advancement of nuclear weaponry. She did it on her own because she was friendly with the administration, because she believed in the Bush Doctrine and the war, and because it would advance her career. She therefore promoted the view, reflected in George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address, that as Bush said, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.”
However distasteful, this represents normal human behavior. Miller did not act on the direct orders of Dick Cheney or anyone else in the White House. She did not need to. Many years later she wrote in a New York Times piece, “The Iraq War and Stubborn Myths” (April 3, 2015), “No senior official spoon-fed me a line about WMD. That would have been so much easier than uncovering classified information that officials can be jailed for disclosing.” Nonetheless, as Simon Maloy tells us in Salon a few days later, it was “Miller’s reporting on those same tubes that the Bush administration waved around so enthusiastically as proof that Saddam was trying to go nuclear.”
The point, however, is that there is nothing in the record to suggest that anyone in the Bush II White House ordered or pressured Miller to write anything. She was, instead, an enthusiastic advocate intending to advance her career. With the current administration we are looking at something entirely different.
With the rise of online social media, a million different political views are shared daily all around the world. People are no longer stuck gaping at CNN or the Washington Post. This means it is considerably less effective for the federal government to merely make nice with high-profile journalists for favorable coverage. This lesson is not lost on the Biden Administration. Instead, it takes the step of leaning on already friendly news outlets, both in social media and legacy media, to maintain as much ideological uniformity as possible throughout the country. Therefore, the Biden Administration pushes itself into the face of sycophantic social media outlets, such as Facebook. The social media giants are eager to comply, particularly in censoring views unfavorable to the administration. Such views include those that oppose the vitriolic partisanship of contemporary American political culture and the relentless push of Critical Race Theory (CRT), intersectionality, and the New Socialist “Woke” culture into every aspect of American life (corporate world, education, entertainment, and sports).
White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki even admitted it in a press conference, although in reference specifically to COVID-19, when she said that the Biden Administration is “flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation.” This admission of collusion with social media outlets resulted in a Republican Congressional backlash exemplified by Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), who on July 27 introduced the Disclose Government Censorship Act. “The recent collusion that has come to light between the Biden Administration and Big Tech is not only disturbing, but inconsistent with the government’s constitutional role in American life,” said Hagerty. The purpose of the bill is “to require officers and employees of the legislative and executive branches to make certain disclosures related to communications with information content providers and interactive computer services regarding restricting speech.”
The most prominent example of social media muzzling of political voices on behalf of their preferred political party is, of course, when Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube banned President Donald Trump from presenting his views to the American people through their outlets. Trump’s attorney, John Coale, intends to prove that the tech companies are “government actors,” colluding with the Democratic Party, and that “therefore, the First Amendment does apply” to their actions.
While all of this is murky, and yet to be worked out by the courts, still another example of apparent social media collusion with the current presidential administration is the stifling of the New York Post story concerning “its exposés about Hunter Biden’s emails — with Twitter baselessly charging that ‘hacked materials’ were used.” The Post alleges that Hunter Biden introduced then-Vice President Joe Biden “to executives at a Ukrainian energy firm less than a year before the elder Biden pressured government officials in Ukraine into firing a prosecutor who was investigating the company, according to emails obtained by The Post.”
This collusion is not limited to the government and social media but includes the deteriorating mainstream legacy media. In April of 2020, the Washington Examiner reports that the New York Times allowed itself to be pressured by the Biden campaign “to edit out allegations of sexual misconduct.”
This is not an example of one immature and dishonest journalist, as we saw with Stephen Glass. Nor does it represent anything like the New Journalism, which sought to subjectify and personalize the craft by introducing the journalist into the story. Nor is it an example of activists and terrorists colluding with journalists as we see with Pallywood. Nor, even, is it an example of the U.S. Executive making nice with preferred journalists in exchange for preferential access and career advancement, as we see in the case of Judith Miller.
The Biden Administration, in compliance with anti-liberal “Woke” sensibilities, smothers freedom of speech through outsourcing that practice to friendly social media venues, like Facebook, and skews the national discussion with the complicity of the legacy media. The nineteenth-century passion for partisan political journalism is back, but it is now advancing through social media, grounded in federal coercion. If the traditional legacy journalism of the twentieth century created public opinion, today big-tech media does likewise, but with the Biden Administration staring at the screen over its shoulder and with a hand on its neck. It was during the reign of nineteenth-century partisan journalism that President Teddy Roosevelt broke “the trusts” out of a conviction, derived from the founders, that power corrupts and that monopolies, like kings, can become tyrants.
The question is whether or not the American people today will allow ourselves to be led around like pigs with rings through our ideological noses. One alternative is legislation forcing the social media giants to abide by the same legal standards as newspapers. Another alternative is to follow Teddy Roosevelt and break up these monopolies before they do further harm to our national discourse.
Michael Lumish is a Ph.D. in American History from Pennsylvania State University, and has taught at Penn State University, San Francisco State University, and the City College of San Francisco.