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The Elbert Files: Trust issues


It’s time to rethink how freedom of the press works, and why it is not working as effectively in the 21st century as in earlier times.

Everywhere you look you can find examples of how digital communications are changing – some would say damaging – the democracy that is the cornerstone of our republic.

Social media in the form of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms have severely undercut the economics of traditional media, especially newspapers and magazines, making the style of journalism practiced by my generation increasingly obsolete.

Instead of reporting facts, many outlets now tell stories and ignore facts that don’t conform. 

But it is also true that we forget how bad things were in the past. Many of the problems we perceive in media today go back to the start of our republic.  

Any discussion of freedom of the press must include acknowledgement of how difficult things were at the founding and recognize that two men who are perceived as giants today – John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – were capable of being as petty and devious as leaders we have today.  

Adams played a key role in the nation’s founding by securing financing for the Revolutionary War from Dutch bankers. Without those Dutch loans, we’d still be paying for groceries with pound notes and shillings.

But Adams was also responsible for some of the most heinous legislation ever passed by Congress, the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made it harder for immigrants to become U.S. citizens; as president, Adams jailed newspaper editors who criticized the government.

Jefferson, despite the soaring rhetoric of his Declaration of Independence, could be equally small-minded. But, unlike Adams, Jefferson had a talent for backroom intrigue. One of his more desultory acts was stiffing James Callender, the writer Jefferson hired to attack Adams in the press.

Callender paid Jefferson back by spreading stories that he was sleeping with his slave, Sally Hemings, but the writer mysteriously drowned in 1803 shortly before he was to testify in court against Jefferson.

Adams and Jefferson eventually made up and resumed their pre-presidential friendship, but their 1800 electoral feud was a low-water mark in American politics.

Adams and Jefferson were not the only chief executives to censor the press.

The most egregious examples occurred in times of war. Abraham Lincoln ran roughshod over an array of First Amendment rights in his effort to hold the union together.

Many of Lincoln’s restrictions were reimposed by Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt during World Wars I and II, with Wilson also using the war as an excuse to shut down the dissemination of news about the flu pandemic of 1918.

The term “credibility gap” was created during the Vietnam War to help explain repeated distortions of facts by top government officials. Still later, we learned that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and others had been engaged in deceitful and dangerous acts, including overthrowing governments around the world since the 1950s.

The fact is our leaders have always lied to us. Sometimes for our own good, but often it was for their benefit.

The amount of deceit has grown exponentially in recent years. 

Which is how we find ourselves this week with our backs to the wall, facing a worldwide pandemic, not knowing who or what to trust.

Somehow, we need to reestablish faith in each other and in our political institutions.

But that can’t happen as long as today’s versions of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are more interested in claiming credit and trash talking than they are in finding real solutions.

Last week, we applauded the discovery of two vaccines that conceivably could end, or at least dial down, the pandemic.

But what good will vaccines do if significant portions of us refuse to trust the science and opt not to take the medicine?

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