Carole Owens: Agenda-driven news is as old as nation



Think a flack, a spin doctor, and PR firms are modern inventions? Consider: the first PR professional was the son of a preacher born in Georgia in 1877. Mr. Ivy Lee first bent the truth beyond recognition for the almighty dollar at the age of 24. It was 1901. The endeavor was so financially rewarding that by 1905, he had his own public relations firm.

In 1914 Lee was hired by John D. Rockefeller and marched head-high into the "big time." The press labeled Rockefeller "the malefactor of great wealth." Malefactor was gentler than criminal but not by much. Lee was hired to make Rockefeller appear less like a greedy bully and enemy of the people and more like an inoffensive old grandpa who loved his fellow man.

Lee’s plan was to gather street urchins around Rockefeller, and when the cameras were ready, have the old man hand out dimes to the (presumably) hungry and (ultimately) grateful children. Was everything counterfeit but the dimes? You bet, but it worked.

Ivy Lee was eventually and inevitably called "Poison Ivy." He was also, inevitably, wildly successful. He continued to gloss over the truth under the company slogan: "Accuracy, Authenticity, and Interest." If you believe Fox News and MSNBC -- the fuming and fawning media -- are creations of the televised 24-hour news cycle, reconsider.


Two hundred years ago newspapers made their political affiliations part of their mastheads. The names of three newspapers in our area were The Hampshire Federalist, The Berkshire County Republican, and The Berkshire County Whig. They enthusiastically slanted the news in favor of their political beliefs and energetically slammed their political rivals. What their arguments lacked in clarity, or sense, they made up for in heat.

The hot button issue of 1787 was adoption of the Constitution. In Pittsfield the American Centinel urged adoption: "Thus will America ... be all united, firm as one, and shall always seek the general good." Neither accurate nor predictive the Centinel did articulate an ideal.

While proponents were painting images of Utopia, opponents were sowing seeds of fear: If the states were united, the new country would crown George Washington king; once again, "we will be subjects not citizens."

Fear-mongering to drive policy is old school but there is a stark difference between the 18th- and 21st-century news outlets: the difference is hypocrisy. Early newspapers did not claim to be fair and balanced, or to be the only ones telling the truth. From the masthead to the last drop of ink, they told the reader that they were peddling their own beliefs.

In American politics truth rarely got in the way of a good story or a great campaign strategy.

Washington D.C. 1904: Commenting on his colleagues’ penchant for obfuscating, President Theodore Roosevelt said, "When they call the roll in the Senate, senators do not know whether to answer ‘present’ or ‘not guilty’."

Maryland 1970: A politician running for office was confronted by a reporter over a marked disparity between what the politician had claimed and what proved to be true.

Reporter: "In light of the new information, have you changed your position?"

Candidate: "I have made up my mind; don’t bother me with the facts."

New York Times 2014: Summing up a politician’s allergy to truth, Paul Krugman wrote: "there are zombie ideas; ideas that the facts should have killed long ago, and yet they refuse to die."

It took years for American media to discover the power of hypocrisy: simultaneously lying and denying it. The media traveled from transparency to hypocrisy on a road that wound through a commitment to objectivity to a brief rest stop at slanted reporting delivered with the wink and the nod of "full disclosure," and finally to the modern divided highway. The divided highway is the faithful reporting of two opposing sides of every bit of news as if everything were debatable.


The debate is old news. Social media today and taverns two centuries ago were both centers of communication. Today we log on to find out. Two hundred years ago stagecoaches brought the earliest word of events outside Berkshire, locals brought the latest gossip, legal notices and minutes of town meetings were posted, newspapers and letters were delivered, and the politicians campaigned. The Arab Spring was fueled online; the American Revolution was plotted in taverns.

Taverns were partisan: a patriot didn’t drink with a loyalist; a Federalist tavern would not serve an anti-Federalist. Liberals don’t tune into Rush Limbaugh, and conservatives don’t read the Huffington Post. That is what will never change: people. In 18th century taverns or on the 21st century Internet, we like to listen to those who agree with us. The delivery of the message may have changed but the experience they seek is the same. People like to be told what they believe is true.

Here is what has changed and herein is the danger: In the taverns and the newspapers, what they argued was opinion and what they agreed upon was fact. Not everything is debatable. Today, dangerously, we argue fact as if it were one of multiple opinions. It saps our national strength and hampers our ability to problem-solve.

Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian, and regular Eagle contributor.


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