Connections: Vox Populi

One might even say that the idea of journalism as the first draft of history is nothing more than a chapter of history itself

If journalism is the rough first draft of history, as the saying goes, the United States of America was behind the times. The printing press was invented in the 15th century, but it wasn’t until the 17th that one was brought to this country. And it wasn’t until the cusp of the 18th century, in 1690, that the first American newspaper was published, in Boston.

That saying, or adage, about journalism as history is attributed to Phil Graham, the president and publisher of The Washington Post in the first half of the 20th century. It sufficed as a truism in the past, when the information provided in newspapers and magazines was based on journalists’ generally shared backgrounds, training, and education. For the most part, those setting policy and making decisions about how news and opinion were presented shared common standards of conduct. It’s a very different story today. One might even say that the idea of journalism as the first draft of history is nothing more than a chapter of history itself. 

Those of us who came of age as journalists in the 20th century —working at publications in communities large and small — had almost certainly, universally, at least heard about best practices and ethics: the need for a firewall between editorial and advertising, the need for reporters to steer clear of joining political parties or personally campaigning for causes, the impossibility of accepting gifts or graft, and so on. Our readers and our governments relied on journalists who, as a matter of a shared professional code, attempted to deliver facts in an unbiased, balanced manner. The town halls and the halls of Congress depended on what was disseminated. Democracy was served. Or so it seemed.

But the world changed. Not only did television have a powerful, negative affect on the printed word, but by the turn of the 21st century, digitized sources and innumerable platforms for news and opinion exploded, severing what may have been any semblance of a common denominator in ideals and values. What might have been the first draft of history is now many, and often contradictory, first drafts.

New media have had and continue to have a profound impact on today’s journalistic standards. Everyone with access to the internet is able to spread information or misinformation, facts and (yes) “fake news,” calls to action and reaction, familiar and extreme beliefs. Logic tells us that the more people are involved in political discourse the more democratic civic society will be.

But does logic still hold? Has the internet created mental, political, and governmental chaos? Is chaos good for democracy or does it promote autocracy? The answer isn’t in.