Published in New England Journal of History, Spring 2018
“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”
Terms such as “fake news” and “alternative facts” may be relatively recent additions to the political lexicon, but attacks on the media are nothing new. Elected officials have been criticizing the journalists who cover them long before Thomas Jefferson, that putative champion of the free press, wrote the statement above in 1807.
Today, as throughout much of the nation’s history, “attacks” on the press are usually presumed to be figurative. Even at a time of heightened tension with the media, incidents of actual violence against journalists in this country are rare. That is not necessarily the case in countries where the institutions of democracy are less robust, and the freedom of the press less ingrained. Neither was it always the case in the United States.