In 1800, John Adams squared off against Thomas Jefferson in one of the nastiest presidential elections in American history.
Adams’ supporters argued that Jefferson was unfit for office. All sorts of wild assertions were made to demonstrate this, including the claim that Jefferson would advance prostitution, incest and adultery. Jefferson’s supporters responded with questionable allegations, but the ferocity and volume of attacks against Jefferson by Adams’ supporters reflected the Federalist Party belief that voters could be influenced and misled by a steady drum of lies.
I mention this old election because of the way Americans learned about the mudslinging and how that echoes in today’s media environment. As Jefferson biographer Willard Sterne Randall put it, “Americans proved they preferred newspapers to pamphlets to books, and further, that they preferred their newspapers crammed with items of scandal.”
In the years after the election of 1800, many newspapers slowly began to divide news reporting from editorials. Readers began to push for reliable reporting from reputable newspapers — and if they disagreed with something on the opinion page, they came to understand that that was a difference of opinion, not fact. Think, for example, of The Wall Street Journal, which clearly divides its reporting from its editorials. What reporters for that newspaper dig up sometimes even undercuts the ideas expressed on its editorial pages.
But now that many newspapers have entered the digital realm, the distinction between the reporting and editorial sides of the newspaper, in the eyes of some readers, has blurred. This column is one of the last the Denton Record-Chronicle will print because the newspaper has decided that readers too often confuse the difference between reporting and opinion.
So how are things on social media? I’ll wager that you’ve read something on social media this week that struck you as off-base, obviously untrue, or flat-out bonkers. At times, it can be tough to tell what’s true and what isn’t true on social media. Goodness knows that fact-checked material in that realm is the exception.
Looking back at the 1800 election, voters saw through the Federalist misinformation and chose Jefferson as their next president. A woman named Margaret Bayard Smith attended his inauguration and recalled in a letter, “I have this morning witnessed one of the most interesting scenes a free people can ever witness. The changes in administration, which in every government and in every age have most generally been epochs of confusion, villainy and bloodshed, in this our happy country take place without any species of distraction, or disorder.”
Jefferson understood his victory in this way. In his words, the win was a revolution brought about not “by the sword,” but by “the suffrage of the people.”
In the social media of 1800 — in the form of early newspapers and (often anonymous) pamphlets — misinformation was the name of the game. But baseless attacks failed to derail Jefferson’s bid for the presidency. As in the election of 1800, people in our democracy, by and large, see through misinformation. The medium may change, but facts and truth do not.
Let’s hope this continues to be true. Happy holidays, and may you have a safe and happy new year.
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