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Antebellum Ideologies of Liberation

By Christopher B. Daly

March 25, 2022 / Boston University


In this essay, I will be presenting some highlights from a new book I am working on, called The Democratic Art. That book is an exploration of how, between the 1840s and the end of WWII, the newsrooms of America served as ports of entry and incubators for many major figures in American literature and the visual arts.

Today, I want to focus is on three bold figures active before the Civil War: Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, and Frederick Douglass.

All three were successors to the Founding generation. All three were journalists. All three helped formulate a sweeping new agenda for social justice.

In brief, the Founders had engaged in a rights revolution that we might call “leveling down.” That is, among the goals articulated in their pamphlets, in the Declaration, and in the Constitution were some truly revolutionary changes to British society: no monarchy, no hereditary aristocracy, no primogeniture. We might think of that bundle of changes as “topping” the upper reaches of society. That is: rank, titles, and power would all be capped. The result (for propertied white males at least) would be a society whose upper ranks would be relatively broad and much less steep than the upper ranks of British society.

After the Revolution, however, it is important to note that the lower ranks of American society remained at least as unequal as those in Britain.

–Indentured servitude was widespread.

–Women and girls were treated as appurtenances of males.

–The population of enslaved chattel was subject to routine brutality.

So, while the American Revolution deserves its place in the history of liberating individuals and making society, as a whole, somewhat less unequal, much remained to be done.

         Between 1845 and 1855, a cohort of loosely connected allies radically widened the agenda for freedoms. Freedoms that were personal, intimate, and innate. This trio of journalist-activists demanded nothing less than an end to sexism, homophobia, and racism.

Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, and Frederick Douglass emerged to me as heroes. In their writings, they all pointed the way to a fairer and freer world. Fuller battled sexism; Douglass battled racism; Whitman, in his way, battled homophobia. They raised their voices to promote the idea that each individual matters and that each individual has an equal right to self-determination. Like leaves of grass, none are taller, better, or more important. But also like leaves of grass, none are lesser, inferior, or unimportant.

In their time, Fuller, Douglass, and Whitman took republican democracy as a starting point and envisioned a leveling in an upward social direction – no more enslaved people, no more second-class citizens. All are one. All are not identical, but all are equal in worth and dignity.


First, Fuller. Born in 1810, Margaret Fuller was the oldest child of Timothy Fuller, a prosperous lawyer and member of Congress representing Cambridge, Massachusetts. He poured all his talents and energy into educating Margaret, up to the point where the boys her age were preparing to enter Harvard and other colleges. But with no college in America accepting girls at the time, Margaret faced a closed door. She tried many stratagems to keep pace with the men her age – beginning with teaching.

At the time, a paradox defined the status of most women. They were supposed to live up to two conflicting ideals.

After thinking about her own situation and ransacking the pages of classic and contemporary literature, Fuller put forth a bold agenda. In her 1845 book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, she took up the question her own life presented: why are women treated so poorly?

On the one hand, women, especially middle- and upper-class women, were considered delicate flowers who needed to be sheltered from the filth and strife of activities like business, the military, and politics. They were expected to be virgins until marriage. After that, they were expected to become the center of the home, where they would provide moral uplift and basic education to a large number of children.

At the same time, women, especially working-class and poor women, were also considered beasts of burden who should cook, clean, wash, nurse, and meet the needs of others all the livelong day and well into the night. They were seen by men as sturdy, dirty, and flirty. In almost no case did men consider it worthwhile to educate girls; they were too often seen as ruled by feminine “sensibility” (emotions) and not by manly “sense” (reason).

Education would be wasted on girls. Even worse, it might leave them discontented with their lot in life.

In her Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Fuller raised key questions: Why should men exercise a power that amounts to legal conservatorship over women? Why should women be relegated to the status of children or mental defectives?

Fuller advanced two remarkable arguments. First, she argued, men and women are not opposites, and one sex is not superior to the other. Indeed, she said the evidence suggests that men and women are complementary and that the elements of the gender extremes are usually present in everyone, to varying degrees. Thus, she continued, most men are “womanly” to some extent, and most women are “manly” to some extent.

In other words, everyone is a mixed case of attributes. Since the sexes are not fixed at opposite poles, there is no basis for saying that one sex is suited only for certain activities —  and therefore no basis for denying members of either sex the opportunity to find out what they are good at. Not everyone will be equally adept at all things, but we will never know if we don’t let individuals find out for themselves. Of course, it stands to reason, then, that girls should be educated alongside boys. Given a chance, she wrote, there was nothing that women could not do. In a famous formulation, she wrote: “Let them be sea-captains if they like!”


         Next, Whitman. Born in 1819 into a downwardly mobile family in Brooklyn, young Walt went to school for a few years, then began to learn the printer’s trade. Like many bright boys with nimble fingers, he started by learning to set type, working at New York City’s growing roster of newspapers, magazines, and book publishers.

         Throughout much of the 1840s, while he was in his 20s, Whitman was composing his poetic masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855. During that drafting period, we know that he was reading Fuller and Douglass.

Walt Whitman, detail from the frontspiece to the 1855 edition. Engraving by Hollyer.

We also know that Walt Whitman loved men.[i] Of that there is no doubt. But almost every other aspect of Whitman’s sexual life is shrouded in mystery, red herrings, misconceptions, hints and rumors, claims and counter-claims, along with outright fabrications. We also know for sure that Whitman never married.

Of course, the text can be considered separate from the man. But I believe that when an author declares again and again that his main poetic purpose is to compose and sing songs of himself, then we cannot help but ask: OK, poet, just who are you anyway?

For Whitman, in matters of love and sex, the stakes were very high – both for his actions and for his words. During Whitman’s lifetime, it was illegal in New York state for a man to have sex with another man. Moreover, as Whitman well knew, a sizable portion of the population considered sexual acts between men repugnant. Indeed, the very terms “gay” and “homosexual” as we understand them were not part of the nineteenth century American consciousness or vocabulary. So, in trying to reveal himself as a man who loved men, Whitman had to be somewhat circumspect.

By his own accounts, he knew quite a few men intimately. In New York, he was a frequent rider of the horse-drawn omnibuses, even when he had no particular place to go, just so he could meet the drivers. He knew all the bus teamsters and spent a lot of time with them – “not only for comradeship, and sometimes affection.”

Looking back years later, Whitman added: “I suppose the critics will laugh heartily, but the influence of those Broadway omnibus jaunts and drivers and declamations and escapades undoubtedly entered into the gestation of Leaves of Grass.”

In his debut edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Whitman downplayed the homoerotic elements of his life and poetry. It was not until the 1860 edition that he dared to include the “Calamus” cluster of poems, which are replete with phallic imagery and passionate promises to one or more male lovers.

In an essay on the bicentennial of Whitman’s birth in 1819, the author and critic Jeremy Lybarger argued that Whitman’s homosexuality was key to his development as a poet: 

. . . The Whitman who remains most central to whatever has become of the “American experiment” is the poet who cruised the streets of New York, who skinny-dipped with rough trade, who caroused in pick-up bars and lowdown dives, who ministered to the bodies of young soldiers, who loafed with boys in the fields and backwoods of a perpetual frontier.

In the end, with such a sparse record about the sex life of such a complex character, there may be no simple answer to Whitman’s sexuality and its consequences. But I think that, as always, Whitman was himself pointing us to an answer.

Even considering the standards of literary decorum and good taste in the Victorian era, Leaves of Grass was quite daring about sex. Whitman was actually quite frank and even bold.

Throughout, he not only praises sexuality in general. He not only hails the bodies (and body parts) of both the male and the female. He also leaves behind flags and emblems telling readers that he himself is not only heterosexual, he’s also homosexual, pansexual, and sometimes beyond-sexual. Whitman gives us the sense that if he could, he would make love to the whole world – one by one, or all at once! This attitude underlies his pervasive sense of solidarity with all people. Like Fuller and Douglass, Whitman resisted all invidious distinctions, declaring, for example, that “I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man.”

Just a peek into his vast masterpiece:

The section we now know as “I Sing the Body Electric” is a chant for equality – between the sexes, between the races, between the slave and the free. Whitman says we all have these amazing bodies; that alone makes us equal. He shares with readers a glimpse of his “loveflesh swelling and deliciously aching / Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous . . .  / quivering jelly of love”

For all his frankness, though, Whitman could not possibly have written an explicit manifesto for gay rights in the midst of the Victorian era. Given that same-sex sex was widely considered a sin or a crime or both, he was boldly telling the world to think anew.


         Finally, Douglass. Born into slavery, likely in 1818, Douglass essentially taught himself to read and write – skills forbidden to almost all enslaved people. At age 20, he liberated himself from enslavement in Maryland and made his way north. He joined the organized abolition movement, becoming a popular paid speaker bearing witness to the horrors he knew from his upbringing. When he tired of telling his story over and over again, he decided to write it down. The result was his great Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the first of three autobiographies he would write. He published it in 1845 – the same year Fuller published Woman in the 19th Century.

Naturally, Douglass was a fierce opponent of slavery. But it’s worth noting what kind of opponent he was. Douglass was a radical abolitionist. That meant several concrete things:

Fronstpiece from Douglass’s 1851 Narrative
  • He demanded immediate emancipation (no gradualism; no compensation)
  • He demanded full equal rights (no colonization or return to Africa)

In 1847, he became a “movement journalist” – publisher, editor, and writer of the North Star, a weekly abolitionist newspaper in Rochester, New York.

In 1848, he traveled to nearby Seneca Falls to take part in the first convention devoted to women’s rights, inspired in part by Margaret Fuller’s book of three years earlier. Douglass was not the only man at the gathering, but he was the only Black delegate.

Douglass remained a steadfast, public supporter of women’s rights for the rest of his life as well as a personal friend to Anthony and other suffragists.


         To bring this all to a point.

In 1851, Douglass merged his North Star with another paper and brought forth a new publication, which he candidly titled Frederick Douglass’ Paper. For that new newspaper, he also rolled out a new motto:

                  ALL RIGHTS FOR ALL.

Hear that:

                  ALL RIGHTS FOR ALL.

There, in four words, Douglass encapsulated the most expansive social-justice agenda possible. Taken literally, it would mean an end not just to slavery but also to racism, sexism, homophobia, and all other forms of oppression. It could serve as the rallying cry for all the progressive movements that were to come.

Together, then, Fuller, Whitman, and Douglass had laid out a broad challenge: it was not enough to lower the top end of society. It was just as urgent to raise up the bottom.

All rights for all.

All are not identical, but all are equal in worth and dignity. This was one of the main meanings of Whitman’s notion of “leaves of grass.” Society should be broad; it should be diverse; but none should tower over others. None should be permanently subjugated. None should be despised for being themselves.

Together, those three antebellum radical journalists outlined an agenda of personal liberation that we are still working to fully realize.

That was – and is – the great project. All Rights for All.

[i] This discussion of Whitman’s sexuality draws on a large and growing body of scholarly and critical work that has emerged in tandem with the modern gay rights movement. For about a century, the subject little attention – either because scholars and critics considered it taboo or because they found that Whitman’s expressions of love for men, while exuberant, fell within the nineteenth-century understanding of same-sex affections. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, discussions of Whitman’s sexuality have become more numerous and more frank. Throughout this section, I draw on works by David S. Reynolds, Justin Kaplan, Jerome Loving, Hugh Ryan, Ed Folsom, Ted Genoways, Betsy Erkkila, Martin Murray, and others.


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Ukraine’s leader, a Capra-style hero, is winning support by using a key American tactic from WWII

Demonstrators watch an address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the big screen during a rally in support of Ukraine in Tbilisi, Georgia, on March 4. (Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images)

[Originally published in The Washington Post, “Made by History,” March 10, 2022]

By Christopher B. Daly

As the latest land war in Europe grinds on in Ukraine, the fighting extends well beyond the military combat on the ground. Both sides are also waging a propaganda war — an old tactic updated with an array of new weapons and techniques.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has emerged as a master communicator, using social media platforms to bypass Russian censorship and communicate to the Ukrainian people. In his Instagram and Twitter posts and videos, he has outwitted Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and managed to capture the world’s attention with his direct and honest messaging — a feat in an age of snark and fakery. In this way, Zelensky has succeeded in showing the world that Ukraine — far from being a lost colony welcomed back to Mother Russia — is the victim of a war of aggression that was unprovoked and has been, so far, unsuccessful. In doing so, he is building on a wartime playbook advanced by the United States and other countries during World War II: mobilizing new communications technology as a weapon of war.

U.S. wartime propaganda from World War II played an important role in training troops, enhancing civilian morale and raising money for the war effort. Consider, for example, the famous series “Why We Fight,” created by Hollywood in the service of the U.S. War Department and directed by Frank Capra, the renowned creator of such beloved and sentimental American movie classics as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Capra, an Italian immigrant and U.S. Army veteran who served during World War I, viewed Nazi leader Adolf Hitler as a unique global threat. Hitler’s primary propagandist was Leni Riefenstahl, a filmmaker. Understanding the power of film to persuade and evoke emotions, Capra was particularly worried about the effectiveness of Riefenstahl’s propaganda. Plus, he watched as wartime rationing sidelined most Hollywood production, sapping the American film industry of its own potential to persuade.

Capra and others in the film industry pushed the White House to mobilize Hollywood talent just as the government had mobilized other American industries, including car and textile production, in support of the war effort. American film, Capra said, could effectively counter Nazi messaging, and the impact could be as important as the building of fighter planes or production of military uniforms.

The idea, embraced enthusiastically by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his military chief of staff, George C. Marshall, was that such films could explain to recruits why they were being asked to go and fight in far-off lands. At first, the “Why We Fight” series was meant to be shown just in Army boot camps, but when Roosevelt screened an early entry in the series, he was so impressed that he ordered the government to pay for the rights to screen the films in free showings for all American moviegoers.

What was Capra’s message?

In “The Battle of Russia,” Capra drove home the theme that the Nazi assault on Russia was uniquely barbaric for two reasons: First, it was unprovoked. Second, it involved the dreadful tactic of laying siege to major cities and shelling civilian populations.

On an emotional level, the film made the case that the Russians were a stalwart people and that the United States could count on them as allies. Capra showed individual Russians in close-ups, including babushkas digging trenches and factory workers making munitions, and he showed civilians, including children, dying from indiscriminate shelling. He even showed a still image of a dead elephant at the Leningrad Zoo, killed by German bombs. In an eerie echo, the current Russian shelling of civilian areas in Ukraine led to reports about the trauma inflicted on the elephant in Kyiv’s zoo. (The animal was still alive at press time.)

By contrast, Capra depicted the Germans as faceless aggressors, shown only from behind or in groups. Through Capra’s lens, these German armies violated all standards of decency by reviving a medieval tactic of siege and engaging in bombing campaigns that killed innocent civilians. His most insistent indictment of the Nazi attackers was the shelling of noncombatants. Using actual footage supplied by the Soviet Red Army, Capra showed bombs falling night and day, followed by close-ups of dead men, women and children.

In Capra’s eyes in the 1940s films of “Why We Fight,” the Russians were to be admired for their determination to endure the brutal siege.

Today, the filmmaker would surely have cast the Ukrainian people in that heroic role, while the Russian army and its leader would be the brutal aggressors. In Ukraine, Zelensky — a figure straight out of a Capra movie, having been plucked from obscurity and thrust into a heroic role — is rallying his compatriots to stand firm. Meanwhile, Putin is playing the villainous role of the Hitler figure, launching a criminal assault on women and children. In one of the great ironies of European history, the Russians have effectively traded places with the Germans of World War II, by launching a ground war against a neighbor and using the brutal tactic of raining artillery down indiscriminately among civilians.

No one knows this better than the Russians, who endured the brutal German siege of Leningrad (now known as St. Petersburg) as well as Moscow, Stalingrad and other cities. Putin, as a native of Leningrad, probably heard horror stories about the siege that his family endured, so he should know even better than most about the suffering of civilians when they are attacked in war. He does not need Capra to remind him.

It is often said that when war comes, the first casualty is truth. But that does not mean all wartime communication is fake. Today, as the propaganda war rages, it may well turn out that the ultimate weapon in the information wars might just be the kind of truth Zelensky has been wielding in videos that show him alive in his office, not running away.

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By Christopher B. Daly

Christopher B. Daly is a reporter, historian and professor at Boston University and the author of the prize-winning study of the history of U.S. journalism titled “Covering America.”

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The Pentagon Papers @ 50

From the Washington Post “Made by History,” June 13, 2021

Chris Daly

Made by History


Fifty years ago the Pentagon Papers shocked America — and they still matter today

We still confront questions about press freedom and the public’s right to know government secrets

Front pages from the The Washington Post and the New York Times when they published stories about the Pentagon Papers in June 1971. (The Washington Post)
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By Christopher B. Daly

Christopher B. Daly is a reporter, historian and professor at Boston University and the author of the prize-winning study of the history of U.S. journalism titled “Covering America.”

The 1971 Supreme Court ruling on the issue has shaped the landscape for reporting on government secrets. It also reminded the American people of something essential for our democracy to function, then and now: Voters have the ultimate power to tell the government what to do and not do in their name. To accomplish that, though, they first have to know what their government is up to.

It all began in 1967, at the height of the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara could see that the United States was not winning, and he wanted to know why. So, he ordered an internal review of what had gone wrong.

One of the analysts who would produce an answer for McNamara was Daniel Ellsberg, an ex-Marine who had served in Vietnam, come home to get a Ph.D. and worked at the Rand Corp. He had a high-level security clearance and a keen mind. Originally a supporter of the U.S. war effort, Ellsberg was undergoing a conversion into an opponent of the war.

Then, he faced the question of what to do about it. As a contributor to the study ordered by McNamara, he had access to a set of the final Pentagon report. He wanted the public to see what he had found: that Vietnam was a disaster, one into which president after president had led us deeper and deeper, always claiming that victory or “peace with honor” was just around the corner while knowing better.

With the idea of divulging its contents, Ellsberg began secretly photocopying the study in October 1969. Aside from the legal issues, copying the Pentagon Papers was a physical challenge. Each set ran to 47 volumes, about 7,000 pages of documents and analysis classified as “TOP SECRET — SENSITIVE.”

As Ellsberg well knew, the Pentagon Papers included secrets — everything from plots to carry out coups to estimates of other countries’ intentions. What it did not include was just as important. The Pentagon Papers contained almost nothing of any military value to an adversary. It was primarily a history of policymaking.

Ellsberg’s first thought was to get the Pentagon Papers released through a member of Congress, hoping that one of them would use his congressional immunity to introduce the papers into the Congressional Record. In the end, they all declined. So Ellsberg turned to the press.

In his mind, there was one obvious choice: New York Timesreporter Neil Sheehan. Earlier, Sheehan had covered the war in Vietnam, and Ellsberg believed (correctly) that Sheehan was opposed to continued U.S. involvement.

Sheehan, who died earlier this year, never identified Ellsberg as his source and never explained in detail how he acquired the Pentagon Papers. All he would say publicly was that he “got” or “obtained” the study — which was true as far as it went.

Once he did and the Times decided to commit to the story, the paper set up a secret “newsroom” at the midtown Hilton in New York City. The set held by the Times represented an unprecedented breach of the national security classification system, and anyone in possession of the report could face criminal charges, not merely of stealing government property but perhaps even of espionage or, ultimately, treason.

In one room at the hotel, Times publisher Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger assembled the newspaper’s lawyers to help him decide whether to publish anything at all. In another room, he assembled a select group of the newspaper’s senior editors and top reporters to wade into the documents and help figure out what to publish.

It all came down to Sulzberger. He would have to put all his chips — the paper he loved, his family’s legacy, the good of his country — on the table. He decided to publish.

So, on Sunday, June 13, 1971, the New York Times carried this banner headline:



The lead article, written by Sheehan, reported that a “massive” study commissioned by McNamara showed that four presidential administrations “progressively developed a sense of commitment to a non-Communist Vietnam, a readiness to fight the North to protect the South and an ultimate frustration with this effort to a much greater extent than their public statements acknowledged.” Significantly, the Times promised more articles and more documents in the following days.

At first, President Richard M. Nixon did nothing. After all, the summary he got from aides suggested that the Pentagon Papers were mainly critical of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson — both Democrats. But, fearing that he might look weak if he ignored the leak, Nixon eventually ordered a response.

On Tuesday, June 15, 1971, government lawyers asked the federal court in Manhattan to enjoin the Times from publishing anything further about the Pentagon Papers. That was a momentous step. It was the first time since the adoption of the U.S. Constitution that the federal government had tried to impose “prior restraint” on a newspaper, on grounds of national security.

From the newspaper’s point of view, the issue was the plain meaning of the First Amendment, with its sweeping ban against abridging the freedom of the press. From the president’s point of view, the issue was his duty as commander in chief to safeguard the nation by keeping its military, intelligence and diplomatic secrets, particularly in times of war.

In court, both sides pounded the Constitution. Judge Murray Gurfein, who had just been appointed by Nixon, promptly granted the government’s request for a temporary restraining order and set a hearing for three days later. The Times obeyed this order.

Later that week, however, The Washington Post obtained its own set of the Pentagon Papers from Ellsberg, and the newspaper’s staff swung into action, setting up a command center at editor Ben Bradlee’s house in Georgetown. In one room the writers got to work. In another room the editors and lawyers got busy trying to decide whether to publish at all. Like Sulzberger, Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Post, was betting the house — the company, the newspaper, her family’s reputation. She, too, decided to publish.

That Friday morning, The Post carried a front-page story about the extensive Vietnam study, revealing that it now had the same classified materials as the Times. Government lawyers asked the U.S. District Court in Washington to impose prior restraint on The Post. While Judge Gerhard Gesell refused, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed him, forcing The Post to also stop sharing the Pentagon Papers with the American public.

By week’s end, the cases were headed to the Supreme Court on a fast track. Within a week the high court, acting with rare speed, heard arguments and made a ruling allowing the Times and The Post to resume publication. Although the justices wrote nine separate opinions, it was a clear-cut victory for press freedom and the public’s right to know. “The press [is] to serve the governed, not the governors,” as Justice Hugo Black put it.

An edited version of the Papers was soon published in book form, and the American people could finally see for themselves that one president after another had misled them about the war.

Even so, the victory for the people’s right to know left many issues unsettled.

In recent years, the issue of leaks to the news media has persisted. During the Trump administration, for example, officials gathered metadata about the phone records of Washington Post reporters and went after a CNN reporter’s phone and email records.

Democrats do it, too. Under President Barack Obama, the federal government set a record for criminal prosecutions of leakers, and those cases often involved journalists being hauled into court and ordered to reveal their sources or face time in jail.

Aside from punishment for government employees and contractors who leak, the issue of “publication” is more complicated than before. Thanks to the rise of digital platforms on the Internet, such as WikiLeaks, the notion of “prior restraint” is a bit antiquated, since publication now takes place globally at the speed of light.

The Pentagon Papers also pointed out another problem that remains unresolved: the excessive use of classification to keep all kinds of material away from the public.

The real issue for our time remains whether governments have (or should have) the power to chill unauthorized leaking by punishing individuals after the fact. Ultimately, however, the issue is not what rights leakers or journalists may have. In the end, the paramount issue is the public’s right to know what the government is doing. Lacking that knowledge, no people can long govern themselves.


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How conservatives (wrongly) detect liberal bias in the news

By Christopher B. Daly

Today’s NYTimes provides a clear-cut example of how conservatives often mis-read or mis-hear the news and jump to the wrong conclusion. Most of the time, conservatives are sure they are seeing a political bias when, in fact, what they are seeing are professional values.

Here’s the story:

The Times ran a story under the headline: ‘No One Believes Anything’: Voters Worn Out by a Fog of Political News. The implication was that there is too much news about impeachment.

As the story unfolds, the Times reporters quote a computer programmer in Idaho named Russell Memory.

But he said he sees bias among liberal news outlets and that drives him crazy too. He was annoyed, for example, that stories of Mr. Trump being booed at the Washington Nationals baseball game were given top billing, but when Mr. Trump was cheered in Alabama a few days later, he could find almost nothing about it.

“I don’t think things are fake, they’re just one-sided,” said Mr. Memory, 37. “Both things happened. He got booed and he got cheered. But one of them will be a much bigger story. That’s what bothers me.”

This is a classic example of confusion.

The fact that a sitting president got booed while attending a World Series game in the District of Columbia was unusual. That is, it was statistically rare. Therefore, it was news. Any journalist would agree.

Trump at the Nationals game.

As for Alabama, the fact that a Republican president went to a bright-red state for a football game and was cheered is entirely to be expected. It is not unusual. Therefore, it is not news. Any journalist would agree.

Trump at the Alabama game.

Of course, ideologues on talk shows could be expected to jump on either case as ammunition for their side. That’s not news either.

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Election 2020: Cover Trump’s campaign manager

By Christopher B. Daly

Memo to the national political press corps:

Who is Brad Parscale?

If you are a member of the national press corps covering the 2020 election, chances are you know who he is. If not, the chances are pretty much nil.

Brad Parscale is Donald Trump’s campaign manager. He should be covered every day, because he is almost certainly up to something every day. But most voters do not know what he’s up to, and chances are that they will never find out — until it’s too late.

Brad Parscale, the campaign manager for the Trump campaign, arrives at the Trump Tower in New York on November 17, 2016.

One thing Brad Parscale has been up to recently is waging a campaign to get the states to shut down their Republican primaries, so Donald Trump will not have to face any challengers. Instead, Parscale wants to spare Trump the expense of mounting a primary campaign and spare Trump the need to defend his policies against actual conservative critics.

Voters could be excused for not knowing that Trump is opposed in his own party by at least three candidates: former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, and former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh. They recently co-wrote an oped that ran in the Washington Post complaining that Trump’s high-handedness was depriving Republican voters of choice.

“In the Trump era, personal responsibility, fiscal sanity and rule of law have been overtaken by a preference for alienating our allies while embracing terrorists and dictators, attacking the free press and pitting everyday Americans against one another,” they wrote. “No surprise, then, that the latest disgrace, courtesy of Team Trump, is an effort to eliminate any threats to the president’s political power in 2020. Republicans have long held primaries and caucuses to bring out the best our party has to offer. Our political system assumes an incumbent president will make his case in front of voters to prove that he or she deserves to be nominated for a second term.”

This is exactly the kind of thing that the national political press corps should be covering. If you are covering something that Donald Trump wants you to cover (like his hostile threats against Iran), you are probably covering the wrong thing.

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On Reading Walt Whitman

By Christopher B. Daly 

I have been reading American literature for most of my life, but I had never read Walt Whitman’s masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, out loud. Until yesterday.

I took a couple of hours and ran through the whole 1855 version of the great, sprawling poem. Whitman himself said his poem was meant to be read aloud, and I now see why.  So many wonders leap out when the poem is read aloud — strong, varied rhythms; slashing sarcasm; a character/narrator called Walt Whitman passing in and out; a cast of hundreds; poems within poems; a poke-your-ribs sense of humor; a deep respect for the many people in 19th C. America who were neither free nor equal.

I am working on a new book in which Whitman, who worked as a journalist when he was a young man, will feature in the first chapter. As I work on Whitman, I plan to post more of his great, very contemporary work.

For today, I want to highlight one such passage. This is part of the section of Leaves of Grass that would, in later editions, acquire the title “I Sing the Body Electric”:

The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred 

    .   .   .   .    it is no matter who,

Is it a slave? Is it one of the dullfaced immigrants just landed 

on the wharf?

Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the welloff

   .   .   .   . just as much as you,

Each has his or her place in the procession.

All is a procession,

The universe is a procession with measured and beautiful motion. 

(Leaves of Grass, Library of America edition, p. 122)



Walt Whitman, detail from the frontspiece to the 1855 edition. Engraving by Hollyer.


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What is democracy?

With a tip of the hat to the estimable Chris Lydon, host of the “Open Source” program on NPR, here is a gem written by E.B. White in the middle of World War II. 

We received a letter from the Writers’ War Board the other day asking for a statement on “The Meaning of Democracy.” It presumably is our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure.

Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more unnamedthan half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.

— E. B. White,

Notes and Comment, The New Yorker, July, 3, 1943


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10 Ways the Media Could Improve Coverage of Trump (but probably won’t)

By Christopher B. Daly

After two years in office, President Trump has proven that he has one great skill: the ability to dominate news coverage. Not only does he generate a torrent of news, he has become a great manipulator of public opinion – distracting us, distorting facts, distributing conspiracy theories, and flat-out dissembling.

That approach to news-making presents novel challenges to the press corps. Those journalists who operate in good faith and take an empirical approach to the job should maxresdefaultbe proud of their important work. But to make sure that journalism is not misunderstood or undermined by others, these times call for high standards and new approaches. Clearly, Trump cannot be counted on to elevate the discourse, so it will be up to members of the news media to impose discipline, standards, and new protocols.

At the start of a new year, it is a good time to consolidate some of the lessons learned since Trump took office. Based on my decades as a reporter and on my research into the history of American journalism, I believe the following changes would begin to address the president’s rampage through the norms of journalism:


  1. NEVER, NEVER BROADCAST HIM LIVE. It is almost certain that he will say something false, knowingly false, kooky, plain wrong, insulting, or inscrutable. By carrying him live, journalists lose the chance to DO THEIR JOB – which is to fact-check, verify, provide context and background, seek out other points of view, etc. He has squandered the right to use mass media. He should always be on a delay, allowing a minimum of time to check his assertions, prepare a corrective chyron, or mute a flat-out falsehood.
  2. DON’T ALLOW TRUMP TO SERVE AS YOUR ONLY SOURCE. If the president tweets something, that might be news. But there is no journalistic reason to just pick up his tweet and run with it. We are not here to storify Trump’s tweets. Yes, his words can be parts of stories, but they cannot be the main or only source of information. “The President Tweeted Something” is not a headline anyone needs.
  3. DON’T SINK TO HIS LEVEL. You know what I mean.
  4. COVER HIS ACTIONS MORE THAN HIS WORDS. That is, cover everything he does, but do not cover everything he says. Cover his administration, not his person. There are dozens of appointments, actions, policy decisions, executive orders, and the like that make up the reality of a presidential administration.
  5. DIVIDE THE LABOR. Let the AP cover the few remaining, sporadic White House briefings. Under Sarah Huckabee Sanders they are practically useless anyway. And never broadcast or stream her live either. (See #1)
  6. STICK TO FACTS. Never exaggerate, and double-check every detail. In reporting on Trump, the error rate must be zero, because any mistakes will be used against the news media. Critics will assume that errors were made in bad faith, not in good faith. So, mistakes will be cited as “evidence” of a political agenda.
  7. FOLLOW UP. Trump generates so many promises and threats that it is nearly impossible to keep up, but it’s important to try. At his rallies, in his Twitter feed, and in his off-the-cuff remarks, the president leaves behind a trail of items that cry out for follow-up. Keep score.
  8. SPREAD OUT. Get out of the White House and report on what’s going on in departments, agencies, and lobbying firms. Trump takes up so much bandwidth that it’s easy to miss the shenanigans going on deep inside his administration.
  9. COVER THE FALLOUT. The policies of Trump and his appointees in Washington have impacts far from D.C. Travel around and see what the elimination of regulations is doing to our streams and forests. Find out how the rank and file soldiers and sailors really feel about this commander in chief. Ask people in other countries how the U.S. is affecting them. Get out of Washington, and report from the ground up.
  10. OWN YOUR AUDIENCE. Now more than ever, it’s important to connect to your audience. Show your readers and viewers how you are looking out for them – whether it’s by covering waste, fraud, and abuse in Trump’s world or by examining how his policies are affecting working families. Be the voice of the people – and let the people know it.

Throughout our history, journalists have faced many challenges. Now it is the turn of the admirable men and women who deliver the real news to carry on the great tradition of reporting on the sayings and doings of the powerful.

Pulitzer, Joseph - Verleger, Ungarn/ USA/ undatiertAs Joseph Pulitzer, a great publisher and editor who did battle with presidents in his day, defined the stakes in this challenge: “Our republic and its press will rise or fall together.”



Chris Daly, a former reporter with the AP and the Washington Post, teaches journalism and history at Boston University. He is the author of “The Journalist’s Companion” and “Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism.” 


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NYTimes is Thriving (not failing!)

By Christopher B. Daly 

Contrary to what President Trump says, the New York Times is thriving — not just in terms of its original, fact-based reporting but the company (and just as importantly)  is also thriving in terms of its business. The Times is growing and profitable. The Times has found enough digital subscribers to carry it far into the future.

The Times, which may be the country’s most im-images

portant journalistic institution, is enjoying a “virtuous circle” of professional and business success in which each type of success reinforces the other.

Great reporting –> more readers –> more subscriptions –> more money –> more great reporting –> 

How do we know this? From the sworn, audited statements that the NYTCo is obligated, by law, to divulge to stockholders and other investors every quarter. Let’s look at some highlights from the company’s latest quarterly report:

–The paper set a record of more than 4 million total subscribers worldwide. They are in every country and continent (including Antarctica!).

–That number includes a more important record: more than 3 million subscribers who pay for a digital-only subscription. This is important because those people are probably going to be around a lot longer than then 1 million or so subscribers to the print edition. Not only that, but the digital-only subscribers are customers who can be reached by the Times virtually for free. To reach them, the newspaper does not have to buy newsprint, operate giant printing presses, and pay for fleets of delivery trucks.

–The growth in digital subscriptions is accelerating. The paper reported a net increase in the most recent quarter of more than 200,000 — the best quarter since the “Trump bump” in the period right after the 2016 election.

–Digital revenue (the money the paper gets from all those digital subscriptions) is also rising. In the last nine months, it topped $450 million — or over $600 million a year, which is probably plenty of money to operate the Times newsroom indefinitely.

Profits are up. Operating profits rose 30 percent in the last quarter to reach $41.4 million — or, well over $160 million a year.

–The stock price is up.


NYT stock price 

Since Trump was elected in late 2016, the value of a share of Class A NYTCo stock has more than doubled.

At the Times, the business desk buries these stories, and the editors absolutely refuse to celebrate their good news or do anything resembling spiking the football in the end zone. But any way you look at it, the New York Times is not failing.


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A warning from a century ago: Resist criminalizing thought, speech, and expression

By Christopher B. Daly

Below is a piece I wrote for the Made in History section of The Washington Post.

(The original had a different illustration.)



Democracy Dies in Darkness

Made by History Perspective

Why we shouldn’t criminalize political speech — even the worst of it

A marketplace of ideas is our best hope for functional democracy.

By Christopher B. Daly May 24 at 6:00 AM

Christopher B. Daly is a reporter, historian and professor at Boston University and the author of the prize-winning study of the history of U.S. journalism titled “Covering America,” now available in an expanded second edition.

A CENTURY AGO this month, Congress passed a Sedition Act, effectively making it illegal to express opposition to President Woodrow Wilson’s war policies and abridging Americans’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and of the press.

With candidate Donald Trump arguing protesters should be arrested and now-President Trump making threats on a regular basis against what he calls “fake news,” hinting that he would like to rein in a free press, it seems timely to consider the Sedition Act of 1918 and see what can be learned from that history.

Wilson had campaigned for reelection in 1916, in part on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War!” Things changed quickly, however, in 1917. By April, Wilson had decided that German attacks on U.S. shipping were intolerable, and he attempted to lead a reluctant nation into war. Because he did not entirely trust the public to support his push, Wilson was concerned about enforcing “loyalty,” as he understood it.

With the U.S. mobilizing for war and Democrats in control of the federal government, Congress gave Wilson a new tool for enforcing that loyalty: the Espionage Act. While criminalizing expression, the Espionage Act was fairly non-controversial — prohibiting behavior that amounted to military spying (taking U.S. military secrets without authority and selling or giving them to a hostile power in wartime).

But it also set a dangerous limit on freedom of speech. Whenever the United States was at war, the law made it a federal crime to make “false statements” intended to interfere with the armed forces or to “willfully obstruct” the military draft. Violations could be punished by fines of up to $10,000 or by 20 years in prison.

Essentially, Congress made it a crime to use words to oppose the war effort or to encourage young men to resist the draft. The greatest immediate impact of the new law fell on the socialist and German-language newspapers, many of which were promptly suppressed.

In 1918, while U.S. forces were fighting in Europe, the majority of American newspapers enthusiastically supported the war effort. Most cooperated with the government’s efforts to shape the coverage, and when in doubt, most editors engaged in self-censorship. Even so, the president and Congress were not taking any chances.

So Congress passed another, more draconian law abridging freedom of the press, the Sedition Act of 1918 (technically, a batch of amendments to the Espionage Act). For the first time since 1798, Congress deemed expression of certain ideas a crime. The result was, according to one legal scholar, “the most repressive legislation in American history.”

The 1918 law made it a crime to publish “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” or any language intended to provoke scorn about the American government, system of government, Constitution, armed forces or flag. It also prohibited displaying the flag of a foreign enemy and any advocacy for the curtailment of the production of goods necessary to prosecute the war effort. Violations could be punished by fines up to $10,000 or 20 years in prison. Both the House and Senate rapidly approved the measure, and Wilson signed it into law in May 1918.

The plain meaning of the new law was clear: Watch what you say. If you displease the government, you will go to jail.

sedition_cartoonFederal prosecutors made ample use of the statute during the remaining six months of the war. One month after the law was signed, for example, prosecutors brought charges against the most prominent socialist in the United States, Eugene V. Debs. As the Socialist Party candidate for president in 1912, Debs had captured almost a million votes. Debs was a visible critic of the war with a substantial following nationwide. Yet his popularity didn’t prevent Debs from being sentenced to 10 years in federal prison — just for giving a speech.

The wartime limits upon freedom of speech and press led to a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings after the war ended in 1919, which permanently circumscribed freedom of expression, particularly in wartime.

In the landmark case of Schenck v. U.S., socialist Charles Schenck challenged a prison sentence he had received not for an act of resistance, but for authoring a pamphlet urging voters to tell their member of Congress to vote against the draft. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. spoke for the court, asserting that all speech must be considered in context. He famously used the example of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, which, while being a civic duty in a burning theater, was dangerous and reckless in a theater not on fire.

Applying this logic to wartime, Holmes concluded that Schenck’s ideas amounted to a “clear and present danger” to a country at war, and the court upheld his conviction. The court also upheld Debs’s conviction. Holmes explained that if “one purpose of the speech . . . was to oppose [the] war, . . . and if, in all the circumstances, that would be its probable effect, it would not be protected.”

The Court split in Abrams v. U.S., a case in which the defendants were sentenced to as much as 20 years in prison for a political pamphlet that charged that Wilson had ordered an invasion of Russia not for his stated reason — to open an eastern front against Germany — but to roll back the Russian Revolution. Citing Holmes’s reasoning in Schenck, the majority unsurprisingly upheld the convictions of the defendants.

But Holmes himself dissented, along with Justice Louis Brandeis, laying out the case against the Sedition Act — one that resonates today. He argued that the framers of the Constitution believed that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.” Clearly, Holmes had come to believe that Americans were best served when truth and error were free to do battle in a wide-open “marketplace of ideas” in which the government plays no role.

In spite of the Court’s willingness to countenance limits upon free speech, on Dec. 13, 1920, Congress repealed the Sedition Act while leaving intact the older provisions that made up the Espionage Act. That law remains in effect today, banning criminal deeds.

But we have now survived a century without a Sedition Act, and we should heed the clarion warning from Holmes. The First Amendment protects political speech for a reason — the founders wisely understood that an open marketplace of ideas provided the best chance for democratic governance to work. We should not be in a rush to put Americans in jail for the things they think, say, print, broadcast or tweet.


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