The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Newspapers & Political Endorsements

Under the pretense of assisting the voters in making up their minds, newspapers and various "Alliances for Good Government" do a great disservice to the political process by making recommendations of those candidates in upcoming elections for whom the voters should cast their ballot. In making such endorsements, these public announcements in effect replace the process that should be going on in the voter's mind. If a newspaper or a group interested in good government wanted to render a real service to the voting public, it would provide voters with the information and evidence they need in order to make their own decisions, not attempt to make those decisions for them. But by suggesting a single candidate for each office, with no explanation of why the other candidates were passed over and no detailed comparison of all the candidates, these announcements do not assist the voter when making a choice. Instead, they undermine the election process itself, for it is the reasoned choice of each individual voter that is the security of our democratic system. It is only through the closest attention of the people that government can be kept on track.

There was a time when every city had a multitude of newspapers and a paper's endorsement of a particular candidate might do little harm. Other sources of information and points of view were readily available, and the citizens had more than one side brought to their attention. But there are now only a handful of cities that have more than one independent newspaper, and as far as the citizen is concerned, this amounts to a limitation on the freedom of the press. And as Jefferson warned, any limitation on the freedom of the press amounts to a threat to our liberties.

This dangerous situation is not made the less just because economic conditions, not political forces, have shut down the presses. Whatever the cause, the people's sources for a broad range of information and opinion are reduced. We could say that we have television and radio, and that these voices provide a variety of points of view. But television and radio are not conducive to private analysis by a thinking individual. Much more so than newspapers, the broadcast media spew out information to be absorbed, not to be gone over, considered and reconsidered. There is no opportunity in TV to contemplate the information presented, and especially not to do so at one's own pace. It is there, and in an instant it is gone. Only the printed text (which happily includes what appears on a computer monitor) can be employed in reasoned consideration. And it is reasoned consideration that is the vital element necessary for voters making up their own minds.

One would think that since there is generally only one newspaper per city, a responsible press would be less partisan and more even-handed in their reporting of candidates for office. One would expect that newspapers and organizations promoting good government would not endorse candidates for office, but would present the voters with good information on all candidates and provide no grounds for suspicion that the newspaper or organization itself is biased. But this is rarely the case. Newspaper editors seem to think it their duty, if not their prerogative, to tell voters what they should think and how they should vote.

Newspapers do report on major candidates for office, of course, and often cover even the minor ones. It could be argued that newspapers in fact do provide the needed information by presenting articles, usually in a series, about the candidates and their positions, and that the paper's recommendation is merely a suggestion: a conclusion which the editors have reached after their own evaluation.

But the truth is, the materials newspapers present are invariably insufficiently focused. Elections are treated like horse races, with special emphasis on who is ahead in the polls, how many attend rallies, and other irrelevancies. Reports on candidates read more like human interest stories, as though meant to entertain. The articles are written as though serious discussion of the candidates might turn readers away. They provide background information to help the reader get to know the candidate as a person, but they often fail to focus on the factors that count in determining if the candidate is qualified to do the job he or she is seeking. Unfortunately, introducing irrelevant personal information tends to appeal more to the voters' prejudices than to their intelligent decision making capacity. It may make a candidate more (or less!) appealing, but the appeal is based on matters that have nothing to do with qualifications for office.

What voters need is, first of all, an accurate description of the office the candidate is running for and a list of the duties to be performed with the qualifications needed to perform those duties. This should be just like a job description, with an accurate list of the real requirements for the job. Then there should be a careful analysis of the candidate's qualifications, an outline of the candidate's position on various important issues related to the office sought, and an examination of the candidate's past activities that reflect on their ability to do a good job in the position they seek. This would provide all the information needed for a proper assessment of their character as it relates to the position they seek to fill. Information about how many children the candidates have and what church they go to may tell something about the candidate personally, and may even provide a glimpse of some aspects of their character, but it says little about their ability or capacity to properly conduct elective office. Such irrelevant reportage is hardly the kind of information an employer would inquire of a prospective employee. It is more similar to the kind of enquiry that fosters bias and prejudice. A person's religious preference, for example, is hardly a proper qualification for public office.

    "The proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right." --Thomas Jefferson: Statute for Religious Freedom, 1779.

If religious preference is an improper legal qualification for office, it is surely just as improperly included in a publicly distributed evaluation. Moreover, piling this kind of information on tends to confuse matters and diverts attention from the factors that really count. It may be a ploy used to prevent the voter from thinking about important factors and basing a decision instead on feelings rather than evidence. But this kind of decision-making should not be encouraged. The voter should be treated as an employer, and decisions should be made rationally on the basis of facts and evidence. So what if some voters will not respond intellectually to such an offering? The point should be to treat an election as it is and should be, not to dumb down the whole process in order to pander to the lowest common denominator, not to tell voters how they should vote as though they were mindless drudges. If certain elites in our society think that indeed the people are mindless drudges and need to be told what to do, to be given a "snow job," then those elites are mistaken; the proper functioning of our government requires that we not treat the people as mindless pawns, but that we educate them so that they will be able to perform their job properly. It can only lead to the decline of our society if the people are not properly equipped to participate effectively in selecting their elected officials.

    "I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." --Thomas Jefferson to W. Jarvis, 1820.

To be genuinely helpful, the information that is presented should be given all at once for all the candidates, in outline form if possible, with comparisons made to other candidates or at least presented in a form so that those comparisons could easily be made. Reporters love to dig up personal facts that can be used to pillory an elected official, yet seem reluctant to expend equal energy in figuring out what is the real mind-set and political intentions of the same official when he is a candidate for office. This is a place where skilled reporting and investigation could bring out into the open the information that really matters when voters make their decisions. And if done rightly, it will not reach a conclusion and tell the voters how to vote, but rather allow the voters to reach an effective conclusion themselves, based on the evidence, and permit them to use their own judgment in deciding who they should vote for. Instead of solid, relevant facts, however, we are more often given electioneering poop, often issued by the candidates themselves, along with all the irrelevant data, such as what high school they went to. Jefferson wrote,

    "Our people, merely for want of intelligence which they may rely on, are becoming lethargic and insensible of the state they are in." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Adams, 1777.

And that is what happens when the people are deprived of the information they need to make valid decisions. They become disinterested and inattentive to existing conditions. They lose interest in the political process and don't bother to vote. No human being can be expected to take a vital interest in something that is meaningless. And elections, like any other human activity, become meaningless if we lack the information and understanding that would make them meaningful. In many elections for minor local offices, voters often know nothing whatsoever about any of the candidates.

It could be said that this kind of knowledge is the voter's responsibility, and that the burden of educating the public cannot be laid on privately owned newspapers and agencies. But this is a matter of social responsibility for the press and those agencies. This is why we have a free press, and a responsible press should want to meet the needs of a free society. It is asking too much to expect voters to assemble all the information they need to properly fulfill their job of deciding between candidates. They would need to keep files and scrapbooks on all the candidates in order to do this, and even then they would be relying on printed sources. No ordinary person who works for a living should be asked to devote that much time and attention to such a task, however important it is. At the same time, such a task could be more easily done by those trained and equipped to do it, and it could be done for the benefit of all if published in the newspapers.

    Vitally Important to our Form of Government

Our system of government is founded on the principle of oversight by the people, just as our system of justice is founded on the judgment of twelve honest jurors. In a free nation, the people themselves are the ultimate sovereign, and the process of voting is indispensable to government by the people.

    "[It is] by their votes the people exercise their sovereignty." --Thomas Jefferson: written note in Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws.

Through elections, the people are able to control the course of government and keep it to its constitution.

    "The elective franchise, if guarded as the ark of our safety, will peaceably dissipate all combinations to subvert a Constitution, dictated by the wisdom, and resting on the will of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to B. Waring, 1801.

The ordinary citizen is not competent to run the government, but he is competent to decide on the fitness of those who do run it. By employing the common sense judgment of ordinary citizens at certain important points in the structure of government, good government is assured.

    "The constitutions of most of our States assert that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves in all cases to which they think themselves competent (as in electing their functionaries executive and legislative, and deciding by a jury of themselves in all judiciary cases in which any fact is involved), or they may act by representatives, freely and equally chosen." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Cartwright, 1824.

In order to make a proper judgment, those who decide must have the evidence pro and con presented to them. When a newspaper makes an endorsement, it encourages the voters to avoid thinking and making decisions based on their own judgment. This is no more proper in the political process than it would be for a judge to direct every verdict of a jury. The whole idea of a government of the people is to insure that the least likely to be corruptible element in the nation--the people themselves--is in a position to exercise their judgment.

    "We think experience has proved it safer for the mass of individuals composing the society to reserve to themselves personally the exercise of all rightful powers to which they are competent and to delegate those to which they are not competent to deputies named and removable for unfaithful conduct by themselves immediately." --Thomas Jefferson to P. Dupont, 1816.

This protective mechanism, this essential element of good government, is thwarted by anything that deprives the people of the capacity to exercise their judgment. Just like a good judge, a responsible newspaper should see to it that the case is impartially presented to the voters, and then leave it to them to make what they think is the proper decision. When it does otherwise, it not only treats the voters in a demeaning manner, but it undermines the fundamental operation of our system of government. Sure, editors are themselves intelligent people, and no doubt feel that their expressed judgment is valid. But everyone's mind is influenced by interests that are often unconsciously effective. And where interest may be consciously made effective to advantage, we can expect it to happen.

    "Mankind soon learn to make interested uses of every right and power which they possess or may assume." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Va., 1782.

It is to overcome that influence in the case of individual persons that the mass of the people were entrusted with the direction of their own government.

    "Democrats consider the people as the safest depository of power in the last resort; they cherish them, therefore, and wish to leave in them all the powers to the exercise of which they are competent." --Thomas Jefferson to W. Short, 1825.

Jefferson felt that newspapers were indispensable for a free nation; indeed, they are more important than the government itself if the liberties of the people are to be preserved.

    "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them." --Thomas Jefferson to E. Carrington, 1787.

But he had in mind papers that informed the minds of the people and that provided information needed to enable the people to superintend their self-government. That object is not fulfilled by papers that merely direct voters what to do as though they were sheep.

The people need the information necessary to form an opinion. They don't need to be told what that opinion should be. Telling people what to think and how to vote is the way things are done in a dictatorship, not in a free country. Newspapers are indispensable for the proper functioning of our democracy, but their aim should be to furnish the people with the information they need to make their decisions, and not try to make those decisions for them.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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