Sarah Palin, Paul Revere and the Partisan Media

There is scarcely anything new that can be said about the partisan media in the United States. Does anyone now remember that, as his second term drew to a close, the very first President of the United States (he upon whom was bestowed the epithet "Father of his country"), wrote to his Vice President John Adams and expressed his desire to depart from public office, out of a "disinclination to be longer buffited in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers"?

Or that, as George Washington prepared his famous Farewell Address (remarkably, politicians believed they should write their own speeches in those early days of our republic), he deleted, on Alexander Hamilton's advice, the following language?
. . . some of the gazettes of the United States have teemed with all of the Invective that disappointment, ignorance of facts, and malicious falsehoods could invent to misrepresent my politics and affections; to wound my reputation and feelings; and to weaken, if not entirely destroy the confidence you have been pleased to repose in me.
Or that, as Washington continued to plan his retirement from public office, he expressed his resentment against the press with these words?
That [the press] will continue [their] attacks on the Government, there can be no doubt, but that they will make no Impression on the public mind is not so certain, for drops of Water will Impress (in time) the hardest Marble.
. . .
The continual attacks which have been made and are still making on [my] administration, in [the press] . . . [are as] indecent as they are devoid of truth and fairness. . . . Under these circumstances, it would be wished that the enlightened public could have a clear and comprehensive view of facts. But how to give it lies the difficulty. . . I see no method at present.
(For details and references, see the outstanding book American Aurora: a Democratic-Republican Returns, by Richard N. Rosenfeld. My quotes are taken from page 31 of the book.)

If even George Washington saw "no method" to correct the false impressions deliberately foisted on the public by the partisan press in 1796, what is Sarah Palin to do in 2011?

Answer: appeal to Americans' native sense of fairness. We who have striven to arrive at our present positions in this country appreciate a fair contest, and hate a rigged one. With all our achievements against odds, but bolstered by the immense variety of opportunity offered in this free country, we bring to the struggle a heightened sense of when the deck is stacked against us.

And that thought is just what came to me when I witnessed the first attack against Sarah Palin for her supposed ignorance of basic American history -- when, in response to a press query after she had just completed a visit to Old North Church in Boston, she recited "what she had learned" from her visit. At the time, I said to myself: "She just came from a guided tour of Old North Church, and her head must have been filled with factoids about Paul Revere and his ride." (For I, too, spent a lot of time in Boston, and also took part in a tour of Old North Church.)

It was the only decent way to interpret the stream-of-consciousness aspect of her answer to the query:
[Revere] warned the British that they weren't going to be taking away our arms, by ringing those bells and making sure as he was riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free.
Now, thanks to the honesty and decency of the Episcopal Vicar of Old North Church, the Reverend Stephen T. Ayers, we have The Rest of The Story. Here is a quote from the newsletter he recently emailed to his parish (courtesy of Episcopal Café):
I had carefully set aside last Thursday to work on the sermon to be delivered at my 35th reunion at Hamilton College last weekend. Then the National Park Service called Wednesday afternoon inquiring whether we could open up early for a special visitor. No problem. We are a house of prayer for all people and we try to be hospitable to politicians of all stripes, whether or not we happen to agree with them.
. . .

The governor's entourage pulled up around nine, just as a school group from Waltham was entering the church. She was accompanied by her parents, her daughter, Piper, two aides and a photographer. Fifteen or twenty media people materialized seconds after. The first to greet the Governor was Dino DiFronzo of Parziale's Bakery, who encouraged the governor to stop by for coffee and pastry after her visit to Old North. This is probably the first time a politician has gone anywhere but Mike's Pastry in the North End, and given Governor Palin's subsequent experience there, it may be the last.
. . .

Finally Foundation director, Ed Pignone, and I greeted the governor and escorted her party inside. Governor Palin told me she had been to Old North once before as a hockey mom with her son's team. She encouraged them to pay attention because knowing our history is so important. On Thursday, she had to encourage her daughter to pay attention as the media cameras were somewhat distracting. The family was quite charming, particularly the governor's parents. They didn't strike me as very different from the 500,000 other visitors we see each year. They asked a number of questions about our story, laughed at my jokes, and enjoyed themselves.
With that as background, the Rev. Ayers then explains just what he told the Palins:
I gave them our standard talk about Paul Revere and the two men who hung the lanterns in the steeple, Robert Newman and John Pulling. I added a bit about the debate between John Hancock and Sam Adams after they received the warning from Revere (Hancock: "Staying and fighting will look good on my resume when I run for president." Adams: "You are too rich to fight. Let's get out of here." Adams ultimately won that debate.) I did mention that Revere was arrested by British troops and led back to Lexington, warning those British troops that the minutemen had been alerted.

After the introductory talk, we climbed up to the bell ringing chamber, where I talked about how Paul Revere how founded our bell ringing guild in 1750 as a teenager. Governor Palin was particularly interested to see a copy of the original bell ringing contract between Paul Revere and his friends and the rector of Old North, Dr. Cutler. The contract portrays a group of teenagers using democratic principles to organize their bell ringing guild. We did not have the time to get to the top of the steeple to see the lanterns.

We briefly toured the tombs beneath the church before exiting to a large and excited crowd. Governor Palin handed out signed copies of the Constitution. Like John Hancock, her signature was clearly visible. The governor then went into the gift shop to buy a few souvenirs (like all good visitors should!) Her visit to Old North stay lasted nearly an hour.
Later, when the attacks on Palin commenced in the partisan media, the Rev. Ayers generously recognized his role in the affair (bold emphasis added):
I was surprised and bemused when the video of Governor Palin's impromptu history quiz went viral the next day. I knew where all the factoids she cited came from and take responsibility for putting them in her head. I will not take the blame for the odd order those factoids came out. Perhaps it was too much information in too short a period of time to digest properly. Maybe if we climbed to the top of the steeple and viewed the lanterns, the governor wouldn't have focused on the bells. Who knows?
Now, stop and think a minute. Americans' knowledge of the "midnight ride of Paul Revere" stems entirely from the Longfellow poem they learned in high-school English classes. Put yourself in Sarah Palin's place: you visit Old North Church, where it all started that April evening in 1775, before there was any real thought of a revolution against the Crown, and all of a sudden you are told half an hour's worth of additional details about that famous ride, and about the life of Paul Revere. Who among us, when pressed later to say just "what you learned", would not try to mingle into the traditional understanding of Paul Rever's ride some of the fascinating new details to which you had just been exposed an hour ago?

But the partisan media thought they had a another hook into the Palin image (entirely of their own creation in the first place), which they could then exploit to distort it further. So they uniformly adopted the story line that Sarah was hopelessly ignorant of what "everyone knows" about Paul Revere's famous ride. Now they have egg on their faces, as even our good Vicar charitably admits:
I am amazed that this silly story refuses to die. Lots of pundits berated Governor Palin's grasp of history. Many of them have made their own mistakes, usually of the Revere cried out "The British are coming!" variety. If Revere yelled anything streaking across the countryside, he might have been shot by a local Tory or by one of the many British patrols out that night. He never would have said "The British are coming!", because everyone was British then. He may have said "The Regulars are out!"

A story just came across the web from The Washington Post that a battle is brewing over at Wikipedia, where some Palin supporters have attempted to rewrite the entry on Paul Revere to reflect the governor's interview. This isn't the first time Paul Revere's story has been revised. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow took a great deal of poetic license in retelling the story in Paul Revere's Ride, a political poem published on the eve of the Civil War. While Longfellow upset antiquarians in New England, he was not subjected to thousands of newspaper stories and blog comments attacking or defending his poem. One hundred and fifty years later most of the pundits and many of us assume Longfellow's poem was historically correct. I hate to break it to you, but Revere was not standing on the opposite shore, did not make it as far as Concord (Massachusetts or New Hampshire) that night, and finished his ride to Lexington before midnight.
This week, we witnessed the media repeat its same partisan blunder -- by trumpeting the release of nearly 25,000 emails from the office of Governor Palin, and by breathlessly enlisting their partisan readers in the task of picking through them for the slightest bit they could use to add to their distortions of Palin's image. Needless to say, they still will not -- nay, cannot -- concede that all the emails proved is that a dedicated public servant tried her best to do her job, until the mounting expense of defending against partisan and baseless "ethics complaints" made it a detriment to the people of Alaska for her to remain in office. And having hounded her from office, they now have the chutzpah to claim that she is a "quitter" -- without ever acknowledging the endless, serial complaints which never were proved, but which cost the Alaskan taxpayers millions.

In other words, in its rush to be partisan, the press shows it has scarcely ever gotten its facts right -- ever since the time of George Washington. It is more interested in discrediting a public figure for whom it conceives a visceral dislike than in being a page-boy to history, and just giving us the relevant facts. And as a result, the press is now more despised than it is followed, and receives (except from those just as partisan, if not more) the universal condemnation it deserves -- even from our good Vicar:
I am somewhat saddened by what passes for news and for fact these days. We can laugh at Governor Palin, who may not have gotten all her facts wrong, but certainly didn't get them all straight. But what does this story, with its incredible legs, say about the rest of us? Why was such a large media contingent following the governor in the first place, particularly when many of them were publicly complaining that the trip was not newsworthy? What do we say to the pundits who accuse Palin of mangling history while treating Longfellow's poetic interpretation of the ride as fact? Why have so many prominent historians weighed in on this story to criticize or defend Palin's off the cuff remarks? For that matter, why am I weighing in?

Is spectacle more newsworthy than substance? Do firmly held opinions take precedence over fact? What is truth, or is it truthiness?
I personally would not have used the neologism "truthiness", but no matter; the Vicar's sense is clear. The point is: what is celebrated in the press today is "truthlessness." That is, the more partisan one can manage to be, the less is the truth content thereby conveyed, but the more is the adulation one receives among one's peers for having carried the partisanship to new extremes. And those who try to say "Hold! Enough!" are in turn reviled for their refusal to join the pile-on -- witness the apparent attacks on Father Ayer from his acquaintances on Facebook, which have apparently now elicited a response that he was not trying to "defend" Palin.

Good grief! Can an eyewitness not even try to report the basic facts without being immediately accused of "defending" one side or the other? Is simply reporting the truth a one-sided "defense"? Apparently so, if you are so partisan as to be unable to abide the mention of the name "Palin" (even in Greek). But then, I repeat what George Washington observed, over two hundred years ago:
. . . some of the gazettes of the United States have teemed with all of the Invective that disappointment, ignorance of facts, and malicious falsehoods could invent to misrepresent my politics and affections; to wound my reputation and feelings; and to weaken, if not entirely destroy the confidence you have been pleased to repose in me.

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