Distrust of Facts Highlights Need to Return to Primary Sources

About Jake Miller

Mr. Jake Miller teaches 7th grade American history teacher near Harrisburg, PA. He is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and a 2017 NEA Teacher of Excellence. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, and several other periodicals, but Miller has called TER home since 2012.

“Get your facts first,” quips satirist Mark Twain. “Then you can distort them as much as you please.”

These words were first put to print in an 1899 Rudyard Kipling interview of the timeless sage, but they could have just as easily been written yesterday.

In an era where the news makers are jabbing back and forth, left and right over “fake news,” “mainstream media bias,” and “alternative facts,” we need to return to the first-person evidence now more than ever. In this, we’re describing what we historians call primary sources.

Primary sources tell us so much about the past because they’re the accounts of those people who lived through them. Yet these sources show us that the distortion of facts is hardly something that’s new.

One of the most contentious moments in the conflict over facts and media was the passage of the Alien & Sedition Acts (1798). These laws, ushered in by a Federalist Congress and President John Adams, stated any issuing false statements about or criticisms of the new American government would face imprisonment and fines. Among those were Benjamin Franklin Bache (grandson of Benjamin Franklin, who would die in prison serving his sentence) and James T. Callendar, who was hired as Thomas Jefferson’s personal journalistic ax man.

When Jefferson won the Presidency two years later and Callendar was denied a job in the new administration, he turned his pen at destroying the Master of Monticello. Callendar is credited with being the first person to break the story on the Master of Monticello’s affair with slave (and wife’s half-sister) Sally Hemings.

So if the art of spin is as old as the republic itself, it again insists on our need to revisit the words and actions of the people who were actually present, to examine the verity of the source, and to compare and contrast two sources against one another.

For example, we can point to the idea that the New York Times and Fox News both had different reports on which world leader canceled the proposed meeting between President Trump and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. To add fuel to the debate, The Washington Times reported that Trump said that canceling the meeting was a “mutual decision.” And the BBC was somewhere between this report and Nieto canceling the summit.

Ugh. Dissecting the truth is exhausting.

Additionally, teachers need to teach about the pursuit of facts, which includes their own bias. The Student News Daily published a report advocating that students learn the following bias in the media:

  • Omission (what isn’t said)
  • Sources (who is or isn’t examined)
  • Story selection (the use of comparing or contrasting sources to one another)
  • Placement (big stories should be on the front page)
  • Labeling (how are people referred to)
  • Spin (an author inserting their subjectivity)

President Trump will make it more important to “get the facts first.” Trump has called out The Times, The Washington Post, and CNN as being “fake news” and “dishonest.” All this coming from the same man whose press secretary declared 1.5 million people attended his inauguration.

As I mentioned in a previous article, I was there. And it wasn’t with 1.5 million people.

As I mentioned in a previous article, I was at the Inauguration. And it wasn't with 1.5 million… Click To Tweet

Yet, these three news media sources aren’t doing themselves any favors by continuing an unprecedented barrage against the President. This rings especially true because they often used white gloves with President Obama. Yet, despite all this, they are reputable sources of media. And they are not doing anything differently than what conservative sources were doing with the former president and liberal causes.

For example, let’s examine sociologist Jamie Longazel’s book Undocumented Fears (and link to his Facebook page which regularly examines media bias towards immigrants). In it, Longazel reports that the local media in Hazleton uses much of the above bias to slam “illegals” by “dehumanizing them.” The same can be said for the labeling of “welfare queens,” “union thugs,” or “gang bangers” as a disparaging term towards others whom conservative media might disagree with.

All these word battles highlights an educator’s need to teach bias. Even our own.

One way I recommend doing this is by listening to the Visions of Education podcast, episode 35, “Fake News and Media Literacy.” Here the hosts examine our history with fake news, starting with the notorious “Bat Boy” in the National Enquirer. They argue if we were able discern fake news back then, why can’t we today? The answer is that social media and hyper-partisan  television broadcasts are our most often used way of consuming news, and the black-and-white difference between facts and lies aren’t all that easy to discern in an era of bait clicking.

Theblack-and-white difference between facts and lies aren't all that easy to discern in an era of… Click To Tweet

In his own autobiography, Twain revisits his telling of truth: “An Autobiography is the truest of all books; for while it inevitably consists mainly of extinctions of the truth, shirkings of the truth, partial revealments of the truth, with hardly an instance of plain straight truth, the remorseless truth is there, between the lines.”

The truth isn’t often as in plain sight as a Facebook post. So we need to stop pretending that it is. Or that it’s the media’s fault. Instead, we need to find the damn truth ourselves by returning to the primary sources.

The way that we arrive at the truth is by comparing sources and listening to and reading the exact words of those who spoke or wrote them. When we question the hell out of it, we teach and encourage our students to do the same, too.

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About the Author:

Mr. Jake Miller teaches 7th grade American history teacher near Harrisburg, PA. He is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and a 2017 NEA Teacher of Excellence. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, and several other periodicals, but Miller has called TER home since 2012.

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