What is the purpose of a free press? Is it nothing more than the freedom of journalists to write and say what they want? Or is it to create a "fourth estate" that can act as a watchdog of the powerful? Both of those things are part of the answer, but I believe there is a third purpose, as well.
Early Americans understood that self-government, meaning government by the people instead of a small elite, required a population knowledgeable enough to shoulder the burdens of power. Back when the king and his court called all the shots, those elites were the only ones who really needed to know what was going on. But the framers of the Republic understood that if the burden of leadership were shifted to the people, they needed to be informed, as well.
The trouble always has been that that freedom can be abused. In his new book Burning Beethoven: The Eradication of German Culture in the United States during World War I, Erik Kirschbaum reminds us of an especially egregious example -- the wartime press' treatment of German-Americans. Despite the fact that millions of hard-working, law-abiding American citizens in 1914 had either been born in Germany, or were the sons and daughters of people born in Germany, U.S. reporting was amazingly one-sided.
One reason the American press handled the war so badly was that it accepted British reports so uncritically. Early in the war, the British cut the undersea cables that linked the United States and Germany, so most of the news Americans received from Europe between 1914 and 1917 -- the years of American neutrality -- were filtered through the British government's propaganda machine. Americans received a stream of salacious tales about German soldiers marching around with babies on bayonets, until they thought of all Germans -- including German-Americans -- as subhuman monsters. Some of the most lurid accounts came from a Belgian woman living in Iowa named Florence Clearhout. She claimed personally to have witnessed assaults, dismemberments, a beheading, and even a case of a prisoner being buried alive when she visited Europe. Yet American journalists who traveled to Belgium to verify these stories came up empty-handed. Did that stop the stories? No. They made spicy copy and, by then, even some of the editors were fired up.
The point I want to emphasize is that exaggeration and hype did more than undermine journalism. It also undermined the American people's ability to govern itself. The press gave full voice to divisive rabble-rousers who pitted American against American, even to the point of encouraging violence. Kirschbaum provides numerous examples of stories or editorials stating that anyone speaking German in America could not be trusted. One cartoon bore two images with two captions. "We would have less of this," it said, underneath a sketch of an American munitions plant being blown up, "if we had more of this," underneath a drawing of a German-American standing in front of a firing squad.
Today we hear a lot about "fake news." As the story of the American press during World War I demonstrates, it is not a new problem. Moreover, because not having a free press would be even worse, it's not completely solvable, either. But given what happened during World War I, there are some things we should be especially skeptical about -- like when we're encouraged to turn against each other, or to consider our neighbors less than human, or to mark everyone speaking another language as subversive. We do that long enough, and it won't just be the press whose freedom is in peril.