Suspicious Truths: Politics and the Press in American History

September 19, 2006
December 31, 2006

As storms of controversy swirl around the role of a free press in the modern world, the need to understand and define the responsibilities of the media has become of increasing concern.  Suspicious Truths: Politics and the Press in American History, an exhibition organized by the New-York Historical Society and Columbia University School of Journalism looks back to the 18th and 19th centuries when newspapers, once vehicles for the arguments of an educated elite, were gradually transformed into the mass circulation dailies that we know today, as capable of making news as reporting it. The title is derived from Thomas Jefferson's scathing attack on the press in response to a letter from a 17-year-old boy in which the third President claims that "the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them," that "truth itself becomes suspicious when put into that polluted vehicle."

By expanding markets, the adoption of the steam press and an abundance of cheap paper enabled 19th century newspapers to develop and expand the traditions of political partisanship that Jefferson deplored, and ultimately changed the way news was gathered and information disseminated. Like today's blogs, popular newspapers, often aimed at new audiences, allowed for diverse voices. Advertising revenues began to encourage intense competition for readers. Despite occasional efforts to provide objectivity in their news pages, newspaper publishers seldom resisted the temptation to intervene in political life and influence events. Drawing on its especially rich collections of newspapers, photographs, posters and the manuscript letters of the great figures of journalism, Suspicious Truths: Politics and the Press in American History will illustrate the continuing tension between the goal of objectivity and the temptations of power.