Shooting the Messenger

Searching for truth in the age of fake news

We live in the “Information Age” yet many Americans feel honest information is the one thing inaccessible to them. In a world of super computers that can fit in your pocket, it’s an odd dilemma to find yourself in. From cries of a biased “mainstream media” to unchecked sources running rampant on social media, one thing is abundantly clear: the search for truth has never been at such the forefront of American thought. Or has it? In this post, I’ll detail the history of news in America (and globally), examine biases of mainstream news, and call us all to a paradigm shift of the first amendment in today’s world.



News as we know it is relatively new. Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick  is widely credited as the first newspaper published in the States. It was published in Boston on September 25th in 1690, almost 86 years before the States was officially founded, and was intended to be a monthly publication. In 1702 the first daily paper in Britain was released. Two years later, Boston again led the colonies in news-sharing-related-events by releasing a weekly paper in the form of the Boston News-letter, the first American paper to produce more than one volume. Earlier versions of newspapers took the form of political and social bulletins in Rome, newsletters for traders in the Middle Ages, and social broadsheets (literally a huge piece of paper printed only on one side) in 17th century Japan.

But back to Publick Occurrences.

The newspaper covered local issues affecting business and personal thought. It emerged, interestingly enough, out of a need to clarify small town “gossip” of the day:

Thirdly, That something may be done towards the
Curing, or at least the Charming of that Spirit of
Lying, which prevails amongst us, wherefore nothing
shall be entered, but what we have reason to believe
is true, repairing to the best fountains for our
Information. And when there appears any material
mistake in anything that is collected, it shall be
corrected in the next [edition].

While ideas and institutions can certainty change with time, it is interesting that, some 300 years later, people would be chastising the American news for failing to do what it was originally intended for. Perhaps this is why the term “Fake News” has become so salient in our public discourse: it feels like the worst attack on our American identity, and the thought of it being true horrifies and appalls.

The Difficulty in Buying Truth

Many Americans feel their news is being biased, no doubt egged on by a 2014 PEW Research Center study. What’s notable about this study is that it observed the audiences of news media and rated their political ideology. It found networks like CNN had high rates of liberal viewers, while Fox News had high rates of conservative viewers. Both, however, also had low rates of the opposing ideology, and had rates of those somewhere in the middle. This doesn’t mean that either network is biased in reporting. Rather their viewers are. More on this in a minute.

A note on fringe sites: With the presidency of Donald Trump, and the rise of “Fake News” in the public vernacular, fringe sites like Breitbart and Huffington Post have gained notoriety. Both sites are known for false reporting, egregious bias, and ideologically bent stories. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these sites, provided people know what they’re getting into. The rub comes when people share these stories as though they are 100% fact.

Back to this notion of bias. The American economy is based off of capitalism. If you think of news like the cereal aisle, my point will become more and more evident. There are many types of cereal when you walk into the grocery store. My favorite is the sugary one that’s dipped ten times over in cinnamon. While I enjoy it, if I ate it every day, for every meal, I would likely lack the nutritional sustenance I needed to survive. Occasionally, I need to venture into the bland box of “healthy” cereal. In this analogy, fringe sites might be those over-the-top sugary cereals we really only liked as kids. Great for a specific purpose, but less helpful when it comes to sustenance.

Now, I can practically hear you scoffing at me from the other side of this computer screen. Cereal is not like news. And perhaps this is because you view the nature of cereal products and news products as morally different. One is a facetious breakfast food and one is an industry that, essentially, markets truth. I delve deep (and quickly got lost) in the nature of the philosophical truth to try and understand why bias in news feels more perverse than targeted marketing of other products.

Correspondence theory asserts that something is true only if it refers to a fact. Coherence theory asserts that something is true only if it’s a part of other similar true beliefs. Pragmatist theories assert that truth is, essentially, a search for or an ending note of the search for belief or inquiry.

Perhaps we need to reorient ourselves to not thinking that we’re buying truth but rather that we’re buying a narrative. Rarely do we call our friends liars for telling us a mundane story from their life, despite the fact that their narrative is exclusively biased by their own perspective. I’d argue that this is how we should think of news, not of buying truth, but of buying a story. And, perhaps like our diets, variety is the key. A dose of CBS, a dash of CNN. A cup of Washington Post with our lunch. And, perhaps for dessert, we take a bite out of Breitbart or Huffington.

Freedom: One Last Note

Much of our contemporary controversies surround freedoms. #MarchForOurLives is the newest iteration of the argument for gun control, which many feel curtails the Second Amendment. Protests by extremists groups have sparked arguments about what free speech means and who is included in it. And court cases of gay wedding cakes have explored what it means to have freedom of (and from) religion. Included in the same amendment, the Constitution guarantees the freedom of the press. At a time spent arguing about what it means to be an American (the subject of the next thought Thursday), The Founder’s original intents, and Freedom, the freedom of the press is a gross omission. (Interestingly enough, the infamous Publick Occurances released only one issue due to suppression.)


But those are just my thoughts. What are yours?  Let me know in the comments below!






Notes and References


Wikipedia contributors. “Information Age.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 23 Mar. 2018. Web. 7 Apr. 2018.

Image: Newspapers yellow by Jon S. taken with LG electronics KU990. Used fairly under the Creative Commons 2.0 license. No changes were made and rights are retained to Jon S. under the aforementioned restrictions and with the aforementioned permissions.


The editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Newspaper.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encylopaedia Britannica, inc. Web. 11 Apr. 2018.

National Humanities Center, 2006. “Publick Occurrences” Web. 11 Apr. 2018.

“The Boston News-Letter,” The News Media and the Making of America, 1730-1865, accessed April 11, 2018,

Google Dictionary. “Broadsheets”

The Difficulty in Buying Truth

Glanzberg, M. “Truth,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed April 12 2018.

Wikipedia contributors. “Breitbart News.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 Apr. 2018. Web. 13 Apr. 2018.

Mitchell, A., Gottfried, J., Kiley, J., & Eva Matsa, K. (2014) “Political Polarization & Media Habits” Pew Research Center. 11 Apr. 2018.


Bryce Van Vleet is a psychology undergraduate based in the Pacific Northwest. He is a lover of words, terrible video-game player, and frequent drinker of soda and other sugary drinks.

The next Thought Thursday will be posted on May 10th. Keep an eye out for other features coming in the meantime!




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