Two hundred years ago this week, the radical journalist and pamphleteer Thomas Paine died an ignominious death. But during his life, Paine was renowned as the philosophical architect of the American Revolution, a true democratic populist who voiced ideas that are still considered dangerous. Common people can govern themselves justly and democractically. Liberty should not be forsaken for security. Both of these principles must guide our foreign relations.
In many ways the forefather of modern advocacy journalism, Paine is largely unrecognized as such today. Still, those modern writers hoping to change the world with their words could profit from Paine’s example; for in his time, Paine made people believe they could “begin the world over again”—and they did.
Armed with his democratic principles, an adversarial idea of what free expression meant, and a pen poised like a dagger, Paine took aim at everything sacred in his era: monarchy, aristocracy, and revealed religion. Common Sense had the temerity to argue that the American colonies needed no king and could establish a republican government to govern itself. The Rights of Man went further, defending any people’s natural right to overthrow hereditary government when it was not responsive to their needs and interests—which, according to Paine, was all the time. And while The Age of Reason, a withering attack on revealed religion, earned Paine his exile from America’s founding pantheon, its logic is one that still guides the best journalism: “When opinions are free, either in matters of govemment or religion, truth will finally and powerfully prevail.”
Advancing the stories and ideas that challenge the powerful in order to protect the common good, Paine’s work embodied the best journalistic principles; in many ways, he was the prototypical crusading journalist. Many these days are arguing that “crusading journalism” is the sort of journalism that we need the most, the sort of journalism that is most likely to succeed in these dire times of torture, terror, and financial turpitude. Slate’s Jack Shafer even argues for a return to “yellow journalism”—not of sensationalism, but of passion.
Yet despite all Paine did for letters, it’s disturbing to note how few of today’s journalists have heralded his life or his contribution to the craft.
One reason is that many modern reporters tend to forget that the modern press is ultimately a creation that favors a particular political system: democratic government responsive to its citizens’ desires. Concepts as “equal time” and “objectivity” taken to illogical extremes, along with the profession’s integration into the country’s elite, have led many journalists to play it safe with routine, easy work that rarely challenges the powerful. (Take The New York Times’s recent prostration before the Pentagon’s study on Guantanamo recidivism, for example.) Paine understood that the powerful lie to retain their power, and he excoriated them for doing so.
Professional journalism’s recent struggles have much to do with the Internet, innovation, and economics; but the profession is also suffering because the mainstream media have largely forsaken the hard, investigative pieces that make enemies of the powerful. But while Paine’s spirit is in short supply throughout many newsrooms today, there is one infinite space where it flourishes: the Internet. Wired’s Jon Katz understood this more than a decade ago:
[Paine’s] mark is now nearly invisible in the old culture, but his spirit is woven through and through this new one, his fingerprints on every Web site, his voice in every online thread. If the old media (newspapers, magazines, radio, and television) have abandoned their father, the new media (computers, cable, and the Internet) can and should adopt him. If the press has lost contact with its spiritual and ideological roots, the new media culture can claim them as its own.
If Thomas Paine were alive today, there’s little doubt you would find him blogging from www.commonsense.org, challenging concentrated power, conspicuous wealth, and a culture amusing itself to death. Paine would likely have cherished the chance to engage his readers in debate, and spur them to direct action for better government and a more equitable economy. When people pick up a newspaper or view it online, they need to feel that the multitude of voices within are devoted to them: a democratic people determined to stay that way. One man, with one voice, did that for the American colonies—and it changed the world.
No matter what form journalism takes in the coming years, it will only remain relevant if it follows Paine’s example and treats people like citizens worthy of serious conversations. The profession forgets this at its own peril. Or, as Paine would say: “Character is much easier kept than recovered.”