The Washington Post announced earlier this month that it had “compiled the first database of slaveholding members of Congress by examining thousands of pages of census records and historical documents.” Interested readers can click through the “interactive” exclusive, which shows that “more than 1,700 people who served in the U.S. Congress in the 18th, 19th and even 20th centuries owned human beings at some point in their lives.”
It’s quite interesting, especially to someone like me, a former high-school history teacher. But it’s also a bit curious — why is one of the most prominent newspapers in the country paying its staff to conduct research on this historical topic? And why was this historical subject a front-page story in the print edition the following weekend? The answer to that question demonstrates what role corporate media serve in 2022: namely, an explicitly political and ideological one.
The last U.S. member of Congress who also had owned a slave held office exactly 100 years ago. That person, remarkably enough, was also the first female senator, Rebecca Latimer Felton, who very briefly represented Georgia. It’s all very fascinating, especially getting to see an old interview of Felton that the WaPo found, in which she describes some of her life.
But why would the WaPo have reporter Julie Zauzmer Weil, who “covers D.C.’s local government,” write this “story”? Especially given it’s not really a “story” at all, at least not in the typical journalistic sense of the word. It’s more akin to a college research project for a history grad student. That it has all kinds of interesting historical nuggets — like the fact that congressmen from New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other northern states enslaved people in the early decades of the 19th century — doesn’t change this.
Buttressing a Narrative
So what’s really going on here? The third paragraph of the feature sheds some light:
The country is still grappling with the legacy of their embrace of slavery. The link between race and political power in early America echoes in complicated ways, from the racial inequities that persist to this day to the polarizing fights over voting rights and the way history is taught in schools.
Ah. This story is aimed to buttress a certain narrative about race in America. That narrative is one in which the United States suffers from systemic, institutional racism, and where unacceptable “racial inequities” persist. That includes, Weil suggests, recent voting integrity initiatives in some states, and pushback against critical race theory in school curricula (though of course, as the WaPo constantly reminds us, CRT is not taught in public schools).
Weil doesn’t really hide this. Only one interview of a current politician appears in the feature. That award goes to Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who told the WaPo that the stories about his slaver predecessors in Congress, in Weil’s words, “call for action from their counterparts today — namely, a bill he has championed that would commission the first national study on reparations for the descendants of enslaved people.” Booker explains: “We have never really tried, in any grand way as a country, to take full responsibility for the evil institution of slavery and what it has done.”
Does this sound familiar? It wasn’t long ago that another prominent liberal newspaper printed a big “story” on race and racial history in America: the New York Times’ 1619 Project. Nikole Hannah-Jones, its creator/director and another journalist (one senses a pattern), has repeatedly said that the “ultimate goal [of the 1619 Project] is that there will be a reparations bill passed.”
In an interview with The Chicago Tribune, she reaffirmed this: “If you read the whole project, I don’t think you can come away from it without understanding the project is an argument for reparations. You can’t read it and not understand that something is owed.”
Journalists at America’s prominent corporate media outlets are being given extensive latitude to publish historical research projects to further the objectives of racial identity politics, particularly reparations. This is why the WaPo has done this project, which includes multiple articles and will surely feature more. There’s always more racist American history to uncover!
Allies in Democrats’ Initiatives
Corporate media, the entertainment industry, and the academy are all allied in their furthering of Democratic Party platform initiatives, particularly on race. Indeed, Weil cites Yale historian Crystal Feimster, a historian at Yale University, who argues America requires “a full accounting” of these stories: “We have to tell them why it’s important and why it matters and what it tells about where we are in this present moment.”
Weil notes that Feimster “pointed to voting rights, the vast racial wealth gap and the disproportionate impact of violence on people of color as examples of current-day struggles that spring directly from the history of slavery.”
There you have it. The history of the widespread practice of slaveholding among congressmen, the WaPo messages through their preferred historians, is put forward as yet another reason why we need to resist voter integrity laws, facilitate reparations, and defund the police.
Of course, there are many other historical events and trends that influence contemporary America. There’s the history of the sexual revolution, whose promotion of abortion, no-fault divorce, pornography, and alternative “lifestyles” and “identities” has done incalculable damage to multiple generations, cost taxpayers billions of dollars, and killed more than 60 million Americans (including a disproportionate number of black Americans). Or the history of American anti-Catholicism. Or the history of U.S. (failed) military interventions since the end of the Cold War (and corporate media’s complicity in those interventions).
But investing journalistic resources in researching those stories doesn’t further the demands of identitarian ideology. Investigating slaveholding senators and publishing stories on the racism of American capitalism, agriculture, and birding will do the trick though. This is “journalism” in 2022.
A senate, wrote Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce in his “Devil’s Dictionary,” is “a body of elderly gentlemen charged with high duties and misdemeanors.” Given that Bierce began writing entries for his satirical dictionary 140 years ago, perhaps Americans have been aware of the sins of their elected leaders longer than the WaPo would have us think. That Bierce’s definition of a reporter is “a writer who guesses his way to the truth and dispels it with a tempest of words,” suggests the same can be said for their knowledge of the sins of journalists.