Reflection: William Lloyd Garrison and the practice of journalism

By Evan Heichelbech, F/G Scholar

Today, there is more education and information about journalism and what it’s supposed to be than there ever has been. Oddly enough, journalism is arguably under more attack today than it ever has been. Time has allowed for more education, more information and more good examples of what journalism is supposed to be. But it has also allowed for more opportunities for lines to be blurred, imitations to be made and presidents to mock the principles of the profession.
Historically and logically speaking, journalism most often comes to the forefront of the American discourse during times of challenge and division for the country. Right now qualifies as one of those times. Another time of change in U.S. history that coincided with an interesting time of evolution for journalism is the abolitionist movement. Without diving too deep into the specifics of the abolition era, one question can lead to a genuine journalistic discussion that has no particular right answer: Would I consider Elijah Lovejoy and William Lloyd Garrison my predecessors as a journalist?

Initially, it’s easier for me to say the answer is no and separate these people into their own categories as activists and advocates instead of true journalists. William Lloyd Garrison, the creator/editor of The Liberator, wrote this in his first piece for the abolitionist newspaper:

“I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”
(Archives)

If those words ran in any publication today, President Trump would be firing off tweet after tweet, and journalists and editors around the country would cringe with few justifiable words to defend Garrison as a peer. Demanding that your opinions about anything will be heard and refusing to stop writing about these things is almost exactly the opposite of what journalists are taught and expected to do today.

Even though Garrison was writing about a subject that is widely accepted to be morally wrong and unjust today, that clearly wasn’t the case in the 1830’s. What Garrison did was noble and exemplary of the freedom of speech the First Amendment guarantees, but it was not journalism. His bios across the internet call him an activist, and one goes so far as to call Garrison “an American journalistic crusader who helped lead the successful abolitionist campaign against slavery in the United States” (Biography.com). In no way are these accomplishments negative or anything to be ashamed of. They just don’t exhibit journalism in its truest form. After the Civil War ended, Garrison said that his “vocation as an abolitionist is ended” upon publishing his last issue of The Liberator. For Garrison, his work was done. For a journalist, the work doesn’t end when one end result is captured, not to mention that journalism isn’t necessarily a mission to achieve a goal.

However, a flat “no” is not totally adequate in answering this question. Garrison may not have been a clear-cut journalist, but his work was still deeply rooted in facts and truth, both of which are essential roots for journalism. The first part of that excerpt from Garrison’s opening letter in The Liberator says the following:

“I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice.”
(Archives)

Flannery O’Connor once said “the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it,” and Garrison more or less said the same thing with the highlighted words above. What The Liberator printed was not unfounded claims based solely on opinion. Garrison used facts and sought the truth in everything he published. But chasing objectivity wasn’t necessarily what Garrison did.

In a contributory post for the Huffington Post, a young journalist named Noor Tagouri highlights some of the things that have distracted modern journalists and strayed them from the code of ethics they should abide by: clickbait, breaking the story first, hunting for retweets and followers without properly fact checking (Tagouri). No, Garrison didn’t chase objectivity, but it wasn’t for these types of reasons. Even if Garrison would have had a Twitter page or the internet, his intentions were based on honesty, justice and a demand for change. These things make it harder to say Garrison was just an activist.

As Tagouri accurately explains, journalists should avoid moral equivalence, but must also be fair (Tagouri). Because fairness and objectivity are where the blurred lines between activism and journalism can be clearly drawn. Whether or not Garrison originally intended to be a journalist is irrelevant to this discussion. For the future of journalism, conversations like these must be able to decide what we intend to call Garrison: Journalist or activist?

Works Cited
Archives, Accessible. “William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator.” Accessible Archives Inc., 2018.

Biography.com editors. “William Lloyd Garrison.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television,
25 Apr. 2016.

Tagouri, Noor. “Blurred Lines: Journalism or Activism?” The Huffington Post,
TheHuffingtonPost.com, 7 Dec. 2017.

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