Froth and Scum – Then and Now

I have a great deal of respect for Bill Moyers. Moyers, a former White House Press Secretary for Lyndon Johnson, newspaper journalist, commentator for PBS, CBS, and NBC and now host of his own program, Bill Moyers Journal, is that rare breed of journalist who understands that issues are generally far more complex than a five-second sound bite.

All of Moyers’s work for the past several decades has been engaging and thought-provoking. Whether he is discussing mythology with Joseph Campbell, the topics of faith and reason with authors and performers, aspects of being an American, or issues he believes to be critical to our understanding of life today on his current Journal program, Moyers approaches each with a sincere respect and seriousness. The research he does before each interview, along with his gentle and friendly demeanor, makes his interviews appear to be like conversations with old friends after a good meal.

This past weekend on Bill Moyers Journal Moyers featured a story titled
Free Speech or Foul: Is the Shock Talk on the Airwaves Affecting our Public Discourse?” [Video] [Transcript] The story began with a mention of one of our titles, Froth and Scum, by Andie Tucher.

To quote from the transcript of the program:

“How ugly will it get? Very. The campaign has hit bottom this very first week, and seems to thrive there, down where the wild things are, while the country chokes on “Froth and Scum.” By the way, FROTH AND SCUM is the title of a book, written by a former colleague, the historian Andie Tucher, on the sensationalist press in 19th Century America. Back then, the American author Oliver Wendell Holmes said that language is sacred, and wrote that its abuse should be as criminal as murder. He called it “…verbicide…violent treatment of a word with fatal results to its legitimate meaning…” America has yet to make “verbicide” a hanging offense. Indeed under the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, pretty much anything goes. There are some limits — Holmes’ son was the Supreme Court justice who noted in a famous opinion that you cannot falsely shout fire in a crowded theater. That’s because words have consequences and not just in politics.”
— Bill Moyers on Bill Moyer’s Journal Transcript of “Reclaiming Civil Discourse” (first broadcast 09/12/08)

Words do, indeed, have consequences, as do thoughts and intentions. All three seem to have long been corrupted, as Tucher helps us to realize.

Froth and Scum examines two notorious antebellum New York murder cases: a prostitute slashed in an elegant brothel and a tradesman bludgeoned by the brother of inventor Samuel Colt. The press of the day (1833) was cheap, feisty, and politically independent. That different style of reporting introduced American readers to the new concept of what has come to be called objectivity in news coverage. The penny press was the first medium that claimed to present the true, unbiased facts to a democratic audience, the first medium to present the notion of a single, definitive truth.

As our access to news expands from broadcast television to cable television, from newspapers to online sites, a wider variety of news coverage is possible. For many, however, the segmentation that has come with that diversity means that more and more people get fewer and fewer viewpoints on a single story. Instead of seeing several viewpoints and/or experiencing a reasoned, respectful discussion, people are able to narrow their news through the filter a of specific political agenda.

Gone is objectivity, as is the notion of that single, definitive truth. Only, those who hold to the beliefs of the political filter fail to see it that way. Instead, as Moyers points out, their views become even more truthful, their causes even more just.

Froth and Scum points out that the way a community receives news is profoundly influenced by who its members are, what they hope and fear and wish, and how they think about their fellow citizens. It is informed by some of the most esoteric and abstract of human ideas about truth, beauty, goodness, and justice.

As I’ve blogged in the past, I believe that understanding our past is one of the keys to being able to make good, conscious decisions for our future. Froth and Scum shows us an earlier version of ourselves, reflected through and by the media of the day — a media that was just learning to turn news into entertainment, real people caught in those stories turned into characters for public consumption.

— Tom