Opinion: Can a Newspaper Follow the North Star?

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December 5, 2022

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(BE’ER SHEVA, Israel) On Friday, Dec 3, 1847, Frederick Douglass published the first issue of The North Star and got right to the point. 

The newspaper would cost $2 a year (always in advance). Three advertisements could be purchased for  $1 (and 25 cents for each subsequent insertion). Directly underneath these terms, Douglass printed the purpose of the newspaper: “to attack SLAVERY in all its forms and aspects; advocate UNIVERSAL EMANCIPATION; exult the standard of PUBLIC MORALITY; promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the COLORED PEOPLE; and hasten the day of FREEDOM to the THREE MILLIONS of our ENSLAVED FELLOW COUNTRYMEN.” 

If you are going to advocate, you need to advocate—which cannot be with weak or timid words. And effective advocacy journalism requires fact-based quality reporting because those who disagree will attack you.

Honesty doesn’t stop at presenting a clear and fact-based mission; a news organization’s financials and leadership also need to be clear and transparent. The North Star immediately informed readers of their business model and who was in charge. The first editor named was Frederick Douglass, a well-respected abolitionist at the time. 

Readers knew that when the paper filled its front page with a glowing description of Douglass’s involvement in the National Convention of Colored Americans and Their Friends, it was coming directly or indirectly from Douglass himself.

There was no attempt to hide that. The only ethical way to deal with conflicts of interest is to highlight them, hiding these facts is unethical. 

Quality newspapers will present strong arguments against their own positions. The North Star exemplified this in issue one of the weekly newspaper. Despite the mission statement’s call to “hasten” slavery’s end, the paper didn’t shy away from reporting on considerations that would slow down progress, including a speech from former secretary of state and slave owner Henry Clay. 

Clay decried slavery – in theory – and publicly supported a program for gradual emancipation. Almost 30 years earlier, Clay, then a young congressman, led the Missouri Compromise, a law passed in 1820 that maintained the balance of power between free and slave states in the United States by admitting Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a non-slave state. This compromise maintained the delicate peace regarding the most divisive issue of the day.  

The North Star published a speech by Clay on the first page above the fold, and while, Clay said the moral repugnance of slavery was clear:

“I have ever regarded slavery as a great evil, a wrong – for the present, I fear, an irremediable wrong to its unfortunate victims. I should rejoice if not a single slave breathed the air or was within the limits of our country.” – Dec. 3, 1847

He made an argument for slow emancipation based on practical and political reasons:

“But here they are, to be dealt with as well as we can, with a due consideration of all circumstances affecting the security, safety and happiness of both races… In States where the slaves outnumber the whites, …the blacks could not be emancipated and invested with all the rights of freemen, without becoming the governing race in those States. Collisions and conflicts, between the two races, would be inevitable, and after shocking scenes of rapine and carnage, the extinction or expulsion of the blacks would certainly take place.” – December 3, 1847

Advocating for change is not the same as demanding Utopia. Compelling journalism is grounded in reality.  The North Star was advocacy journalism and ethical journalism at its finest—which is precisely why it helped the United States transform into a better country.

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