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Is Modern Journalism Aiming for the Full Truth, or Something Else?

Reflections from a historian who tried recently to correct an important error about President George Washington. What does it mean when journalism becomes independent from truth-seeking?

What does it take to get the Salt Lake Tribune to issue a correction for a patently false assertion?

To answer this rhetorical question, I am forced to admit I don’t know. As this article gets re-published today, the Salt Lake Tribune still hasn’t corrected the blatantly erroneous assertion that George Washington didn’t pray. Even after two Twitter engagements; an email to Mark Eddington, the reporter who wrote the article; an email to David Noyce, Salt Lake Tribune managing editor; an email to Benjamin Park, the professor whom the article cites as the source of this false assertion; and a courteous response from Professor Park thanking me for pointing out the error with a promise that he would inform the editors of it, the article still says, “George Washington didn’t pray.”

The falsehood appears in an article detailing the groundbreaking for a colonial village project in Hurricane, Utah, by the nonprofit United We Pledge. The project aims to build replicas of Independence Hall, Mount Vernon, and St John’s Church, among other things. Of central importance to the planners of this colonial village is to place religion and God as “part of the narrative of this nation’s history.” The article then cites three academics to downplay the importance of religion in the American Founding in contrast to the project’s planners’ vision of the past. 

These alternate reality streams “are not about establishing the facts within consensus reality. They are about finding the most compelling model of reality for a given group.”

There is truth to the critique that some political circles, including many affiliated with this colonial village project, overstate the role of religion and religious expression in the American Founding. These approaches often create a simplistic narrative that paints events with a hagiographic religious veneer that bleaches out the complex contours of the past. The article tries to demonstrate the inaccurate nature of United We Pledge’s hyperfocus on the role of religion and God in the American Founding, but with the writer’s mischaracterization of George Washington—a rich bit of irony—the article also provides an unmistakable example of one of the reasons why there is space for such a project in the first place. The newspaper’s uncorrected falsehood perpetuates the perception, in this case deserved, that many journalists and academics are all too willing to downplay the role of religion in the Founding.

I have some ideas as to why this error has not been corrected, but first, I want to detail just how significant this mistake is.

George Washington Prayed

The superficial popular historical understanding on the Left is that the Founding Fathers were deists, usually characterized as believing that if there was a God, He made the earth, wound it up like a clock, and walked away. The reality is much more complex. To Professor Park’s credit, he notes the diversity of religious devotion among Founding Fathers. However, at least with how the article is framed, Washington is portrayed as the poster child of the non-devout Founding Father, the foil to the devout Patrick Henry. As the article says,

Patrick Henry, Park said, falls in the former category. He was a devout quasi-official evangelical who would have been fine with placing religion at the heart of the nation. Conversely, George Washington didn’t pray, own his own Bible or believe in the central tenets of Christianity.[ref num=”1″]

Since George Washington is being used in the article to demonstrate the perceived ridiculous goals of the Colonial Village, it’s critical to get the facts right, especially because Park critiques the project as “pushing an ahistorical past in support of contemporary politics,” and the title of the article states that the project “falls short on history.”

There is a significant amount of debate about the religiosity of the Founding Fathers, especially that of George Washington. Scholars have used a bewildering range of taxonomic categories to demarcate Washington’s religious convictions—Latitudinarian, theistic rationalist, Anglican, Christian deist, Deistic Episcopalian, deist, and more—but while academics continue to quibble over which category he belongs to, what matters here is that there is flimsy support in the historical record for the claim that he didn’t pray. In fact, when I first read the article, I thought for sure someone would soon alert the Tribune editors of their mistake.

Even a historian like Gregg Frazer, who is demonstrably more reserved than other scholars when it comes to Washington’s religiosity proving a deep Christian faith, argues that Washington and a number of other Founding Fathers were theistic rationalists, not deists, and that a major distinction between theistic rationalists and deists is that theistic rationalists had a place for prayer. As Frazer explains:

Washington’s firm belief in Providence was the basis of his belief in the efficacy of prayer. For deists, there was no longer any God “out there” to whom to appeal—or if there was, He was either not interested or unable to intercede. But Washington believed in prayer. He regularly reported engaging in prayer; he asked his soldiers to pray; he asked Congress to join him in prayer; he called upon the nation to join him in prayer; and he included prayer in addresses on his way into the presidency and on his way out. On various occasions, he reported praying “humbly,” “fervently,” and “earnestly”… Washington believed in a present God, and … he therefore believed prayer to be a rational activity.

In Mary Thompson’s book, In the Hands of a Good Providence, she is careful to situate George Washington within the religious currents of his age and not shoehorn him into more contemporary conceptions of what it means to be a Christian. She starts her exploration of Washington and prayer with a disclaimer that “there are a number of highly romanticized—and highly suspect—stories about George Washington,” including the account of his famous Valley Forge prayer.  But despite these caveats, she depicts prayer as playing an important (if generally private) role in Washington’s life. Thompson provides numerous accounts that complement each other, demonstrating the preponderance of evidence that Washington prayed. Some of these accounts came when a witness unexpectedly intruded on Washington’s private devotions.[ref num=”2″]

To put it bluntly, there really is no real historical debate about whether Washington prayed or not. John Fea explains that “Washington was a man of prayer;” David Holmes notes that Washington “was known to pray privately;” and Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer-prize winning book Washington: A Life maintains this image of Washington as a private yet devoted practitioner of prayer. While it is difficult to pin Washington down on some of his theological convictions, Chernow sees in Washington some deep belief in a divine hand at play guiding the successful founding of the United States.

Given this widely accepted understanding of Washington’s consistent, yet private, practice of prayer, the Tribune’s reporting of Park’s characterization of Washington is astounding. The consensus, even among scholars who push back against the idea of Washington as a Bible-thumping Evangelical, is that Washington prayed.

Good history engages conflicting opinions, and historians will find a way to debate almost anything—it’s what we’re good at, especially when trying to make our research sound more groundbreaking than it really is. But there are also basic facts that garner no debate. If we were to make a chart about assertions concerning the past from 0-10 (0 being not true; 10 being one hundred percent set in stone), the statement “George Washington prayed” would make it near the top, probably just below a statement like “George Washington was the first president of the United States.”

Waiting on a Fix

While other aspects of Washington’s religiosity are up for debate, Washington’s practice of prayer is not. So with what is nearly level 10 proof that Washington prayed, and with Park providing no defense for the erroneous assertion reported in the Tribune, it should be an easy fix, right? But here is where it starts to get fuzzy, especially given our limited knowledge of the situation. (Neither the reporter nor the editor emailed me back.)

According to Park’s email to me, he is not sure whether he was misquoted or whether it was him (Park) mistaking something while taking the interview on his morning walk. But what he told me he meant to convey was that Washington was not known to support “public” prayer—which would be a very different message (perhaps not aligned with the journalist’s argument, yet fairly easy to correct). 

If this story is accurate, then the Tribune failed to do basic due diligence and fact-check what they thought were Park’s assertions. It really wouldn’t have been that difficult to check whether or not George Washington prayed. A simple Google search gives you the following:

That kind of simple fact check would have prompted the Trib to seek greater clarification and could have avoided perpetrating this error. That being said, I can understand why they wouldn’t have performed a fact check with something that seems like a basic fact (that confirmed their priors) coming from a tenured professor who specializes in American religious history. Even while also appreciating mistakes made in the rushed process of short-deadline journalism, that wouldn’t and doesn’t excuse a failure to measure up to some basic journalistic standards. 

For me, there remain some lingering questions about this false assertion and how it ended up in the article to begin with. The first is the question of why a correction still hasn’t been made, either to the Tribune’s website or by Park himself on Twitter, since they were representing his thoughts to the world. If all this was a simple misunderstanding, it should have been an easy fix. Sure, it’s embarrassing for the newspaper that they let the mistake slip by, and it’s embarrassing that perhaps Park didn’t articulate the historical record clearly, but the statement they printed is an undeniable falsehood and should be fixed.

Perhaps the Tribune editors feel no need to correct Park’s assertion because they believe it was not simply a misunderstanding. Perhaps they believe that Park clearly stated Washington didn’t pray. This would make the current version of the article technically accurate the way it was reported—with the journalists merely conveying Park’s assertions that Washington didn’t pray, which therefore justifies keeping the story as it is. Since Park told me that he may have mistakenly said something while being interviewed on his morning walk, this scenario is possible, but it doesn’t let the Tribune off the hook. If Park had argued that Abraham Lincoln was a secret vampire slayer—an assertion about as historically accurate as Washington didn’t pray—and the newspaper had run that assertion with no fact-checking or qualifications, it would reflect poorly on the Tribune for not doing its due diligence. Basic journalistic standards would require a correction. One challenge to making the fix might be that there are two versions of the interview (one from the reporter Eddington and one from Park), and they may be forced to have an uncomfortable public disagreement on top of the factual error. Perhaps both parties find it convenient to let the mistake slide and move on.

Another confounding factor is that it’s clear Park read at least part of the initial article because he tweeted it out along with screenshots highlighting his interview. It’s not possible to know for certain whether or not he read the section with the claim that Washington didn’t pray, but he certainly had an opportunity to, and a person who tweets out quote highlights of a news interview they granted strikes me as someone who would also read everything attributed to them in an article. (By the way, this factual error and its aftermath are not the first time I’ve had to point out a substantial flaw involving Park and witnessed less-than-impressive attempts to set the record straight.)

In the end, we’ll likely never know the full truth of how the error came to be or why we are still waiting on a correction. The bigger problem, and the reason I feel compelled to write about this, is because the false assertion still has not been corrected, despite what basic journalistic and academic standards require and despite my efforts through multiple channels to get it done. So, for the record, the Salt Lake Tribune is wrong: George Washington prayed.

Ideological, Material, and Digital Incentives

I don’t doubt, at least when the article was initially published, that the Tribune and Park himself saw themselves as standing on the side of reason and historical accuracy, and I really can’t blame them for believing so. I probably would see myself as a genius if I were to compare my work to the historical incursions of Dinesh D’Souza and Timothy Ballard. Although the article tries to presume it represents the authoritative mask of scholarship, the ideological framing of the article is clear: the Tribune stands on the left, the colonial village planners on the right. This framing is a surprise to no one familiar with the Salt Lake Tribune, which caters to a niche audience of progressive Utahns (and a Utah/Latter-day Saint diaspora) who dislike the conservative religious flavor that tinges much of the state’s political discourse. Park shares a similar outlook on the state and is a valuable ally for the Tribune in reaching its core audience and lending the newspaper credibility with his professional credentials. Thus, this article is red meat to the Tribune’s base, who see themselves as intellectually and morally superior to the religious rubes they are forced to share a state with. It is in the Tribune’s material interests to play this role; it’s what helps keep it afloat financially.

But the failure to correct the Washington fallacy makes it so the Tribune and Park can no longer claim to be dispassionate observers bringing forth a nuanced and accurate historical analysis. They are now active participants in the stultifying verbal dialectic over the role of religion in the American Founding, where one side sacralizes the past, and the other desacralizes it, each, in turn, shoring up the other side’s justification for continuing the fight. Whatever the reason for not fixing the falsehood, they are now participants in this battle.

I would be lying if I said that I’m not worried about the lack of care for basic journalistic standards, historical accuracy, and public historical literacy demonstrated by the failure to fix the Washington falsehood. If we cared at all for these values, fixing this mistake seems like it would be a no-brainer. I mean, the Tribune homepage banner has “truth” listed as its first core value, and a sidebar note with a plea for support leads off with “Let the truth be told.”

Surely ideological and material influences play a role in weakening the Tribune and Park’s commitment to truth, but it would be too simplistic to portray this discrepancy with the historical record as simply driven by embarrassment, culture-war calculations, or financial interests. Another force is at play here: the digital fracturing of the media landscape and public discourse. Thus, in the context of this Washington story, Eddington and Noyce are not acting solely as journalists, nor is Park acting solely as a historian. Referring now to their specific roles in this news article and, even more so, to their failures to fix the falsehood, they all represent digital actors. (And no, I’m not trying to be inflammatory or disparaging. This is not meant to be polemical but simply descriptive of the new digital world we are living in.)

Over the past two decades, we’ve experienced a tremendous mediatic shift as we’ve moved from a televisual world to a digital world. As Professor Jon Askonas argues in a series of essays recently published in The New Atlantis, this mediatic shift has fractured our sense of reality. As he puts it, whatever fissures may have existed in the televisual age, there existed a certain consensus reality: “a shared sense of facts, expectations, and concepts about the world.” Post World War II America generally believed that “an objective knowable reality” existed, and alternative facts were relegated to conspiracy theorists whispering at the margins. That changed with the shift to the digital. In fact, the rise of groups like QAnon are not aberrations but more obvious examples of how the digital is pushing us all to construct our alternate realities, no matter how rational we think we are. As Askonas explains, “digital discourse creates a game-like structure in our perception of reality. For everything that happens, every fact we gather, every interpretation of it we provide, we have an ongoing ledger of the ‘points’ we could garner by posting about it online.” It is a game that both the Tribune and Park are playing—at times, quite well.

In this brave new digital environment, the truth does not matter; maintaining the narrative is far more important. Askonas explains that these alternate reality streams “are not about establishing the facts within consensus reality. They are about finding the most compelling model of reality for a given group.” The Tribune and Park generally float along the same alternate reality stream, one brimming with a smug sense of superiority and a disdain for religious conservatives. [ref num=”3″]While this worldview existed well before the digital fracturing, it has found an amplified home online that is increasingly inured to previous norms.

The truth still matters.

Also at play is how digital media intersects with revenue streams. As Askonas explains, critics in the nineties (understandably) decried the perverse impact of advertising dollars on journalism, but the digital forces that have emerged over the past two decades have brought their own challenges. Of particular interest is the shift from an ad-revenue approach to a subscription-based model, which is the approach the Salt Lake Tribune has taken, albeit with a nonprofit wrinkle. It is not hard to see what stories drive the most clicks for the Tribune since they’re more likely to be behind a paywall like this one was. In a number of ways, it was also tailored (mostly unconsciously, I imagine) to bolster their core audience’s alternative reality.[ref num=”4″]

The irony here is that the Tribune and Park could have quietly fixed the mistake and put a little explanation on the article that few people were going to read anyway because of the article’s short shelf life, and none of their core audience/followers would have batted an eye. But the Tribune and Park also must realize they won’t be punished for leaving the mistake up either among their readership. And it’s here where we see the strange effects of these alternate reality streams, which don’t punish anyone unless they anger their own in-group. That is, most Tribune subscribers and followers of Park are not going to be upset that they were misled about the religiosity of George Washington. They would, however, be more likely to tune out if the Tribune ran an article exploring the important role of prayer in Washington’s life (and consequently, the American Founding).

Dinosaur left behind

This failed attempt to get a basic factual error corrected has taught me how much I still operate under older norms of intellectual discourse and how these norms continue to be undermined by digital incentives. When I initially read the piece about the colonial village, my jaw dropped to see the assertion that Washington didn’t pray. I had just been reading Ron Chernow’s biography out loud with my nine-year-old son (at his request). I could have right then and there tweeted about the irony of a story critiquing an “ahistorical” colonial village project not getting the basic facts right about the religiosity of the United States’ most preeminent Founding Father, but I wanted to do my due diligence and make sure I wasn’t making an ill-founded claim of my own. So I looked at a dozen different sources over the next several weeks, and they all corroborated what I had initially thought. Even when I was sure of the truth of my initial claims, I asked myself whether it was worth trying to get it fixed. I eventually decided that the truth mattered more than my distaste for tweeting. Surely they’d see the light and make a quick fix. Boy, was I wrong.

I’m not over the hill yet, but I feel like a dinosaur, some relic of a past era who still cares about scholastic and journalistic norms, even as they are being obliterated in a digital tsunami. But I stand by what I said before: George Washington prayed. And the truth still matters.

Perhaps it’s fitting to keep the falsehood in the article. It’s a signpost of sorts, warning us like a map of yore as we leave behind the known world: “Here be alternate realities.”[ref num=”5″]

[hiddenfootnotesection][footnote num=”1″] It must be noted that these other assertions about Washington—not owning his own Bible and not believing in the central tenets of Christianity—are also more complicated than the article portrays. For example, Ron Chernow’s biography says Washington’s “early biographer Jared Sparks recorded this comment from Washington’s nephew George W. Lewis. ‘Mr. Lewis said he had accidentally witnessed [Washington’s] private devotions in his library both morning and evening; that on those occasions he had seen him in a kneeling position with a Bible open before him and that he believed such to have been his daily practice” (Chernow, 132). Perhaps Washington didn’t own his own Bible, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t value the Bible. Again, given the private nature of Washington’s religious beliefs, it’s impossible to fully know how often he read the Bible. Additionally, because the “central tenets of Christianity” are not spelled out in the article, we are left to wonder what is meant by this assertion. There are centuries upon centuries of debate of what the “central tenets of Christianity” are. These assertions, combined with the “didn’t pray” falsehood, paint a very misleading portrait of Washington’s religiosity..[/footnote]

[footnote num=”2″]See Thompson chapter six, “Prayer.” The only bit of information I came across that pointed out the possibility that Washington didn’t pray came from the statements of a former slave Oney Judge. Mary Thompson explores them in her book, saying “Statements by Martha Washington’s former maid that she never heard the General pray, ‘and does not believe that he was accustomed to,’ must be viewed in the light of another statement she made, recalling that ‘Mrs. Washington used to read prayers, but I don’t call that praying.’ These remarks probably speak more, however, to the differences between the formality of the Washingtons’ eighteenth-century Anglican faith and the less formal and more participatory services of the nineteenth-century evangelical denominations, with which this former slave was probably accustomed, than they do to the daily practice of religion in the Washington household.”[/footnote]

[footnote num=”3″]For the record, I don’t consider myself a conservative. I​’m being descriptive​ here​, not trying to score political points.​ Neither am I writing to defend this specific historical project. I originally clicked on the article because I was curious how they were going to get the water for the project.[/footnote]

[footnote num=”4″]Of course, there are examples from the past (and even televisual world) of news organizations driven by a partisan lens through which they interpret the news, but as Askonas explains, the bespoke digital realities have pushed these trends in directions that has left many on both sides of the political aisle feeling bewildered, wondering why the other side can’t see how they’re being misled.[/footnote]

[footnote num=”5″]Here I have to bear the bad news that the phrase “here are dragons” has not been found on any medieval maps, but it is found on the famous Lenox globe and the prototype for the globe made out of ostrich eggs. There were, however, dragons and other beasts drawn on maps to convey potential dangers in lands unknown to those creating the maps. And in some way, the uncorrected falsehood fills me with a similar sense of foreboding for the unknown world we are now entering.[/footnote]

[/hiddenfootnotesection]

About the author

Andrew Skabelund

Andrew Skabelund and his family are aspiring subsistence farmers. He holds a PhD in African History from The Ohio State University. He and his wife share a joint Substack called Worthless Thoughts.
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