As the saying goes, you often catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
Activists often complain about the media and inaccuracies in stories, often implying or outright asserting that the reporter wields some kind of axe to grind and intentionally misrepresents facts to forward an agenda. And while this may prove true on occasion, I can tell you after working several years in mainstream media that most reporters really do take their work seriously and want to write accurate stories.
Oftentimes, errors of fact stem from simple ignorance rather than any nefarious intent.
Recently, a major newspaper ran a story on state nullification legislation. The reporter gave a short explanation of nullification. Unsurprisingly, the description fell right into common misconceptions and fallacies.
Nullification has been a major issue in American history, dating to Andrew Jackson’s presidency when some states sought to nullify federal tariffs. Southern states also asserted the right to nullify federal laws in seceding from the Union prior to the Civil War.
Instead of following my first reaction and blasting the reporter with a snarky email, I went the polite route. Here is my email to this particular reporter.
I am the communications director for the Tenth Amendment Center, a think tank based in L.A.
I read your article on nullification, and I wanted to give you a little more information on the history of nullification. Most people do not know the background of the doctrine and that leads to many mischaracterizations.
You mention the doctrine’s origins in the nullification crisis of 1832. The principle actually predates the tariff of 1828 by some 30 years. Nullification was first formally advanced by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in 1798, in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts. Jefferson penned a resolution passed by the Kentucky legislature in 1798 and Madison wrote a sister resolution for Virginia. (You can read Jefferson’s original draft at http://www.constitution.org/cons/kent1798.htm)
Over the next 30 years, states turned to the principle of nullification several times before the Jackson administration. Northern states that opposed the idea initially turned to it in response to Jefferson’s embargo in the early 1800s, and to resist federal military conscription during the War of 1812. Daniel Webster wrote, “The operation of measures thus unconstitutional and illegal ought to be prevented by a resort to other measures which are both constitutional and legal. It will be the solemn duty of the State governments to protect their own authority over their own militia, and to interpose between their citizens and arbitrary power. These are among the objects for which the State governments exist” Nullification was also appealed to by states in opposition to the Second National Bank.
You fall into another common fallacy when you attempt to equate nullification to southern secession. Judge Abel Upsure, who served in the Virginia legislature and was also U.S. Secretary of State and Secretary of the Navy, wrote one of the most vigorous defenses of the doctrine. He characterized it as a middle ground between simply submitting to unconstitutional acts and outright rebellion.
Many opponents of nullification attempt to tie the idea to slavery in order to discredit the doctrine. But these folks have their history turned 180 degrees the wrong way. It was, in fact, northern abolitionist states that turned to nullification to oppose the Fugitive Slave laws. Because the act denied accused runaways due process, forced citizens to participate in slave hunting and set up an unconstitutional payment scheme for agents of the court, many northern states refused to comply. The Wisconsin legislature actually passed a nullification resolution with language mirroring Jefferson’s. If you read South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes, written in support of the state’s secession, you will find the number one complaint was northern nullification of fugitive slave laws.
For future stories, I will be happy to help clarify the ideas of nullifications, along with its modern applications, specifically legislation in your state. Our state chapter coordinator will also serve as a great source.
Within a few hours, I received a very gracious reply from the reporter.
Thank you for the thoughtful comments and information. Will keep this on hand for future reference.
Have read some on the subject, most recently in biographies of Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk, who were, of course, not supportive of the idea.
In a space-limited newspaper article, of course, i cannot get into the details of the history; but i certainly do not wish to misrepresent anything.
Again, thank you.
I could have gotten a moment of satisfaction ripping this reporter. But taking the time to engage in a little education will likely bear fruit down the road. It wasn’t that he intended to misrepresent nullification. The journalist simply didn’t know.
Hopefully, I built a bridge.
I strongly encourage you to do the same.