Free Press to False Press

What has the press been doing throughout our history? Our first champion of the press was Benjamin Franklin who became a successful newspaper editor and printer in Philadelphia, the leading city in the Colonies. “When Ben was 15, his brother James founded The New England Courant(now theHartford Currant), which was the first truly independent newspaper in the Colonies. With two partners he published the Pennsylvania Chronicle, a newspaper that was known for its revolutionary sentiments and criticisms of the British policies. He became wealthy publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack and The Pennsylvania Gazette 

The Gazette gave Franklin a forum for agitation about a variety of local reforms and initiatives through printed essays and observations. Over time, his commentary, and his adroit cultivation of a positive image as an industrious and intellectual young man, earned him a great deal of social respect.

Franklin saw the printing press as a device to instruct colonial Americans in moral virtue. He saw this as a service to God, because he understood moral virtue in terms of actions, thus, doing “good” provides a service to God. Despite his own moral lapses, Franklin saw himself as uniquely qualified to instruct Americans in morality. He tried to influence American moral life through construction of a printing network based on a chain of partnerships from the Carolinas to New England. Franklin thereby invented the first newspaper chain.

It was more than a business venture, for like many publishers since then, he believed that the press had a sacred public-service duty. The Gazette had a policy of impartiality in political debates, while creating the opportunity for public debate, which encouraged others to challenge the authority of the Crown. Editor Peter Timothy avoided blandness and crude bias, and after 1765 increasingly took a patriotic stand in the growing crisis with Great Britain. Franklin strongly supported the right to freedom of speech, saying:

“In those wretched countries where a man cannot call his tongue his own, he can scarce call anything his own. Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech… Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom, and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech, which is the right of every man …” – Silence Dogood, No. 8, 1722

After returning from England in 1762, Franklin became more anti-slavery; in his view, believing that the institution promoted black degradation rather than the idea [that] blacks were inherently inferior. By 1770, Franklin had freed his slaves and attacked the system of slavery and the international slave trade. In his later years, as Congress was forced to deal with the issue of slavery, Franklin wrote several essays that stressed the importance of the abolition of slavery and of the integration of blacks into American society.

It was also Ben Franklin who, at a critical impasse during the Constitutional Convention in June 1787 [the first Convention of the States], attempted to introduce the practice of daily common prayer with these words:

“… In the beginning of the contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine Protection. – Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor… And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance. I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it improbable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that “except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel.”

One of Franklin’s notable characteristics was his respect, tolerance and promotion of all churches. Referring to his experience in Philadelphia, he wrote in his autobiography,

“New Places of worship were continually wanted, and generally erected by voluntary Contribution, my Mite for such purpose, whatever might be the Sect, was never refused.” 

He helped create a new type of nation that would draw strength from its religious pluralism. The first generation of Puritans had been intolerant of dissent, but by the early 18th century, when Franklin grew up in the Puritan church, tolerance of different churches was the norm, and Massachusetts was known, in John Adams‘ words, as “…the most mild and equitable establishment of religion that was known in the world.”

 The evangelical revivalists who were active mid-century, such as Franklin’s friend and preacher, George Whitefield, were the greatest advocates of religious freedom, “claiming liberty of conscience to be an ‘inalienable right of every rational creature.” Whitefield’s supporters in Philadelphia, including Franklin, erected “a large, new hall, which … could provide a pulpit to anyone of any belief.”

Franklin’s rejection of dogma and doctrine and his stress on the God of ethics and morality and civic virtue made him the “prophet of tolerance”. Max Weber, an early 20th Century German sociologist, philosopher, jurist, and political economist whose ideas profoundly influenced social theory and social researchconsidered Franklin’s ethical writings a culmination of the Protestant ethic, which ethic created the social conditions necessary for the birth of capitalism.”

So why all this space devoted to Ben Franklin? Because he embodied everything that the Drafters and Ratifiers of the Constitution understood to be essential attributes of a free and responsible press and because most of those attributes have since been abandoned.

The reasons are many and varied but several are significant. In Franklin’s time, there were several, but not too many, news outlets in most cities, towns and villages, mostly small operations but vital to the colonist’s desire to have the opportunity for a healthy and robust debate on the issues – the more contrasting and competing views, the better. Arguing points of view was the national pastime – long before baseball and unlike today, where public debate is online, segregated by political viewpoint and anonymous – thereby rendering it infertile and pointless.

Here, a short history of the American newspaper might be beneficial.

“Newspapers became a form of public property after 1800. Americans believed that as republican citizens they had a right to the information contained in newspapers without paying anything [perhaps the original “free stuff” so popular in contemporary America]. To gain access readers subverted the subscription system by refusing to pay, borrowing, or stealing. Editors, however, tolerated these tactics because they wanted longer subscription lists.

First, the more people read the newspaper, more attractive it would be to advertisers, who would purchase more ads and pay higher rates. A second advantage was that greater depth of coverage translated into political influence for partisan newspapers. Newspapers also became part of the public sphere when they became freely available at reading rooms, barbershops, taverns, hotels and coffeehouses.

When Alexander Hamilton [1st Treasury Secretary], James Madison [4th President of the United States and John Jay [1st Chief Justice of the Supreme Court] united to produce The Federalist essays, they chose to publish them in The Independent Journal and The Daily Advertiser, from which they were copied by practically every paper in America long before they were made into a book – akin to today’s blog.

The People knew the power of the intellectually crafted written word and of the emotionally delivered spoken word and enshrined them in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution very much because of the public debate over ratification, both written and spoken.

Partisan bitterness increased during the last decade of the century as the first political party system took shape. The parties needed newspapers to communicate with their voters. New England papers were generally Federalist; in Pennsylvania there was a balance; in the West and South, the Republican press predominated.

The Gazette of the United States, which in 1790 followed Congress and the capital to Philadelphia, was at the center of conflict, “a paper of pure Toryism”, as Thomas Jefferson said, “disseminating the doctrines of monarchy, aristocracy, and the exclusion of the people.”

To offset the influence of this, Jefferson and Madison induced Philip Freneau, who had been editing The Daily Advertiser in New York, to set up a “half weekly”, to “go through the states and furnish a Whig [Republican] vehicle of intelligence.” Freneau’s National Gazette, which first appeared on October 31, 1791, soon became the most outspoken critic of the administration of Adams, Hamilton, and Washington, and an ardent advocate of the French Revolution.

Fenno and Freneau, in the Gazette of the United States and the National Gazette, at once came to grips, and the campaign of personal and party abuse in partisan news reports, in virulent editorials, in poems and skits of every kind, was echoed from one end of the country to the other. [That has never changed except that now, the “politics of personal destruction” is featured in an almost universally progressive/liberal/Democrat-supporting press and media.]

This decade of vituperence was nevertheless one of development in both the quality and the power of newspapers. News reporting was extended to new fields of local affairs, and the intense rivalry of all too numerous competitors awoke the beginnings of that rush for the earliest reports, which was to become the dominant trait in American journalism.

The newspaper editor now evolved into a new type. As a man of literary skill, or a politician, or a lawyer with a gift for polemical writing, he began to supersede the contributors of essays as the strongest writer on the paper. Much of the best writing, and of the rankest scurrility, be it said, was produced by editors born and trained abroad. 

The newspapers continued primarily as party organs; the tone remained strongly partisan, though it gradually gained poise and attained a degree of literary excellence and professional dignity. The typical newspaper, a weekly, had a paid circulation of about 500. The growth of Franklin’s postal system, with the free transportation of newspapers locally and statewide, allowed the emergence of powerful state newspapers that closely reflected, and shaped, party views.

The number and geographical distribution of newspapers grew apace. In 1800 there were between 150 and 200; by 1810 there were 366, and during the next two decades the increase was at least equally rapid. With astonishing promptness, the press followed the sparse population as it trickled westward and down the Ohio or penetrated the more northerly forests. By 1835, over 1200 papers had spread to the Mississippi River and beyond, from Texas to St. Louis, throughout Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and into Wisconsin.

These pioneer papers, poorly written, poorly printed, and partisan often beyond all reason, served a greater than a merely local purpose in sending weekly to the seat of government their hundreds of messages of good and evil report, of politics and trade, of weather and crops, that helped immeasurably to bind the far-flung population into a nation. Every congressman wrote regularly to his own local paper.

After 1835 the newspaper of national scope was passing away, yielding to the influence of the telegraph and the railroad, which robbed the Washington press of its claim to prestige as the chief source of political news. At the same time politics was losing its predominating importance. The public had many other interests, and by a new spirit and type of journalism, was being trained to make greater and more various demands upon the journalistic resources of its papers

Meanwhile the daily newspapers were increasing in number. The first had appeared in Philadelphia and New York in 1784 and 1785; in 1796 one appeared in Boston. By 1810 there were twenty-seven in the country – one in the city of Washington, five in Maryland, seven in New York, nine in Pennsylvania, three in South Carolina and two in Louisiana.

The beginnings of the era of personal journalism were to be found early in the 19th century. Even before Nathan Hale had shown the way to editorial responsibility, Thomas Ritchie, in the Richmond Enquirer in the second decade of the century, had combined with an effective development of the established use of anonymous letters on current questions, a system of editorial discussion that soon extended his reputation and the influence of his newspaper far beyond the boundaries of Virginia.

Washington Barrow and the Nashville Banner, Amos Kendall and The Argus of Western America, G. W. Kendall and the New Orleans Picayune, John M. Francis and the Troy Times, and Charles Hammond and the Cincinnati Gazette, to mention but a few among many, illustrate the rise of editors to individual power and prominence in the third and later decades.

Notable among these political editors was John M. Daniel, who just before 1850 became editor of the Richmond Examiner and soon made it the leading newspaper of the (slave) South. Perhaps no better example need be sought of brilliant invective and literary pungency in American journalism just prior to and during the Civil War than in Daniel’s contributions to the Examiner. 

William Coleman, for instance, who, encouraged by Alexander Hamilton, founded the New York Evening Post in 1801, was a man of high purposes, good training, and noble ideals. The Evening Post, reflecting variously the fine qualities of the editor, exemplified the improvement in tone and illustrated the growing importance of editorial writing, as did a dozen or more papers in the early decades of the century.

Indeed, the problem most seriously discussed at the earliest State meetings of editors and publishers, held in the 1830’s, was that of improving the tone of the press. They tried to attain by joint resolution a degree of editorial self-restraint, which few individual editors had as yet acquired.

Under the influence of Thomas Ritchie, vigorous and unsparing political editor but always a gentleman, who presided at the first meeting of Virginia journalists, the newspaper men in one state after another resolved to “abandon the infamous practice of pampering the vilest of appetites by violating the sanctity of private life, and indulging in gross personalities and indecorous language”, and to “conduct all controversies between themselves with decency, decorum, and moderation.” Ritchie found in the low tone of the newspapers a reason why journalism in America did not occupy as high a place in public regard as it did in England and France.

Under these pioneers, the editorial page was assuming something of its modern form. The editorial signed with a pseudonym gradually died, but unsigned editorial comment and leading articles did not become an established feature until after 1814, when Nathan Hale made them a characteristic of the newly established  Boston Daily Advertiser. From that time on they grew in importance until in the succeeding period of personal journalism they were the most vital part of the great papers.

In the 1830s, new high speed presses allowed the cheap printing of tens of thousands of papers a day. The problem was to sell them to a mass audience, which required new business techniques (such as rapid citywide delivery) and a new style of journalism that would attract new audiences. Politics, scandal and sensationalism worked.

This idea of news and the newspaper for its own sake, the unprecedented aggressiveness in news-gathering, and the blatant methods by which the cheap papers were popularized aroused the antagonism of the older papers, but created a competition that could not be ignored.

Systems of more rapid news-gathering and distribution quickly appeared. Sporadic attempts at co-operation in obtaining news had already been made; in 1848 the Journal of Commerce, Courier, Enquirer, Tribune, Herald, Sun and Express formed the New York Associated Press to obtain news for the members jointly.

Out of this idea grew other local, then state, and finally national associations. European news, which, thanks to steamship service, could now be obtained when but half as old as before, became an important feature. In the Forties, several papers sent correspondents abroad, and in the next decade this field was highly developed.

The telegraph, in 1844 shown to be practical and put to successful use during the Mexican-American War, led to numerous far-reaching results in journalism. Telegraphic columns became a leading feature; news associations grew as the wires lengthened; but the greatest effect on the journalism of the country at large was to decentralize the press by rendering the inland papers, in such cities as Chicago, Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and New Orleans independent of those in Washington and New York.

A change made in the postal laws in 1845 favored the local circulation of newspapers. The country circulation of most of the large Eastern papers was so curtailed that only one or two, like the New York Tribune, were able to maintain, through their weekly editions, something of their national character.

In 1922, a new outlet for news became available – commercial radio. As in most wars, technology born of necessity finds its way into the commercial world and radio was no exception. Commercial radio stations sprung up like weeds across the country. The first stations began in the urban areas, owned by the larger corporations as a means to get their products or services advertised in the new medium but soon even small companies in rural areas were getting involved.

Of course, the broadcasters needed to fill time between “commercials” with entertainment and, besides music and comedy; news took up part of the broadcast day. It was into these slots in the schedule that writers and journalists with distinctive personalities and voices naturally fit.

People like Lowell Thomas, Bob Considine, H.V.Kaltenborn, Charles Collingwood, Edward R. Murrow and the legendary Paul Harvey came into America’s living rooms as families gathered together in the evenings to listen to radio entertainment. They were treated to descriptions of exotic locations, world famous personalities and earth-shattering events that allowed imaginations to run wild.

Radio became more than local in nature. Especially at night, they had great range and could reach vast audiences. One, WSM in Nashville, could be heard in 38 out of 48 States!

In 1927, with the release of “The Jazz Singer” starring Al Jolson, talking pictures came to the great movie houses of the time. This also enabled the great movie studios like Paramount, Fox, Universal, Hearst Metrotone and RKO to enter the news business and use their theater outlets to begin showing “newsreels” before the feature movie which brought the exotic locales, personalities and events to life for the average American. They were narrated by the likes of Lowell Thomas, Ed Herlihy, André Baruch, Gregory Abbott, Gabriel Heatter, Dennis James and Bill Slater.

But none of these mediums influenced the quality of information available to the American public as much as television when it became commercially available shortly after World War II ended. It was so powerful a medium that I can still remember the first newscasts I ever saw even though I was only about five years old at the time. It was the 15-minute long “John Cameron Swayze and the News”, sponsored by Timex, the “watch that takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”

Another issue was the rise of the celebrity “journalist” – one who has a popular following due to personality or position rather than perspective – in the 20th Century, people like Walter Lippman, Walter Winchell and Westbrook Pegler. This phenomenon is not new but increases with each generation and each new medium. It has led to some significant consequences – like helping to start – and end – several wars, and has changed the public dissemination of information for American citizens (and voters) forever.

“The first of these celebrity journalists were the great editors of the 1830’s whose force of personality and ability gave them and their newspapers an influence hitherto unequaled, and made the period between 1840 and 1860 that of “personal journalism”. These few men not only interpreted and reflected the spirit of the time, but were of great influence in shaping and directing public opinion. Consequently, the scope, character, and influence of newspapers was, in this period, immensely widened and enriched, and rendered relatively free from the worst subjugation to political control.

James Gordon Bennett, Sr. (1795-1872), Horace Greeley (1811–72), Henry J. Raymond (1820–69) and Samuel Bowles (1826–78) were the outstanding editors of the period. Bennett freed his paper from party control. His power was great, but it came from his genius in gathering and presenting news rather than from editorial discussion, for he had no great moral, social or political ideals, and his influence, always lawless and uncertain, can hardly be regarded as characteristic of the period.

Of the others named, and many besides, it could be said with approximate truth that their ideal was “a full presentation and a liberal [not the political label used today but the practice of a civilized entertaining of all ideas] discussion of all questions of public concern, from an entirely independent position, and a faithful and impartial exhibition of all movements of interest at home and abroad.”

As all three were, in various measure, gifted with the quality of statesmanship at once philosophical and practical, their newspapers were powerful molders of opinion at a critical period in the history of the nation as America expanded at the conclusion of the Mexican–American War [to include all or parts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and California] and tried in vain to avoid civil war over the issue of slavery.

Newspapers became a major growth industry in the late nineteenth century. The number of daily papers grew from 971 to 2226 from 1880 to 1900. Weekly newspapers were published in smaller towns, especially county seats, or for German, Swedish and other immigrant subscribers. They grew from 9,000 to 14,000, and by 1900 the United States published more than half of the newspapers in the world, with two copies per capita.

Out on the frontier, the first need for a boom town was a newspaper. The new states of North and South Dakota by 1900 had 25 daily papers, and 315 weeklies. Oklahoma was still not a state, but it could boast of nine dailies and nearly a hundred weeklies. In the largest cities, the newspapers competed fiercely, for newsboys sold each copy and they did not rely on subscriptions.

Financially, the major papers depended on advertising, which paid in proportion to the circulation base. By the 1890s in New York City, especially during the Spanish-American War, circulations reached 1 million a day for Pulitzer’s World  and Hearst’s Journal. 

The term muckraker is most usually associated in America with a group of American investigative reporters, novelists and critics in the Progressive Era from the 1890s to the 1920s. It also applies to post 1960 journalists who follow in the tradition of those from that period. Muckrakers have most often sought, in the past, to serve the public interest by uncovering crime, corruption, waste, fraud and abuse in both the public and private sectors.

Republican President Theodore Roosevelt is attributed as the source of the term ‘muckraker’. During a speech in 1906, he likened the muckrakers to the Man with the Muckrake, a character in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). What politician today has even heard of Pilgrim’s Progress, a seminal work, much less quote it?

While Roosevelt apparently disliked what he saw as a certain lack of optimism of muckraking’s practitioners:

‘…the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward, with the muck-rake in his hand; who was offered a celestial crown for his muck-rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.”

There are, in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life.

I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful.’”

Less than a decade later, Democrat President Woodrow Wilson would be overseeing the federal government’s propaganda office!

“The rise of muckraking in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries corresponded with the advent of Progressivism yet, while temporally correlated, the two are not intrinsically linked.  In the early 1900s, muckrakers shed light on such issues by writing books and articles for popular magazines and newspapers such as Cosmopolitan, The Independent, Collier’s Weekly and McClure’s. Some of the most famous of the early muckrakers were Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Ray Stannard Baker.

An example of a contemporary muckraker work is Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), which led to reforms in automotive manufacturing in the United States. Nader’s publication led to a stop in the production of the Chevrolet Corvair, one of the first rear-engine American cars.  Next time: Key historical players in the development and demise of a free and responsible press.

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