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John Peter Zenger was the editor of the New York Journal who published subversive anti-British views of an (anonymous) James Alexander. At the time criticizing the government and its leaders was illegal under British law. Therefore, Zenger’s participation in the publication of Alexander’s critical views regarding arbitrary power by the government eventually resulted in a 1735 court trial for Zenger on the ground of seditious libel.
The trial lawyer for the case was Andrew Hamilton. Hamilton helped establish the precedent that the words themselves must be false to be libelous, scandalous or seditious in order for Zenger to be guilty. This was the first time that such an assertion was made as the British law at the time, which applied to the colonists, outlawed seditious libel.
The principles behind the defense of Zenger, who was found to be not guilty by a jury, were regarded as a milestone in colonial religious and political freedom. The resulting judgment was eventually used in influencing laws regarding free speech and included in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
The Federalist, led by Hamilton and Anti-Federalist, led by Jefferson, issues revolved around a strong central government versus states rights.
Federalists, the business class of society, supported the constitution and a strong national government, while using exaggerated financial and political problems to further their cause. Additionally, they thought Bill of Rights was unnecessary because they felt the powers would largely be held in the hands of the states if not granted or handled by the national government. They actively used the press, through a series of articles by Hamilton, Jay and Madison (The Federalist Papers), to persuade public and encourage ratification of the constitution.
Anti-Federalists, comprised largely of farmers and artisans, were anti-constitution. They felt that the constitution would create an authoritarian government. Additionally, they felt that without a Bill of Rights there would be no guarantee of the freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and the right to petition. They opposed a national centralized government and strongly advocated that a Bill of Rights be included in the Constitution.
The Zenger trial of 1735 was used to illustrate the need for a Bill of Rights in order to protect the press from punishment and censorship due to prior restraint. According to Anti-federalist views a national constitution, absent of a Bill of Rights, would allow the national government to supersede rights taken for granted and destroy the freedom of the press.
The over-all appeals made by the Anti-Federalists to include a Bill of Rights, and the Federalists concession to grant the request and adopt the Bill of Rights, was an important catalyst in the ratification of the Constitution and the subsequent protection of the press. The Bill of Rights set a precedent for freedom of the press to enjoy no prior restraint, no censorship prior to publication.
The concepts of prior restraint and censorship prior to the 16th century were primarily regarded as laws opposing the criticism of the government, or British monarchy, and ruling religious factions. The published criticism became known as “seditious libel”.
The development of movable type, which made publication easier and quicker than before, contributed to the widespread diffusion of information. This spread of information and uncensored opinion assisted in degrading the monopoly on political, moral and religious opinion enjoyed by the ruling class (largely the Catholic church, as well as the monarchy). The ability for more voices and more opinions to be spread throughout society threatened the government and religious ruling class, which led to actions of prior restraint censorship.
Prior restraint as pre-publication censorship was enacted through a network of censors imposed by advisers of King Henry VIII, which included (in 1534) the requirement of royal permission to publish and in 1542 a law prohibiting the criticism of the government and Catholicism. The resistance to this prohibition included violence, arrests and restraint, and sometimes death, and other actions which essentially prevented some from obtaining royal license to operate at all.
Started by Samuel Harrison Smith in the 1800’s, The National Intelligencers was developed to cover the activities of Congress. The tri-weekly paper was regarded as remarkable because it supported “liberal policies in a conservative manor”, a sort of bipartisan account of Congress for the time, never experienced before.
Through his shorthand reporting, an innovation at the time, Smith was able to report on Congressional news in a new way not seen before by the public. This shorthand was a skill he passed on to his predecessor to the Intelligencer, Joseph Gales Jr.
After Gales took over, congressional printing contracts, which had been a mainstay for the paper, were being granted to low-bidders which benefited the non-newspaper businesses and added extra struggle to established newspapers. As with Smith, Gales depended on the government print contracts to fund operations. This new method of government contact distribution therefore challenged the monopoly that the National Intelligencer had on Congressional news.
Despite the challenge, the National Intelligencer remained a valuable service and “an organ of [at least three] presidential administration[s]”.
The first penny press was created in 1833 by Benjamin Day. Day produced a paper called the New York Sun, which through strategic economic methods. Some of his methods included patent medicine advertising, as well deals made with local merchants to set prices so that the consumer left the establishment with a penny in their pocket, which was the cost of his newspaper - much less than other newspapers.
The growing democratic market society abled Day to sell his paper at a cost affordable to the masses. The audience of the penny press, such as the working class and growing immigrant populations was on the rise. As the shift in political and elite coverage moved more towards “entertainment news”, readership increased. Ben Days success inspired the growth of various other penny press papers such as James Gordern Bennette’s New York Herald, Horace Greenly’s New York Tribune, who expanded on the model to include innovative variations in news coverage that included perils of the common population, as opposed to the elite and expanded crime news and religious commentary.
Factors that contributed to the rise of the Penny Press from 1833 to the 1840’s include increased literacy rates, and new printing technologies. New technologies were an important factor that made production easier, making distribution of news more widely available. Additionally, the desire for entertainment, such as crime news and local events, an “opiate for the masses”, the tired and exploited workers, was on the rise. The Penny Press papers met the needs using sensationalized news written by skilled writers and editors. Finally, the developments in manufacturing which led to the growth of consumer goods, gave rise to more advertising which supported and contributed to the need for funds to produce the publications, and increased the affordability of the papers.
The invention and development of the telegraph was innovative in separating the limits of communication from geography and transportation. The quick communication across great expanses enabled news from far regions of the United States to spread quickly. The telegraph also became seen as a democratic leveler of privilege through further dissemination of information. The telegraph system eventually evolved to be an important source for news regarding such events as the Mexican American war. As the telegraph services and technology expanded Westward, it gave rise to brokerage news services such as The Associated Press and the Abbot & Winans
The Associated Press (1846), a news brokerage service still highly regarded today, developed through a series of contracts and agreements between editors and telegraph services. The system of the AP was used to share the cost of gathering news, but especially the sharing of valuable wire time, spreading out the costs among a number of newspaper establishments to decrease the expensive practice of obtaining the news from far distances. Telegraph services were in high demand due to limitation of time available and access due to limited amount lines which at the time was only between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
The price and access issues that surrounded telegraph technology gave rise to the inverted pyramid style of reporting, which placed precedence on the pertinent information first. The speed of news through telegraph services also contributed to the attributes of better quality news service, such as more predictability in quality, schedule and form, which became important for the commodification of news.