How The Press Was Won


16 months ago, the animal rights organization, PETA found out about an operation undertaken by a military contractor to intentionally maim and kill live animals for military training purposes.  Mike Mather, a local reporter in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, where PETA is headquartered, found out about the program and broke the story that the locality of Suffolk, Virginia was attempting to cover up the operation.  Eventually, as the story broke and complaints from the public were received, Suffolk ordered the military to cease it’s training operation.  However, the military persisted and over the last year, a bipartisan bill has been introduced in congress to permanently stop the program once and for all.

That is what a free press is able to do.  That is what a free press is supposed to do.

Last month, the President of the United States launched an assault on journalism referring to them on social media and in speeches as “fake news” and ultimately an “enemy of the American people”, a comment echoed by his chief adviser, Steve Bannon.  This has come in the light of a trail of reports and near-daily breaking news stories of leaks from the administration that has besieged the president since he’s taken office.  Their hostility towards most reputable media sources like CNN, New York Times, Washington Post as well as the major television networks NBC, ABC and CBS began early in his campaign and has lasted effectively due to the president’s unethical, amoral and objectionable comments and behavior that would cause most to question what they see and what they hear from him and his administration.

The media’s role in politics is necessary.  Some may consider it a necessary evil.  But political leaders have dedicated communications staff, specifically not just for the sake of transparency, but to use the press to show the public the good their office is doing on their behalf, generating good press and positive feedback from voters.  Naturally, any elected official would have a problem when something being reported is not complimentary of them or their office and that’s to be expected.  What is not expected, is for those in power to call the press an enemy, not just of them, but of the “American people”.  Particularly, when the purpose of the “News Media” is to be just that: be a medium or distributor for news and dissemination of information.  The actions and conduct of our government is news and because it has an affect on our living, it needs to be known.  That is the purpose of the news media and journalism, to give us knowledge.  But it’s important to know why they have that purpose, especially when it’s our political leadership that wants to tell us otherwise.

The relationship of journalism and governing in America goes back to the death of the first King George, the grandfather of the monarch we fought against in the American Revolution.  When George I died, all royal commissions had to be renewed under his son, George II.  These commissions included gubernatorial appointments in the English Colonies.  George II would appoint John Montgomerie as the governor of New York and New Jersey who himself would die after only four years in that position.  And his eventual replacement was British Colonel, William Cosby.  Now the position of “Captain General and Governor in Chief” was a coveted position in the Colonies, which came with an increased salary.  However, Cosby was initially denied this salary and decided to go to court to recoup what he felt he was rightfully owed.  This decision and the way it was conducted was extremely unpopular with colonist because it was seen as another decision removed from their power of self-governing.  The chief justice agreed and initially dismissed the case.  However, Governor Cosby persisted and, in response, he removed the chief justice from office and also refused to have elections for the state Assembly in an effort to secure himself the salary he wanted as governor.

It were these actions, among others, that caused newspaper printer and journalist John Peter Zenger to become fiercely critical of the governor and his overtly tyrannical actions.  He published a series of editorials deriding Governor Cosby and all he did in his own interest.  This did not go unnoticed by the Governor and eventually he issued a proclamation condemning the newspaper and when that did not stop Zenger from attacking the governor, the governor proceeded to take him to court as well, charging him with libel.  Eventually, Zenger would be found not guilty and the reason stated that “even if defamatory, it is not libelous if it can be proven.”  Needless to say, Zenger’s charges were all true.

John Peter Zenger’s case set the stage for the need of colonial journalist to inform all American colonist on the actions of what the English monarchy was doing in America.  It was the template set by Zenger and Cosby that gave the founders of our Republic the reason to include the 1st Amendment to the Constitution.  Zenger was one of the first to outwardly use the power of the press to criticize those in power.  However, the practice is much older, dating back with James Franklin’s own newspaper publishing, his brother and Founding Father, Ben Franklin when he wanted to be critical of his governor.  He created the identity, Silence Dogood, to protect himself from any retribution from the government he criticized after James was arrested and imprisoned for publishing unflattering material himself years earlier.  He stated, “without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom and there can be no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.”

Zenger and Franklin defined the role of journalism in early America.  This was crystallized by Thomas Paine and his printing of “Common Sense”, which was widely published and universally read by virtually all colonist.  That was the genesis of our revolution and what spurred our own government.  Simply put, it is BECAUSE we have a free press that we have a United States of America.  But the power of the press was not just used by those opposing the government.  It was used by those in power as well.  Throughout the 19th Century, newspapers were primarily used as extensions of political parties themselves to viciously attack their opponents and to promote their own ideology.  This was evident in several of our national elections dating as far back as the election of 1796.  That was the first competitive election when a northern liberal, John Adams, ran against a southern conservative, Thomas Jefferson, to succeed George Washington who decided to not run for a third term.  Since neither Adams or Jefferson actively campaigned for the presidency, it was the power of the press that was chiefly responsible for forming the candidate’s message.

But as the nation expanded, so did the need for news information across the country with it.  And as newspaper readerships swelled, the number of publishers grew and eventually, competition for readers became commonplace.  Publishers like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Putlizer had intense rivalries, which caused them to embrace new ways to gain readers, which in turn lead to sensationalism or “Yellow Journalism” as it was called.  Eye-catching headlines, exaggerated stories of scandal and corruption using taboo subjects to gain attention in a crowded market.  Publishers would hire writers who were not afraid to write stories to grab that sort of attention and, as proven endemic through our history, it is the doings of those in power that generates the attention publishers wanted.  Eventually, a term was coined for publishers and writers that went out their way to avoid virtuous stories that elected leaders wanted the public to see to instead write about the hard-hitting “filth” or “muck” that shined a light on what they would rather keep hidden.  President Theodore Roosevelt, who is responsible for creating the cabinet position of Press Secretary, specifically to avoid these sensationalized stories, referred to such writers as “men with the muck rakes” or “Muckrakers” that can damage the well being of a society.

And that they did.  When police reporter and photojournalist Jacob Riis published How The Other Half Lives, documenting the dangerous, dirty and decrepit tenement life in New York City slums, the upper and middle classes could no longer willfully turn a blind eye to living conditions across America, which were only getting worse.  He was joined by journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair, who spent nearly two months undercover, of the six spent investigating, in Chicago’s meat packing industry when he wrote The Jungle, not just exposing the meat and food service industry, but also the deplorable factory conditions of the American worker.  Famed civil rights activist and co-founder of the NAACP, Ida B. Wells wrote extensively about the corrupt Jim Crow laws and how lynching was used as a tactic of terrorism and not the punitive actions against criminals it was assumed to be.  Her efforts helped awaken the minds of northern whites that often ignored what Black Americans were going through in the deep south.

Whether it was called “Muckraking” or what we now refer to it as “Investigative Jounralism”, these were the trailblazers responsible for shaping what our nation would look like for years and decades to come.  It is specifically because of their actions that our government responded.  This has been a pattern repeated throughout our history as well.  When 14-year old Emmett Till was brutally beaten and lynched in 1955, Black journalist with the Chicago Defender and Jet Magazine published pictures of his badly beaten face that shocked the entire nation, launching the Civil Rights Movement.  In 1964 when Civil Rights activist Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney went missing and later found dead, their disappearance lead nightly news broadcast and captured national attention.  That spurred the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  A year later, when future congressman and statesman John Lewis and 600 others tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, they were beaten and brutalized in their attempt and the images of the savage attack was televised live for national and international audiences.  A few months later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed in Congress.

Outside of Civil Rights, journalist have had an impact elsewhere as well.  Peter Buxton, a social worker and epidemiologist filed a complaint to the Public Health Service and Center for Disease Control when he found out about a program that injected and tested the effects of syphilis on Black men in rural Alabama.  For nearly six years his complaints went ignored or deemed irrelevant until he relayed this information to Washington Star reporter Jean Heller who broke the story of the Tuskegee Experiments.  Then and only then did the program stop.  The role of journalism continued to impact American life.  Embedded journalist in Vietnam reporting or the daily American loss of life during that conflict changed American opinion of what was thought to be a just-cause war.  When Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein investigated a link of a burglar to the re-election campaign of President Richard Nixon, it eventually lead to his impeachment and resignation from office.  CNN was filming live when a gunman shot President ronald reagan and coincidentally, his press Secretary James Brady.  This lead eventually to 1993’s Brady Handgun Prevention Act, which since it’s passage, has seen our homicide rate cut in half.  Time after time, our history has vindicated our right and need for a free press.  That is not antithetical to who we are.  It made us who we are.

Chicago humorist and writer, Finley Peter Dunne, who was a favorite read of Theodore Roosevelt during his time in office, satirically wrote about the power and influence of the American media that it “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”  America is a large and extremely diverse nation and we’ve been that way since our inception.  Throughout our history, the press has been responsible for telling ALL of our stories, from the most comforted to the most afflicted.  When Sir Francis Bacon said “knowledge is power,” it never meant as much as it does to a democracy with a free and responsible press.  What the president fails to understand is that the press is not the “enemy of the people.”  It empowers the people.  The kind of power the press has given to the people is the ultimate check and balance to the power given to our democracy.  It holds them accountable and forces them to be responsive.  That is what they do.  And for the sake of our democracy and for all of those it serve, that is what they have to do.  There is nothing fake about that.