Role of newspapers in U.S. society: a nation talking to itself

Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Newspapers are America’s original chat rooms.

Americans have used newspapers from the earliest days of the nation to talk to ourselves – newspapers are where we exchange information and opinions, hawk products and ideas, praise our heroes or attack our enemies and sift through the news of the day for what’s vital or just interesting to us.

The nation’s Founders believed a free press needed to be among the basic freedoms protected by the First Amendment. They provided constitutional protection for newspapers even as many publications roasted them in terms that make even today’s supermarket tabloid reports seem tame. And while new technologies have added to the nation’s means of getting news, newspapers remain the way we get detailed information about news, opinions and products that affect us every day.

From thin “journals of opinion” to a mass-circulation “penny press” to thousands of local dailies and weeklies and to national newspapers and companion Web sites, we have relied on newspapers to tell us the weather, document the workings of public officials, help roust scoundrels, hold the powerful accountable and – for individuals as well as the nation – both celebrate our lives and record our most tragic moments.

Critics and supporters alike are fond of saying that newspapers are just the “first draft of history.” But for most citizens, that draft covers the most important moments of our history: Birth announcement, maybe a story about a youth sports or academic success, a graduation list, marriage announcement – sometimes followed by a divorce legal notice – and an obituary – the real stuff of our lives.

Newspapers are where we turn to find the details of what happened yesterday, the inner workings of what is happening today and the best information about what’s likely to happen tomorrow – the weather, stock market prices, Congressional action, traffic alerts, home sales, major policy debates and what’s “on sale.”

The first step in determining this vital role of newspapers in a free society came in 1735, when a printer named John Peter Zenger went on trial for libel. He had published a newspaper, the New-York Weekly Journal, with articles critical of the government. In fact, printers in the New World had for a number of years already been battling against British colonial officials, contending the King’s power to license – and thereby control – newspapers no longer applied. But Zenger was brought to trial. He was defended successfully when his lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, convinced the jury that Zenger ought not to be punished for printing what was true. The finding advanced the concept that Americans were free to contribute ideas and comments as they wished to what Thomas Jefferson later would tag as our nation’s “marketplace of ideas.”

The role and right of newspapers would be tested many times – and be unpopular with many through the years. Government acts, powerful officials and even rioting mobs would attempt to limit or tax newspapers and intimidate editors and reporters. A modern example: the case of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, where the Nixon administration moved to block The New York Times, The Washington Post and others from printing documents about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The attempt to keep newspapers from publishing what they knew to be true failed, and America learned what the government wanted to keep secret.

In the 1893 book The Making of a Newspaper, author Melville Phillips penned a plainspoken-yet-eloquent description of newspapers that may be just as valid today: “It looks so cheap and – when one has gleaned the news from it – so worthless; certainly the making of it does not seem to have cost much in time, labor, brains or money (but) the influence of American journalism reaches into every American home. … A popular newspaper … is in a sense, the voice of the people …”

The First Amendment Center’s annual State of the First Amendment reports show American reverence for the idea of unfettered news reporting: In 2002, more than 9 in 10 Americans said it was “essential” or “important” to be informed by a free press. But it also shows that Americans may not like the press of the moment: In 2003, more than 4 in 10 said the press had “too much freedom.” Still, we are hungry for news. Newspapers today exist in a world of “24/7” news – where television, radio and the Web provide “instant” news. But newspapers provide unmatched reliable depth and breadth – and an inexpensive medium for ideas and ads, news and nostrums, opinions and facts – that is invaluable to a society dependent on informed, involved citizens.

In their beginning, newspapers were strongly identified with political parties. With the start of the New York Sun in 1833, the idea of a “mass press” began to take hold, and by the time of the Civil War newspapers across the nation were providing news of government policy and reporting from the battlefield – sometimes to the consternation of President Lincoln, who moved to censor news reports carried by telegraph.

As Lincoln (and subsequent presidents) found, newspaper readers wanted all the news from the front – good and bad. Sometimes for newspapers of the time and later, just the news was not enough. Editor William Story – famed for coining the slogan “A newspaper’s duty is to print the news and raise hell” – cabled his Civl War correspondents: “Telegraph fully all the news – and when there is no news send rumors.” And there’s little question that William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers later in the century had as least some role in propelling the nation into the Spanish-American War.

But wartime also has meant a more positive role: keeping the nation informed in time of conflict independent of the government. Wartime has brought us some of newspapers’ most compelling writing, from early correspondents at the front lines to WWII correspondents like Ernie Pyle through to this year’s reports from “embedded” journalists accompanying U.S. military forces in Iraq.

The “Pentagon Papers” provided not only detailed, revealing information about the U.S. government’s policy and role in Vietnam over decades, but also ratified newspapers as perhaps the ultimate or only check on a government citing “national security” as reason to stifle dissent or opposition.

Newspapers have been reporting conflict from the nation’s start. There were woodcut images circulated of Redcoats firing on Colonials in Boston. Most Americans know about “Custer’s Last Stand,” but not many may know that – as documented in the Newseum’s book Crusaders, Scoundrels, Journalists – reporter Mark Kellogg of the Bismark (N.D.) Tribune was killed in the Battle of Little Bighorn along with Gen. George Custer and his 210 troopers.

Newspapers document events of all kinds, and in doing so provide us a measure of protection, from telling us about crime in our neighborhoods to monitoring the government’s power of criminal prosecution. In a totalitarian society, secret trials and imprisonment often are major tools of repression. Even with the occasional excesses of coverage – did someone just mention the O.J. Simpson trial? – newspapers day in-and-out keep watch in every city and state on the police, courts and criminal justice system, protecting our rights to a fair trial and equal protection under the law.

Newspapers are where we as a people debate the issues and ideas that are important to us. From editorials expressing the opinion of the paper to “op-ed” pages carrying the opinions of columnists and writers to “letters to the editor,” we hash out publicly how we feel about our government, our neighbors, our schools and a multitude of other subjects.

The town square may be too traffic-ridden to be heard today, but diverse voices still reach us each day in the “town square” that is the editorial pages of American newspapers large and small. There, we converse, challenge and opine on topics as diverse as abortion and prescription drugs, baseball rules and stadium construction, women’s suffrage and civil rights, immigration and taxes, religion and ethics, and fishing licenses.

Though history demonstrates that mainstream newspapers for many years were not the voice of all the people, diversity came in specialized newspapers and journals that meet the needs of ethnic, religious and racial groups — the anti-slavery North Star, created in 1847 by Frederick Douglass; El Clamor Publico, published by Francisco Ramirez beginning in 1855; the Jewish Daily Forward, begun in 1897 by Russian émigré Abraham Cahan, to name but a few of the first. In at least the last 25 years, there has been recognition among American newspapers of the value of diversity both in their staffs and in their coverage, both from an economic perspective, but also as means of keeping the newspaper’s heart in touch with its readers.

Newspapers tell us whether it is a good day to buy or sell a house, provide our horoscope, report and examine what local officials are doing – or not doing – with our tax dollars, and who lived and died yesterday. They expose scandal, celebrate the best in our society and in an increasingly complex world provide basic information and explanation.

Newspapers can – and perhaps should – enlighten, infuriate, encourage, inform, expose, excoriate and exult, sometimes all in a single issue. They uniquely provide the foundation for a free press and have an irreplaceable daily role in defining and protecting “liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the United States.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter 1787 that “the good sense of the American people is always going to be the greatest asset of the American government. Sometimes they might go astray, but they have the ability to right themselves. The people should always have the media to to express opinions through. The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, they very first object should be to keep that right.; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

America just wouldn’t be “American” – we would not be a free people and democracy would not function – without newspapers.