Independent Newspapers a Bulwark of Liberty
Published in the Caledonian-Record
Monday, July 30, 2018
I am sitting in a dorm room at Yale University this week, my housing while studying Frederick Douglass: his life, writings, orations, and work in the anti-slavery movement. It is an intense, immersive study with thirty-two other teachers from around the country. The seclusion of academia removes us from the barrage of everyday news. There are no televisions and there is no time to watch if there were. We each have phones and periodically check them allowing the news to puncture the intellectual bubble that cushions us.
Today’s headline shouts, again, that Americans should not trust the news media. It is an odd juxtaposition as we have just spent the morning at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, reading pages of anti-slavery newspapers published during the decades before and up to the Emancipation Proclamation. Newspapers provide context, facts, and an historical record. It is clear that the framers valued the role of the news media by including protections against government censorship in the First Amendment
Independently owned newspapers carried anti-slavery arguments across the new nation, supporting themselves on subscriptions. As early as 1827, Peter Williams, Jr., a free black Episcopal priest founded the first African American newspaper in New York City called, simply, Freedom’s Journal. The Liberator, founded in 1831, owned and operated by the famous abolitionist Frank Lloyd Garrison published until 1865. The partnership of Frederick Douglass and Garrison, which began in 1841, is well documented as they embarked on a lecture circuit and the oratory skills of Douglass were born. Understanding that his life as an escaped slave was not safe, Douglass sailed to England. He returned in 1847, a free man, and promptly established his own newspaper, The North Star, in Rochester, New York.
Later, during Reconstruction, journalism again highlighted the heinous lynching mobs that had sprung up. Ida B. Wells, born into slavery but freed in 1863, became a young investigative reporter. Her work was published in the pamphlet entitled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law and all its Phases. In 1882 Douglass wrote to Wells saying, “You have dealt with the facts with cool painstaking fidelity and left those naked and uncontracted facts to speak for themselves.”
Claiming that news is “fake” is not new. The April 27, 1849 issue of the Richmond Enquirer, published an article entitled “The Destroyer in our Midst.” It seems a jury made a “presentment” against a man “for feloniously and knowingly circulating a printed book . . . entitled Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” Felonious. Fake. So demonizing the news media is not new. But we must not forget that newspapers and the news media comprise an institution that is fundamentally necessary to a democracy.
Independent newspapers have been and are a bulwark of liberty. That has been their purpose since the founding of the nation. The First Amendment makes it clear that the government may not regulate the news; the government does not determine what is true and not true for the press.
It is said that James Madison believed that “to the press alone, checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”