What is the central role of a free press in a free society?
The central role of a free press in a free society is to serve as a watchdog on government, exposing fraud, waste, abuse and corruption wherever and whenever it is found, no matter who is perpetrating it.
The founders knew this truth – even though they had no historical precedent on which to base their assumption, as I explained yesterday!
Isn’t that amazing. America’s founders built into their system of constitutionally limited government many checks and balances on the powers of government. The First Amendment protections of the press were one of them.
The founders were so brilliant, so insightful, that they protected the free press because they intuitively understood it was a critical way to keep government under control, to have what we call “a fourth estate” to watchdog the three branches of government.
I say they did this “intuitively.” What do I mean? I mean they had no precedent on which to base this assumption upon. It was something that had never been done before in the history of the world!
What is it about the American founders that made them so smart?
They got their wisdom from their grounding in the Bible. Even the most skeptical of them were learned in the scriptures. Many of them read the Bible in the original languages on a daily basis. They were Christians.
Let me underline that last statement: Christian Americans and Jews gave us the free press.
Let me provide a little bit of evidence. For more, just pick up “Stop the Presses: The Inside Story of the New Media Revolution.”
There’s an old saying: “Journalism is the first draft of history.” Sometimes for me today this is a scary thought. Yet it is true.
And while the ancient Hebrews didn’t practice journalism as we know it today, they did a first-rate job of recording their history. They also provided, through God’s providence and inspiration, the moral light that was needed to free people from tyranny and oppression.
Through their history, we are reminded that liberty was precious because it was rare and fleeting.
“It is remarkable that so few men and so weak a people could have exerted such an influence on mankind’s quest for freedom because freedom, for much of the history of ancient Israel, was little more than a vision,” wrote Columbia University journalism professor John Hohenberg in his book, “Free Press, Free People: The Best Cause,” back in 1971.
It is a testimony not only to their God, but to what that God told all of us in the scriptures: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
How important is the word? All important. We’re told in the Bible that God literally spoke the universe into existence. We are told that God is, in fact, His Word. And His Word is Him.
It was this knowledge that caused the Hebrews to revere the written word like no other people before them. It was what those words said that made them understand freedom, which is inextricably tied to right and wrong, to personal responsibility, to accountability to the Creator.
“There was good reason for the Israelites to revere such prophets as Isaiah, Amos and Jeremiah and keep their words and their hopes in the years of captivity,” explains Hohenberg. “Out of the later blossoming of Judeo-Christian civilization that they helped to create came an overwhelming urge toward individual freedom that has profoundly influenced all peoples. With the invention of the printing press, that influence became an ideal in lands where it had never before existed.”
Who invented the printing press?
Johann Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany, in 1440. It is, of course, the printing press that gives us the very word we use synonymously with journalism – “press.” The printing press was called a press because it was first fashioned out of a wine press. And why did Gutenberg feel compelled to invent it?
Because he wanted to print copies of the Bible. It’s almost comical to think about today’s secular journalists owing their very jobs – their livelihoods, their profession – to a process inspired by man’s love of God’s Word.
It was not until 1505 – 65 years later – that someone got the idea of producing a “newspaper,” albeit a primitive one. The first such effort is credited to Austrian printer Erhard Oeglin, hardly a household name in the industry, who announced the discovery in Brazil. The idea of printing news, however, did not turn the world upside down for more than 200 years. Meanwhile, Gutenberg, whose Bibles today sell for millions, died in obscurity and poverty in 1468.
It took until the 17th century in the New World for an appreciation of the vital role of a free press in a free society to take shape. The concept was truly American – and, again, Christian American.
We all remember Increase Mather from our history books. He was the most well-known Puritan minister of 17th century New England. But did you know he was also a pioneer in the early American journalism?
He printed Bible commentaries, theological treatises and sermons and then later began publishing what might be called “news sermons” and pamphlets on current events. This not only represented the humble beginnings of an American free press, it was truly the advent of a free press in the world.
The first regular newspaper in colonial America was launched in 1690 by Benjamin Harris – again, a devout Christian. Harris had tried publishing an independent newspaper in London and was quickly thrown in jail. So he came to America and launched Publick Occurences Both Foreign and Domestick. Don’t blame me; that’s what it was called.
While the publication was popular in Puritan New England, once again Harris found criticizing the government could be hazardous to your health. Just four days after it was distributed, Harris was told he would be jailed if he published again.
It would be 40 years before another American publisher dared to use newsprint to criticize the government. This is where most journalism history books begin – with the story of John Peter Zenger. Zenger was the 36-year-old printer-publisher of the New York Weekly Journal, a struggling newspaper that first appeared in 1733 to challenge the semi-official New York Weekly Gazette.
Zenger’s criticism of local officials soon made the paper required reading in New York – resulting in an official inquiry by the new chief justice of the province, James Delancey. He asked a grand jury to investigate Zenger and his publication for “seditious libel.” Zenger was thrown in jail in November 1735.
But the paper didn’t die during his imprisonment. James Alexander, a former attorney general in New Jersey, continued publish it in Zenger’s absence. And, ultimately, the grand jury refused to indict Zenger.
That’s the history most journalism students learn about the Zenger case. What they don’t generally hear or read is that Zenger, too, was motivated primarily by strong Christian faith. Even his defense attorney, Andrew Hamilton, drew strong biblical allusions in making the case that truth was an absolute defense against the charge of libel.
He explained: “If a libel is understood in the large and unlimited sense urged by Mr. Attorney, there is scarce writing I know that may not be called a libel, or scarce any person safe from being called to account as a libeler: for Moses, meek as he was, libeled Cain; and who is it that has not libeled the devil?”
More tomorrow …