Over the past several weeks, questions about the role of the press in politics and what exactly “freedom of the press” means have come to the forefront of public debate. Politicians have begun to attack press freedom as a shield for hostile reporters. For their part, journalists have been thinking out loud about the way they practice their craft, and worrying about the impact of the new presidential administration on it. In so doing, they are restoring the eighteenth-century formulation that emphasized freedom from government interference as the key element of press freedom.
From the founding of the republic, freedom of the press has been seen as a cherished part of a functioning democracy. But what freedom of the press means has neither been clear nor consistent over time. Since World War II, Americans have tended to view freedom of the press as a license for journalists to investigate any story in the public interest without threat of retaliation. Journalists suggested that they earned that expansive right by holding themselves to a standard of objectivity, through which they pursued stories with determination but without interjecting their opinions.
In debates since late last year, however, many journalists have returned to the arguments that newspaper editors and printers made in the eighteenth century, identifying press freedom not as active participation in politics, but simply as the right to reflect the words of others. Crucially, now, as then, that more passive construction of the role of the press provides plausible deniability from political retaliation, while still letting journalists shape the content of the news.
We can trace the origins of this more passive view of the freedom of the press to Benjamin Franklin, whose illustrious career began in the newspaper business. When Franklin began publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette in Philadelphia in 1728, most newspapers in the American colonies were “published by authority,” which is to say that they carried the blessing of the colonial government to publish news. Drawing on seventeenth-century English traditions, most printers opposed direct interference by officials (that is the sense in which they believed their presses were “free”), but nonetheless most printers saw their papers as chronicles of public events rather than forums for public debate. Only when a town grew large enough to support a second newspaper did this perspective shift, with the new entrant into the market taking a sharper, more oppositional approach to the news.
Franklin had experience with this oppositional approach as a teenaged apprentice to his brother James in Boston. James Franklin published the New England Courant. In 1721, in the wake of a smallpox epidemic in the town, Boston’s government officials proposed to inoculate the population to prevent further outbreaks. The move was deeply controversial because, unlike vaccination, inoculation introduces a live virus into a patient, thus actually making the person sick with the disease.
James and his compatriots led the impertinent opposition. They used the pages of the Courant to question the wisdom of inoculation and criticized the judgment of town officials and elders such as the famous Reverend Cotton Mather. In the 1720s, such insubordination was simply unacceptable. Therefore, when a year later James printed further criticism of the colonial government (he alleged they were in cahoots with pirates), he found himself imprisoned. Not permitted to print under his own name, James had his apprentice (that is, the sixteen-year-old Benjamin) continue the Courant in his name instead. The squabbles gave Benjamin a rapid education in the limits of press freedom.
When Benjamin Franklin moved to Philadelphia and took over the Gazette, his newspaper became the third one in that burgeoning town. Based on accepted practice, he published essays that reflected a wide range of political opinions. That range seemed inclusive, but it soon got him into trouble. In 1731, he angered some in the community by publishing an advertisement in the Gazette that they found offensive to ministers. Franklin responded by outlining his philosophy in a statement that has become known as the “Apology for Printers.” In the essay, first published in the Gazette of June 10, 1731, Franklin outlined the difficulties that printers faced. They were, he said, “scarce able to do any thing in their way of getting a Living, which shall not probably give Offence to some.” In order to stay in business, they could not publish only those opinions with which they agreed, or “there would be very little printed” besides what they themselves wrote. Franklin insisted that he had kept some material out of his press, in particular pieces that “might countenance Vice, or promote Immorality,” even when he might have profited from publishing them.
The role of the printer as Franklin described it was to be a conduit for information. Though the printer/editor was responsible for keeping vitriol out of public debate, he was otherwise only to serve as an instrument for conveying political opinions to the public. Many colonial printers adopted this same viewpoint, arguing that their position was one of a “meer mechanic,” someone who physically operated the press but offered little editing. Their presses should be free of government involvement but also available to all debate. Some printers held fast to that ideology, strictly disavowing any personal intervention into the news. Several, in fact, reprinted Franklin’s “Apology” when they courted controversy for their publications. For Franklin and others, however, Franklin’s declared ideology was a strategy that proved a canny way of permitting the newspaper printer to shape the content of the newspaper without shouldering blame. He was, after all, just printing what his readers wanted.
Franklin’s sleight of hand didn’t always work. Printers remained an inviting target for government officials angry over what was published about them. The conventions of the eighteenth-century press—most notably anonymous authorship—meant that the only name on each issue belonged to the printer. He was thus the easiest person to arrest. In a famous case in 1735, printer John Peter Zenger ran headlong into that problem when he published essays attacking New York Governor William Cosby for a rival political faction. Cosby’s supporters had Zenger jailed for libel. His defense attorney Andrew Hamilton argued for one of the first times that, contrary to then-existing law, truth was a legitimate defense against libel. Zenger was still convicted and, despite later depictions, did not set a legal precedent. But Zenger’s case did frame for colonists the importance of ensuring that the press remain free from government interference.
The idea of newspaper printers as “meer mechanics” persisted for decades as a justification to avoid the wrath of government officials. That stance frayed in the face of the colonies’ crisis with England in the 1760s. Printers continued to assert their independence, and several newspapers even made their motto, “Open to All Parties, But Influenced by None.” But the contentious politics in the decade leading up to the American Revolution created an environment where the assertion of impartiality was far more important than its practice. Patriots, in fact, heralded the press for its independence from and opposition to the British administration. They castigated the minority of printers who remained loyal to the crown. In this era, “impartiality” meant freedom from toeing the line established by British officials. Thus freedom of the press meant freedom to take a particular political position.
During and after the Revolution, new state governments and eventually the federal government accepted the idea of journalists as active political participants, and enshrined protections for the press, creating a role for the government in safeguarding the role of the press as “free and open.” Eight state constitutions lauded the press as a “bulwark of liberty” and affirmed that the government would not interfere with publishers. The Bill of Rights added to the Constitution of 1787 affirmed the federal government’s protection of the free press.
By the 1790s, the American news landscape looked radically different from the era in which Benjamin Franklin began his work. From just over two dozen papers in the early 1730s, the numbers had risen to over 100, many of them explicitly taking on a partisan cast. They built on Franklin’s legacy of asserting their independence and openness to lionize or vilify politicians. And in an ironic twist, among the leaders of this new partisan press was the editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, Benjamin Franklin Bache, named after and trained in printing by his famous grandfather.