The Press

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Governor Berkeley’s concerns bore dangerous fruit a century later, when colonial newspapers were the bellows of revolution. One of the most incendiary sheets of the day was the Boston Gazette , where Samuel Adams, John Adams, John Hancock, and other members of the Caucus Club “worked the political engine.” One night Gazette editors changed into Indian disguises and dumped a cargo of tea into Boston Harbor. In doing so, they were creating fine propaganda, if poor journalism. Not only had they become part of the story, but they were the story, though concealing this from their readers. Intolerable by modern standards.

It was not a good time for disinterested journalism. One attempt was made by James Rivington, the son of a prosperous London bookseller, who came to America after squandering his family fortune at the racetrack . . .

Let me pause for a moment to show how easily scandal seeps into journalism. I do not know Rivington actually impoverished himself betting on horses. I took that from Frank Luther Mott’s American journalism , a well-respected text. But I did not check the betting slips of eighteenthcentury British bookmakers, and I doubt Professor Mott did either. I am willing to risk blackening Rivington’s historical reputation for a bit of color because I can get away with it. He has been safely in his grave for two centuries and is beyond recourse. My defense is I am in competition with all the other articles in this issue, and I am afraid if I don’t jangle my cap and bells, you may desert my story in favor of what I understand is an essay on baseball. Rivington is thus sacrificed so you may be entertained. Notice how I have switched the blame from me to you. It is an old journalistic defense called “giving the public what it wants.”

Rivington was a Loyalist, but he tried to print both sides of the story of colonial discontent in his paper, Rivington’s New York Gazetteer . For this the Sons of Liberty labeled his paper a Tory rag and smashed his printing press.

Now I try to make some amends to Rivington’s memory by calling him a Loyalist rather than a Tory. They mean the same thing, but Loyalist sounds less harsh. This is how journalists tint a story to suit their purposes.

Of course, we do not sing the praises of Rivington’s journal and its commitment to being an “Ever Open and Uninfluenced Press.” We reserve that right for revolutionary papers such as the Pennsylvania Journal , which on December 19, 1776, printed one of the greatest leads in the history of journalism: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

 

George Washington had a keen appreciation for the value of a sympathetic press and saw to it that old tenting materials were made into paper so the troops could have something to read. Rewarded by Thomas Paine’s essay “Crisis,” he had it read to his soldiers the day before their Christmas morning attack on the Hessian garrison in Trenton.

No reporters were present during the four months spent hammering the United States Constitution together in Philadelphia in 1787. Some modern critics might say that was one reason why the Constitutional Convention was able to make such a good job of it. The First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of the press, was a difficult issue. Alexander Hamilton inveighed against the liberality of the provision, saying, “What is the Liberty of the Press? Who can give it any definition which does not leave the utmost latitude for evasion?” When his question could not be answered to everyone’s satisfaction, it was left to the courts.

The Constitution went to the states for ratification, and the press responded with political commentary of uncommon brilliance as Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay contributed their Federalist papers to the New York Independent Journal . When reprinted in other newspapers around the country, they provided the principal defense of this bold experiment in government.

It was the age of political giants, but none was so great he could not be assailed by the press. Today President Clinton, perusing his more unhappy press clippings, may take some solace knowing that in comparison with the editorial attacks on George Washington, his administration has been one long Easter-egg roll on the White House lawn. Describing Washington’s administration, the General Advertiser was moved to write: “If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by Washington. If ever a nation has suffered from the improper influence of a man, the American nation has suffered from the influence of Washington. If ever a nation was deceived by a man, the American nation has been deceived by Washington.”

Washington did not have a thick political skin, and he raged against an attack in the Republican Aurora , saying, “There seems to be no bounds to attempt to destroy all confidence that people might and ought to have in their government.”