With the mainstream news media under siege these days, and with some people – including one particularly powerful and influential person – denouncing it as so-called “fake news,” this seems like a good time to explore the history of a free press. Just consider how central the free press has been to American history. So many key moments in American history have derived from, or somehow involved, the freedom of the press.
* The abolitionist press and the eventual end of slavery.
* Muckrakers at the turn of the 20th century and the exposure of abuses by big business.
* The Pentagon Papers and the withdrawal of the US military from Vietnam.
* The Watergate investigation and the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
These are just a few examples of the vital role a free press has played in American history. And they raise the question: How did this idea of a free press get enshrined in the First Amendment? And how did it come to be seen as a fundamental principle of American democracy?
It’s a long and fascinating story, but it began with the arrest and prosecution of a little known New York newspaper publisher named Peter Zenger in 1735. And that’s the story we’ll focus on in this episode of In The Past Lane, the podcast about history and why it matters.
Among the many things we’ll discuss:
How the British defied “seditious libel” in the 18th century – and how American colonists began to develop a very different understanding of it.
The biography of Peter Zenger, the unknown printer at the center of the famous 1735 trial that bears his name.
How the 1735 trial of Peter Zenger popularized the idea of freedom of the press.
How the legacy and memory of the Zenger Trial led to the inclusion of freedom of the press in the 1st Amendment.
How Americans came to see a free press as essential to maintaining a healthy democracy.
Paul Finkelman, ed., A Brief Narrative of the Case and Tryal of John Peter Zenger: with Related Documents (Bedford, 2010)
Gail Jarrow, The Printer’s Trial: The Case of John Peter Zenger and the Fight for a Free Press (2006)
Richard Kluger, Indelible Ink: The Trials of John Peter Zenger and the Birth of America’s Free Press (2016)
Lyrissa Lidsky and Robert G. Wright, Freedom of the Press: A Reference Guide to the United States Constitution (2004)
Music for This Episode
Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)
Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)
Ketsa, “I Will Be There” (Free Music Archive)
Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)
The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)
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