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Why Does Journalism Matter?

Posted on March 25, 2020

By Karl Grossman

Here’s an article by me just out in “The Journalism Issue” of The Waldo Tribune, “The Children’s Newspaper…that’s Read by Parents and Grandparents, too!” which has just started on its 30th year of publication.

By Karl Grossman

Journalism has been defined as the activity or profession of writing for newspapers, magazines and news websites and preparing or communicating news for broadcast on radio and on television and, now, on the Internet, too.

But it is more than that.

Journalism serves as a watchdog—a monitor—of government and business. It is a necessary part—a vital part—of the democratic process.

Journalism begins with the invention of the printing press in 1440. The printing press allowed writing to be communicated by mechanical means. Given credit for inventing the printing press is Johann Gutenberg.

But newspapers were slow to emerge.

Indeed, the first newspapers sprung up—in the early 1600s—in countries where the rulers were tolerant, such as Holland, Belgium and Switzerland, or where there was no strong central government. Why? Because from the beginning of the printing press, most kings and queens and other rulers feared it.

They were afraid that through the press, information could be communicated that would challenge them.

For example, in England, King Henry VIII started—in 1529—the control of the press with a list of prohibited books. And he required printers to have royal permission before setting up shop. Moreover, the powers of the Privy Council in England were expanded to control the press.

These days in the United States, President Donald Trump regularly describes the press as “the enemy of the people.” This dislike of the press by Trump goes back centuries among many rulers.

A big breakthrough in achieving freedom of the press happened in what became the United States when it was a colony of England.

John Peter Zenger’s New York Weekly Journal criticized the colonial governor of New York, William Cosby. Zenger published articles telling of how Zenger was corrupt.

So Cosby had Zenger jailed on a charge of that his newspaper’s articles were “false, scandalous, malicious and seditious.”  Zenger, after nine months in jail, went on trial in Manhattan in 1734.

Zenger’s lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, in his summation to the jury said that “men who injure and oppress the people under their administration provoke them to cry out.” Zenger’s trial, he said, involved “the best cause. It is the cause of liberty….Every man who prefers freedom to a life of slavery will bless and honor you as men who have battled the attempt of tyranny, and by an impartial, and incorrupt verdict have laid a noble foundation for securing to ourselves, our posterity and our neighbors, that to which nature and the laws of our country have given us, a right to liberty of both of exposing and opposing arbitrary power, by speaking and writing truth.”

The jury found Zenger not guilty.

As The New York Times editorialized on the 250th anniversary of the Zenger trial, it “turned common law on its head and established the freedom of our press.”

“The Zenger case,” said the The Times, “planted the seeds that flowered a half-century later in the First Amendment.”

The First Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights declares that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.”

The founders of this great democratic experiment called the United States of America established a system of checks and balances with the three branches of government—legislative, executive and judicial—checking upon and balancing each other. And the vision was that there would be a free press checking all of government.

Some 100 years later, when big corporations arose in the United States, our system was flexible enough to have the press not only be a watchdog of government but also of the huge businesses that formed, many of them monopolies. This period between 1900 and 1914 is known as the “Muckraking Era.” It was an early application of the investigative reporting of recent decades that has included the revelations by The Washington Post of the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. This courageous journalism brought down the Nixon administration and caused President Richard Nixon—like Trump also a bitter opponent of a free press—to resign.

Still, around the world, the press in most other nations is not free. Rulers just won’t let it be a watchdog because they fear being challenged.

And today in the United States, the press is under attack.

A free press is a wonderful and delicate thing—and every generation must work to preserve it.