Harvard professor and novelist Jill Lepore looked at the struggle for freedom of the press in eighteenth-century America in a New Yorker review of Marcus Daniel’s Scandal and Civility: Journalism and the Birth of American Democracy.
I don’t think the review’s main hook really works. The American printers lamenting the death of a free press in 1765 were all upset about the Stamp Act, and thus about government control as well as costs. Today’s newspaper people are again keening that newspapers may not survive, and again talking about costs, but now the threats come from the marketplace and new technologies.
In fact, Lepore recognizes that the full history of the early American newspaper is more complex than the pleasing free-press narrative her article offers:
To tell the story this way, as a struggle between tyranny and liberty, between King and Gazette, or even between John Adams and Benjamin Edes, is to write a Whig history, something that historians generally sniff at, mainly because eighteenth-century Whigs (and Whig printers) saw their world in just this way, with themselves on the side of liberty, and people aren’t to be trusted in accounting for their own place in history.Lepore notes a moment in 1755 when Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette did something which offended the selectmen, and they printed an apology. Those two printers had set themselves up as the favored press of the Boston government, and depended on the income from printing town notices and legal forms. So no wonder they were quick to print an apology. Radical though they were when it came to opposing royal appointees and parliamentary taxes, Edes and Gill were nonetheless the voice of the local political establishment.
Whig history is suspect, in other words, for much the same reason that Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography is suspect. It’s too tidy. Most struggles, like most lives, are messier. Newspapers aren’t always on the side of liberty. Not everyone agrees on what liberty means. Some struggles never end. And it’s not the newspaper that’s forever at risk of dying and needing to be raised from the grave. It’s the freedom of the press.