J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, February 01, 2019

“No Body supposes that Printers are to be Vouchers for the Truth”

On the evening of 14 Nov 1768, a crowd in New York burned effigies of two Massachusetts officials. Later that week, John Holt’s New-York Journal reported on that event. Then on 21 November two other newspapers ran a narrative from town clerk Augustus Van Cortlandt meant to correct the Journal article.

The two articles weren’t actually contradictory. They just emphasized different aspects of what happened. The Journal piece praised the protest while the item in the Mercury and Post-Boy followed the city government’s efforts to prevent it.

Both reports even made a point that, as far as effigy-burnings went, this one didn’t disrupt the public peace that much. The first article said that reflected the “Regularity and good Order” of the protesters. The second argued it showed the city authorities’ diligence and the public’s lack of support for the protest.

Holt still took Van Cortlandt’s message as an attack on his professionalism as a printer. But that didn’t mean he necessarily stood behind his newspaper’s reporting. On 24 November, Holt printed this announcement in the Journal:
WHEREAS in the Preamble to the Account Mr. Augustus Van Cortlandt, has published in Mr. [Hugh] Gaine’s and Mr. [James] Parker’s Gazettes of Monday last, concerning the Effigies lately exhibited in this City, he has mentioned me in a Manner that may lead People at a Distance to suppose me the Author of the Account of that Affair published in my last Paper, and that I had thereby intended to deceive the Public. I therefore think myself obliged to say something in my own Vindication.

I am surprised that Mr. Cortlandt, should have made use of an Expression that conveyed such an Idea, when it, instead of saying my Representation might deceive, he had said, the Representation in my Paper might deceive, it would have been as pertinent to the Case; and I should not then have thought myself concerned to take Notice of it; for no Body supposes that Printers are to be Vouchers for the Truth of the Articles of Intelligence they publish, unless there are some particular Expressions to make them so.

But Mr. Cortlandt was well informed that I was not present at the Exhibition of the Effigies, and knew nothing of the Matter but from the Accounts given me. I read to him the Account that had been delivered me for Publication, and sent a Copy off it to one of the Magistrates—acquainting them that I could not avoid publishing the Account without offending a great Number of respectable Inhabitants, and of my Customers in particular; nor alter it without the Consent of the Persons concerned in sending it; but promised to consult them, which I accordingly did, and a small Alteration was made before it was published.

However, tho’ I had no personal Knowledge of the Affair, yet the Account was given by Persons on whose Veracity I could fully rely; and since Monday last some of them have called upon me, and assured me that they are ready whenever called upon, to prove the Truth of every Particular as represented in my last Paper, by a great Number of Witnesses.

The Printer.
Holt’s declaration offers an eye-opening view of how differently he saw his responsibilities as a newspaper printer from our ideals of journalism today. Holt said he:
  • had no obligation to vouch for the truth of anything he published.
  • ran a controversial item past two town officials and made “a small Alteration” to it before publishing.
Yet in the end Holt declared that the Journal’s report on the effigy-burning was true. Of course, Van Cortlandt had never said it was false—just incomplete.

TOMORROW: In the New York assembly.

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