Freedom of the press is one of the rights that is sacred in our free society.
We look at the media as a watchdog, to keep government accountable for its actions. But there has always been bias. Depending on what beliefs it holds, some media organizations blast one set of politicians while praising another; and we see a lot of that today. The facts are skewed, and it can get confusing about what to actually believe.
The biggest cynics will say, “It’s all propaganda to push an agenda or ideology.”
In colonial America, it wasn’t that much different. Newspapers were established and controlled by politicians and their cronies. And they had the money to influence the information presented to the public.
Politics in colonial America were more twisted than they are today. Political coalitions that would band together in a fight over one issue, would later become enemies for another. And because the press was controlled, it promoted the information of one side in favor of the other.
The trial of John Peter Zenger was one of those episodes. Zenger was a potential fall guy in a dispute between New York colonial Governor William Cosby and a group of large landowners led by Lewis Morris.
Morris, who was chief justice of the New York Supreme Court, was fired from his position when he opposed a salary claim by Governor Cosby. In response, Morris and his friends established a newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal. Zenger, who was simply a printer, was given the job of editor for the newspaper. For months, Zenger printed anonymous articles written by Morris’s friends that were abusive. On one occasion, an advertisement referred to the governor as a monkey. Kind of tame in our day, but remember, this took place in 1733.
Governor Cosby shut down the newspaper and arrested Zenger for seditious libel. And Zenger would not reveal the sources of the articles he printed.
Zenger was represented in court by a Philadelphia lawyer named Andrew Hamilton. Hamilton argued that the truth is a defense against libel, and he challenged the prosecution to prove that the newspaper’s criticism of Cosby was false.
The prosecution, led by Cosby ally James DeLancey, who was Morris’s replacement on the New York Supreme Court, couldn’t prove the criticisms were lies, and after a short deliberation, Zenger was found not guilty.
Historians view the Zenger trial as the main building block for our first amendment. Before that, the outcome of the trial was an influence on the generation that led the American Revolution as colonial leaders and the Sons of Liberty printed information criticizing King George III and parliament to rile the public in the 1760s.
Today, we look at the media ideally when we shouldn’t, wanting it to be the guard against corruption and other unethical practices by government and other authoritative organizations. But bias in the press has existed for as long as the press has existed.