Updated: Jan 26
The biases of information and how it comes to us is one of the most troubling things of the modern age. Opinions are regularly divorced from facts by nearly all people, regardless of their initial beliefs. In the recent past, people have become increasingly troubled by the presence of “media bias,” (and assuredly, this is no small worry); yet to pretend that we are in a present crisis is foolhardy. A look at history will show that not only was media bias present but also that the things printed changed the course of history. The colonial press was essential to the War of Independence and it created a culture where the press changed the people.
In 1690, the first American publication considered a “newspaper” was published when Benjamin Harris put out Publick Occurrences: Both Forreign and Domestick. Promptly after the premiere of the paper was featured, colonial authorities stopped the publication showing their despotism on the press (“About USA”). Anti-British sentiments being the reason Harris’s publication was forced to cease production, the following papers carefully avoided political discussions. By 1719 three such papers popped up in The Boston Gazette, The American Weekly Mercury, and The Boston News-Letter (“History Newspapers”). After this, James Franklin began publishing the New England Courant in 1721 and took a traditionally Puritan stance of opposition to inculcation for smallpox, thus renewing the controversy (“History Newspapers;” Manseau 119-142). After other criticisms - one of which landed him in jail - a court dictated that Franklin was, “[forbidden] to print or publish The New England Courant, or any other Pamphlet or Paper of the like Nature, except it be first Supervised by the Secretary of this Province” (Massachusetts Historical Society). This order moved James to hand the publication over to his younger brother, the famous Benjamin Franklin. (“History Newspapers”).
Some scholars will consider Peter Zenger’s trial in 1734 before a court because of his publication The New York Weekly Journal to be the birth of the free press in the United States (“About USA;” “History Newspapers”). Against the judge’s opinion, the jury gave a verdict of “not guilty” setting the stage for two ideas: first, the papers could legally publish criticisms of the government, and second the British could not control the American press (“History Newspapers”). This paved the way for a distinctly free market and free speech press.
In 1765 the British parliament passed the Stamp Act (Schweikart and Allen 69-70). Many Americans today would consider this an infringement on their God-given right, yet in that time it was also a fire-starting move by Britain. Due to the Americans high in numbers and low in comprehension literacy rate - (their comprehension was much higher than what would be considered low by modern standards; just consider Washington’s speeches or writings: he didn’t even have a high school education) - newspapers were highly popular (Esolen 153; Schweikart and Allen 43-47). Because the papers were being directly affected by such taxes, they published avidly against the Crown, instead of an instituting moratorium on printing (such behavior would characterize the press’ reactions to the British throughout the war). Such unity of uprising created a community among the colonies where opposition to the British was more important than their initial differences (Allison; Humphrey). The Stamp Act could be seen as the first collective opposition to the Crown that nearly all Americans and all the press agreed upon. Such an encroachment only heightened the colonists’ sagaciousness, and especially raised the biases of the papers (Hall). By 1771 the patriot ideas were solely in the newspapers without any loyalist ideas (this excepts cities where the British army was currently present) (Humphrey).
The Americans now had freedom of speech in the press and collective opposition to Britain. Essays and persuasive articles were at the heart of the paper (Conrad; Hall; Humphrey). Despite this, the actual facts of the battle were generally accurate letters written by generals; were, in the margins, there would be notes saying “print this” denoting that the writer wanted that information in the paper (Conrad; Hall). This gave the readers a first-person sense of what happened and also kept interest and concern in the war even when the fighting was far off (Conrad; Hall; Humphrey). This engagement and persuasion put the readership directly on the patriot side, and also gave readers what they wanted to hear and read (Carp). This created an environment where the press found energy in the people and the people discovered motivation in the press.
All these methods of alteration in the war helped create a distinctly American ideological ecosystem of the importance of the printed word. This system was characterized by five things: first, the press was free to print what it wanted; second, the press was unbridled by the British; third, the entire press was recalcitrant to the rule of the crown; fourth, people read and were affected by the newspapers; and fifth the people believed the press and acted accordingly (“About USA;” Allison; “History Newspapers;” Humphrey; Schweikart and Allen 43-47). The press, therefore, unified the colonists in a way the world had never seen before. Being hyperbolic almost seems fitting when describing the press’s influence in the Revolution. While fostering all these modes of being, the press created America herself (Allison; Carp; Humphrey; Schweikart and Allen 43-47). It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine an America where the press did not play a crucial role. The press affected the thoughts of the people and the people affected the thoughts of the press. Without one there would, quite obviously, not be the other. We are distinctly American, in part, then, because of our newspapers and writings; we are distinctly American because we say what we think; we are distinctly American because we are exposed to others’ musings; we are distinctly American because of the importance we place on such things (Manseau 205-226). We place significant ideological weight on the freedom of the press, and, as a consequence, the promotion of various individual’s ideas - ideas that could be biased.
From the very first publication of a newspaper on American land to the present day, we have held extreme bias in our press. Over time we developed a tolerance for the freedom of speech in the written word. However, such freedoms tended to align publisher and viewer ideologies. Should we be worried about bias? True American history teaches us many things; among those lessons is the understanding that bias has always and will always exist. More striking than the existence of bias should be the fact that the press’ and people’s interest will commonly align, (even if it takes time for such a happening). The thoughts of Americans were affected by the colonial press to the point of war, perseverance in war, and eventually freedom. What will our press effect? Time will only tell, but let us not be mere victims of others’ thoughts and instead develop our own ideas. We all have a bias; keep in mind that one bias, nay, one opinion is True and all others are false.
“4.2 History of Newspapers – Understanding Media and Culture.” Pressbooks, open.lib.umn.edu/mediaandculture/chapter/4-2-history-of-newspapers.
“About the USA - The Media in the United States > Newspapers.” US Embassy, usa.usembassy.de/media-newspapers.htm. Accessed 14 Sept. 2020.
Esolen, Anthony. Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. 2nd ed., Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2013.
Journal of the American Revolution. “A Closer Look at American Revolution Newspapers.” YouTube, uploaded by Carol Sue Humphrey, 2 May 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjohBgzYn9c&app=desktop.
---. “Accuracy of Revolutionary War Newspaper Reporting.” YouTube, uploaded by John W. Hall, 12 Sept. 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZIsDSIJBFg.
---. “American Revolution Newspapers Will Surprise Readers.” YouTube, uploaded by Carol Sue Humphrey, 2 May 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIaBTHpYzSA.
---. “Gossip Becomes News During the American Revolution.” YouTube, uploaded by Benjamin L. Carp, 27 Oct. 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ENowT3f3yjg&app=desktop.
---. “Newspapers Build a Colonial Community.” YouTube, uploaded by Robert J. Allison, 2 May 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6Rc2mrMv-Y&app=desktop.
---. “Reading American Revolution Newspapers - History as It Unfolded.” YouTube, uploaded by John W. Hall, 6 Sept. 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDD5ILDbeGs&app=desktop.
---. “Reading American Revolution Newspapers - Print This! Print This!” YouTube, uploaded by Dennis M. Conrad, 17 Sept. 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcflvcRpiE4&app=desktop.
---. “The Impact of American Revolution Newspapers.” YouTube, uploaded by Carol Sue Humphrey, 29 Aug. 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4mA_xoV5pA&app=desktop.
---. “When Does Bias Develop in Colonial Newspapers.” YouTube, uploaded by Carol Sue Humphrey, 2 May 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=uH7tEKODrQc&app=desktop.
Manseau, Peter. One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History. Back Bay Books, 2016.
Massachusetts Historical Society, “Silence DoGood: Benjamin Franklin in the New England Courant,” http://www.masshist.org/online/silence_dogood/essay.php?entry_id=204.
Schweikart, Larry, and Michael Allen. A Patriot’s History of the United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to America’s Age of Entitlement, Revised Edition. 10th Revised ed., Sentinel, 2014.
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