Newspapers Are A Part Of Our History


Just about everyone and everything has a day, a week or a month dedicated to it. This week it is National Newspaper Week.

According to Gene Policinski of the First Amendment Center, Americans have used newspapers from the earliest days of the nation.

Newspapers are where we exchange information and opinions, hawk products and ideas, praise our heroes or attack our enemies and sift through the news of the day for what's vital or just interesting to us. Policinski said the nation's Founders believed a free press needed to be among the basic freedoms protected by the First Amendment. They provided constitutional protection for newspapers.

It has been said newspapers are the "first draft of history." And when historians document the events of these days we are living, newspapers will be one of the prime sources of information they use.

It is believed the first step in determining this vital role of newspapers in a free society came in 1735, when a printer named John Peter Zenger went on trial for libel. He had published a newspaper with articles critical of the government. Printers in the New World had for a number of years already been battling against British colonial officials, contending the King's power to license -- and thereby control -- newspapers no longer applied. But it was Zenger who was brought to trial. He was defended successfully when his lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, convinced the jury that Zenger ought not to be punished for printing what was true. The finding advanced the concept that Americans were free to contribute ideas and comments as they wished to what Thomas Jefferson later would tag as our nation's "marketplace of ideas."

In the 1893 book "The Making of a Newspaper," author Melville Phillips penned a description of newspapers that may be just as valid today: "It looks so cheap and -- when one has gleaned the news from it -- so worthless; certainly the making of it does not seem to have cost much in time, labor, brains or money (but) the influence of American journalism reaches into every American home. ... A popular newspaper ... is in a sense, the voice of the people ..."

Thomas Jefferson wrote in a 1787 letter that "the good sense of the American people is always going to be the greatest asset of the American government. ... The people should always have the media to express opinions through. The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

America just wouldn't be "American" -- we would not be a free people and democracy would not function -- without newspapers.

Gene Policinski is deputy director of the First Amendment Center. He also is executive producer of "Speaking Freely," a weekly TV program on PBS.

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