Primary Sources: Freedom of the Press

Primary Sources: Freedom of the Press

Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of … the press

Freedom of the Press in the First Amendment

John Peter Zenger’s New York Weekly Journal (1733) – John Peter Zenger was a New York colonial publisher who printed articles critical of the Royal governor. In response, the governor charged Zenger with libel. Zenger’s lawyers successfully argued for a free press and that truth is a defense against charges of libel. Zenger’s trial was a formative precedent for the First Amendment.

Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases by Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1892) – The press has often served as a “watchdog” for both society and the government. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was an investigative journalist and civil rights activist who used her First Amendment freedoms to expose the horrors of lynching. Her pamphlet, Southern Horrors, raised America’s awareness of lynching and drew such an angry backlash her press was destroyed.

“The War Scare in Hogan’s Alley” (1896) – Before there was “fake news,” there was Yellow Journalism, a term for media that presents no legitimate or accurate news but instead uses eye-catching or misleading headlines for increased sales. The term was coined in the mid-1890s when two sensational and misleading newspapers were competing for sales by using the same comic, Hogan’s Alley. “The Yellow Kid” is a character from the comic strip, hence “Yellow” Journalism. Since the Yellow Kid was found in both notorious papers, they were called “Yellow” papers. The term is still employed today.

“Killing is All That Matters” (1942) – Ernie Pyle is one of the most famous war correspondents in United States history. During World War II, Pyle lived amongst servicemen and followed them on their various campaigns
through Africa, Europe, and Asia. In 1945, he was killed by enemy fire. President Harry Truman said of Pyle, “No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men wanted it told. He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen.”

Case Syllabus: New York Times, Co. v. Sullivan (1964) – The case began when The New York Times published a full-page advertisement that criticized the police in Montgomery, Alabama, for their mistreatment of civil rights protesters. However, the ad had several factual inaccuracies. In response, the Montgomery police commissioner sued the Times for defamation. The Supreme Court issued a unanimous 9–0 decision holding that the Alabama court’s verdict violated the First Amendment. The decision defended free reporting of the civil rights campaigns in the Southern United States. It is one of the key decisions supporting the freedom of the press.

Gonzo Journalism (First coined in 1970) – Journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson is famous for establishing a subgenre of New Journalism called “Gonzo Journalism” which is written in a first-person narrative style, claims no objectivity, and, in Thompson’s case, often blurs the line between reality and experience. If you’re interested in reading Gonzo journalism, try searching for Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, or his 1994 obituary of Richard Nixon, both printed in Rolling Stone

“Nixon Resigns” (1974) – The free press has brought about substantial change in the United States. One of the most famous examples of this was the Washington Post exposé on the Watergate scandal which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

The Weekly World News (2005) – “The Weekly World News was a tabloid which published mostly fictional “news” stories. It was renowned for its outlandish cover stories that verged on the satirical. Many people were duped by the tabloid, however, and considered the stories genuine.

“Target Immediately Pulls Bible From Shelves After Church Of Satan Complains” (2020) – “Fake news” and satirical articles, similar to the Weekly World News, have proliferated with the rise of the internet. Accusations of fake news have been lobbed at major news outlets blurring the lines between what is real and what is fake, eroding trust in the “mainstream” press. One site, The Babylon Bee, is a satirical website that publishes articles on religion, politics, current events, and well-known public figures. Its satire, however, is often lost on many people and their articles have been shared and presented as real news by duped public figures.