Even ‘fake news’ is vital to our liberty

Part 2 of 2. Read the first part, “1st Amendment written to protect ‘fake news’

Although the term “fake news” was not part of their lexicon, the Founding Fathers understood quite well the concept. As I discussed last week in “1st Amendment was written to protect fake news,” highly partisan editors used the power of their presses to disseminate their views with little concern over whether they were being truthful or even upheld basic standards of decorum.

Newspapers, pamphlets and broadsheets provided nourishment to both spark the American Revolution and keep it alive. Doubtless King George thought the ongoing lists of grievances colonial editors proclaimed against the crown were at best overblown if not outright lies.

As Ken Burns notes in his book , Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and The Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism:

Certainly the war would not have begun as soon as it did without the encouragement of the press. As New York Journal editor John Holt said on one occasion to Sam Adams, “It was by means of News papers that we receiv’d & spread the Notice of the tyrannical Designs formed against America, and kindled a Spirit that  has been sufficient to repel them.

And almost certainly, the war would not have ended with an American victory in a period of seven years from the first shot to signed treaty had not the newspapers – and some pamphlets – constantly reminded the colonists of the cause they shared, thereby inspiring the valor of soldiers and the patience and support of civilians.

The British knew it, too. The Boston Gazette was the only paper on their hit list before the war began, but as battles raged and patriot prose became ever more the tie that bound the colonies into a makeshift nation, the British set upon print shops as they did stray battalions of colonial militia. Sometimes, rather than wrecking the supplies and equipment, they stole them and delivered them to Tory publishers for more sympathetic use.

Criticism from the press during the war wasn’t just aimed at the crown. Editors, pamphleteers and broadsheet publishers directed scorn at one another, at the generals – George Washington in particular — and the politicians. And after the war politicians – even esteemed and venerated figures like Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton – were special targets. The media occasionally feigned impartiality, but it wasn’t unusual for an editor to use his publication for the sole purpose of tearing down one politician or cause and venerating another. And yet even with this history, the Founders believed a free press to be an essential freedom.

 

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