Against journalism: remembering the Zenger Trial

America started going off the rails at a very early date.  First, there was the prevalence of newspapers in His Majesty’s colonies.  It is, I think, an open question whether any people can maintain its virtue for long in a land where journalists and their product are plentiful.  I have elsewhere presented reasons to doubt it, and the history of Western nations gives us no reason for hope.

If, however, newspapers and their enormous influence must be endured, at least this vast social force should be made accountable to the common good.  In 1735, America rejected even this mild defense against the ravages of journalism.  I imagine that most of you, like me, first heard of the trial of John Peter Zenger in grade school, where it was held up as a great victory for what we now call freedom of the press.  The details of the case can be read here; they don’t really concern us.  What does concern us is the principle established:  that newspapers should be immune to charges of seditious libel if it can be shown that they believe those accusations to be true.

The self-evident wonderfulness of a free press is drilled into our heads so relentlessly from such a young age, that it can be very difficult for us to realize what a stupid, reckless, destructive idea it is.  What it has done is emancipated an incredibly powerful social force from any responsibility towards the social order.  After all, it is a set of generally held beliefs and sentiments that maintain and even constitute a political community:  the sacred aura of authority, the belief in the general trustwothiness of one’s neighbors, the impression of a general consensus on acceptable behavior.  Malignant newspapermen can destroy these things without ever actually lying.

Let me state my position plainly.  Of course the misdeeds of authority figures should be concealed from the public.  This includes senior government officials, senior clergy, and revered ancestors.  Such knowledge is a menace to piety, patriotism, and obedience.  Journalists did right when they refrained from reporting President Kennedy’s adulteries; they did wrong when they reported President Clinton’s.  The damage the President himself did by his private transgressions is insignificant compared to the damage the press does to the majesty of authority by reporting such things.

Conversely, the concealment of crimes, when their revelation would damage the polis, can be a statesmanlike act.  Bishops are right to conceal the crimes of their priests.  In doing so, they protect the souls of the laity.  The military is right to conceal war crimes committed by our troops.  Such revelations would only embolden our enemies.  A husband and father who publicly reveals his adultery adds a second wrong to the first; he makes all of society a victim, as well as his family.

Do the liberals, communists, and anarcho-syndicalists think otherwise?  Fine.  Let them show me the race of angels they have on hand to rule mankind.  In the meantime, so long as men are ruled by men, hypocricy shall be a public necessity.

2 Responses

  1. For the more common adulatory view of Zenger, see this excerpt from Simon, Needham, Powell, Lawyers and the Legal Profession: Cases and Materials (4th ed.) (Matthew Bender & Co., 2009), p. 183:

    “John Peter Zenger, a printer and writer, is justly remembered as one of our country’s most inspiring founders…No one could have foreseen the perturbations that Zengers’ attacks would cause. They would ripple through the Colonies, convulse in the American Revolution, inspire the First Amendment, and eventually connect national democratic movements from the 1789 storming of the Bastille to the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. As Gouverneur Morris called it when the First Congress debated the Bill of Rights, it was truly the ‘morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America.'”

    In other words, people knew that Zenger was a revolutionary.

    And on p. 185 this book justifies discussing Zenger at such relative length because Zenger’s victory in court “marked the rise of a lawyer class.” How wonderful.

  2. Wow. Anti-journalistic fanatic that I am, I would not have thought of blaming Zenger for the Bastille.

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