Sentinel under Siege: The Triumphs and Troubles of America's Free Press

By Stanley E. Flink | Go to book overview
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21
THE PARADOX OF SELF-GOVERNMENT

I think that there is, in most journalists I know, however cynical and however hardened they are about politics or public life in this country, or however discouraged about problems that never really get resolved or situations that never improve, there remains a very strong streak of idealism. They do think they are part of an important calling that is vital to the democracy. They really do.

-- Robert MacNeil, television journalist, Canadian Broadcasting, NBC, MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour

James Madison contemplated the possibility that newspaper publishers who printed inaccurate or unpalatable criticisms of political figures would be fined or thrown in jail -- or both -- because of sedition laws. "It would seem a mockery," he said, "to say that no laws shall be passed preventing publications from being made, but that laws might be passed for punishing them in case they should be made (emphasis added).1

The Zenger case in 1735 had introduced the principle that truth was a defense. Criticism, no matter how harsh, damaging, or satirical, appeared to be protected if a jury found the substance of the writing to be true. The judgment, however, was not scientific or statutory and, as discussed earlier, it could cut in both directions. What was true in the view of the publisher and his readers might be called false, libelous, malicious, by a jury that was sympathetic to the plaintiff. If the speaker or publisher had to prove that what had been said was true in every respect, the cost alone of that process could be forbidding. The cost of failure could be prison. The fear of sedition charges, no matter how undeserved, could and did chill the open discussion of public issues. The word licentious was commonly used in the early nineteenth century to describe seditious materials, that is, materials that criti

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