Ranters and Corantos: Renaissance Journalism | The Nation


Ranters and Corantos: Renaissance Journalism

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If this battle between government and the press is inevitable, what factors tip the balance in journalism's favor? Kyle and Peacey place the bold articulation of the freedoms at stake in that battle at the top of the list. John Milton's justly famous Areopagitica, for instance, was written in 1644, when the Parliament he supported rolled back press freedoms granted by the king a few years earlier. This early argument for the freedom of the press--made against one's own allies--has a place of honor in the exhibit. But Kyle and Peacey also make clear that documents are never enough to strengthen the press. The other great tool in creating press freedom was the largely egalitarian nature of the journalistic enterprise. Governments, clerics and elites felt that they had the power and right, as Parliament put it in 1643, to suppress "the great late abuses and frequent disorders in Printing...to the great defamation of Religion and Government." Or, to quote L'Estrange again, the newspaper "made the Multitude too familiar with the actions and Counsels of their superiors, too pragmatical and censurious, and gives them not only an itch but a kind of colourable right, and license to be meddling with the government."

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Richard Byrne
Richard Byrne is a journalist and playwright who lives in Washington, DC. He blogs at Balkans via Bohemia.

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It is an attitude that has never quite faded from the corridors of power. Indeed, the history of the Bush administration's press relations often proved that such sentiments can be easily reanimated and can take the shape of blatant bullying (Ari Fleischer's dictum that Americans should "watch what they say" after 9/11), selective leaking (the Valerie Plame affair) and even the simple erasure of files and records. In the early days of journalism, such thinking was opposed not by equally powerful players ranged in opposition but rather by a diverse and often lowly gang of writers and publishers. Barriers to entry into the journalistic enterprise were low, Kyle and Peacey observe; bargemen, ironmongers and even women were included. "Breaking News" gives plentiful evidence that modern journalism was built, in large part, from the bottom up.

Comparisons between this egalitarianism and the Internet's lowering of barriers to enter the news industry are inevitable. One also can't help but connect the vigorous partisanship of the world of early newspapers to the Internet's reinvigoration of journalistic partisanship. But "Breaking News" suggests that such comparisons are far too simple. The Internet also provides possibilities to short-circuit or warp the flow of information. China and Singapore have shown that governments that are determined to censor web traffic can largely accomplish such aims. We remember figures like Roger L'Estrange not because they failed but because they largely succeeded. And current battles to preserve the principle of net neutrality suggest that choke points on press freedom also can be controlled by corporations bent on lopsided aggregation and monopoly. Not only is government censorship or private "licensing" of Internet news a virtual possibility; it has already been accomplished--often with the connivance of the medium's innovators.

In the exhibit, Kyle and Peacey include a 1642 pamphlet, "Pigges Coranto or Newes from the North." It expresses the uncertainty of the times in which it was written with clear and familiar wit: "The generall newes is, no body knowes what to make of this World, and that all think there is a better, but its ten to one they do not hit on't, that future ages are more subject to alteration than the present, that the Rumors of warres makes all believe Doomesday is at hand, and hath caused more tales in every mans mouth than truth." "Breaking News" allows for only two certainties in the history of print journalism. The first is that a permanent demand for news has been created, so much so that people will take poor-quality news over none at all. (The official newspapers of the Parliament and the Restoration were avidly read, despite being disliked.) Professional standards in the mainstream media--however well or poorly enforced--have had salutary effects on the accuracy and reliability of news. These standards and benefits are never givens, however, especially if the structures that support them--freedom, capital--are swept away in a tide of suppression or red ink.

The other certainty is that readers will complain about the news that they get regardless of its quality. Indeed, as the author of "Pigges Coranto" writes, "all think there is a better." Jonson's attacks possess such a familiar ring because news is a human enterprise, at the mercy of individual foibles and collective compromises. It always be imperfect, and necessarily of its time, though it soars too when it seeks to be more vital and more perfect--and it has the means necessary to do so.

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