In the beginning, of course, there was the printing press. It arrived in England in 1476, more than a century before journalism took any recognizable shape in that country. What news did get printed in the first century of English printing was largely produced at the government’s behest as propaganda, or confined narrowly to noteworthy oddities or tragedies that did not impinge on state interests.
The outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618 was the key spur to an explosive period of growth in English journalism. By December 1620, “corantos” (single folio sheets) of news about the wars in Europe, printed in English, were making their way across the English Channel from Holland. At first, King James I banned corantos. But public demand for them was intense, and the government’s desire to control and domesticate the news of fierce sectarian wars pouring in from abroad proved irresistible. In less than a year after the corantos arrived, a publisher named Nathaniel Butter received royal permission to translate and publish news into English.
Ben Jonson, the Renaissance dramatist and poet, detested the suddenly burgeoning news industry of his day and let fly in 1626 with The Staple of News, a virulent slap down of newspapers written so that “the age may see her own folly, or hunger and thirst after published pamphlets of news, set out every Saturday but made all at home, and no syllable of truth in them: than which there cannot be a greater disease in nature, or a fouler scorn put upon the times.” It was Butter’s operation that Jonson satirized so mercilessly, and the reader gets a sense of Butter’s sensibility from a fantastical pamphlet that he printed shortly before securing a royal monopoly. “Good Newes from Christendome”–a purported translation from the Italian–relates news of a vision above “the supposed Tombe of Mahomet” that signaled the conversion of all Muslims to Christianity. And as a bonus, the pamphlet tossed in accounts of “the miraculous rayning of Bloud about Rome.”
The Staple of News is not one of Jonson’s best works, and his lampoon of the newfangled journalism of his era lacks the bite of his attack on charlatans peddling the Philosopher’s Stone and their gullible believers in The Alchemist (1610). But his savage complaints about a profession riddled with falsehoods, errors and biases, as well as being a virtual slave to vulgar commerce, pluck strikingly familiar chords. As dwindling readership, crippling layoffs and shrinking news holes ravage the industry more savagely than any mere criticism, today’s journalists may count themselves lucky that Jonson is no longer around to pile on. But if the prognosis for print journalism is as grim as that of alchemy, are there lessons for its survival or renewal to be learned from a backward glance at its earliest days?
An exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC–“Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper” (through January 31)–argues that question in the affirmative. The public appetite for news is insatiable, its creators assert, and the exhibit traces the profession that has satisfied that need from the gossipy manuscript letters passed from hand to hand in the late sixteenth century to the press’s emergence as an economically viable force in politics and culture in the early eighteenth century. The exhibit’s curators, Chris Kyle (a historian at Syracuse University) and Jason Peacey (a historian at University College, London), delight in making the more immediate connections between past and present. The 1613 pamphlet “The Wonders of This Windie Winter” is an early example of today’s disaster journalism. And then there are the seventeenth-century entries in the true-crime genre: pamphlets describing deaths, “great and bloudy” murders or “barbarous and most cruell” beheadings, illustrated by rough woodcuts of the mayhem. But Kyle and Peacey also tease out larger issues lurking in the mass of early journalism they have culled from the Folger’s holdings. In doing so, they provide a useful history of a complex interplay between government and the press at the industry’s birth, and a valuable window into how journalism coped with (and survived) its early encounters with roadblocks and with transformative change.
However much in demand the product of early journalists had become, their path to operational stability and success was never easy. Both James I and Charles I, his doomed son and heir, issued a series of edicts and bans on the industry during their reigns. Kyle and Peacey point out that Butter was jailed and subsequently put out of business for six years, largely because of fluctuations in the fortunes of Protestants in the Thirty Years’ War. Despite these obstacles and strictures, by the time fierce clashes between King Charles I and Parliament had escalated into open warfare in 1642, the industry was powerful enough to become a weapon in that conflict.
The English Civil War was less a free market for journalism than a freewheeling market. Both sides published papers, wildly spinning the news of the conflict and both parties’ rationales for power. The Royalist Mercurius Aulicus and Mercurius Pragmaticus jousted for hearts and minds with the Parliamentarian Mercurius Britanicus and Mercurius Anti-Pragmaticus. There were even opportunists such as Marchamont Nedham, a journalist who was talented enough to work as a propagandist for both sides of the conflict. Nedham started the Britanicus as a parliamentary response to Royalist propaganda, then switched sides and worked for the king as the writer of the Pragmaticus. After the Royalists were vanquished (and after some time doing penance in a parliamentary jail), Nedham became the writer and publisher of the official state papers of the new English Republic.
If the tale of Marchamont Nedham seems topsy-turvy, one must keep in mind just how chaotic a period it was. The years between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and Oliver Cromwell’s seizure of power as Lord Protector in 1653 were a vacuum for effective government power–and for censorship. It was a gap quickly filled by a dazzling array of new political and religious movements (Levellers, Diggers, Fifth Monarchists, Ranters). These movements–and their opponents–left a lengthy paper trail behind them. As part of the exhibit, Kyle and Peacey include a 1650 pamphlet attacking the Ranters, a small but vocal group whose radical and apocalyptic libertarianism has attracted interest and controversy among contemporary scholars. The author of “The Ranters Ranting” promises his readers a lascivious peek at the group’s “blasphemous opinions” and “several kinds of mirth and dancing.” And yes, the author includes a beheading or two for good measure. Defining your opponent down, indeed.
Eventually Cromwell and his party used the same tools of repression favored by their Royalist predecessors–edicts and stringent licensing of the press–to curb political and religious diversity and dissent. (The curators observe that Cromwell’s regime allowed only two newspapers to be legally printed–both written by Nedham.) But as Jerome Friedman pointed out in The Battle of the Frogs and Fairford’s Flies, even this Puritan repression could not stifle a giddy subculture of pamphlets that obsessed over strange events and prophecies, gave gruesome accounts of hideous crimes and celebrated moral turpitude and Robin Hood-like criminals. Friedman wrote that “if these simple ideas, embroidered on a cloth of folk belief and laced with superstition and magic, do not indicate why the revolution began, they may tell us a great deal about why the revolution failed.”
Aside from the Ranter pamphlet, Kyle and Peacey don’t venture far into this interesting byway of religious and social history. It is a diversion from their main narrative. By the end of the exhibit, they write that they have stopped at a moment in the early eighteenth century when “all of the key elements of the modern printed news industry were largely in place.” And the forms and figures of journalism do become more recognizable as the exhibit winds to its close. Advertisements and reviews of the arts turn up, as do editorials and election coverage. Publishing schedules become more regularized. Slippery media operators like Sir Roger L’Estrange also appear. A former Royalist agitator and spy, L’Estrange slid easily from conspiratorial politics into a powerful dual role in the Restoration as sole overseer of the press and a monopoly publisher. It was L’Estrange who, in 1681, articulated a rationale for the explicit use of the media to advance government policy: “Tis the press that has made ’em mad, and the press must set ’em right again.”
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.”
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.