President Donald Trump has accused The New York Times of treason, a term generally defined as a criminal attempt to overthrow the government. Traitors have been liable for punishment by death. Reportedly, Republicans in Congress feel the president has overstepped with this accusation but are feckless in avoiding a confrontation, lest he support another candidate for their positions in the Republican primaries.
If not for our press, who would rally the people to defend its democracy against autocratic decisions affecting our freedoms and rights?
Thomas Jefferson, often himself a target of the press and salacious claims, opined, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
For a president to repeatedly label the press as “the enemy of the people”—were it to take hold among his core supporters—represents a fundamental threat to the keystone of our democracy.
There was a time in our British colonial days when the press was restricted from criticizing authority. From 1732 to 1736, William Cosby was the 24th colonial governor of the Province of New York. Gov. Cosby was accused by an opposition newspaper of crimes and misdemeanors, including attempting to rig an election in 1734. That paper, a four-page publication titled New York Weekly Journal, was produced by a German immigrant printer, John Peter Zenger.
Cosby’s response was to jail Zenger and accuse him of seditious libel, a crime of promoting “hatred or contempt” of the Crown or the government—and punishable by life imprisonment.
The Zenger Trial is a landmark case in American history. It was conducted in 1735, after Zenger had been confined to jail for nine months in City Hall. Zenger was ably defended by Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton.
Zenger was not the author of the critical columns; he was the publisher of the newspaper. Printers were the publishers in that era, and they exercised their own prerogative over what was printed on their presses.
Tried by jury, Zenger would not reveal who actually penned the articles. The probable author of several anonymous and critical editorials at point was James Alexander, an attorney. Zenger was acquitted, setting up our core precedent of “freedom of the press.”
The New York Public Library rare book room possesses a copy of the first edition of the account of the trial, authored by Alexander and printed by Zenger in 1736 after his acquittal. Upon the title page is James Alexander’s handwritten note, a quote from “An Universal History,” London, 1736-1747, vol. 5, p. 659:
“The Emperor Titus abrogated the Law of Majesty and would not suffer any person to be prosecuted for speaking disrespectfully of himself or other Emperors, his predecessors—saying—if they blacken my character undeservedly they ought rather to be pitied than punished—If deservedly, it would be a crying power of injustice to punish them for speaking truth.”
Granted, the press is widely considered to be elitist, biased, irresponsible and often ill-informed, covering official spokesmen and staged events rather than content. President Trump is certainly not alone among our presidents to have condemned the press as partisan and unfair, and, indeed, their personal enemy.
But we should be wary of the threat posed by any powerful leader actively portraying the press as the enemy of the people.
Especially the president.
Steve Abramson, a resident of Water Mill, is a member of the Water Mill Citizens Advisory Committee and the Mill Pond Association.
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One fine body…