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November 2, 2005

Gray Ladies Down

Kevin E. Dayhoff

American newspapers are in deep trouble. I have mixed feelings about this. For many of us who have hit the half-century mark, we remember the days when the bulk of our news was delivered by several newspapers in a single day. This gave us the news from many different points of view.

Since their beginnings in Germany in 1615, newspapers have always been controversial and biased. Only – through most of their history – they were more upfront about their agenda.

Many historians accept that 1960 was the first year more Americans got more of their news by watching television than reading the newspaper.

I (vaguely) remember life before television. Our first TV arrived around 1958. It was a large console with a very small screen that flickered – when it worked. We were able to receive four channels: 2, 11 13 and 5. Often what we watched was the “test screen” or the screen that stated that the program had been interrupted due to technical difficulties.

For whatever reason, I do remember watching the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate. I liked Mr. Nixon and didn’t like Mr. Kennedy. I still agree – even 45 years after my introduction to these gentlemen – with an October 2000 Survey of Scholars in History, Politics, and Law, co-sponsored by Federalist Society & Wall Street Journal, which stated that when the opportunity to name the most overrated presidents arose, 43 of the 78 scholars named John Kennedy.

Recent historians believe that the year 2000 was the first year that more Americans get their news from the Internet than from television. Now this I can relate to. I mostly followed the election of 2000 on the Internet. It was the late 1990s when I started putting down my newspaper and getting up from the TV and doing my newsgathering on the Internet.

In the late 1990s, I started to read newspapers online. Next I went further into the Internet to try and do further research. Now I do the exact opposite. After a quick review of The Frederick News Post, and The Carroll County Times, I go to blogs like Michelle Malkin, Instapundit, Technorati, Power Line, The Political Teen, Town Hall or Human Events, and then go to the mainstream newspaper articles called to my attention – for the liberal point of view.

When the tragedy of September 11 unfolded, I first went to the TV for information. Recently, when the tsunami struck on December 26, 2004, and terrorists struck the subway in London on July 7, 2005 – I went to the Internet before I went to the TV. I gathered most of my news about Katrina from non-traditional news media on the Internet.

So how did we get to where we are today? A brief history of the beginnings of newspapers (and where they got their attitude):

One of my prized possessions is a complete set of the 1884 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. It gives a researcher great insight into history (of course, before 1884) without any contemporary spin or bias.

The entry on “Newspapers” is 27 pages. It reports that the first “news of the day” started in 1615 in Germany with the weekly publication of the “Frankfurter Journal.” Apparently news-pamphlets date back as early as 1498, but Britannica did not consider them to be “newspapers.”

There are far too many interesting extracts of information to include here, but among the fascinating notations in Britannica is that “The history of the ‘leading article’ as a factor in the shaping of public opinion begins…[in England in] the keen political strife years of 1704-40.”

In what may have been a first in world history, I have read accounts that one of the reasons the British abandoned their cause in the American Revolution was a result of English newspapers turning against the war effort. During the war, when Ben Franklin was assigned to Paris, he had spies in England who were partially tasked with keeping him informed of the deliberations on the progress of the war as reported in the newspapers.

Later during the French “Revolution of 1789,” a Frenchman wrote: “Suffer yourself to be blamed, imprisoned, condemned; suffer yourself even to be hanged; but publish your opinions. It is not a right; it is a duty.” Napoleon Bonaparte once said: “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”

The Britannica entry on newspapers quickly went into quite a discussion on “journalism” and the status of journalism in numerous countries. One profound notation explains: “…but for unusual mental gifts, conjoined with great ‘staying power,’ in the editorial rooms… which combine to develop public opinion on great public interests, and to guide it…”

Apparently newspapers have thought well of themselves for many centuries.

The “Newspapers of the United States” section reveals “Boston was the first city of America that possessed a local newspaper; but the earliest attempt in that direction, made in 1689, and a second attempt, under the title “Publick Occurrences,” which followed … were both suppressed by the Government of Massachusetts.”

Britannica continues with a detailed account of the numerous attempts to begin newspapers in America. One interesting entry notes that the “The Boston News-Letter” started on April 24, 1704, and “continued until [the] loss of Boston by the British.” Apparently the “Boston News-Letter” took the position of maintaining British rule against the rising call for independence.

After the American Revolution, the British Government gave the “widow” of the Boston News-Letter editor a pension.

Love ‘em or hate them, newspapers have been around for 400 years. Will Rogers once said: “I know just what I read in the papers, and that's an alibi for my ignorance.” In a future column I’ll explore more newspaper history and why Will Rogers’ humor about (media bias and) newspapers is no longer funny or acceptable.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at:

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