Unpacking and Understanding Media Bias, Part 3: Partisan Press of the Revolutionary War
It’s been a while since I published the first two articles in this series, so click here to review the first article, which provided a brief introduction to media bias and its related terms, or click here to review the second article, which focused on press in colonial America.
From Foreign News to Domestic Coverage
As discussed in part 2, newspaper publishers of the colonial era eschewed coverage of politics and colony-specific issues. In their best effort to avoid provoking colonial officials and the wealthy benefactors whose funding and good graces they relied on, their columns instead consisted primarily of foreign news.
Despite such active avoidance on the part of publishers, newspapers in British North America contributed greatly to the growing resistance among colonists, and ultimately, the Revolutionary War. Between 1763 and 1765, the frequency of newspapers referring to colonists as “Americans” greatly increased.
In March 1765, Parliament levied a stamp tax on the colonies, set to take effect in November of that year. The Stamp Act applied to printers, lawyers, merchants and college students, among others.
Fueling the Press
The Stamp Act required printers to pay England a halfpenny on half-sheet newspapers, a penny on those longer than a half-sheet, and two shillings for each advertisement that appeared within the papers’ pages. Outrage over the Stamp Act spurred the dissent associated with “taxation without representation” protests.
One might expect such a tax would have killed a budding press — indeed, even Benjamin Franklin predicted that the tax would cut newspaper subscriptions and advertising in half. However, this did not prove to be the case. In “The Creation of the Media,” author Paul Starr explains that “far from stifling the press, the Stamp Act politicized it.”
Federalist newspapers, pamphlets and other publications acted as springboards from which the revolution catapulted itself into action. While some printers continued on with their hands-off approach to colonial news, others reported on protests and advocated for dissenters. Most notably, they provided a voice for the opposition, helping revolutionaries progress from a chaotic group of radicals into a cohesive movement.
In the fall of 1765, opponents to the Stamp Act began organizing under the name “Sons of Liberty.” As they coordinated their resistance, they utilized newspapers to publicize their actions.
Newspapers served as a means to unite the colonists.
Fueling the Resistance
Quite logically, as a result of the Stamp Act, many printers perceived the resistance to be in their best interest, and resistance leaders similarly identified their cause with the printing press. John Adams promulgated a “potent myth” surrounding press in America:
“But none of the means of information are more sacred, or have been cherished with more tenderness and care by the settlers of America, than the press. Care has been taken, that the art of printing should be encouraged, and that it should be easy and cheap and safe for any person to communicate his thoughts to the public.”
Still, some newspapers sided with and remained loyal to the crown, incurring the wrath of the revolutionaries, who threatened to destroy the loyalist printing presses. However, printing presses were not actually destroyed, nor were journalists or printers ever assaulted or attacked.
Loyalist printer James Rivington was hung in effigy, but that was as far as the violence ever went. Under the pseudonym Leonidas, Benjamin Rush published accusations of embezzling against revolutionaries. While revolutionaries held disdain for such loyalist printers, but generally tolerated the press that criticized them. The line was drawn, however, at “loyalists’ treason.”
In 1768, the Royal Council requested that the Massachusetts House hold the Boston Gazette responsible for “attacks” it had made on the royal governor. However, the House responded with language borrowed from Trenchard and Gordon: “The Liberty of the Press is a great Bulwark of the Liberty of the People: It is, therefore, the incumbent Duty of those who are constituted the Guardians of the People’s Rights to defend and maintain it.”
During the War
The patriots and their cause relied heavily on the printers, so much so that the press came to be seen as an essential and characteristic right of the people. When fighting finally broke out between the colonies and England, the colonies had not yet published daily newspapers; however, the colonies had 37 four-page weekly newspapers in circulation. The number of weeklies published more than doubled between the mid-eighteenth century and 1775.
While the Revolution did not spur a growth in press during the war years, growth did resume after the war. Throughout the course of the war, pamphlets became a popular means for revolutionaries to communicate their ideas to colonists. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense,” first published in 1776, went through 25 printings and sold an estimated 150,000 copies in just one year.
Press with New Purpose
Following the war, many newspapers returned to the publishing of uncontroversial news, though politicians and elected officials had come to realize that they could use the press to curry public favor.
From the earliest days of the revolutionary era, the colonial press played an integral role in the debate of common/public interest, contributed to development of national identity, and assisted with cooperative action. The revolutionaries and loyalists in turn politicized the press and introduced an obvious partisanship to American newspapers.
The next segment of this series will pick up with the constitutional era of the new republic.
Much of the information for parts two and three of this series of articles has been gleaned from the books “The Creation of the Media” by Paul Starr and from James Kuypers’ book, “Partisan Journalism: A History of Media Bias in the United States.” I highly recommend both books for readers interested in a thorough history of media in the United States.