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Unpacking and Understanding Media Bias, Part 2: Press in Colonial America

Historical context is essential to a true understanding of bias and partisanship in U.S. news media. This article focuses on the advent and early development of newspapers in the colonial era, from about the mid 17th century until just before the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

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The First Printing Press and Early Censorship

The first printing press in colonial America, established in Massachusetts in 1638 by the Puritans, came about just a few years after the founding of the first colonial college (Harvard). Most Americans today associate Puritanism with repressive restrictions on behavior and expression; however, the Puritans were also the purveyors of early literacy, education and printing in the colonies. By 1700, Boston would become the center of printing and book trade in the colonies.

When William Penn visited the lands bequeathed to him in 1682, a printer’s apprentice by the name of William Bradford accompanied him. Founded by the Quakers on the idea of religious tolerance, Pennsylvania was the heritor of the Quakers’ extensive publishing experience. Quakers had covertly published their own works while still in Britain.

The Origins of Media and Government Partnerships

Upon settling in Pennsylvania in 1685, Bradford managed to offend the Quakers with his very first publication — an almanac — after which he received a warning against publishing anything not authorized by them. In 1692, Bradford found himself jailed when another of his publications incurred the wrath of the Quakers. Following his release from jail, Bradford relocated to New York where he accepted a position as a government printer and thereafter avoided printing anything that challenged authority.

About 20 years later, Bradford’s son Andrew accepted a position similar to his father’s in Philadelphia. Together, the two Bradfords held a monopoly on printing and focused their efforts solely on content that would not offend their patrons, which was also of little real interest to the public.

Throughout the late 17th century, the development of the colonial postal system greatly impacted the growth of newspapers — a connection that was not quite apparent at the time. At this point in the history of the American press, newspaper publishers doubled as either government printers or postmasters, thus they had a vested interest in protecting the ruling class upon which they relied for funding and patronage.

Following the death of his father in 1702, John Campbell assumed the role of postmaster — a position his father had held since 1693. In 1704, Campbell started the first regularly published paper in the colonies, the Boston News-Letter. Avoiding coverage of colonial news, Campbell instead focused primarily on reprinting information from London newspapers. Each publication received the pre-approval of the governor and was printed with the same notation as the London Gazette, “Published by Authority.”

The Bradfords soon followed suit, publishing similarly uninspired newspapers, first Andrew Bradford’s American Weekly Mercury in Philadelphia in 1719 and later, in 1725, William Bradford’s New-York Gazette. Steering clear of colonial controversies, issues or politics, these papers, like the Boston News-Letter, mainly focused on happenings in Europe.

Censorship Wanes

Over the course of the 17th century, official censorship began to transform. Prosecutions for “base and detracting” speech declined greatly, as did the harsh physical punishments and excommunications associated with censored speech. Lawsuits pertaining to defamation and slander, formerly big business for the legal system, trailed off. Prosecutions continued primarily for speech deemed damaging to the government.

While not a solid victory for freedom of expression or speech, these changes definitely signified a move in that direction. They allowed for the beginnings of dialog and debate regarding topics of real public concern. The easing of censorship and penalties for unauthorized speech logically spurred the beginnings of a transformation in terms of the content printed in colonial newspapers.

Colonial Newspapers Begin to Challenge Authority

Founded by Puritan criticizer James Franklin in 1721, the New-England Courant was the first controversial colonial newspaper. Although a short-lived publication, having folded in 1725 — just two years after the departure of Franklin’s younger brother Benjamin — it paved the way for increasing public debate and government scrutiny via newspapers.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, competitors to the Bradfords began providing an outlet for those critical of authority. In 1729 they were joined by journeyman Benjamin Franklin who purchased a failed newspaper that originally focused on the reprinting of an encyclopedia. The younger Franklin revamped the newspaper and it came to be known as the Pennsylvania Gazette. The paper quickly became associated with the popular party and its leaders — such as attorney Andrew Hamilton — who were Bradford’s enemies.

In 1732, a group of politicians — known as the Morrisites — sought to expose royal governor William Cosby’s abuse of power in New York. Cosby had removed New York’s chief justice, Lewis Morris, from his position for refusing to support his claim to half of the salary of the previous governor. The Morrisites wrote articles and enlisted a relatively unknown printer named John Peter Zenger, who then spent eight months in jail awaiting trial on charges of seditious libel.

Representing Zenger, Andrew Hamilton argued that the articles published by Zenger did not qualify as libelous because the allegations included in them were true. Defying the court’s instructions, the jury acquitted Zenger in a significant decision that further opened up political debate and government scrutiny. While the decision did not guarantee free expression and speech, from that point on trials for seditious libel decreased significantly, becoming almost nonexistent by the time of the Revolutionary War.

Despite these changes, colonial printers remained under the thumb of the government in the respect that they still required its patronage. Even Benjamin Franklin required the funding of the government. Appointed postmaster in 1737, Franklin also served as the public printer for Pennsylvania, and at times Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland. Also, in an effort to obtain the broadest base of clients and advertisers possible, printers attempted to remain neutral.

The colonial perception of a free press was one in which all points of view could be published, at least all points of view that didn’t conflict with or offend those in power. This often meant not discussing divisive issues in newspapers, and actually had the effect of throttling debate more than it encouraged it.

The Emergence of Public Debate and Partisan News

Sometime around 1720, competition and public debate began to emerge in the press, which, by 1765 began to morph into the partisan news. Benjamin Franklin first reprinted “Cato’s Letters”, written by Thomas Gordan and John Trenchard in Britain in the early 1720s, in his brother James Franklin’s newspaper in 1722 while James was imprisoned for his criticism of Massachusetts’ governor. The Boston Gazette reprinted the essays — which dealt with free expression and speech — seven times between 1755 and 1780.

During the 1760s, colonists also became keenly interested in the writings of natural rights proponent John Locke. As the Revolution began to take form, and even more so in the resulting republic, newspapers began to take on a distinctly partisan nature.

Within the first 120 or so years, the colonial press went through changes that primed the colonies for the Revolution and for a more partisan press. Although in the first several decades it lacked partisanship, colonial news was still biased or skewed in favor of the elite — the governing authorities. Issues considered divisive or damaging to the government were disregarded and went undiscussed. News media in British North America had not yet taken the form of the fourth estate. Whether for fear of prosecution or loss of patronage, the press protected authority rather than challenging it.

Much of the information for this article, and for the articles that will follow, was gleaned from Paul Starr’s book, “The Creation of the Media,” which is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in a complete history of U.S. news media.

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