Close to Home: A history of keeping truth alive
The first newspaper published in America debuted on Sept. 20, 1690. Named “Publik Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick,” it lasted one day. The paper was declared subversive by colonial officials and shut down. Its crime was publishing a number of rather blunt but true accounts of the day, including one concerning the French king’s involvement in a sex scandal.
Forty-four years later, a printer named John Peter Zenger used his newspaper, the New-York Weekly Journal, to criticize the colonial governor for a number of heavy-handed actions, including his dismissal of a judge in a dispute concerning the governor’s pay. Although the facts of the newspaper’s coverage were true, Zenger was thrown in jail, charged with libel. In those days, criticisms — truthful or not — were considered libelous and were punishable. But something remarkable happened. Much to the chagrin of the crown, when the case went to trial, the jury found Zenger innocent, and he was set free. It was one of the first cases of jury nullification in American history. More important, it was the first time that truth was allowed as a defense in a libel case, setting the stage for the free press rights that would be spelled out in the First Amendment some 55 years later.
The history of newspapers in America is often the history of publications struggling to survive, often in defiance of those in power.
This story permeated from the moment one walked into the Newseum in Washington, D.C., one of the few places where original copies of “Publik Occurrences” and Zenger’s publications could be seen on display. The Newseum was a formidable presence for more than its contents, however. With its seven-story façade featuring the entire text of the First Amendment, the institution has been — or should have been — a billboard-like reminder to those just up the street at the U.S. Capitol and those down the block at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. as to the constitutional obligations regarding a free and open press.
But that billboard is coming down. After 12 years and nearly 10 million visitors, the Newseum closed on Dec. 31.
For newspaper junkies like myself, it’s a painful development. Although I finally had a chance to spend about four hours (it wasn’t enough) wandering through the exhibits in 2019, I regret not having the opportunity to bring my family at some point during those 12 years. Given the faces of the many schoolchildren who toured the facility on the same day as I, my kids would have enjoyed it.
In addition to front pages from throughout history, there were large sections of the Berlin Wall and the 360-foot antenna mast that toppled from the World Trade Center’s North Tower on 9/11. Displays included seven decades of Pulitzer Prize- winning photography and political cartoons as well as countless magazine covers, radio broadcasts and documents from the Federalist Papers to the Pentagon Papers. They also included a 1927 front page about the test of a new medium called “television.”
One of the most moving exhibits was the Journalists Memorial, which paid tribute to reporters, photographers and broadcasters who died reporting the news. The two-story memorial featured the names of 2,344 men and women, including nine journalists who were killed on April 30, 2018, when they scrambled to cover a suicide bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan. Little did they know that a second suicide bomber, equipped with a fake press pass, was waiting specifically for them.