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Close to Home: A history of keeping truth alive

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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.

Those exhibits and tributes will have to exist someplace else going forward. And, no doubt, they will. But let’s be honest. The closure of the Newseum couldn’t come at a worse time. America needs these reminders more than ever.

The First Amendment is woven deeply into the ethos of our nation, but our president tears at that fabric daily with his baseless attacks and allegations of “fake news” concerning any story or commentary with which he disagrees. His conduct — and that of his supporters, particularly those in the U.S. Senate — is unlike anything this nation has witnessed before. They treat not just the media but their obligations to transparency and accountability as enemies of the people.

Under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the White House held between 15 and 20 press briefings each month. Under Trump, the White House hasn’t held a press briefing in nine months. The president seems content with issuing statements via Twitter, campaign rallies and exclusive interviews with Fox News.

It’s no secret that newspapers are struggling to find their way in a digitally based economy. According to a study by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism, more than 1 in 5 newspapers in the United States has closed its doors over the past 15 years. At the same time, the number of journalists working for newspapers has been cut in half. This is primarily a result of monumental changes in the advertising side of the business — not on the news coverage side.

Earlier I said the history of newspapers is a history of publications struggling to survive. That’s only part of the story. It’s primarily a struggle to keep truth alive, often in defiance of those who would like to hide it, deny it or, as is often the case today, redefine it. This is the messy legacy of founders who built a nation on the premise that no true republic can function without a free and open press.

I won’t deny that, as we enter a new decade, I’m concerned about what that relationship will look like when we come out the other side of the 2020s. I’m concerned about what newspapers will look like. What I am certain of, however, is that we will be no less dependent on the free press principles spelled out by our founders, principles that were forged by the hard lessons of history that came before them. And we will be no less dependent on news organizations small and large to uphold those values by covering our communities, holding government officials accountable and publishing the truth.

Museums are nice. But the best way to protect the history of journalism is by investing in its future. Support your local newspaper, whether it’s The Press Democrat, the Petaluma Argus-Courier, the Sonoma Index-Tribune or some other publication, small or large. Along with voting, subscribing remains one of the greatest acts of defiance we have against malfeasance and attempts to govern through willful ignorance and deceit. It’s also the greatest respect we can show for our nation’s past.

Vote on March 3. Subscribe today.

Paul Gullixson is associate vice president of strategic communications for Sonoma State University. He is a former editorial director of The Press Democrat.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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