Britain has celebrated journalists dating to its 18th-century figures Samuel Johnson and the team of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, whose Spectator was devoured in the coffeehouses of London. Toronto’s first mayor was a 19th-century newspaper editor, and today the stone Niagara home of William Lyon Mackenzie is a museum-sized salute to the press.
But hardly any country has placed newspapering – that much-maligned and, now, endangered profession of scribblers, ink-stained wretches and, recently, software coders – at the centre of its national identity as much as the United States, which enshrined press rights in the very first amendment to its Enlightenment-inspired Constitution, sharing that honour with the freedom of religion.
All of which explains why the ‘’targeted attack’’ in a Maryland newsroom with roots in opposition to the colonial-era Stamp Tax, shocked a nation that has endured repeated mass shootings in schools, churches and a casino. It inspired Twitter messages from the biggest press critic in U.S. history, President Donald Trump (”My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families”) and his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders (“A violent attack on innocent journalists doing their job is an attack on every American”).
Journalism, the lubricant of democracy, has been at the pressure points of American life from the start. John Peter Zenger, an early New York journalist, helped establish press rights that have been a vital part of the American character since his 1733 acquittal of a libel charge; the United States named a ship after him during the Second World War. The Committees of Correspondence stirred passions of national independence; they might be considered the nation’s first bloggers.
As the country became mired in the slavery debate, abolitionist editor Elijah Parish Lovejoy was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in 1837; he is regarded as the first American martyr to the freedom of the press and his is the first name on the Journalists Memorial at Washington’s Newseum.
In American folklore, newspaper publisher, William Randolph Hearst “started” the Spanish-American War of 1898. When the famous illustrator Frederic Remington cabled him that there was no sign of conflict in Spanish-controlled Cuba, Hearst cabled back: ‘’You supply the pictures, I’ll supply the war.’’
Some of the great figures in American culture were newspapermen and women. Benjamin Franklin started in journalism at 15 and established The Philadelphia Gazette in 1729. Ida B. Wells, born into slavery, co-owned a Memphis newspaper that documented the scourge of lynchings in the U.S. South; in 1892, a mob of white men destroyed her newspaper presses. Warren Harding, U.S. president from 1921 to 1923, owned the newspaper in his hometown of Marion, Ohio. Nellie Bly captivated millions with her 1889 around-the-world trip and Ida Tarbell helped established the muckraking tradition later taken up by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post, who themselves became cult heroes for their work on the Watergate scandal that drove Richard Nixon from the presidency in 1974.
And John F. Kennedy, thinking he might have a long life after leaving the White House, said he might like to fill his remaining years by editing a great American newspaper.
For all that, news reporters and editors in the United States were under attack long before Mr. Trump, surely the most virulent critic of the news media, pronounced journalists “enemies of the people,” a sinister phrase that dates to the French Revolution and was employed by Lenin and his successors in the Soviet Union.
George Washington grew impatient with press attacks. Thomas Jefferson was revered by journalists for his remark that he would rather have a newspaper than a government – but, long before Mr. Trump placed the phrase “fake news” into the worldwide lexicon, Jefferson said that the only truths to be found in a newspaper were in the advertisements.
Criticism of the media from the White House has only accelerated since Lyndon Johnson was antagonized by coverage of the Vietnam War. Mr. Nixon warned his new cabinet that Washington journalists were not to be trusted, a sentiment later shared by Bill Clinton, who faced relentless press attention for his conduct with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Barack Obama sought to prosecute a journalist. Mr. Trump has targeted journalists with unusual venom, describing them as cynical, biased purveyors of lies.
Yet, American journalists have revelled in the criticism they received even as they enjoyed the cultural approbation that has come their way, either in the pages of Sherwood Anderson’s famous 1919 novel, Winesburg, Ohio, where the central character, the young reporter George Willard, has “a hunger to see beneath the surface of lives” or in the 2017 movie The Post, about the Washington newspaper’s drive to print the Pentagon Papers.
This week, journalists are mourning the deaths in Annapolis, Md., just as they were after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shootings. They do so with the conviction that lone shooters with pent-up anger cannot kill their spirit. Nor can it dampen their impulse to see beneath the surface of lives, including the life of the man who took so many others’ lives in a tiny newsroom now stained with blood of their colleagues.