Opinion

Analysis of 1868 newspaper reveals timely message: Freedom and potential of the press remain responsibility of both writer and reader

“Whoever controls what is written down and passed along controls the minds of the people. That is why it is of the utmost importance of all generations, now and to come, to protect the press’s freedom, as they also in turn protect their own freedom. Newspapers must remain written by the people, for the people.”

By CHRISTIAN MORRISON

The power of a piece of paper and a writing utensil must never be underestimated, for what caused the greatest political and social changes in global history but a handful of yellowed, wrinkled papers with profound ideals spattered upon them?

A righteous individual, armed with paper, pen and ink, has unlimited potential to bring about positive social or political change to benefit the citizens of their native country or even the world in its entirety. Such is the case throughout American history.

Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and the Letters of Correspondence helped to spark the Revolutionary War; William Garrison’s “The Liberator” gave a voice to the abolition movement developing in America during the Antebellum period; “The Declaration of Sentiments” would help organize and solidify the early women’s rights movement in America, which would eventually result in the equal treatment of women in America.

However, it is important not to just praise the blinding brilliance of the first spark that starts the fire, but also appreciate the small pieces of tinder that helped the spark turn into a blaze. These small pieces of tinder are formally known as local newspapers, which are crucial to the spreading of news and ideas to citizens whose knowledge of the subject is necessary for its success.

For if no one had heard of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and the radical beliefs it carried then could it have had such a lasting impact on American and global history? News publication, a thing so important to Americans that it was among the first things they sought to protect in the First Amendment in the “Bill of Rights,” has been of indescribable importance to American history as it was these articles that dispensed factual information that allowed for citizens to make educated opinions on subject matters that concerned them greatly.

In order to analyze the effects that newspapers have had on America as a whole, it is imperative that publications of the past be studied thoroughly so that the evolutionary traits that connect past articles to present may be made clear.

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An 1808 print publication of the Troy Daily Times. Photo by CHRISTIAN MORRISON

“The Troy Daily Times” published in Troy, New York, in 1868 is an ideal piece to study that might allow for a glimpse into the past. By examining this seemingly unimportant and obscure local newspaper, it is possible to see the political issues of the time through the point of view of local New York citizens, and also analyze how regular citizens interacted with their local newspapers nearly 150 years ago.

“…while newspapers are a great source of information and a stimulus for change, it is every American’s responsibility to check the facts provided in an article to make sure they make logical sense.”

The first thing that catches the eye is the amount of advertisements that can be found on the newspaper. Promotions for people’s medicine, jewelry, crops, clothing, woodworking, books and even medicinal businesses can be found located on the newspaper’s front and back. One such advertisement for medicine reads, “Missisquoi spring water cures cancer, cures cutaneous affections, cures scrofula, and all impurities of the blood.” Upon reading this scandalous claim, it is very clear that the art of fact checking was not invented or implemented until much later.

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Advertisement section in an 1808 issue of the Troy Daily Times. Photo by CHRISTIAN MORRISON

It is also evident from the advertisements in the publication that the community utilized this paper as a means to promote their local businesses to residents of the city. In a way, these advertisements are like commercials that modern day people are accustomed to watching on television. This suggests that the newspaper was well-read by most citizens of the town at the time, who were undoubtedly interested in the happenings in the world during that time. The commercialism present throughout the paper in its entirety serves as a serious reminder that, while newspapers are a great source of information and a stimulus for change, it is every American’s responsibility to check the facts provided in an article to make sure they make logical sense.

“…it is necessary to keep in mind that news articles are still written by human beings, which makes them subject to either human error or corruption of facts…”

Though mainly unbiased, it is necessary to keep in mind that news articles are still written by human beings, which makes them subject to either human error or corruption of facts due to inducements from private individuals or groups that have an interest in contorting the truth for their benefit.

Even more interesting than the advertisements are the actual news articles themselves. They are what any person today might find in any newspaper. Book reviews, international events, gossiping pieces and more can be found within the old, wrinkled pages of “The Troy Daily Times.” By reading these ink stained pages, one can see historical events never before heard of or seen in any history textbook come to life. Under the New Books section, an unknown author praises a book called “The Bird.” This book mentioned contained hundreds of engraved illustrations on natural scenes that according to the author are “faultless, and leave nothing to be desired.” It is highly recommended that all lovers of the natural world pick up a copy of this esteemed piece of literature once more come in from their country of origin, France.

“Newspapers allow for all people of all opinions to get a word in, which allows for the masses to pick which side they feel is right and give their support to it even if they go directly against government entities.”

Continuing on through the newspaper, a long-lost figure in history is revealed: a Belgian Father named De Smet, whose main purpose was to travel through the Northwest region of the United States and bring religion and education to the native peoples living there. While he was of no large historical significance, Father De Smet has some rather important observations and opinions on the state of the environment in that region and the treatment of the natives living there at the time. During his missionary work to help lead Native Americans from their “predatorial” lifestyles into modern, peaceful agrarian culture, he noted with much frustration that “the treatment of the tribes by the government agents has been far from what it ought to be.” This meaning that the tribes in that region during De Smet’s time were being treated rather poorly by the Federal government. This statement made by Father De Smet also illustrates a great truth about newspaper publishing with that being it gives a voice to those who would normally be shunned.

Newspapers allow for all people of all opinions to get a word in, which allows for the masses to pick which side they feel is right and give their support to it even if they go directly against government entities. Unfortunately, Father De Smet’s viewpoint would not be adopted by the majority of Americans and would lead to the continued abuse of the Native Americans. The condition of the Buffalo populations on the Great Plains in 1868 is also made plain through the interview of this religious figure. He noted that the Buffalo populations were decreasing rapidly as the Indian tribes of the region hunted them for much needed food. His account provides a grim foreshadowing that came true as frequent hunting of the buffalos in the Great Plains did indeed reduce their great multitudes to dwindling numbers. Through the interview of a figure that history deemed unworthy of her pages, the progress that led to well-known events and trends is made clear in a way that cannot be replicated by reading a history textbook.

“…it is necessary for all to be vigilant and actively assess the way the information is presented to them, so that they may discern if the newspaper publisher is trying to sway their opinion rather than provide them with factual information.”

Finally, we get to a prime example of yellow journalism that is displayed most clearly in an article entitled “The Destruction Caused in a Single Minute.” In this piece, the author details how a devastating earthquake caused the deaths of thousands of people and destroyed countless buildings on one peaceful day in the City of Caraccas in a single minute. The author paints a vivid picture of piles of rubble intertwined with the bodies of the victims, who were crushed underneath the piles of falling stone. However, in the article the author claims that “at least ten thousand peoples were killed in the churches alone.” This single phrase indicates that such an article was exaggerated in order to sell more papers. Though the fact that an earthquake did occur in the city of Caraccas is undeniable, it is questionable that almost 10,000 people died from being in churches at the time of the earthquake alone. This magnification of the events that occurred is but one example of what is now known as yellow-journalism, which is a tactic that newspaper publishers utilized that involved the exaggeration of certain events in order to sell more copies of their newspapers.

Due to such practices in publication, it is necessary for all to be vigilant and actively assess the way the information is presented to them, so that they may discern if the newspaper publisher is trying to sway their opinion rather than provide them with factual information. Such vigilance is required in order to keep the will of the people their will and prevent the control of the masses by media corporations that are still present to this day.

“…it is up to the people to safeguard the freedom of the press, for if the press loses their freedom so will the people who once relied upon them to aid them in the formation of their opinions.”

Looking at such an ancient informational text, one expects to find a huge difference between the way news was reported to the masses then and now. The truth though is that newspaper publishing has remained relatively unchanged. Of course, certain ways of reporting, such as yellow journalism, are now frowned upon and fact checking is now a must for newspapers to ensure that their readers are getting the most accurate information. However, beyond certain improvements in reporting tactics and the adoption of a more modern writing style newspapers remain unaltered at their core. They are a changing constant, if that makes much sense. Though the writing and reporting styles may change, newspapers will always be what they were always intended to be: pieces of paper that contains information for the masses.

As long as free speech is protected and safeguarded, newspapers will continue doing the job that they have been entrusted with from the earliest ages of the world. “The Troy Daily Times,” though historically unimportant, is an important reminder of this eternal truth. However, it is up to the people to safeguard the freedom of the press, for if the press loses their freedom so will the people who once relied upon them to aid them in the formation of their opinions.

Whoever controls what is written down and passed along controls the minds of the people. That is why it is of the utmost importance of all generations, now and to come, to protect the press’s freedom, as they also in turn protect their own freedom. Newspapers must remain written by the people, for the people. All Americans must strive to keep newspapers in the present like those found in the past: like that of “The Troy Daily Times.”

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