An Inky Wretch

December 1, 2002 Topic: Society

An Inky Wretch

Mini Teaser: The world's first political journalist, Marchamont Nedham, was deeply partisan, but also pragmatic, principled and competent. A rare combination indeed.

by Author(s): Paul A. Rahe

The New York Times has come under sustained assault in recent years. In 1993, Times alumnus Hilton Kramer anticipated the trend when he began writing a weekly New York Post column dissecting the gray lady's ongoing machinations. The attack intensified in June 2000 when Ira Stoll, then of the Wall Street Journal, set up to expose editorial sloppiness, gross misreporting and telling silences on the part of what purports to be our national newspaper of record. Shortly before Stoll gave up this labor of love to help found the New York Sun, Andrew Sullivan began cataloguing on his eponymous web site the most egregious misreporting to be found in the news columns and on the editorial pages of the Times. The assault gained in ferocity this past summer when Charles Krauthammer, George Will, the editors of the Wall Street Journal and the Times' own staffer Bill Keller joined with Sullivan and others in remarking on the degree to which partisanship has come to distort the reporting of the news now that Howell Raines is executive editor of the New York Times.

Though true, these accusations need to be taken with several grains of salt, for the attack on the Times presupposes the existence of a golden age when the gray lady actually lived up to her motto: "All the News That's Fit to Print." New Yorkers of a certain age have for decades rolled their eyes when they glanced at the upper left-hand corner of the Times' front page. In its own bailiwick, the Times has never been above making the most of the peccadilloes of those to whom it is opposed, and over the years it has consistently relegated scandals involving its favorites to the back pages, if not to the executive editor's circular file.

In any case, we should be neither surprised nor shocked to discover that what styles itself as a newspaper of record is and has always been partisan. After all, at its very inception, the newspaper was a product of fierce partisanship. Indeed, one may justly wonder whether serious journalism could be sustained in the absence of partisan strife. Our interest in knowing is quite often inspired by our inclination to take sides, and the desire to inform and the desire to instruct are virtually inseparable. That is why there is not now, never has been, and never will be a nonpartisan press.

There is a difference, however, between competent and intelligent partisanship, and the less sustainable, transparent, clumsy, embarrassing sort we have lately seen at the Times. For an example of press partisanship that was not just competent but almost impossibly versatile, we could do worse than to go back to the very beginning of political journalism-to the career of one Marchamont Nedham.

In the Beginning...

What we call a newspaper was once termed a newsbook. Published serially as a weekly gazette, the newsbook picked up precisely where the pamphlet left off. The first newsbook made its debut in London on November 29, 1641 on the eve of the English Civil War. The Irish rebellion had quite recently broken out, and two days thereafter Parliament presented the Grand Remonstrance to a startled and distraught king. The inventor of the newsbook was an entrepreneurial young bookseller and printer of pamphlets named John Thomas, who had hitherto been closely associated with John Pym, then the dominant figure in what later came to be called the Long Parliament. At this critical juncture, Thomas sought to answer what Pym and his associates in Parliament evidently took to be a necessity: reporting to the people of England the deliberations in Parliament that had given rise to the remonstrance, thereby extending to them an unprecedented invitation to adjudicate the bitter dispute emerging between Parliament and the king.

The opinions of ordinary people matter as the ultimate underpinning for political regimes. They have always mattered, even when dormant, and they always will. In Thomas' day, however, opinion mattered as it had at no time subsequent to the demise of the Roman republic, for it had been thoroughly aroused from its torpor and the people had been apprised of their power and instructed in its legitimacy. Thanks to moveable type, the populace of England had become what it had never before been: a public-a wakeful community able to judge.

The printing press was even more essential to England's Great Rebellion than it had been to the Protestant Reformation. The surviving English pamphlet literature of the period stretching from 1628 to 1660 is greater than that of the American and French revolutions put together. Thomas prospered, imitators soon flooded the market, and even the royal court found it necessary to sponsor Cavalier newsbooks to answer the Roundhead onslaught-an astounding fact when one considers the court's notorious reluctance to compromise its established authority by appealing to public opinion. Every gazette sought to rally those sympathetic to its faction, to inform and encourage them, and to provide them with the arguments necessary to sustain the cause. Each sought to persuade the uncommitted and dishearten the opposition. Each sought, as well, to reshape and direct opinion and to prepare the public for shifts in policy already contemplated or at a distance foreseen. Along the way, even Royalist pamphleteers and newsbook editors contributed powerfully, if unwittingly, to a process of democratization by which a much larger public was invited to join, and indeed did join, the political nation.

The Cavaliers, who had good reason to regret this development, were especially sensitive to its consequences. Looking back in mid-December 1648, some seven weeks before the execution of Charles I, the editor of Mercurius Impartialis attributed "the ruines both of King and people" to "the Pulpit and the Presse." It was from these two sources, he argued, that "his Majesties Subjects [have] beene Poysoned with Principles of Heresie, Schisme, Faction, Sedition, Blasphemy, Apostacie, Rebellion, Treason, Sacriledge, Murther, Rapine, Robbery, and all" the other "enormous Crimes, and detestable Villanies, with which this Kingdome hath of later times swarmed."

For the first time in history, the press was arguably more of a force even than the pulpit. The invention of moveable type offered a new species of clerk, the man of letters, an opportunity to pass judgment on the princes of Europe, and it gave him occasion in which to invite his readers to do so as well. It promised to liberate the classically-trained humanist from mere service to power, indeed, to transform him into what we now call "the public intellectual." In making censors of the learned and judges of ordinary readers, the public prints promised a species of emancipation to all. This did not escape the notice of contemporary witnesses. As one newsbook writer observed on the eve of the execution of the king, there was a real difference between the English people in Queen Elizabeth's day and those in his own time. The former had been "rather guided by the tradition of their Fathers, than by acting principles in reason and knowledge. But to the contrary in these our dayes, the meanest sort of people are not only able to write, &c. but to argue and discourse on matters of highest concernment; and thereupon do desire, that such things which are most remarkable, may be truly committed to writing, and made publique."

As this observation suggests, it was printing, not the pulpit, that first conjured into existence and opened up the space that is now termed "the public sphere." It was this space that John Milton had set out to defend in November 1644 when he published an unprecedented attack on the licensing of the press in his pamphlet Areopagitica. More than three decades after the first appearance of the newsbook, the poet Andrew Marvell could easily imagine a "young Priest" of the High Anglican persuasion "inclined to sacrifice to the Genius of the Age; yea, though his Conscience were the Offering", deploying the pulpit against "the Press" envisaged as a "villanous Engine . . . invented much about the same time with the Reformation, that hath done more mischief to the Discipline of our Church, than all the Doctrine can make amends for." It would be characteristic of so "malapert", a "Chaplain", he supposed, that he should regard "Printing" as a disturber of "the Peace of Mankind" and lament "that Lead, when moulded into Bullets, is not so mortal as when founded into Letters"-all the while thinking to himself,

'Twas an happy time when all Learning was in Manuscript, and some little Officer . . . did keep the Keys of the Library. When the Clergy needed no more knowledge then to read the Liturgy, and the Laity no more Clerkship than to save them from Hanging. . . . There have been wayes found out to banish Ministers, to fine not only the People, but even the Grounds and Fields where they assembled in Conventicles: But no Art yet could prevent these seditious meetings of Letters. Two or three brawny Fellows in a Corner, with meer Ink and Elbow-grease, do more harm than an hundred Systematical Divines with their sweaty Preaching.

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