If you are a serious lover of history, you will enjoy Indelible Ink, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Richard Kluger. The full title is Indelible Ink: the Trials of John Peter Zenger and the Birth of America’s Free Press. It examines the trial of John Peter Zenger, and the political environment surrounding it. Even after three grand juries refused to indict him, Zenger was tried for criminal seditious libel for truthful articles he printed.
Modern Americans take for granted the fact that we can voice our opinions about our elected and appointed leaders whenever and wherever we want. We expect a free press not only to keep us informed, but to hold our government accountable for its actions or inactions. It wasn’t always so. When we were still British colonies, our governors were appointed by King George III, who insisted that he had the divine right to rule. Therefore, to criticize one of his appointees, was to criticize the king; and to criticize the king was to criticize God.
Kluger says his decision to write this book grew out of the Snowden affair and the ponderance of “news” on the Internet. Sadly, the days when journalists were required to confirm a story with no less than three sources prior to publication are gone. This book could be a lamentation of the un-confirmed “news” that goes viral, then often must be retracted. Too often the retraction never takes place or is not believed. Also lamented is the decline in trust and the current bashing of today’s press.
The book opens with a discussion of today’s news media, but quickly moves to the historical topic. None of today’s media escape criticism, whether it is the likes of MSNBC or FOX News, both of which cater to whatever their target audiences want to hear, or CNN, which is “…so wedded to nonpartisanship, that all sides of a controversial story are treated equally regardless of merit”. The only one to escape negative criticism was PBS’s Frontline. Talk radio doesn’t escape either, as Kluger posits its primary goal appears to be “…to close its listeners’ minds, not to open them to fresh ideas”. Indelible Ink praises public radio, however, for doing exactly the opposite.
The August 4, 1735, acquittal of newspaper publisher Peter Zenger, accused of seditious libel against the corrupt royal governor, Sir William Alexander Cosby, of the Colonies of New York and New Jersey, is the landmark case examined in Indelible Ink. Britain’s Star Chamber insisted that to maintain the peace throughout the British realm, the government must silence any voice of protest. Zenger’s newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal, was the first paper in America to be created for the specific purpose of revealing the corruption of the governor and his cronies through inuendo and snide remarks without actually naming the person(s) being targeted. Indelible Ink examines the arrest and trial of Peter Zenger, but not without first laying a detailed description of the background events that led to the creation of the newspaper and of Zenger’s arrest.
Indelible Ink will likely be eagerly devoured by the serious student, professor, or practioner of history, journalism, or law. I majored in history, so I thoroughly enjoyed it. I expect Indelible Ink to become required reading in several departments of most colleges and universities. This book contains not only a history of journalism, and some fascinating legal arguments, but a plethora of historical information about the Colonies of New York and New Jersey, and shows, yet again, that corrupt politicians always have been, and will always be with us.
What Made This Book Reviewer Grumpy?
Only one thing: the knowledge that, for a reader who is not seriously interested in history and historical research, the extreme detail and description would be excruciating. As one who is quite fond of both well-worded arguments and historical research, even I grew impatient at times. Because of that it took me several months to finish reading this book while I took breaks to do some lighter reading, and to read books for my book club.