By Barnard Law Collier
Ben Franklin was a genius in many ways, one of them newspapering.
He took his brother James’s then-controversial idea of setting print for literate people as a news paper (The New England Courant) and within a decade turned his own newspaper, Poor Richard’s almanack, into a communications system that made him rich by his early forties and gave him time to pursue one of the most interesting lives America ever produced.
If you read his Autobiography, you will laugh at the truth of his words nearly 300 years after he penned them.
The snippet sums up his idea that communication is instruction, and that whoever owns the presses assumes a moral responsibility for what is published or broadcast by them.
In the conduct of my newspaper, I carefully excluded all libeling and personal abuse, which is of late years become so disgraceful to our country.Whenever I was solicited to insert anything of that kind, and the writers pleaded, as they generally did, the liberty of the press, and that a newspaper was like a stagecoach, in which any one who would pay had a right to a place, my answer was, that I would print the piece separately if desired, and the author might have as many copies as he pleased to distribute himself, but that I would not take upon me to spread his detraction; and that, having contracted with my subscribers to furnish them with what might be either useful or entertaining, I could not fill their papers with private altercation, in which they had no concern, without doing them manifest injustice.
Now, many of our printers make no scruple of gratifying the malice of individuals by false accusations of the fairest characters among ourselves, augmenting animosity even to the producing of duels; and are, moreover, so indiscreet as to print scurrilous reflections on the government of neighboring states, and even on the conduct of our best national allies, which may be attended with the most pernicious consequences.
These things I mention as a caution to young printers, and that they may be encouraged not to pollute their presses and disgrace their profession by such infamous practices, but refuse steadily, as they may see by my example that such a course of conduct will not, on the whole, be injurious to their interests.