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Print the news and raise hell

by Jim Elliott
| July 4, 2024 12:00 AM

A healthy disregard of powerful government is nothing new. The Constitution set up the American system of government, stating what the three branches of government could do — but there was a serious objection to the Constitution being ratified by the states. It did not say what the government could not do, and many states were unhappy about that.

Addressing this dilemma, agreement was reached that once the Constitution was ratified and the government of the U.S. properly elected, Congress would draw up a list of rights to be safeguarded and submit them to the states to ratify as amendments to the Constitution. The promise was kept, and 10 of the 12 proposed amendments were adopted, known as the Bill of Rights. 

The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and of the press. Why was that important? Because without the press, the American Revolution may have never taken place. In the mid-1700s views about the way the British King and Parliament treated their American colonies were not positive, but without a press to publicize this throughout the colonies the citizens of Colonial America would not have known how widely spread this dissatisfaction was. Writing about it was dangerous. Under British law criticism of the king or his officers was prohibited under the “Seditious Libel Law” and punished severely. 

One of the first cases in America to address this was in 1734 when New York printer John Zenger wrote uncomplimentary articles about King George III’s governor of New York, William Cosby.  Zenger was arrested and spent nine months in prison awaiting trial. By convincing the jury that what he had written about the governor was true, and therefore not libel, he won the case. 

It’s important that some authority besides government tells us what is going on, and that is the purpose of the press. In 1861 Wilbur F. Storey of the Chicago Times wrote, “It is a newspaper’s duty is to print the news and raise hell.” One of the biggest stories in American government was the Washington Post’s breaking open the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency, but there are many more examples of the free press ferreting out scandal and wrongdoing before and after Watergate. 

In the 1890s S. S. McClure, who had arrived in America as a penniless immigrant from Northern Ireland, started a magazine called McClure’s. Besides running serialized stories by famous authors of the day like Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, he hired investigative reporters who covered business monopolies and civic corruption. Ida Tarbell wrote an expose of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company that led to the breakup of that monopoly under the Sherman Anti-trust Act, and Lincoln Steffens investigated the crookedness of municipal politics in St. Louis and Minneapolis. Upton Sinclair (who I heard speak in 1961 when he was 92 and still full of fire) exposed conditions in the meatpacking plants in Chicago. These articles led to major business and political reforms. 

Freedom of the press is just as important on the local level. In Montana, two newspapers have filed suit to enforce the state’s open meetings laws. The Choteau Acantha and the Montana Free Press (disclosure: I am a contributor to the Montana Free Press) were barred from witnessing the interviews of two candidates for a judicial vacancy. The chair of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Judicial Selection Committee for the 9th Judicial District had the committee go into executive session for the interviews, citing privacy issues. The Acantha and Montana Free Press prevailed in a Helena District Court, which found no privacy issues needing protection, but the Governor’s Office has appealed to the Montana Supreme Court and the appeal is pending. 

In Roosevelt County the editor of the Northern Plains Independent successfully filed suit to remove the Roosevelt County Attorney from office because he had falsified his place of residence in order to qualify for the election, claiming to reside in Roosevelt County when he actually resided in Valley County. The editor, representing herself, won in district court and also on appeal to the Montana Supreme Court. 

This is the legacy of the American press and its protection of American values, and I hope, its future. 

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.