Moving on to 1890, let’s take a peek at two of the points that were brought up at the Publisher Association Conference that year. they would go on to have a significant affect on how the industry thought about itself. The first, was on the matter of advertising.
“…’The measure of a newspaper’s responsibility, legal and moral, for the publication of fraudulent or improper advertisements.’ was a topic which created very lively discussion. Mr. Sea of the Chicago Herald called attention to the large number of schemes which every business man knew were fraudulent and which advertised largely.”
He thought no honest business manager ought to accept such advertisements. While a newspaper was not responsible for the truth of statements made in its advertising columns in the same way that it was responsible for the truth of its news or the character of its editorials, there was a measure of responsibility in the former particular which could not be shirked by a public statement that it does not exist. All advertisements offering something for nothing should be rejected.
The idea is that while Newspaper’s weren’t really responsible for preventing fraudulent ads from running in their papers, they did have some moral responsibility to police themselves. Then, like now, there was enough snake oil and get rich schemes floating around without newspapers helping to spread them. Take the case of Whittier Elevator Company (NYT, 1887) or “miracle medicine” peddlers like the one’s satirized by The Three Stooges in today’s clip.
Next, they discussed libel,
… W.H. Brearley of the Detroit News spoke briefly on the best method of securing a unified libel law. He told about the efforts of the Michigan newspapers to get an equitable law on this subject through the Legislature of the State. The Michigan Bar Association sent a protest against the measure which was more libelous than anything the speaker had ever seen in the most disreputable of newspapers. Judges of the Supreme Court appeared to lobby against it and the bill was lost. He was satisfied that it was necessary to bring all sorts of pressure to bear on lawmakers, and if necessary send men to the Legislature, for the express purpose of passing such a law. Mr. Whiting of the Boston Herald said Massachusetts newspapers had had an experience almost the same as that of Michigan. In his opinion the vast majority of libel suits were pure blackmail.
Libel was the litigation de jour of the time. If you didn’t like something that a newspaper said about you, you sued them for libel. This was problematic for newspaper publishers because the law at the time put the burden of proof on them. Also, libel cases were judged by a “strict liability” standard, meaning that if any proof of defamation could be found it would result in a ruling against the publisher. Finally, no material damages needed to be proved, the damage was assumed to be to the plaintiff’s reputation.
This lead to several famous libel cases, including one of the more famous, Cherry v. Des Moines Leader in 1901, where the Cherry sisters, a reputedly terrible vaudeville act of the time, was lambasted by newspaper editor Billy Hamilton with the following,
Effie is an old jade of 50 summers, Jessie a frisky filly of 40, and Addie, the flower of the family, a capering monstrosity of 35. Their long, skinny arms, equipped with talons at the extremities, swung mechanically, and soon were waved frantically at the suffering audience. The mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns and sounds like the wailings of damned souls issued therefrom. They pranced around the stage with a motion that suggested a cross between the danse du ventre [belly dancing] and a fox trot,–strange creatures with painted faces and hideous mien. Effie is spavined, Addie is stringhalt, and Jessie, the only one who showed her stockings, has legs without calves, as classic in their outlines as the curves of a broom handle.
The judge ruled against the Cherry sisters, stating that when you put on a public performance, you leave yourself open to public criticisms. A precedent that serves reporters well even now.