It took about 20 years in the 1600's for the modern newspaper to come into being. An exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library in D.C. traces the birth of the form. Bob pays the exhibit a visit to observe how much has changed with news in the past 400 years.
BOB GARFIELD: At Washington’s Folger Shakespeare Library through the end of this month is an exhibition titled Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper. Tracing the news industry from the late 16th century, it’s a fascinating evolution, filled with such artifacts as early handwritten newsletters, one-sheet foreign published corantos, bound news books and printed weekly newspapers in continuous circulation to this day. The exhibit is a voyage into antiquity, conducted for me by the Folger’s Betsy Walsh, here pointing to a slim Elizabethan-era volume reporting on a scandal in Rome.
BETSY WALSH: This particular one is an account of an attempt on the life of the Pope. However, there is an illustration of the man who is confronting the Pope with a gun, but there’s a little bubble, what we would consider a cartoon, so that the reader is invited to put his own caption.
BOB GARFIELD: Interactive.
BETSY WALSH: Yes [LAUGHS], the early interactive.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] An odd little foreshadowing of things three centuries later to come, but that’s where the similarities end, because everything about Elizabethan journalism is as dated as a ruffed collar, a codpiece and a barrel of mead. [LAUGHS] It’s just astonishing what in those quaint and primitive days of yore passed for news.
BETSY WALSH: We have a report here from 1669 of the eruption of Mount Etna, which includes an engraved picture of the event that was brought back by a traveler.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Three days after the eruption of Mount St. Helen’s in Southwest Washington State, imponderables dust the air like volcanic ash.
BETSY WALSH: This is strange news of a prodigious monster, which seems to what we would call conjoined twins that were born in London. And so, this is an account of that sort of unnatural birth.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: - in Salt Lake City, where doctors are performing a separation surgery on some four-year-old conjoined twin girls. And can you imagine -
BETSY WALSH: “Shortly before Christmas in 1679, Mr. Dryden, the king’s poet-laureate, was coming out of a coffee house on Thursday night and was set upon by three men who did beat him so severely that ‘tis thought he will hardly recover.”
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FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: A black BMW cruises slowly down the Las Vegas strip. Inside, rap and film star Tupac Shakur sits in the passenger seat. No one sees the white Cadillac that slowly pulls up alongside or the gun that’s aimed directly at Tupac.
BOB GARFIELD: The archaic flavor of early journalism wasn't limited to pulp nonfiction, either. It was thick with tales of the devil’s work and imagined conspiracies of the sort [LAUGHS] that would never be worthy of mention in modern times. Betsy Walsh.
BETSY WALSH: Well, this particular one is an update on a very hot topic at the time, the Popish plot – supposed plot. It was more of a conspiracy theory that the Catholics were trying to overthrow Charles II, who was a Protestant, and replace him with his Catholic brother, James.
BOB GARFIELD: The Popish plot allegation, Walsh says, triggered an investigation by Magistrate -
BETSY WALSH: - Sir Edmund [LAUGHS] Berry Godfrey, who found that the accusations were probably without merit. Unfortunately, before the decision was totally rendered, the magistrate was found dead. His body was found in a London park.
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MALE CORRESPONDENT: Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster Jr. was found dead at 6 p.m. in Fort Marcy Park, just outside of -
[END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Unlike today, most news in Renaissance England was from abroad, less owing to English curiosity about foreign events than to royal suppression of domestic news, which was considered by both Parliament and throne as inherently destabilizing or even seditious. [LAUGHS] How silly and retro.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in time of war.
BOB GARFIELD: Well into the 18th century, the only domestic news permitted was that disseminated through licensees of the state.
BETSY WALSH: They wouldn't allow printers to print news of the government because they thought the people should not be allowed to interpret government activities for themselves, but they realized that there would be some advantage to using the press to get their message out to the people.
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MALE CORRESPONDENT: One network has fair and balanced coverage. Stay with Fox News Channel.
BOB GARFIELD: As early as 1650, the mini-mass media were subsidized by advertising, mainly for sleazy patent medicines such as Digby’s Sympathetical Powder, snake oil claims, of course, long since obliterated by vigilant government regulators.
MALE ANNOUNCER: ExtenZe is a simple tablet that can make virtually any man larger – noticeably larger. We’re so sure ExtenZe will make you larger, we're going to send you a week’s supply absolutely free.
BOB GARFIELD: I am pleased to report that the foibles and excesses of early journalism did not go unnoticed in their time. In the early 1600s, Shakespeare contemporary Ben Jonson wrote a play titled The Staple of News, ridiculing both the purveyors and consumers of gossip, scandal and propaganda. How blessed we are that no such satire is necessary today.
STEVEN COLBERT: Yesterday The New York Times made an announcement they're reducing the width of their newspaper by an inch and a half.
[LAUGHTER] We did it! That’s an inch and a half less of state secrets revealed every day.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips and Nazanin Rafsanjani and edited – by Brooke. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh. We also had help from Deena Prichep. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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