C.J. Marshall: Significa: The evolution of The Press
I know I'm a bit late on the subject of this week's column, but what the heck, I think you'll find it interesting.
The second week of October is National Newspaper Week. Although I'm certain most folks were unaware the event occurred, I always try to pay homage to newspapers at this time of year, in recognition of my profession.
To start, I'll bet very few of you could tell me who was the first person in recorded history to recognize and use the power of the printed word to his advantage? I'll tell you in a few moments, but you'd probably never guess. I'll confess that I never would have known it, if I hadn't come across the information in an article about the person in question. In fact, the article had nothing to do with the power of the media - it was just one of many accomplishments he achieved in his lifetime.
OK, the person I'm talking about is Julius Caesar. Surprised? I know most are probably saying right now "But newspapers didn't exist in Caesar's time." True. But he is the first person to use a form of media to influence public opinion.
Although he's best remembered for his military exploits, Caesar was actually an extremely remarkable individual, a man of many talents. Before taking up the mantel of military commander, Caesar was an important politician in Rome. One technique he employed during his tenure was to employ a scribe to record Senatorial meetings, then have a number of copies made which he distributed to the public, free of charge. If Caesar was having trouble getting a piece of legislation passed - particularly something that would benefit the masses - he would provide this information to the citizens of Rome in an attempt to get public opinion on his side, and in turn hopefully sway other Roman politicians to fall into line with his way of thinking.
This concept, so common by today's standards, was revolutionary at the time. However, the practice never caught on, due to the fact that copying books and documents would remain a slow, tedious and expensive process for another 15 centuries. A person wanting to obtain a copy of the book - such as the Bible - had to pay someone to copy the entire text word for word. Christian monasteries often employed monks who did nothing but hand copy Bibles and other texts for clients. But for a long time it remained impossible to quickly and efficiently produce a large number of documents for distribution.
Then, in 13th century a German printer named Johannes Gutenberg worked out a method of producing documents using moveable type. Previously, a printer could produce a document using a wooden block with a raised surface. Carved into the block - in reverse - was an image as well as letters - allowing the image to be reproduced over and over on a single sheet of paper. Because numerous handbills could be produced cheaply and efficiently, this method was popular with people wanting to advertise their goods and service over a large area. But it was still limited because only a few letters could fit into each block, making it impossible to convey anything but the simplest of messages.
Then, Gutenberg developed a technique in which a single letter was dedicated to a small individual raised block. These letters -- known as type -- were arranged in the proper order and held in place via a special frame along special rows - the famous "lines of type." The frame was placed on a press, allowing the type to be repeatedly raised and lowered. Ink was applied to the type, and the frame was lowered and pressed onto a piece of blank paper. When raised, the ink impression left behind on the paper formed words - allowing a document to be reproduced over and over again in a fraction of the time necessary as opposed to hand-copying.
Although Gutenberg limited himself to printing books such as the Bible, there were people who began to see the possibilities in producing shorter publications, dedicated to providing news and other information. This practice became so popular and influential that the media - particularly newspapers - found itself dubbed "The Fourth Estate" in the political arena. In the U.S., the first three "estates" are the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our government. Referring to the press as "The Fourth Estate" is an acknowledgement that the power and influence of the press - and by extension, public opinion - is equal to that of the other three "estates."
Our Founding Fathers recognized the importance of a free press with its power to distribute information to the public. They knew that without the distribution of newspapers throughout the colonies, the abuses that Great Britain was heaping on them would never have become common knowledge, and as a result the American Revolution would probably not have occurred. As a result, the first of 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution - commonly referred to as the Bill of Rights - specifically states that Congress cannot make a law stifling the freedom of the press. It is this freedom which has served us well in our more than 225 years of existence as a nation, and will hopefully continue to serve us equally as well, so long as the U.S. remains as a sovereign force on the earth.