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At the Folger Library, Old News With Timely Relevance

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 5, 2009

If you learn about the world primarily from newspapers, the Folger Shakespeare Library's exhibition documenting the birth of journalism in the Renaissance will be a wistful affair. It's like looking at baby pictures of a distinguished old relative who is now on life support. Look how vibrant, how youthful, how full of vinegar the old man was. Once upon a time, before the plummeting circulation, the shrinking ad revenue and the highly leveraged corporate owners.

But if you get your news primarily from the Internet, there's nothing sad here at all. New media is new media, whether it's scurrilous pamphlets distributed by hand, or partisan Web sites that spread their happy mischief through the wireless ether. The forms, the tone, the types of personalities who gravitated to journalism when it was new seem fantastically familiar in our own anarchic and newly democratized age of the World Wide Web.

"Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper" doesn't hammer away at the connection. Folger exhibitions -- which often center on visually austere printed matter and dense but fascinating wall texts -- are typically coy about relevance. They let you make your own connections.

It's not hard. When John Taylor, a bargeman and alehouse keeper turned journalist, published an edition of his Mercurius Aquaticus in 1643, he included a complete reprint of a rival paper, the Mercurius Britanicus -- followed by a point-by-point smackdown of its contents. This was "fisking," 17th-century-style: a form of argument beloved by bloggers who cut-and-paste something that offends them and then interlard it with commentary.

The extra margin space included in a 1699 issue of Dawks's Newsletter was meant to allow readers to write notes and commentary before passing the paper on to someone else. Web site designers may think that posting reader comments, which all too often devolve from sincerity to silliness to bigotry and ad hominem attacks, is a brave new invention of the interactive world. But interactivity is ancient. It's at least as old as graffiti, and often just as useful.

The exhibition doesn't establish a firm birth date for the form, but there were some seminal moments. Letter writing was the original and oldest means of spreading the news on paper, but it was a mostly elite form, requiring people with some leisure time at both ends of the transmission and, ideally, someone privy to important events at the point of origin. The printing press, which appeared in England in 1476, opened up the process, allowing for the production of one-off reports about distant wars and strange apparitions. These were essentially letters written for a larger audience.

In a catalogue essay accompanying the show, curators Chris R. Kyle and Jason Peacey locate another crucial moment: the Defenestration of Prague. This 1618 event (a fact known mainly to historians, contestants on "Jeopardy!" and AP history students for about five minutes before and after the exam) helped launch the Thirty Years' War, a conflagration that tore Europe apart on religious lines. But it also invested people heavily in the news. Two years later, the first English language newspaper was delivered to London, from Amsterdam, an early publishing center that was pioneering an entrepreneurial news industry.

The war was the perfect news event, far away but with potentially huge consequences for the English, who were violently divided along religious lines as well. By 1621, the success of this first, sporadically published "coranto" -- the term, which lives on in newspaper names such as the Hartford Courant, refers to the small, single-sheet format -- led to a booming indigenous industry in English language corantos in the early decades of the 17th century. These, in turn, led to longer and more substantial "news-books," and eventually regularly published newspapers with brand-name titles.

The love-hate relationship with the press was there from the beginning. Governments recognized the value of propaganda, but also practiced brutal censorship -- prison was a likely reward for irking the king -- though with little ultimate success. Some of the most striking documents in the exhibition are royal proclamations against seditious and illegal publications, including "news-books and Pamphlets of News." One, a handwritten document signed by Elizabeth I, is thrilling for the direct impress of the great lady's hand. The others, formally printed for public distribution, are poignant for their bland formality. Here is censorship, unapologetically and baldly announced. The contrast with contemporary newspapers -- where self-censorship for political, racial, religious and security reasons is subtle and often unconscious -- is stark and powerful.

The public was also invested in the love-hate relationship. It wasn't long before a persistent and lasting theme emerged: The too-muchness of news, the sense that people were overwhelmed not just by the quantity of news but by the great gales of triviality and stupidity coming from the nation's overactive presses. One 1625 satire bemoaned the "murdering paper," an early version of the lament for dead trees. In 1641, when England was about to descend into civil war, a print made by Henry Peacham showed a woman wearing a blindfold, sitting in a tree watered by a jester and dropping pamphlets like too-ripe fruit. It was an allegory about the inability to distinguish opinion from truth, but the over-productive tree suggests a feeling that is current still: The world is pregnant with too much chatter, too much bloviation, too much ephemera.

Speaking of cable news, there's also space devoted to famous, early journalists and propagandists. Publisher Roger L'Estrange issued the following justification for tendentious and partisan news: "tis the press that has made 'em mad, and the press must set 'em right again." From the very beginning, journalists have been afflicted by the self-important conviction that they must remedy the ideological wrongs of their brethren.

Within a few decades of their first appearance, newspapers were beginning to look rather like they do today. The cramped coranto form gave way to the broadsheet, and the news was published in columns, rather than book format. Advertising was inserted into the text, often with little to flag it as a paid announcement. The exhibition includes the first known illustrated advertisement -- for a mysterious attraction or invention called the "Indian water-works" -- printed in 1680. A curious example is a missing-person announcement ("a young man about 28 yeares of age, called John Thacher . . .") printed vertically in the margins of a A Perfect Diurnall from 1650.

This is not an exhibition that intersects directly with the Folger's focus on Shakespeare, who was already food for the worms by the time the first English newspaper arrived. But you can't read Shakespeare without being moved by the sense that the English woke up in the middle of the 16th century and discovered a bright shiny toy called the English Language. And they couldn't stop playing with it. That play continued, increased and reached farther and wider into society, through the newspapers Shakespeare could only have dreamed of.

Are they really dying? It's hard to argue with the gruesome numbers, the bankruptcies declared and looming. But this exhibition is as much about the need for news as it is about newspapers. When the vast majority of England's population lived a world away from London, in benighted oblivion about anything beyond the borders of the village or the parish, news was golden, copied down in memento books, passed from mouth to mouth and hand to hand. There was a desperate craving to be connected.

History and newspapers have been in a chicken-and-egg relationship since the beginning: Big events fueled the appetite for newspapers, and newspapers in turn canonized remote events into history. "Happy the people whose annals are tiresome," wrote the French philosopher Montesquieu. A corollary of that might be: Unhappy times make for great reading. Just as the Thirty Years' War midwifed the form, and the Napoleonic wars brought it to new heights (author and critic George Steiner said those wars "literally quickened the pace of felt time"), new turmoil on the horizon may yet breathe life into the old beast. Journalists take heart.

Will it all be on the Web? The resemblance between early Renaissance journalism and the current state of the Internet is uncanny. But there's a chastening lesson here for the Web as well. The Web is exuberant, democratic, unruly and thrilling. But Web-based journalists haven't really pioneered a new form. They've merely rejuvenated some dusty old ways of jousting with words.

We wouldn't know that, of course, if there wasn't some strange compulsion to hang on to scraps of old paper.

Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper is open through Jan. 31 at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE, Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call 202-544-7077 or visit http://www.folger.edu.

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