The Zengers make news again

John and Anna Zenger weren’t radio stars, but I’ve just found a third appearance for them… In an episode of the CBS series “You Are There.”

Feb. 06, 1949 “The Trial of John Peter Zenger”

It’s an entertaining “live news report,” as if the 1949 CBS radio news crew had been present to cover the Zenger libel trial in colonial New York in 1735. The radio reporters seem businesslike, one even rushing Anna Zenger through a more passionate part of her interview. (Perhaps they had to pretend that on-the-scene in 1735 they didn’t know then that an Associated Press executives’ novel would one day declare her the “Mother of Freedom” for her role in her husband’s newspaper and its stand for a free press.)

They CBS announcer almost routinely declares that Zenger’s chances are slim, according to “informed observers.” Later, CBS news reports with surprise when distinguished Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton is added to the case for the defense. “We didn’t recognize him because we’ve never seen him before,” the reporter apologizes, after the famous defense attorney’s identity is announced. (For a brief account of the trial, and Hamilton’s career, see The First Amendment Encyclopedia at Middle Tennessee State University.) Or just listen to the dramatization…

At the end, when the surprise verdict is announced, CBS newsman John Daly struggles to be heard over the voices of cheering spectators, but manages to get out the key detail that “The principle that truth can be used as a defense to a charge of libel is upheld.” As his voice fades, the You Are There announcer’s voiceover, with godlike echo, summarizes in 20-20 hindsight the even greater conclusion: “John Peter Zenger is acquitted, and the American colonies win a free press to spearhead their fight for independence.”

CBS staff, whose voices would have been familiar in 1949, play themselves in this radio-time-machine play, including Daly and Don Hollenbeck. Hollenbeck was also the host of CBS Views the Press, a pioneer radio effort in media criticism. His death by suicide was a subplot in the movie “Good Night and Good Luck,” and his life if the subject of a 2008 biography. (See “Remembering a Fallen Newsman,” 2008, New York Times.)

Previous radio plays about the Zengers included episodes of Hallmark Hall of Fame and Cavalcade of America. The Internet Archive includes a collection of 83 episodes of the You Are There radio program, broadcast 1947-50, reporting events from the death of Julius Caesar to . While all episodes feature events as they might have been covered by radio news, the Zenger case appears to be the only one in which a newspaper editor or reporter is the central feature of the story.

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who found computers & the Web in grad school in the 1980s (Wesleyan) and '90s (UNC); taught journalism, media studies, Web production; retired to write, make music, photograph sunsets & walks in the woods.
This entry was posted in 1940s, Colonial America, editors, free speech, historical figures, History, Libel law, media history, New York City, political corruption, publishers, true stories. Bookmark the permalink.

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