News-Miner opinion: Alaskans, like people throughout this nation, have relied on newspapers for information about their communities and their elected officials for a long, long time. Alaska’s newspaper history isn’t as lengthy as that of the nation’s early states, but it certainly was just as vibrant in its early years.
And those early years were filled, as they are today, with the necessary tension between the exercise of a free press and the people who lead our local, state and national governments. One fine example appeared in the lead spot on the editorial page of the quite young Fairbanks Daily News-Miner of 110 years ago, on Oct. 1, 1909. The page of that day’s newspaper in the Daily News-Miner’s archive is brittle, and the top of the page is missing a small piece, but the typography is as clear as the message of the column, which was a reprint of something that appeared in the Skagway Alaskan newspaper in Southeast Alaska.
Here are extended excerpts of that column, which carried the headline “Will continue to publish criticism,” showing that the journalists of more than a century ago were facing obstacles much the same as journalists of today sometimes do.
Oct. 1, 1909
It is a rather unusual state of affairs to have practically every daily newspaper in an entire district simultaneously indicted for criminal libel. Either the papers are uniformly scurrilous and untruthful, or else there is some ulterior motive behind the wholesale indictments which have been returned against the press.
Either the grand jury believes that the papers of the First Judicial Division are exceeding the latitude of criticism allowed by law, or else an effort is being made to intimidate and discredit the newspapers of the First Division. Those responsible for the indictments may be acting in good faith — or may be pliant tools of certain people who have sinister purpose of stifling the free expression of the press.
The exact truth will devolve at a later date.
The publisher of the Skagway Alaskan was indicted for criminal libel for republishing an article which first appeared in the Juneau Transcript. The article was a criticism of the methods used in the appointment of Judge Lyons. The fact that it was necessary to indict the Alaskan for reproducing an article first published by another paper speaks for itself.
In the first place, competent authorities say that the article in question is in no wise libelous. Public officials are subject to honest criticism. The people must rely on the press for criticism of public officials, and the libel laws recognize this fact and are so drawn as to give newspapers considerable latitude when dealing with men in public life.
The Alaskan serves notice to its readers, to the people of the First Division and to those who are responsible for the present indictment, that it will not be muzzled or intimidated. It reserves the right to voice honest criticism on any or all subjects. The Alaskan has always endeavored to be fair and impartial in its utterances, it has always striven to be dignified, and refrained from scurrilousness, untruths, or abuse, in any form. We will continue this policy, with the knowledge that we have the support of our readers and of all who believe in a free and untrammelled press. — Daily Alaskan