This dissertation explores the historical implications of an unprecedented series of libel cases that arose out of false news reports spread by news wire services at the turn of the twentieth century. The industrialized speed and scale of the news industry, along with growing concern about sensationalism and the value of reputation had created tension in the press' relationship with society at the time the cases arose. The scale of the cases, in which single plaintiffs sued hundreds of newspapers for publishing the same libelous story, raised new challenges for the press and for libel law doctrine. This study argues that through the serial libel cases the press articulated a new legal conception of press freedom that called on courts to tip the analytical balance to be more protective of its social role in using the telegraph to deliver timely news to the public. Moreover, because the cases involved plaintiffs of varying social prominence, from virtually anonymous to world-famous, the cases also offer new insights into how libel plaintiffs' status and identity could influence the legal analysis of protecting reputational rights at a time before libel law prompted constitutional consideration. The study uses an interdisciplinary conceptual framework of the cultural history of journalism and critical legal history to illuminate the role of law and legal consciousness in the social process of regulating the role of journalism in a democratic society. The study examines legal discourse surrounding the cases both inside and outside of courtrooms and newsrooms, drawing on appellate opinions and legal treatises as well as newspaper and trade press coverage of the cases.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. August 2013. Major: Mass Communication. Advisors: Jane E. Kirtley and Susanna Blumenthal. 1 computer file (PDF); v, 198 pages, appendix p. 188-198.
File, Patrick C..
'Bad' news travels fast: the telegraph, syndicated libel, and conceptualizing freedom of the Press, 1890-1910.
Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy,
Content distributed via the University of Minnesota's Digital Conservancy may be subject to additional license and use restrictions applied by the depositor.