John Peter Zenger lived under a government that did not tolerate criticism from the press.
If your newspaper printed articles that made the government look bad, you’d be arrested – and just never mind if you had evidence to prove your claims. Forget it! Truth was no excuse for treasonous behaviour.
Can you guess where Zenger lived? Nazi Germany? Post-WWII Poland? The Soviet Union?
Nope. John Peter Zenger lived in New York City.
In 1733, Zenger was arrested because his newspaper, The New York Weekly Journal, ran articles critical of the colonial governor, William Cosby. Zenger was chucked in prison where he spent eight months waiting for his case to go to court.
This was one of those famous and important trials that changes everything. It established that truth was a defense for libel. More importantly, it influenced the First Amendment of the United States Constitution which ensures freedom of the press.
Westinghouse Studio One at CBS brought this trial to the small screen in a one-hour teleplay, The Trial of John Peter Zenger. The teleplay originally aired in January, 1951 during National Printing Week.
Now, you can’t expect too much when watching an early television program, and 1951 is still pretty early for TV. Characters often seem outlined in black felt pen, or their heads emit a strange white glow. Sometimes a camera suddenly swings towards a character, as though an actor’s line caught a cameraman off guard. Also, you have to expect the sponsor to have the first and last word, with two mini infomercials in between.
Eddie Albert plays Zenger, a hard-working man who does what needs to be done and doesn’t care about accolades. He is a law-abiding fellow who is, at first, reluctant to speak against the colonial government.
Albert is really good in this role. Even with the aged footage, you can see his conflicted face when considering his moral dilemma. He is loyal to a government who gave him a home when he fled Germany; yet he is a champion of Free Speech.
Marian Seldes is Zenger’s wife – a smart, determined woman who has to suffer through every other character telling her she looks tired. (Way to boost a woman’s ego!)
The scenes with Albert and Seldes are wonderful to watch. Their movements are almost choreographed, showing us that this is a couple that has been together – and in love – for many years.
Jacques Aubuchon is rather over the top in his portrayal of William Cosby, the colonial governor. Cosby is the opposite of Zenger; he is a vain, cartoonish man who loves publicity and never does anything useful.
It is worth noting that this teleplay would have been a not-so-subtle reminder to Cold War audiences that North Americans enjoyed something the Soviet empire did not. And it’s still a reminder today because, as you know, many nations still do not have access to a free press.
The Trial of John Peter Zenger may not be a stellar example of early television work. It’s clumsy at times and the third act is excruciatingly preachy. However, the story is compelling and you can’t help but admire Zenger’s courage.
The Trial of John Peter Zenger: starring Eddie Albert, Marian Seldes, Frederic Worlock. Directed by Paul Nickell. Written by Irve Tunick. Columbia Broadcasting System, B&W, 1951, 60 mins.