The Power of the Press

Mar 13, 2019

A massive wooden printing press made in the mid-17th century has a place of pride in the Vermont History Museum, and not just because it’s old. It represents both the history of written law in the state, and the crucial role that journalism – the press – plays in a democracy.

This Episode’s Featured Object:

“Dresden” Printing Press

Steve Perkins: Information could be disseminated to everybody, not just the elites. It’s not a spoken word whispered in salons. It’s something that is pasted on walls so that everybody can read it. And that idea that everybody has the information they need to make an informed decision is the basis of what later became our democracy.

Images: John Daly as Matthew Lyon.

A press conference shortly after Madeleine Kunin was elected governor of Vermont, 1984. Shelly Allen is on the far right, looking through her viewfinder. (UPI photo by Ron MacNeil.)

Barnard Filmmaker Teo Zagar (photo by Seth Butler.)

Dorothy Thompson (woman at right) told the Joint Congressional Committee on Immigration that “something must be done” to allow Austrian and German citizens to escape Nazi persecution by coming to America. Washington, D.C., April, 1939.

Images: A portrait of Matthew Lyon hangs in the Vermont Statehouse. Courtesy of the Vermont State Curator’s Office.

Frontier Feminist, Clarina Howard Nichols and the Politics of Motherhood, is available from the University Press of Kansas.

Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson during their honeymoon caravan trip in England, 1928.

Episode Transcript

There’s a photo in the Vermont Historical Society that shows a press conference right after Madeleine Kunin was elected governor.

Kunin was one of the first female governors in the country.

Shelly Allen: You can tell by the look on everybody’s face in that picture that it was like, this is kind of important, this is kind of cool.

The photo’s dated November 9, 1984. It just shows the back of Kunin’s head. There are two reporters sitting at the table to her right, and four camera operators across from her.

And all of them are women.

Shelly: It wasn’t like, “Oh, let’s send the women to cover the new woman Governor.” It was just, I just happened to be going with Alex Marks down to the statehouse to cover it…When we saw the picture come out, we were like, “Oh wow, look at that. Look at all the women.”

This is Shelly Allen.

Shelly: I’m the assistant chief photographer at WCAX TV in Burlington.

Shelly’s also one of the camera operators in this photo. She’s on the far right, looking through her viewfinder, with the lens trained on Kunin.

Shelly: I would always, always be asked, “Why are you carrying the heavy equipment, and the reporter’s just carrying the microphone?” I’m like, “Well, it’s my job. That’s what I signed up to do.” I mean, it was non-stop that they would ask that question and especially here at the legislature.

I still do get asked the question, “Why are you carrying all of the heavy stuff?” I mean, I just did the job.

Read the full transcript.

Episode Credits

Before Your Time is presented by the Vermont Humanities Council, the Vermont Historical Society, and VTDigger. This episode was produced by Ryan Newswanger, Abra Clawson, Mike Dougherty and Amanda Gustin. Thanks to our guests: John Daly, Steve Perkins, Marilyn Blackwell, and Teo Zagar. Thanks to John for letting us use clips from his musical, “Spit’n Lyon,” and to Teo and Barnarts for the recording of the performance of “It Can’t Happen Here.”

Music by Michael Chapman and the Woodpiles, Blue Dot Sessions and Chad Crouch.

This program is part of the “Democracy and the Informed Citizen” Initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils. The initiative seeks to deepen the public’s knowledge and appreciation of the vital connections between democracy, the humanities, journalism, and an informed citizenry. We thank The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for their generous support of this initiative and the Pulitzer Prizes for their partnership.