Mt. Pleasant native Patrick File didn’t realize researching historical libel cases for his book would bring him back home, but it was a pleasant surprise.
“Bad News Travels Fast: The Telegraph, Libel, and Press Freedom in the Progressive Era” looks at journalism at the turn of the century and how a handful of plaintiffs shaped libel laws for the entire country.
File, now a professor of media law at the University of Nevada, first stepped into journalism with the Mt. Pleasant News in 2001. Starting in July of that year, File acted as the “interim sports editor” under then publisher Emery Styron.
Styron’s daughter was a friend of File’s who knew he was in school for journalism. When her dad mentioned he was between sports editors for the summer, File’s name came up.
“I was an intern, but I was essentially the sports editor,” File said. “I came in on a Friday and was shown the ropes, (then) I came in on the following Monday and had pages due by noon, so I had to jump right in.”
File was the news editor and a junior at Simpson college at the time. Despite his familiarity with newsrooms he describes the experience as a kind of “trial by fire” which was very formative for him.
During his time at the Mt. Pleasant News he covered area high school sports camps, Old Threshers and a full-page story on a champion horseshoe tosser; but after about a month the new sports editor came in and File went on to graduate from Simpson with degrees in journalism.
Following graduation, File worked in Washington, D.C., and South Korea before finding his way to Minnesota for grad school where “Bad News Travels Fast” took early form in his doctoral dissertation.
“(The book is) trying to understand how we use law to define what journalism is and what it’s supposed to be,” File said. “New technology emerges, new professional practices emerge and we have to keep asking how those things influence each other.”
The book specifically looks at what the industrial age did to journalism. As File describes, typewriters and telegraphs were making news faster than ever. With that speed came an increased likelihood for error.
Papers across the country would get news from the telegraph wire, meaning various publications across the country would put the same story in their paper. While common now, the practice was still in its infancy at the time, so there was no set precedent for what to do when a number of these stories proved to be fabricated.
“The case that proves this the strongest (in the book) is the case of Tyndale Palmer who was accused of stealing money from his employer,” said File.
The story of Palmer went out over the wire, enabling papers across the country to publish it.
Palmer retaliated by finding those papers and accusing them of libel. According to File, Palmer sued as many as 100-150 newspapers.
And it was researching Palmer that brought File back to Eastern Iowa.
Not only had Palmer filed lawsuits in Keokuk and Washington, but File’s research also indicated the man at one point lived in Washington.
“I discovered in an 1880 book, this history of Washington County,” File recounted. “There was a small college (in Washington) and I want to say it was 1878 he graduated from the academy. I think he taught there for a little while as well.”
Cedar Rapids, Keokuk and Washington all ended up being points of interest for the book -- a happy coincidence File had not planned when he set out to research the topic.
“It’s really interesting how you take on these big long journeys and these big projects and lo and behold you end up finding yourself coming back home,” said File.
File’s book is available now for order on Amazon and became more widely available on Friday, Jan. 25.