There are plenty of reasons to sympathize with Jeff Bezos in his battle with the National Enquirer. If true, the accusations of blackmail brought by the billionaire founder of Amazon would be just the latest outrage from the tabloid, which has made a specialty of scabrous reporting and ethically questionable tactics and techniques.

But that doesn't mean we should always applaud the campaigns of powerful moguls to silence sleazy newspapers. History shows that even the most odious publications and the worst practices of scandal sheets can inadvertently play an important role in maintaining the freedom of the press. There's no better illustration than the sordid story of the Saturday Press.

In the early 20th century, hundreds, if not thousands of small, local newspapers began imitating the "yellow journalism" style pioneered by William Randolph Hearst. These papers, most small-time weeklies, wallowed in the gutter. They viciously attacked minorities; they also published lurid stories of sex and crime as well as what one historian has described as "grossly exaggerated accounts of malfeasance by public officials."