COMM 436/636: Issues, History of the Mass Media
Instructor: Ross Collins

Final Comments

Whenever we start something, we ought not to leave things up in the air, but to come to some sort of end--and that includes classes. We need closure. That’s why I want to say just a little about this class. As you know, I set up this class in reverse chronology, starting at the present and working backwards. I used the archaeology metaphor to help us understand the idea of going backwards, which is hard otherwise for most of us to grasp. You’ve likely never had a course taught that way, or a book designed that way.

Throughout the course I tried to continually bring us back to the present, finding ties and links between the past and what we believe and do today. As we moved back further into history, it became more difficult to find the links. But the links were there. It’s just that they have changed so many times since that they were hard to recognize. For instance, if I take a T-bone steak and grill it, the link to the cow is fairly obvious. You see bones, fat, and grain. But if I grind the steak into hamburger, slice it into thin patties, fry it, put it on a bun with pickles and sauces and cheese and stuff, the link to the cow has gone several more stages away, and it’s hard to make the connection. I’ve known “vegetarians” who won’t eat steak--but will eat a McDonalds hamburger.

Still, we realize the link is there. Is it possible to find a link, or theme, that helps to explain all American media history, from colonial days to the Gulf War? This is controversial among historians--some say there is, some say there is not, and we discussed this a little when we talked of “historical schools.” I would suggest, however, that if there is a common thread in the general history of the country, then there is a common thread to the history of the country’s media, because media history is closely connected to political and cultural history.

Many historians would observe that the theme behind the founding of this country is individual rights and freedoms--the right to vote, the right to criticize, the right to own property. As for the press, we noted that the right to freedom was not at all common during the colonial years of this country, but by the founding of the United States, it was a well-accepted part of our constitution. It did undergo an early attack, in the Alien and Sedition Acts, but generally was a right safeguarded and expanded throughout the 19th century.

Deciding what to say, and who can say it

The 20th century, ironically perhaps, has seen many attempts to limit the right to free expression and criticism. The worst came during World War I, but it reappeared during recent wars such as that of the Persian Gulf in 1991. Military and civilian authorities decided to carefully control media coverage--and the majority of Americans supported that control.We’ve seen other recent attacks on the right to free expression--a proposed anti-flag-burning amendment, a proposal to censor the Internet for indecent materials. The elder George Bush, as front-running Republican presidential candidate, declared that a satirical web site lampooning his candidacy ought to be banned.

Polls have shown that very many Americans would enthusiastically support such legal limits to individual freedom of expression--because they are so offended by indecency, rude attacks, sensationalism and anti-patriotic behavior. Students in this class have shown this too in their almost unanimous agreement in favor of heavy censorship of Civil War dispatches. The idea of writing what readers want, instead of what authorities want, goes as far back to colonial days, and as far up as this year's Spectrum. In fact, a good share of Americans would like to see a lot more limit to freedom of expression generally in America, including more control over movies and television. It’s not at all certain that a First Amendment, if proposed today, would win majority support in this country. It’s easy to believe in a “free press” principle--until someone publishes something that offends us. Even women’s rights lawyers have battled to control the depiction of women as sex objects in advertising, and lots of us--I hope most of us--are offended by those neo-Nazi broadcasts on the Public Access Cable channel. Few of us don’t think that at least some expression, the most obnoxious, should be controlled. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the federal government has moved to block access to all sorts of information citizens have the right to see under the Freedom of Information Act. I'd guess the majority of Americans would support this increased secrecy, although it contradicts the foundation of freedom the country was built on, it seems.

What should be banned?

We generally believe, it seems, that what shocks us today is different, and certainly more significant, than what shocked colonial Americans in 1750. The topics are different, it’s true--but the outrage is the same. Who’s to say our outrage over today’s “indecency on TV” is more rightly-placed than a 1750 British colonist’s shock at seeing the king called an incompetent buffoon? In fact, it might be argued that outrage over that kind of publicity is more legitimate, because it may destabilize society and lead to war. In fact it did--certainly the press contributed to fervor for that war, for the War of 1812, the U.S. Civil War, the Spanish American War, and World War I. It’s less certain that it contributed to World War II and more recent wars, but the point is, criticism of political matters seems much more dangerous than, for instance, TV shows or Internet pages depicting naked people.

So if we could find a thread running through American media history, perhaps it’s our continued re-interpretation as a society of the phrase “Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of the press.” For many of us--perhaps the majority--just can’t believe that the politicians of that era really meant that. And from the time of the old political press, through the penny press era, yellow journalism, jazz journalism, early radio and later television, to today’s Internet, someone, somewhere, is always testing he old concept so central to the American experiment with democracy.

Fear: enemy of freedom

And democracy is an experiment, one in which the media plays such a central role. No one, throughout all of recorded history, whether it be the ancient Sumerians, whose empire lasted a thousand years, to the Romans, whose empire lasted another thousand, to the Venicians, whose city-state lasted another thousand, to the Americans, whose republic has lasted a mere 225 so far--no one has allowed the kind of free expression that America does. Who knows if this will last a thousand years. The way some groups attack the ideas of free expression and equality that this country was built on, who knows, sometimes, if it will last even through our lifetimes. Democracy is fragile. It’s never persisted very long without toppling into empire, dictatorship, kingdom, or some other kind of authoritarian system. And the end of democracy sometimes begins--as it did in Venice--with fearful citizens giving more power to the government as protection against a threat. Terrorism is today's threat, and even today some Americans seem happy to give away more our democratic rights to government officials in hopes they will protect us from risk. I think terrorism can never destroy a democracy directly, but fear of terrorism could bring its destruction from within. And at the center of democratic rights threatened in America is freedom of speech, freedom of the press. Perhaps in studying the history of American media you are studying the real firing line of debate on what Americans think this country should be, and what it might become. That's a bit daunting, but certainly something we all need to participate in--if we plan to work and live here.

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>