Synopsis One: Introduction.
Lecture Synopsis Two: 1991 Gulf War and censorship.
Lecture Synopsis Three: Vietnam.
Lecture Synopsis Four: Watergate.
Lecture Synopsis Five: Television.
Lecture Synopsis Six: Propaganda.
Lecture Synopsis Seven: Radio/jazz journalism.
Lecture Synopsis Eight: Historical interpretation.
Lecture Synopsis Nine: Photography and photojournalism.
Lecture Synopsis Ten: Public relations.
Lecture Synopsis Eleven: Muckraking and "yellow journalism."
Lecture Synopsis Twelve: Early photography.
Lecture Synopsis Thirteen: U.S. Civil War.
Lecture Synopsis Fourteen: Advertising.
Lecture Synopsis Fifteen: Penny Press.
Lecture Synopsis Sixteen: The "common man."
Lecture Synopsis Seventeen: Partisan press.
Lecture Synopsis Eighteen: American Revolution.
Lecture Synopsis Nineteen: Conclusions.
It's a strange dichotomy that many Americans on the one hand say history is boring and irrelevant, yet on the other hand history is so popular in books, movies and genealogy. Why? Perhaps our youth-oriented culture, and the founding of the United States on a break from the past of kingdoms and theocracies offer a clue...and yet, everyone likes interesting stories about interesting people, and that's the material that makes history.
To study more closely the people and events of the past, we divide historical research into work in primary and secondary sources. Secondary sources are what other people have written in books or articles about an event, usually quite a while later. Primary sources are interviews of people involved in an event, or newspapers, notes, letters, minutes, government documents and other archival material made at about the same time.
From the evidence above, good history ought to have three things: facts, interpretation and narrative. History is factual, not fiction, but it's more than just a timeline. You need to tell your readers what those facts mean, to interpret them (the "so-what? factor), and offer evidence to back up your interpretations. And unlike research in many disciplines, historians also value the narrative--the ability to tell a good story.
Historians also like to explain the present by looking at the past--the "therapists of society," perhaps. All of what historians do can help you to think and read critically, while you both inform and entertain other readers.
Here's a question to discuss with a group: in what ways have you, personally, been affected by things that happened in the past?
Using the metaphor of history as an archeological dig, that is, beginning at the top and working down, we might start studying media history at the present, or almost. Nearly everyone in class remembers the Persian Gulf War. But what do we remember? Was news coverage of that war accurate?
Reporters found it difficult to cover that war, constrained by military censorship and blocked from actually witnessing battles. The "pool system," a set-up requiring media correspondents to share information brought back from battle sites by a few reporters, was supposed to last only briefly during this war, but it was extended. U.S. news reporters were angered at the control over their dispatches.
It is clear the media constraints during this war were based on severe press constraints during two previous short wars: Panama in 1989, and Granada in 1983. Reports contend that in those wars, as in the Gulf War, the truth of casualties and military blunders did not come out until much later.
A "loose cannon," during the Gulf War, as far as the military was concerned, was Peter Arnett of CNN, who broadcast "real time" reports from Baghdad, beyond reach of U.S. control.
Most journalism historians see the clear tie between military control of the media in the Gulf, and a very different situation during the Vietnam war of the 1960s and early 1970s. During that conflict, media representatives found it easy to get press credentials and roam at will around the battlefields. Reports from Vietnam showed some of the ugliness of war, the blunders, corruption and death of both civilians and soldiers.
The U.S. Government tried to portray the war as an important battle against creeping Communism, and emphasized their own public relations staff reports to balance negative reports sometimes (but clearly not always) produced by independent media. Which side told the truth? The "information gap" between what the government said was happening and what was really happening contributed to increasing protest of the war. So to, the graphic reports of war's violence.
The military and many government leaders clearly remembered Vietnam in their control of the military during future conflicts. Many leaders blamed the media for "losing Vietnam," though historians seldom agree that the media were primarily to blame for a difficult conflict.
Everyone has heard of Watergate, a word that's become synonymous for scandal: Iran-gate, Korea-gate, even NDSU logo-gate. But the word itself refers only to an office building in Washington, D.C., and a bungled burglary that ended up toppling the Nixon Administration.
At first in 1972, few media cared about the story. The Washington Post, specifically Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, doggedly pursued leads, however. Many leads came from "Deep Throat," an unnamed (still!) source Woodward occasionally met in an underground parking garage. It became more and more clear that Nixon not only knew about the burglary, but that he was personally involved in all kinds of illegal activities, cover-ups, and general skullduggery.
The power of television was proven again beginning July 16, 1973, when the Senate Watergate committee began deliberating on national television. Testimony embarrassing to Nixon riveted the nation--especially after an aide revealed the presence of a comprehensive secret taping system. Nixon was forced to hand over the tapes, again shocking the nation with his taped shallowness, racial slurs, profanity, and stupid ravings. In August 1974 Nixon became the first U.S. president in history to resign.
Woodward and Bernstein say it was not the media, but the democratic process, that brought down Nixon, but clearly the both newspapers and television played a major role.
Television came late to the United States, and that surprises some people. But technological ability to transmit a picture was available in the 1930s. World War II intervened. Researchers picked up the job again after 1945, and commercial television expanded dramatically in the late 1940s.
Television licensing slowed, however, as the FCC held up applications. Two reasons: one, the cultural impact of television worried some policy-makers. Two, the possibility of Communists infiltrating a powerful new medium worried some other policy-makers. But by 1953 most of America could pick up a signal, and buy a (very expensive for the time) television set.
Early entertainment programs were built by sponsors, and oftentimes actually filmed by ad agencies. Sponsors of early news shows reflected old radio shows in playing an obvious role: "Camel News Caravan" on NBC, for instance, was sponsored by the cigarette.
The power of television to influence national issues became clear after Edward R. Murrow, producer and anchor of "See It Now," a television documentary, took on anti-Communist leaders such as Sen. Joseph McCarthy for his destructive and unfair tactics against supposed "Communist sympathizers" around the country. Everyone realized they must get a television or risk missing out on important news.
Television influenced the election of President John Kennedy over Richard Nixon in 1960, and clearly set the importance of image in politics that still is part of our political world today.
In the last century, "propaganda" did not have the clearly negative connotation that it does today. Nowadays, though, we think of propaganda to mean government public relations efforts, often unethical, using the mass media to persuade and control citizens. Modern propaganda techniques clearly emerged during World War I (1914-18), but it took another war to really perfect techniques using the new media of film and, particularly, radio.
Hitler's interest in media control and propaganda was so strong that he created a ministry for it, headed by Dr. Josef Goebbels(1933-45). Goebbels set up a control so sweeping that nothing in Germany escaped; effectively content of all the media was dictated by the government. The ministry relied on Hitler's belief that propaganda must appeal to "the masses," and not "the intellectuals," and that it must be based on emotional themes, simple slogans and themes, repetition, common enemy, a hero figure, cult of violence, and lies or half-truths. Propaganda was extremely successful in Germany. Censorship was complete.
In the United States, wartime communication emphasized self-censorship: journalists were asked to control their material to avoid themes that could hurt the nation's war effort. In addition, Elmer Davis directed the Office of War Information, a 250-employee force churning out news, features, newsreels, radio copy, photos and cartoons for the American press. Space for government advertising often was donated.
After the war two things seemed clear to the world: propaganda through the mass media could be a powerful force, and broadcast media held a huge influence on society. This belief clearly influenced the country's response to television and the Vietnam Conflict.
Most people know that Marconi, an Italian, developed the first radio set. He transmitted the first trans-Atlantic signal from Cornwall in England to Newfoundland in Canada in 1901. But it was in code; to make voice transmission possible required the invention of the vacuum tube, by an American, Lee DeForest.
Radio was certainly known on an experimental level by World War I (1914-18), but commercial radio, like commercial television, had to wait until after a war ended. In November 1920 Westinghouse Electric transmitted the first non-experimental broadcast in Pittsburgh. But its commercial value caught on slowly...and then exploded. When Americans finally discovered commercial radio a year later, they mobbed the stores for receivers. Stations sprouted all over, at a time when anyone could get a license--churches, department stories, even the Omaha Grain Exchange operated a transmitter. In 1922 the Forum Publishing Co. started WDAY-radio, and from 1922-26 NDSU operated a transmitted. The university was off the air until 1952, when it established a closed carrier current, and in the 1960s, KDSU-FM. By the mid-20s, networks began to dominate local stations, specifically NBC and CBS. After World War II NBC was forced to break up its monopoly of the "Red Network" and the "Blue Network." The Blue became ABC.
By March 1925, an estimated 23 million people listened on radio to president Calvin Coolidge's inaugural speech. The Age of Radio had begun. Until the 50s, radio was unformatted, however: sports, drama, comedy, music, news, westerns and other genres were offered by the same station. Early radio operators also wondered how they could make the new medium pay for itself--advertising was at first resisted by listeners. However, after the first commercial was aired August 1922 in New York, listeners began to accept the idea. U.S. Government regulation encouraged building radio as a commercial-based, entertainment driven medium, and influenced later development of television.
Radio could not compete with television by the 1950s, but reinvented itself using the concept of Top 40 formatting, and tying its success to a new music, rock and roll.
The age of radio is often called the age of "jazz journalism," a reflection of the growth of scandalous tabloids, mostly in New York City. Journalistic cross-currents during this time emphazed a need to build a journalism into a true profession, instead of a trade, by emphasizing higher education. Pulitzer-endowed Columbia University School of Journalism came first, in 1904, and the University of Missouri School of Journalism came second, after World War I. Walter Lippmann argued for the importance of objectivity in newswriting, while Henry Luce's Time magazine emphasized interpretation of news events.
People not familiar with writing history sometimes assume it never changes--facts are facts, right, and what can change if it's already over with? Well, a fact may be a fact, but how we interpret that fact is what's important, and what changes.
For instance, we know Columbus reached America in 1492. A fact. How people have reacted to that, however, has changed over the centuries. For the first two centuries, Columbus was ignored. By 1892 he was a great hero. One hundred years later, on the 500th anniversary of his voyage, celebrations were studded by protest of Columbus as arrogant evil European, destroyer of native peoples and symbol of death in the New World.
Columbus did not change. Our interpretation did, based on our own culture and knowledge. New evidence or the way we look at that evidence reinvents history for every generation.
In mass media history,
interpretations can be divided into six broad schools:
* Nationalist, the oldest, explains journalism with the idea of progress towards freedom of the press.
* Romantic emphasizes the great men of press history.
* Developmental talks about the rise of journalism towards greater professional standards.
* Progressive emphasizes the idea of conflict, a struggle between wealth and class of media owners and reporters and editors for freedom and liberty.
* Consensus emphasizes both the owners' class and the workers agreeing most of the time on free speech and democratic principles.
* Cultural, the newest school, emphasizes that it was not the press that changed society so much as it was society that influenced the press.
Two technical advancements that changed the way photojournalists approached their subjects date from the 1920s: small format (35 mm) film, and small cameras (Leica was the first). Photographers could now be quick, portable and discreet. Magazines devoted primarily to photography date from this era, beginning in Germany, and later moving to the U.S. Most successful was Life, begun in 1936 by Henry Luce. Margaret Bourke-White's photography of Fort Peck Dam in Montana was featured in the first issue.
The concept of photojournalism in these magazines changed from the old postage-stamp- album photos and emphasis on text, to one large, theme-setting photo and others arranged around it, with cutlines, to tell a story primarily through pictures.
Also influential during this era was the Farmers Security Administration (FSA) photographers hired by the U.S. Government in the 1930s to document the effects of the depression, and FDR's relief programs. The clear divide between rich urban Americans and poor rural Americans was emphasized in these photos. Some of the most powerful and influential came from rural North Dakota.
The golden age of photojournalism was perhaps 1935-1975; after that technological changes in printing demanded photographers shoot primarily color; general interest magazines devoted to photojournalism were mostly gone; graphic artists more and more took control of print media pages, making photography into a design element rather than a storyline. Today it's unusual to see entire photo pages, and most photojournalists find they can't rely on as many candid shots due to technical constraints of color film. Also, as colors attract attention, photographers tend to look for the brightest colors as much as the story-telling scenes.
The development of public relations as a mass media industry is fairly recent; before about 1900 so-called "press agents" did exist, but their job was more to protect company directors from the press than to give out information. Secrecy was the rule.
Ivy Lee, a New York newspaper man, decided to leave journalism and institute a new kind of public relations, based on honesty and openness in dealing with the press. He tried this new concept in his work with the usually secretive railroad industry, after an accident, by answering questions and inviting reporters to the scene at company expense. It worked so well that reporters began expecting this treatment from all companies.
Lee, however, along with the man who coined the term public relations, Edward Bernays, did not have a particularly optimistic view of their industry. Bernays wrote in several influential books that public relations was most effective when appealing to people's emotions, and that arguments to reason were not usually effective. Lee wasn't so sure about the supreme power of the emotional appeal, but noted that self-interest guides most people's choices, and should form the basis of public relations appeals. Lee said facts didn't exist; interpretations were all that mattered.
Journalists viewed the new public relations industry with ambivalence at the least, contempt at the most. While they appreciated the new openness with which practitioners treated reporters, and the helpful material provided to them, they distrusted p.r. people's clear ability to create "news," and their emphasis on interpreting facts to fit their needs. Lee himself agreed p.r. people could manufacture contrived news events, observing that his promotion of John D. Rockefeller's gift to Johns Hopkins University hardly deserved the media attention it received.
Clearly, the emphasis of successful government public relations during World War I inspired the industry. In the United States, George Creel directed the Committee on Public Information, guided by European models to encourage Americans to support the allies and hate the enemy. Propaganda inspired by so-called atrocity stories from this era turned out to be often untrue, meaning a now-skeptical public refused to believe the atrocity stories from World War II, which mostly were only too tragically true.
Develoment of advertising: see synopsis fourteen.
Documentary photographer Lewis Hine was one of a large group of turn-of-the-century journalists who crusaded against abuse and injustice in America. President Theodore Roosevelt called them "muckrakers," and their stories appeared mostly in nationally-circulated magazines. Their exposes of huge concentrations of wealth, abusive treatment of labor, unethical advertising and dangerous medicines led to national reform laws early this century.
Along with the crusading journalists, paradoxically, came the sensationalist newspapers. About one-third of the big dailies in the United States followed trends we now call "yellow journalism," thoroughly sensationalizing coverage of political events and people. Layout included big headlines, pictures, and color.
Most famous for this were the New York World, published by Joseph Pulitzer, and the New York Journal, published by William Randolph Hearst. Their sensationalist coverage of the run-up to the Spanish-American War in Cuba perhaps was the pinnacle of sensationalism in American journalism; two years later Pulitzer dropped the approach because it was damaging journalism's credibility, and most sensationalist newspapers were gone a decade after that. Of course, sensationalism was reborn in the tabloid press of the 20s, this time focusing mostly on celebrities, crime and sex.
of the modern newspaper
Technology has often driven changes in mass media, and the new technology of the 1880s was the telephone and typewriter. The telephone allowed true reporting as we know it today, as reporters could now put together a story in hours instead of days or weeks. The typewriter, along with a machine called the Mergenthaler (inventor's name) Linotype, which set lead type automatically, also made it easier for newspapers to reach more people faster. The great economic growth of the United States during this time coincided with great interest in culture and the importance of education. By 1900 there were 6,000 high schools in the country, compared with 100 in 1860. While it's true that at the turn of the century the average American still only had a fifth-grade education, this was enough to read. Literacy reached 90 percent.
An immigrant (as was Mergenthaler) remembered for modernizing news values established his media influence first in St. Louis, then in New York. Joseph Pulitzer was originally from Hungary, and through "luck and pluck" as they called it back then built an empire crowned with his New York World. The ideas of progress, crusading journalism, interpretive/investigative stories, objectivity, non-partisan news all were developed and expanded by Pulitzer, along with sensationalistic "yellow journalism" which, he said, helped sell newspapers to "the little people." Pulitzer's "new journalism" was also part of rival William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal, although Hearst cared more about simple sensationalism and less about educational goals than did Pulitzer.
Photography's roots reach back more than 150 years, with the unveiling of the Daguerreotype in France. While people had for centuries understood the principle behind the camera lens, and for many decades knew that certain chemicals were sensitive to light, these ideas were not combined into photography until much later. Nicephore Niepce in France did come up with a permanent picture (he called it a "heliograph") in the 1820s, but the first practical photography was Daguerre's highly-detailed image on a silver-coated copper plate.
Daguerreotypes became the rage in Europe, and in America only a year later, introduced by Samuel Morse. (He also invented the telegraph.) Artists worried that this process designed originally as an aid to painting would destroy their livelihood. In response they turned away from realism into impressionism and other approaches--realism had been won by a picture-taking machine.
The negative-positive process we're familiar with today was developed at the same time by Fox Talbot in England. But by 1851 Daguerreotypes were replaced by the collodion (wet-plate) method, using glass plates and portable darkrooms. A team of photographers employed by Mathew Brady photographed the Civil War using this cumbersome process. It was not until the century's wane, about 1886, that roll film introduced by George Eastman revolutionized the industry and made photography accessible to everyone, not just professionals.
Other famous early photographers included Nadar, first aerial photographer (from a balloon) in Paris, Julie Margaret Cameron, whose celebrity portraits and aggressive demeanor perhaps remind us of today's paparazzi, and Eadvard Muybridge, whose "locomotion" studies showed us how animals and people really move.
Most students have studied the U.S. Civil War sometime by the time they reach university, but they usually haven't learned a lot about the press's role in promoting and reflecting that conflict. While economic and philosophical disparities between the north and south contributed to the conflict, the simple issue was slavery. The press does best at reporting simple, emotionally-charged issues, and before the Civil War polemic editors such as abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison encouraged angry attacks on the south, and not more restrained debate. Some southern editors responded with calls for revolution and secession, and by 1861 no one was listening to the opposition, making war an easier choice.
During the war government control of the press concerning military issues was at first lax. Later it became more strict, as civilian war secretary Edwin Stanton issued more clear directives, and General William Tecumseh Sherman demanded a system of accreditation for reporters. On the civilian side, anti-war Democratic newspapers heaped abuse on Abraham Lincoln's conduct of the war. In 1863 some of these "Copperhead" editors were declared traitors.
Government leaders in the south generally got along well with editors, though the newspapers there were smaller and of lower circulation than those in the north. Southern military leaders left reporters fairly free as long as they reported without opinions--the beginnings of what we now call the concept of objectivity.
Most of what we know of that war in images comes from the team of photographers hired by Mathew Brady to photograph the entire war. During the time, however, readers could not see actual printed photos, but only the image as a copy on a wood or metal engraving. The halftone process of photographic reproduction wasn't invented until the 1870s.
The use of the "inverted pyramid" style lead and multi-column headlines and pictures also debuted during the Civil War.
Advertising has been around for centuries, and certainly was part of early journalism. But in the early press, advertisements really were more like simple announcements and not much like the display ads we see today. For that, we go back about a century. Advertisements became necessary for businesses as hand-fabricated merchandise gave way to machine production. Overstocks forced businesses to build demand, and newspapers and magazines offered an ideal way to promote. Greater literacy meant more people could understand ads, and railroads brought goods to distant markets.
The concept of brand names attached to products developed after the Civil War; by the 1890s ad agencies and "ad smiths" existed to prepare material for businesses. An ad copywriter, normally a freelancer until before the 20th century, could strike it rich with a catchy slogan, such as the early and famous "Good morning! Have you used your Pear's Soap today?" Along with patent medicines and cars, personal hygiene products formed a powerful force in early ad campaigns. In fact, products we take for granted today, such as shampoo and deodorant, were sold to an originally skeptical public through advertising.
Early ad styles included the John E. Powers "Reason-Why" copy, and the Nathaniel Fowler "Fowler Idea." The first aimed at people's reason, offering a pithy argument; the second aimed to win over the reader with a long argument extolling the benefits of the product.
After World War I advertisers moved to emotional appeals, especially appealing to people's fears of social ostracism. Chatty, anecdotal ads were common. Creating an image in advertising is a more modern appeal yet, as is establishment of Ted Bates' Unique Selling Proposition (USP).
The rise of the "Penny Press" in the 1830s coincided with the general social trend in the United States toward a power shift from the "elites" to the "common man." Before this time newspapers were expensive, circulations were low, and content was mostly political and polemical. Benjamin Day's Sun was the first newspaper to offer an alternative: cheap news, sold by the issue. His paper started out costing a penny. But most competitors soon raised their prices to two cents.
The Penny Press established several new ideas in journalism:
* Cheap and accessible papers.
* Newsstand sales, or sales by "criers" on the street.
* "News, not views," that is, mostly non-political content.
That doesn't mean these papers presented material we'd recognize as news today. Objectivity and the inverted pyramid style were not part of these papers. But Day and publisher James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald did publish heavily crime and gossip news. By 1860 the Herald was the world's largest daily, 77,000 circulation.
Also during this period Horace Greeley established his New York Tribune. He crusaded for causes considered liberal in his day, and his influential weekly edition distributed around the country.
In contrast to the somewhat trivial nature of many Penny Press newspapers, Henry J. Raymond's New York Times emphasized serious foreign news. The 1851 newspaper fell to a low of 9,000 circulation by 1897, when it was rescued by Adolph Ochs of Tennessee, who established it as the most respected newspaper in the United States.
We're now reaching back into a historical time when the concept of "news media" was very different from what it is today. Working backwards on our "archeological dig," we looked at the development of "objectivity" as a goal, a 20th century phenomenon, and the establishment of the "celebrity system" in jazz-age journalism. We looked back even further, to the end of the last century, when the idea of huge, powerful media outlets (then all print media) developed, when the idea of separation between news and opinion developed and, around the Civil War, the first use of the inverted pyramid lead.
We also talked about the idea of "mass" media, that is, cheaply-priced non-political news for the "common man," during the Penny Press era. Now we're reached a time before all that: newspapers were expensive, opinionated, of small circulation, and politically polemical. Distinction was seldom made between opinions and fact. Newspapers presented ideas, debates, philosophy. Today mostly they present information. It's a different concept of what's important: today we might offer day-to-day updates on Clinton's fundraising problems. Then they might have been more interested in the concept of fundraising for a democracy.
Most important just before the turn of the last century (1790s) was the development of the Federalist-anti-Federalist debate, and newspapers' vigorous support for either side. Fenno's Gazette of the United States represented Federalists, while Freneau's National Gazette, and later Benjamin Franklin Bache's Philadelphia General Advertiser, took the anti-Federalist side. Federalists in Congress, exasperated by the violence of the debate, passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. Partisan punishment of mostly anti-Federalist editors led to a backlash in favor of the free press guarantees approved by Congress without much debate only a few years before, and in 1800 anti-Federalist Jefferson was elected president, the Act ended, and the Federalist concept of a government run by aristocratic elites was being discredited.
After 1810 state after state gave non-property owning males the right to vote (but not women or slaves), and "common-man" candidate Andrew Jackson's election as president in 1828 was a victory for the importance of public opinion in a democratic government. This set the stage for the success of the Penny Press.
The press for the "common man" would not have been possible without the technological changes that made high-circulation newspapers and magazines possible. The Washington Hand Press, developed in the 1820s, gave small publishers an easier tool for publishing small newspapers, and the presses were popular in frontier America (such as North Dakota) through the 1880s. Steam-operated cylinder presses soon became the standard for larger newspapers. The laborious, labor-intensive job of hand-setting pieces of type ended about then, with the invention of the Mergenthaler Linotype machine, and by 1900 web-feed presses, printing pages from a roll of paper instead of a sheet, made possible printing speeds of up to 150,000 12-page newspapers in an hour.
Reasons behind the American Revolution (1775-1781) are complex. Economic complaints help explain actions of the colonialists against British rule, but similar situations in other British colonies did not lead to revolution. Perhaps the revolutionary philosophy and its expression in the colonial press was as important an instigator for the revolution.
Colonial opinion concerning the revolution separated into three groups. The Tories, or pro-British press, argued that America ought to stick with British rule. James Rivington of New York was particularly known his pro-Tory publication. In a more centrist position was John Dickinson, whose "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania" made the "colonial Whig" argument that taxation without representation was wrong, and economic agreements with Britain ought to be changed. He did not argue for revolution, though his writings served as a catalyst anyway. On the most pro-revolutionary side were the "radicals," whose principal spokesman, Samuel Adams, worked tirelessly to persuade colonists that revolution was necessary, as Britain ignored basic rights of the people.
Isaiah Thomas, Boston printer and self-educated publisher of the Massachusetts Spy, eventually argued in favor of revolution, and after the war became one of America's first journalism historians. Tom Paine, on the other hand, was not a publisher but offered a stirring set of articles such as "Common Sense," designed to sustain morale during the long conflict.
Synopsis Nineteen: The Last Word
As the class comes to an end, we're reaching back to the origins of media in the United States, to a time when the concept of "mass media" was very different from what it is today. To understand why people wrote and read as they did then, we try to understand the culture and society of the time, and compare it to our own. And in comparing cultures and times, I hope, we can better understand our own media experiences and how they are affected by our culture.
Newspapers came late to the American colonies, not before 1690, even though Europe had news sheets perhaps 80 years before that. But in America, marked by a few scattered settlements against a vast wilderness, focus was on the news of the "civilized world" back home, particularly from London newspapers.
However, by the late 1600s trade and commerce in the Boston area made the idea of a local newspaper more appealing. A coffee shop-bookstore owner, Benjamin Harris, tried one in 1690, Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick. His critical look at British authority and lurid account of the French king's dalliances offended government authorities, who shut down the publication after one day.
The next attempt was more successful. Postmaster John Campbell established the Boston News-Letter in 1704, "published by authority." That meant he cleared his material with authorities before publication, leaving a rather staid news hole.
First American publisher to challenge authority was James Franklin, Ben's brother, who started the New England Courant in 1721. Young Ben wrote essays for the paper under the signature "Silence Dogood." In 1729 Ben left Boston for Philadelphia to begin a paper of his own, the Pennsylvania Gazette. It became the colonies' most successful newspaper.
An inspiration for the American revolutionaries from this period was publisher John Peter Zenger in New York, was who tried for "seditious libel," that is, criticizing the government. His attorney, Andrew Hamilton, secured his eventual acquittal on the then- novel argument that what he published was true, and that people had the right to know the truth about their government.
Moving back to the dawn of press history, in Europe, we find that censorship and control efforts dogged the press for most of its first couple centuries. Henry VIII (early 1500s) required prior censorship in England, and his successor, Queen Mary, required printers to belong to a government monopoly. The Star Chamber, set up in the 1560s, became a sort of "inquisition" for printers who offended the crown. That chamber lasted a century, and affected the first news sheets, called corantos, established in 1621 in England. Writer John Milton penned a stirring defense of the marketplace of ideas about this time (1644). His "Areopagitica" argued, "Let [truth] and falsehood grapple; who ever know truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?"
We've now reached the bottom of our "archeological dig" metaphor of history study that began in August. You may have found it difficult to look at things from the front working back--no textbook I know of is set up this way, and few classes are taught in reverse chronology. I think, though, that it's ultimately easier to understand the significance of early media history on today's media by taking this approach. I sometimes use the beef metaphor: it's easy to see the cow in the steak, but the more you chop it into hamburger, add cheese and sauce, and squeeze it between a bun, the less likely you are to see the connection. (My nephew will eat McDonald's products, but not a steak.) We work back from the hamburger.
If I could identify one unifying thread throughout this course, perhaps it would be: who controls the information? Censorship and control have come through the military in a variety of ways, through the government in a variety of ways, through religious authorities, pressure groups, and media organizations themselves. We've come a long way from the idea that the crown (government) ought to control the press to protect the public from dangerous information--or have we? (Remember the Gulf War....) And now the Internet is the newest form of media, yet the old questions of control still dog us daily. Of course, what people think ought to be controlled may change. The British monarchs worried about seditious libel. We worry about salacious pornography. Which is more dangerous in a democracy like ours, a mere 200 years old (Rome lasted a millenium), still fragile as any form of government based not on guns or divine right, but only on an agreement beteween citizens? The First Amendment and the press is perhaps more controversial today than it was in 1790.
Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <www.ndsu.edu/communication/collins>
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