By Atina Dimitrova
More about journalism's development in the United States...
There can be no doubt that one of the most vital characteristics of the 19th century in the United States was the press’ progress. Every major event was influenced by the newspapers’ role. The publishers used different strategies in order to cover the upheavals during this era but in every situation the press introduced far-reaching changes regarding public opinion. Sometimes sensationalism was superior to the facts and the articles’ dubious veracity led to discrepancies but in other cases newspapers were the triggering effect for positive unprecedented historic events.
To begin with, newspapers’ progress in the 19th century was really intense. The major events covered by the publishers were the American Civil War (1861-65), the African American’s influence, Women’s Rights movement, the Tweed’s Ring’s era as well as the Spanish-American War. Undoubtedly, there were other significant changes introducing the press’ progress as Cleveland’s victory and the influx of women as reporters in this business. The approach, however, towards these events was not similar regarding the different situations.
Unquestionably, the press is a product of the cultural context. American conscience against the sins of slavery is illustrated by the editors in the 1830s and 1840s while they were presenting the conflict between the agrarian South and the industrializing North as Streitmatter (1997: 22) points out. Therefore, the editors’ role was to expose the key event.
However, the press in this case was not responsible only for the conflict’s impartial coverage – it backed a certain position. Two of the most vital editors then – Elijah Lovejoy and Lloyd Garrison – used their newspapers – Observer and Liberator - so as to show that they are against slavery. Streitmatter (1997: 22) explains Lovejoy’s achievements – Elijah spoke out against the sale of African Americans and he even tried to prevent the destruction of his fourth press by the pro-slavery forces; he was shot dead and out of his martyrdom the Abolition Movement appeared. Moreover, the other crucial presenter of the extreme nature of abolitionist ideology was Garrison. He showed his intentions openly: “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice” (as cited in Streitmatter, 1997: 28). The fact that Liberator was a well-known voice is backed up by the numerous governmental bodies which tried to repress Lloyd’s words (even the Georgia legislature offered a $5,000 bounty for Lloyd; Columbia, South Carolina offered a reward to any person who apprehended Liberator distributors) as Streitmatter (1997: 30) shows. If Garrison had not been an influential factor for the abolitionist crusade, these bodies would not have attempted to destroy him. These events lead to two major conclusions – firstly, the government still tried to influence the press and secondly, the newspapers in the 19th century helped a lot so as to support civil liberties of all America-based people.
The African-American press is directly linked to the same period and managed clearly to support anti-slavery ideology. For example, Frederick Douglass was the most important
African-American leader of the 19th century and his newspaper North Star surpassed Liberator; his editorial power was a source of racial pride and identity as well as an instrument in the anti-slavery struggle as Streitmatter (1997: 34-5) presents. These two sides of the nineteenth-century press supporting the anti-slavery movement are in the category which helped the positive changes in America.
Newspapers in the 19th century were really important regarding the Women’s Rights Movement. In this case, however, the press’ role was not to help but to hinder the march of gender equality – the American journalism ignored this movement as Streitmatter (1997: 37) observes. The first serious initiative to propose equality was Elizabeth Stanton’s convention but the newspapers responded with “toxic mixture of outrage, contempt and mockery” (Streitmatter, 1997: 41). The slow progress can be observed also thanks to the suffrage press itself not having been powerful at all – its circulations were not significant and the only members were Revolution and Woman’s Journal as Streitmatter (1997: 46) outlines. To recapitulate briefly, the American journalism was influential with its aim to slow down the movement by showing disrespect to the women. People who contributed to this were James Bennett with his paper New York Herald and Horace Greeley with New York Tribune. Especially the latter has been the most widely read and respected newspaper in the country for this period (Streitmatter, 1997: 47). Herald called the Seneca Falls meeting a “Woman’s Wrong Convention” and accused it for contributing to the fact that the country’s “political and social fabric” was “crumbling to pieces” as Streitmatter (1997: 37) explains. In newspapers like these there were even suggestions that women attended these campaigns at the expense of taking care of their household chores. Sometimes editors even used the word “clowns” as a simile to the women. Tribune, for example, published phrases like “Our heart warms with pity towards these unfortunate creatures” (cited in Streitmatter, 1997: 42) which again shows irreverence. Therefore, considering the serious Tribune’s influence, it was expected that the suffrage press would not have been able to surpass Greeley’s circulations. What is more, Bennett even succeeded in developing the financial section in his newspaper and in introducing advertising and sports news coverage; this paper was the most popular American one in Great Britain (Emery et al., 2000: 102). Streitmatter (1997: 46) summarizes: “The role American newspapers of the 19th century played in slowing… women’s rights is an example of the press abusing the mighty power it wields.” So here the newspapers’ role towards this issue was influential too but they were not a positive force.
A further point is the press’ inability to be absolutely impervious to the wealthy people who wanted to control it. For example, the Tweed’s Ring is a symbol of crime against democracy because they have used kickbacks, election frauds and extortion so as to continue ruling New York City in 1860s. Tweed was not only a real estate magnate, but he also subsidized the largest papers in the city – World, Herald, Post. Streitmatter (1997: 54) recapitulates: “During the ring’s reign of corruption, the city treasure funneled $7m to the newspapers in exchange for their silence.” Now the newspapers’ importance is controversial – they did not represent the events impartially; they sacrificed the truth as wealthy and mighty people desired. However, there were still people who tried to expose Tweed’s bribery and intimidation. Thomas Nast was a serious Tweed’s Ring’s opponent who as a political cartoonist used his journalistic artwork in order to show corruption. Although Tweed tried to destroy Nast’s magazine, the cartoons were influential enough with the expose of the truth – Tweed was sentenced to 12 years in prison; with these attacks, the band was destroyed. So sometimes individual people used their journalistic skills to make the press a positive force – as Harper’s Weekly published: “The significance of the political victory in New York can scarcely be exaggerated. The result is the triumph of a free and fearless press” (cited in Streitmatter, 1997: 66).
Thomas Jefferson years earlier stated the importance of all people’s participation so as to make the press as impartial as possible. He wrote: “The people are the only censors of their governors” (cited in Emery et al., 2000: 77). The main problem for the press’ freedom and respectively its widespread importance were for instance the Alien and Sedition Laws designed to keep foreign radicals away from American shores as Leonard (1995: 65) affirms. Although the laws were established a century earlier, they were still an impediment for the nineteenth-century press – from the earliest days of the republic the government used financial subsidy to play favourites. The events’ media coverage was usually affected but people in some cases fought against this – “in the North the publishers of the large circulation papers were more responsive to the desires of their readers than to the needs of the government in Washington” as cited in Ward (1989: 29). However, there were some cases when editors supported individuals during the elections – as Ward (1989: 30) states – Greeley’s nomination as a presidential candidate was culminated thanks to the press. It is a lack of objectivity. Moreover, Jefferson in the same speech highlighted that it was not fair to divide the nation in two classes – in this case the richer ruled and public objective opinion faded away. In other places in the world like India, however, the government did not exist but it also meant that there was no press’ regulator to suppress the opinion. As long as the wealthy and powerful people conquer the newspapers, the freedom is a utopia because they cover what is acceptable for them… and most importantly – they hide what is too scandalous and somehow malicious although well-grounded.
Another person who highlighted the importance of press’ freedom as a way to make the newspapers even more important was Pulitzer. Joseph said: “… never tolerate injustice or corruption; always fight demagogues of all parties; never belong to any party… always oppose privileged classes… never be satisfied with merely printing the news; always be drastically independent… never be afraid to attack wrong” (cited in Brian, 2001: 1). This could be as a dictum for journalists. However his opinion (cited in Brian, 2001: 2) that “the paper should not run the government or make tariffs but it should lead public opinion” changed significantly when William Randolph Hearst challenged him. The notorious war between these two men shaped the American journalism irreversibly. As Streitmatter (1997: 68) asserted the Hearst-Pulitzer circulation war was fueled thanks to the formula: one part news to two parts hype. This journalistic challenge was again directly linked to the historical background – this rivalry called “yellow” journalism triggered the Spanish-American conflict. However in this case the problem itself was so overhyped that Brennen and Hardt (2011: 465) affirm: “Perhaps Hearst was not the catalyst who sparked the Spanish-American War, but he certainly exploited it to the fullest.” Nasaw (2000: 133) also asserts that Hearst was not contented if the hostilities were published alone, he wanted his name attached. In this context the newspapers were really influential but their aims were to exaggerate and present biasedly in order to conceive eye-catching articles – things which cannot be associated to successful development. Joseph and William “also accepted bribes, eavesdropped on potential sources, and stole pictures and documents” (Brennen and Hardt, 2011: 453). Pulitzer and Heart were motivated to surpass one another so they used uncompromisingly their newspapers – World and Journal – to increase their sales. Streitmatter (1997: 76-7) summarized their approach: publishing battles that never took place, using misleading drawings, blaming the Spanish government and demanding the United States to immediately declare war. This occupied the last years of the 19th century but led to sensationalism which was totally superior to the news. The reporting about the Americans’ loss of the warship “Maine” and the implications that it is Spain’s responsibility led to the fact that Journal was the first newspaper in American history to boast a 7-figure circulation as Streitmatter (1997: 78) states. Ward (1989: 34) observed that these two papers’ circulations rose to over a million a day during the war period – it shows that they were powerful.
The assertion that the newspapers were able to control the political course of events is illustrated by Pulitzer. When Blaine and Cleveland were opponents in the presidential election, Pulitzer openly supporter the latter and he used his journalistic power to discredit Roosevelt’s support of Blaine. As Brian (2001: 87) shows World was Cleveland’s greatest newspaper championship. Moreover, Pulitzer wanted to justify his papers’ international reputation so he regularly presented foreigners’ fights and fashions (Brian, 2001: 275). Pulitzer took World and transformed it from an inanition newspaper to the most talked about as Park (1923) claimed. Another example of the growing interest towards these newspapers was the necessity of hiring female reporters. Pulitzer crashed the male-dominated characteristic with sponsoring Nellie Bly’s race around the globe which finally became the world’s most famous reporter (Brian, 2001: 144).
To conclude, the media coverage in the 19th century was really controversial. While presenting events like the Abolition Movement and the Tweed’s Ring’s era, the press’ role was a token of introducing virtues in the American society. However, while showing disrespect towards the Women’s Rights Movement and using massive fabrications so as to stimulate the circulation growth as the Spanish-American War revealed, the papers were hostile and biased – something which Jefferson wanted even a few years earlier to be obliterated. The sensationalism in this case was at the expense of public objective opinion. Despite the scandalous and dishonest reporting at times, newspapers contributed a lot to present the key events and to attract public to formulate comments on worldwide occurrences. Hearst (cited in Streitmatter, 1997: 84) summarizes: “The newspaper is the greatest force in civilization… They declare wars… The newspapers control the nation.” Park (1923) comments on their importance: “What the popular teachers did for Athens in the period of Socrates and Plato, the press has done in modern times for the common man.” The press managed to provoke significant reactions during every single event so it was important.
Despite not being totally independent of the government’s role and being editorially biased at times, newspapers managed to shape the American history so their vital role is unquestionable.
Brennen B., Hardt, H. (2011) The American Journalism History Reader. Abingdon: Routledge
Brian, D. (2001) Pulitzer: A Life. New York: John Wiley and Sons
Streitmatter, R. (1997) Mightier than the sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History. Colorado: Westview Press
Emery, M., Emery E., Roberts N. (2000) The Press and America. 9th edition. Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon
Leonard, T. (1995) News for all. New York: Oxford University Press
Nasaw, D. (2000) The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company
Ward, K. (1989) Mass Communications and The Modern World. London: Macmillan
Park, R. (1923) “The Natural History of the Newspaper”, Journal of Sociology 29: 3, pp. 285289
Author of two novels published in Bulgarian. Photography lover. Journalism student at City University London