Posted by: jbunn | July 19, 2009

Midterm post – History of US Media

“Nothing is new. Everything that has happened in the past will happen again.” While this statement holds true in many ways when looking at the history of media in the US, there are a few exceptions to consider. First, everything must start somewhere; once something has happened it may be repeated, but there is always a first time. Second, as history progresses, technology effects and changes how things are repeated, giving variations to past ideas. Lastly, the cause and effects of trends that reoccur are very significant in their ability to resurface. In the short history of media in the US, several trends have re-emerged in different variations according to the allowances of technology.

News began in the US in the form of newspapers during the colonial era. In 1690, the first newspaper in the US was born in Boston titled Publick Occurences published by Benjamin Harris. This, of course, was before the US had formed as its own nation. At this time, papers could be fined for printing information against the government. As the desire for freedom and revolution rose within the colonies, so did the desire for a free press. During the revolutionary era, Great Britain imposed several acts that limited the freedom of the press including the Stamp Act, which taxed paper. Many popular newspapers began to show a bias against Great Britain, urging the colonists to revolt, which they did. Many papers that tried to remain objective, such as the Boston Chronicle and the New York Gazetteer, did not succeed.

As the US began to establish itself as a new nation, a Partisan Press emerged. Two main parties emerged, the Federalists and the Republicans. Each party had support from various newspapers which claimed loyalty to their respective parties. As papers began to expand, restrictions were put on journalists to protect people from being cruelly attacked. The Alien and Sedition act was imposed to prevent people from knowingly printing “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government. The largest problem with newspapers during the Partisan Press era was that papers were not very profitable. When industrial paper making became available in the early 1800s, papers were able to be mass produced and sold for a penny, thus beginning the Penny Press era.

During the Penny Press era, circulation increased and papers became profitable. Newspapers began covering issues such as crime, and gossip. False stories were printed, such as creatures living on the moon printed by the New York Sun. The expanded information covered in the news was designed to interest and excite a broader audience. News became less focused on political issues and more interested in sensational news. Following the Penny Press came a time of dramatic change in journalism due to industrialization, immigration, and the rise of new technology.

Before discussing the alternate forms of technology that changed media in the US, I would like to discuss the main themes we have seen thus far in news coverage in papers. Initially, papers were writing about the issues in the government that were problematic. Papers were advocating certain issues, looking to simulate change in society. Upon achieving their goal, papers began to support politicians whose ideals matched their own. In other words, after they achieved the revolution, they began to support politicians. At this time, the press began acting as a watchdog for politicians, either agreeing or disagreeing with their policies. Then, as technology allowed papers to be mass produced cheaply, news became focused on sensational issues that could draw in a broader audience. In summary, cause: society was unhappy with the government, effect: papers promoted certain social views, specifically the need for revolution; cause: society was happy with new government, effect: papers took sides endorsing specific political parties, watching and reporting on government actions; cause: technology allowed for papers to reach a broader audience in a cheap, profitable way, effect: papers began to print excitable news to interest the broader audience and make a larger profit.
As the history of the US progressed, there was a time of huge immigration, industrialization, and new technology. In the late 1830s and 1840s the invention of the telegraph changed how people could communicate. By the 1860s, the Associated Press (AP) was working with Western Union to send messages across the country. This allowed news to spread more rapidly. By the 1970s, newspapers entered the era of Yellow Journalism. Yellow Journalism describes news that is made to sell. In other words, papers focused on big, bold headlines that could draw in readers and not on real news. But was yellow journalism a new concept, or was it an expansion of the penny press with new technology in a new time? During the Penny Press, papers focused on gossip, sensational news, crimes, and falsified stories to interest readers. During the era of Yellow Journalism, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst took the concepts of the Penny Press to a new level. They changed the format of papers to have bigger, bolder headlines, and added sections of the news to captivate the interest of a larger audience including sports, editorial, and women’s interest. Newspapers were turned into a business, taking in funds from advertisers, and seeking out stories.

As yellow journalism developed, so did modern politics. Newspapers covered McKinley’s election, reporting quotes from speeches. The ability of newspapers to choose how to cover the politicians gave journalists a lot of power in determining the outcome of the political issues. This, of course, was not a new concept either. In the revolutionary era, papers were responsible for influencing public opinion and promoting the Revolutionary War. Similarly, during McKinley’s presidency, Hearst and Pulitzer pushed for Cuban independence, equating their situation to the American Revolution. Like the revolutionary press, the yellow journalists were was once again able to rally enough support to start a war, the Spanish-American War. In both the Revolutionary era and the Yellow Journalism era, support for the wars was gained through use of falsified images and reports, via the Boston Massacre and the destruction of the USS Maine respectively.

As the 1900s approached there was a need for objective news reporting. For the first time ever, journalism was respected as a business and legitimate career choice. Journalism schools opened, and the focus of reporting turned to providing the facts (who, what, when, where, why, and how). This was similar to the Partisan Press, where journalists reported about the parties they represented, however, during the 1900s the press was headed in a direction of becoming politically independent. Also significant during the early 1900s was the invention of the telephone. Like the telegraph, the telephone allowed for quicker communication from far distances. This meant that people could receive news via picking up the phone instead of going out to pick up a newspaper. Suddenly, newspapers were not the only form of obtaining the news. With the invention of the telephone came the invention of the radio. While the government controlled the radio during WWI, post WWI the Radio Corporation of America created a monopoly over the radio which included creating NBC (the National Broadcasting Company).

The technological development of the radio revolutionized US media. Suddenly, breaking news could be reported as the news was occurring as opposed to having to wait until the next morning’s paper was distributed. Politicians such as Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) took advantage of the ability to spread news via the radio by making speeches and announcements on the air. With access to the AP, radio was able to report on all the same issues as papers but at a faster speed. By the 1950s, almost every house in the US owned a radio. Radio broadcasts, like newspapers, went through phases of objective reporting (such as Edward Murrow’s reports on WWII), political reporting (such as FDR’s fireside chats), sensational reporting (such as the War of the Worlds reading), and social issue reporting.

Possibly even more influential that radio has been the introduction of the television to the US in the 1940s. Four major networks emerged, NBC, CBS, DuMont and ABC. By the 1950s, there were about 20 million TV sets. This revolutionized media coverage in the US because for the first time, not only could people hear about issues, but they could see them too. One example of a case covered on TV was Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hearing on communism. TV stations were able to show Sen. McCarthy in a disheveled light. Like illustrations in newspapers could be falsified, images displayed on TV sets could be changed by choosing specific camera angles and lighting. Modern technology has allowed photos to be digitally edited so that TV stations can display images that are significantly altered from how they were originally taken. The role of television in the news has changed significantly since the development of cable, Photoshop, and the digital era. In a sense, modern TV news is going thorough a new age of Yellow Journalism, because anyone with enough money can report whatever they want on cable news. In doing so, there has been somewhat of a reamaturization of journalism.

Lastly, the most recent huge impact on media coverage in the US is the development of the internet. The internet has made it so that anyone with an opinion can post information for the world to view regardless of their qualifications as a journalist. The internet has made it possible to combine all forms of news thus far established; it is possible to see video, hear audio excerpts, and read news all in one place. With so many variables and authors, it is hard to classify the specific trends that have arisen with modern technology. That being said, considering the broad spectrum of news that is out there today, it seems that all four of our themes, social reporting, political reporting, sensational reporting, and objective reporting, are all present in today’s media. Many news outlets even have taken on multiple themes, with an editorial section taking a stance on social and political issues, a journalistic section attempting to report objectively (covering the 5 Ws and how), and a sensational section reporting the soft news stories. Throughout the history of media in the US, the need for social, political, sensational, and objective news reporting has caused those themes to remain prevalent.

So what is in store for the future of US media? It is certainly hard to predict what technology will arise in the decades to come, but no matter what arises, I’m sure media will find its role in that technology. Even without considering technological advancements of the future, one can make predictions about the future of our current news sources: papers, radio, TV, and internet. While radio and TV threatened the existence and profitability of papers, the internet has threatened radio and TV. However, even though new technology has arisen, it has never managed to fully replace the forms of news we are most familiar with. Papers have found their niche in the news world, reporting on a combination of all four themes discussed. Similarly, there are radio shows, and TV shows that report on all four themes. The internet too contains all four types of news. I believe that papers, radio, TV, and the internet will all continue to report the news in their respective styles, each containing a certain level of objectivity, political discussion, social discussion, and sensational soft news. Perhaps each of the four news outlets will take on one of the themes most prevalently. If so, I would guess that papers would be the most political, radio would be the most objective, TV would be the most social, and internet would be the most sensational. I would predict that because papers have always been rooted in politics, radio tends to be less sensational and more factual, TV constantly displays social issues, and the internet is flooded with sensational news. My hope for the future of media is that a new school of journalism will arise that will take into consideration the many changes that have occurred since journalism schools were first established. I also hope that we find a filter for “what is news” so that there is a standard for what qualifies as news/news outlets. One thing is for sure, news will always exist, and we will continue to learn from our past and expand on the themes that have worked in reporting the news.


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