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Politics and Economy:
Milestones in the History of Media and Politics
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Robert McChesney comments, "And the founding fathers...their legacy here is very rich. They understood that setting up a diverse, well funded media system with a broad range of viewpoints was the essence of building of the oxygen for democracy. And it took conscious policies. It didn't happen naturally — you had to work at it." What events have shaped the media's role in reporting politics since the beginning of American history? And how has the press developed in the years since the Bill of Rights outlined its freedoms? NOW's history of media and politics takes us to the early recorded instances of journalism for some background.

In Renaissance Europe, newsletters containing information about everything from wars and economic conditions to social customs were handwritten and circulated among merchants. By the late 1400's, the first printed forerunners of the newspaper appeared in Germany as pamphlets or broadsides, often highly sensationalized in content. In the English-speaking world, the first successfully published title was THE WEEKLY NEWES. View the front page of CORANT OR WEEKLY NEWES, FROM ITALY, GERMANY, HUNGARIA, POLONIA, BOHEMIA, FRANCE, AND THE LOW-COUNTRIES published in London on October 11, 1621. In the 1640's and 50's, it was followed by a multitude of different titles in the similar newsbook format. Another prominent early paper (today the oldest continually published paper in the world) was the LONDON GAZETTE. See the GAZETTE coverage of the Great Fire of London.

Publication of information about contemporary affairs began in North America in the early 18th century, but they did not yet resemble the newspapers of today. In fact, at first, the notion that "news" should provide timely accounts of recent events was not self-evident. Read about some of the milestones in America's history of media and politics:

1690: PUBLICK OCCURRENCES, BOTH FOREIGN AND DOMESTICK, the first newspaper published in America, was printed by Richard Pierce and edited by Benjamin Harris in Boston on September 25, 1690. It filled only three of four 6x10 inch pages of a folded sheet of paper. The journalist stated in his first (and only) issue that he would issue the newspaper "once a month, or, if any Glut of Occurrences happen, oftener." However, published without authority from the government, it was immediately suppressed, its publisher arrested, and all copies destroyed. (One original copy was later found in the British Library.)

1704: The first continually published American newspaper was the BOSTON NEWSLETTER. It was heavily subsidized by the government, but the experiment was a near failure, with very limited circulation.

1729: Benjamin Franklin, learning from his brother's experience in newspaper, introduced a mode of journalism more literary and satirical and more engaged in civic affairs than the encyclopedic papers that had come before in the PENNSYLVANIA GAZETTE.

Colonial Era papers were typically 4-page weeklies containing local ads, short paragraphs of local hearsay, and large, unedited chunks of European political and economic news from the London press. Political news of other colonies rarely appeared; local political news was scarce until the 1760's. Articles in colonial papers, brilliantly conceived by revolutionary propagandists, were a major force that influenced public opinion in America from reconciliation with England to full political independence. As conflict with England grew intense, colonial printers were compelled to choose sides.

1735: John Peter Zenger, publisher of the NEW YORK WEEKLY JOURNAL, was put on trial for publishing articles using sarcasm, innuendo, and allegory to ridicule Governor William Cosby of New York. Cosby accused Zenger of seditious libel. The law of seditious libel held that the greater the truth, the greater the libel, meaning that if the articles were true, they would, of course, undermine the Governor's authority. Zenger was represented by the most prominent attorney in British America, Andrew Hamilton. Reasoning that his client should be acquitted because what he had published about the governor was, in fact, true, Hamilton convinced the jury to find Zenger not guilty. Later, "A Brief Narrative of the Case and Tryal of John Peter Zenger," written by Hamilton, was published anonymously in Zenger's paper. The Brief Narrative argued that newspapers should be free to criticize the government as long as what they wrote was true. The article helped shape the political culture that led to the Revolutionary War and the subsequent adoption of the Bill of Rights.

1791: The ratification of the Bill of Rights guaranteed freedom of the press in Amendment 1, which reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

1792: Congress supported the press with preferential postal rates. The postal subsidy made it much less expensive to send newspapers and periodicals around the country, done specifically to encourage the spread of a print culture.

1798: The Sedition Act made it a crime to print "any false, scandalous and malicious writing…against the government of the United States." Introduced by President John Adams as the US was on the brink of war with France and rabble-rousing from French immigrants was feared, the Sedition Act made it illegal to criticize the government, under penalty of a $2,000 fine and 2 years in jail. The Act directly contradicted the First Amendment, which had already been ratified in 1791. Everyone from writers, editors, printers, and "even drunks who were overheard condemning (President) Adams" were prosecuted. This failing of the Constitution to guarantee basic rights was only momentary, however. While the law was set to expire in 1801 anyway, Thomas Jefferson pardoned everyone convicted under it soon after he was sworn into office.

1830's: Beginning with THE NEW YORK SUN in 1833, papers took a turn towards reportage, seeking commercial success and mass readership. Advances in printing and papermaking technology led to an explosion of newspaper growth, the emergence of the "Penny Press." Costing a penny an issue, rather than the usual six cents, penny papers aggressively sought out local news, assigning reporters to the courts and to the coverage of "society."

1841: Horace Greeley launched THE NEW YORK TRIBUNE, which quickly reached a circulation of 10,000, was strongly antislavery, and as a reform-minded journal of ideas, reported on women's rights, socialist experiments, temperance, and other reforms. In his autobiography, RECOLLECTIONS OF A BUSY LIFE, 1869, Greeley explained, "I founded the New York Tribune as a journal removed alike from servile partisanship on the one hand and from gagged and mincing neutrality on the other." By the 1850's the TRIBUNE surpassed 250,000 in circulation and was widely influential throughout the North and West. Using his paper as a platform to reach a large audience, Greeley mounted editorial attacks on the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott decision.

1846: News-gathering became the central function of the general-interest newspaper, but political reporting was not well institutionalized. By 1846, only Baltimore and Washington, D.C. assigned special correspondents to cover Congress.

1850's: The first pictorial weekly newspapers emerged, featuring extensive illustrations of events in the news. As politics heated up in this decade, more than fifty papers hired Washington correspondents, most of whom wrote for multiple papers and often held additional jobs as clerks for congressional committees or speechwriters for politicians.

1865: After the Civil War, the connection between party and paper began to weaken as liberal reformers criticized party loyalty. By 1890, a quarter of daily newspapers in northern states claimed independence of party. During this time, papers became highly profitable. In addition to increased circulation and decreased production costs, advertising revenue surpassed subscription fees as the primary source of income.

1880's: Joseph Pulitzer, a key figure in developing the big-business model of the newspaper, and William Randolph Hearst, seeing the press as both political agency and business, competed for mass circulation. The sensational reporting they turned to became known as "yellow journalism." Read more about yellow journalism and propaganda.

1890's: Features of the modern newspaper appeared: banner headlines, extensive use of illustrations, "funny pages," expanded coverage of organized sporting events. This is also the beginning of the age of media consolidation, as many independent newspapers were swallowed up into powerful "chains."

1896: Adolph Ochs bought THE NEW YORK TIMES in 1896. In his inaugural declaration "to give the news impartially, without fear or favor," Ochs set out to distinguish his paper from the yellow journals, to capture a high-toned readership, and to set the standards of journalistic integrity.

1900's: Progressive Era practitioners of a new style of investigative journalism revealed illegal and unsavory practices of capital, labor, and state and local government. It was Theodore Roosevelt who, in a sizzling attack on their negativism, labeled them muckrakers. The term first applied to a group of journalists and writers who exposed corruption in business and government in the early 20th century; Roosevelt intended the term to be pejorative, but the muckrakers were very influential and provided impetus to the Progressive Era reform movement. Around 1902, prominent magazines began featuring crusading exposés or muckraking articles. After 1912, muckraking abated. The public tired of exposés, some of which seemed sensationalized and overly sordid. But muckraking had already made an impact on the reform movement and would influence the policies of President Woodrow Wilson.

1920's: Radio became a news medium. Later, during WWII, it would be a significant source of breaking news.

1925: During and after WWI, the government suppressed radical newspapers and German language papers, but in 1925 in Gitlow v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld a conviction of radical pamphleteers but acknowledged for the first time that 1st Amendment guarantees of press freedom applied to the states under the 14th Amendment.

1931: In Near v. Minnesota, the High Court struck down a "gag law" suppressing "malicious" and "scandalous" publications. The decisions outlawed the prior restraint of publications and termed suppression a greater danger than journalistic irresponsibility.

1934: The Communications Act of 1934, the basic landmark agreement between commercial television and the people of the United has become the unifying thread of all telecommunications laws since then, establishing the following basic principles: The airways are public property; Commercial broadcasters are licensed to use the airways; The main condition for use will be whether the broadcaster served "the public interest, convenience, and necessity."

1963: Polls show more Americans report that they rely on television rather than newspapers as their primary source for news.

1966: The Freedom of Information Act allows any citizen, including newspaper reporters, to get information from government records. Read more about the Freedom of Information Act.

1965-1973: TV coverage of the Vietnam War took on new significance. The media reporting in Vietnam directly challenged the government, drawing attention to the "credibility gap" — official lies and half-truths about the war.

1970's: During Nixon's presidency, two events brought the press a new prominence: the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. At the same time, television news was expanding. 60 MINUTES became the nation's most popular program.

From this point forward, media began expanding rapidly. By 1990, more than half of American homes had cable systems, nationally oriented newspapers expanded their national reach, and with the introduction of technological change in the newsroom (including the Internet), a new emphasis on computer-assisted reporting and a new blending of media forms emerged, with one reporter preparing the same story in print, on-line, and on camera for a newspaper's cable station.

Read about The Massing of the Media.

Explore Foreign Press on the Web.



Sources: The Oxford Companion to United States History; The History Buff; A Brief History of Newspapers; American Embassy London; Media Libel.

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