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Summary & Analysis

America's Free Press in 1798

In 1798, the United States Congress passed the Sedition Act, prohibiting all "false, scandalous, and malicious" attacks—verbal or written—against the president or congress. In the months that followed, eighteen men were arrested under the act—most of them journalists critical of John Adams's Federalist administration—resulting in fourteen prosecutions and ten convictions. Looking back with two hundred years' hindsight, it is hard for us to imagine a more flagrant violation of the freedom of the press, a more shocking assault on a principle that we have come to accept as fundamental to American liberty.

Clearly, the First Amendment was not so universally respected in 1798—or so universally understood. It would take more than a century for the American judicial system to flesh out the full meaning of free speech. But the press that was guaranteed this freedom was equally slow to develop. In 1798, America's newspapers were far from the objective sources of information that we now expect them to be. They were, to the contrary, neither balanced nor non-partisan in their reporting, and neither cautious nor particularly civil in their commentary. It would take more than a century for America's newspapers to take on the character and the tone that we now associate with an independent, free, and responsible press. And even then, some continued to argue that in fundamental ways little had changed—according to some, America's press remained neither independent nor truly free.

A Partisan Birth

The American press was really born amidst the partisan conflict of the Revolutionary War. There were newspapers in the colonies prior to 1775; thirty-five existed when the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. But American colonists' dispute with Great Britain increased the profile of the press and inspired the creation of another thirty-five papers before the war's end. It is therefore understandable that a central feature of America's early press was its rabidly partisan focus. Revolutionary era papers were not interested in a balanced discussion of events—instead they wanted to be part of the political debate, engaged emphatically, on one side or the other, in the imperial dispute. Patriot papers like the Boston Gazette and Massachusetts Spy did journalistic battle with loyalist press like the New York Gazetteer. And occasionally they took their verbal crusades out into the street; Benjamin Edes and John Gill of the Boston Gazette were among the planners of the Boston Tea Party. Nor did the general public expect or want anything different from their newspapers; they insisted that their papers be as violently partisan as they were. When William Goddard, the editor and publisher of Baltimore's Maryland Gazette, printed an editorial critical of George Washington in 1779, an outraged Patriot mob forced him to print a retraction—at gunpoint.

When the Revolution ended, and the debate moved forward to a set of questions about the structure of government most appropriate to the new nation, America's newspapers continued to polemicize in much the same vein. The Federalist Papers, which made perhaps the most critical contribution to the American political thinking of the era, were printed in three New York newspapers during 1787 and 1788 in an effort to secure ratification of the new Constitution. Those papers never considered devoting equal space to the Anti-Federalist position. In fact, many historians argue that Federalist domination of the press was central to the success of the pro-ratification forces. In other words, if it weren't for the pro-Federalist bias of the press in the late 1780s, we might not have had a Constitution at all.

Again, the partisan, unbalanced character of the press is easily explained as consistent with the times. This was a period of intense contest and history-changing debate. But partisanship remained a defining feature of the press even after the Constitution's ratification, when the nation was unified under the most universally respected man in America. During George Washington's administration, newspapers continued to serve more as adjuncts to political parties than as voices of unbiased information. For example, Alexander Hamilton oversaw the creation of a pro-administration paper—the Gazette of the United States, edited by John Fenno. And as Thomas Jefferson's disagreements with Washington's administration multiplied, he brought Phillip Freneau to the capital to start an opposition paper named the National Gazette.

Political Pragmatism Prompts Partisan Press

These papers were vicious. To modern readers, their violently partisan tone and flagrant disregard for a balanced and objective presentation of information jumps right off of the page. (In the 1790s, a Republican paper described President John Adams as "old, querulous, Bald, blind, crippled, Toothless Adams"; Fenno's Federalist Gazette, in turn, ripped such critics as "dismal cacklers" and "the worst and basest of men."5) But before we criticize these aggressively partisan papers too harshly, we should remember that as America's experiment in representative government began there were relatively few tools available to a candidate or party during a political campaign. Without television or radio, and with political party organizations only in rudimentary form, reaching America's voters forced candidates to use the only means at hand—newspapers. Moreover, America's population was widely dispersed and therefore hard to reach. In 1790, only five percent of the nation's inhabitants lived in communities of more than 2500 people; in 1830, America's "urban" population still represented less than nine percent of the total.6 It's not hard to see why, under these circumstances, an aspiring politician would turn to a friendly press to access the people.

In addition, the Postal Act of 1792 made newspapers the most affordable way to carry a political message to the public. Postage rates for newspapers were a fraction of those charged for other kinds of business or private correspondence. And exchange copies—papers sent from one newspaper editor to another—traveled free of charge. This meant that a major Republican paper in Washington, D.C. could send a copy—at no cost—to a small Republican paper in Charlottesville, where its articles and editorials could be copied and disseminated inexpensively.

Just as politicians developed an understandable dependence on a partisan press, newspapers came to rely on the benefits derived through affiliation with a political party. The federal and state governments awarded lucrative printing contracts to "deserving" papers—typically those that had served the ruling party most faithfully. One recent study estimates that these contracts for printing legislative proceedings and other official documents carried huge profit margins of 20-55%.7 In addition, loyal party editors were often rewarded with other forms of patronage when their party was in power; a well-paid position in the nation's expanding postal service was one frequent prize granted to an editor who faithfully served his party.

In an age when political parties and newspapers were both fully dependent upon each other for survival, the very concept of objective coverage of the news scarcely existed. Total partisanship was the order of the day.

The Tension between Philosophy and Practice

All things considered, it is perhaps less surprising that the newspapers of the period developed a cozy relationship with the political parties than that so many politicians struggled to sort out the relationship. Early American office-holders used the press for partisan purposes but also condemned its partisan character; they genuinely defended the principle of freedom of the press, but they also supported measures aimed at curbing its "excessive" freedom.

For example, by the end of George Washington's second term in office, the first president had been subjected to an extensive barrage of harsh criticism by the partisan Republican press. Benjamin Bache, the editor of the Aurora, a Republican newspaper based in Philadelphia, labeled the old Revolutionary hero "a frail mortal whose passions and weaknesses are like those of other men, a spoiled child, a despot, an anemic imitation of the English kings." Washington, famously stoic, was actually deeply wounded by these attacks. He believed that they were "calculated . . . to disturb the peace of the community," not to advance the public debate, and that ultimately they could destroy the free government for which he and others had fought.8 Yet he remained committed to a free press. "If the freedom of speech is taken away," he warned, "then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter."

Thomas Jefferson was equally troubled by the behavior of the press. No one spoke more eloquently of the importance of a free press—but he was also offended by its partisan excess and, as president, was far from perfect in defending the ideals he celebrated. He did not support national legislation like the Sedition Act to intimidate unfriendly editors, but he did urge his supporters to use state libel laws to silence opposition papers that he believed had overstepped the appropriate bounds of free speech.

While statesmen like Washington and Jefferson struggled to resolve the tensions between the character of the press and the libertarian ideals that they shared, America's newspapers continued to be defined by their partisan affiliations. Well into the 1830s, the largest papers remained little more than propagandistic appendages of the political parties. In Washington, D.C. every administration had its mouthpiece, and every party or faction out of power had its journalistic voice. Under Andrew Jackson, this era of the partisan press reached something of a climax when the editor of the administration paper, Francis Blair, actually doubled as one of the president's most important advisors.

The Birth of the Penny Press

But the same decade also saw the emergence of a different sort of newspaper—a paper more independent and less partisan. To a large extent, this change was made possible by the emergence of new sources of revenue that freed newspapers from their traditional economic dependence upon governmental and party support. As America's cities grew and new technologies reduced newspaper production costs, publishers identified a profitable market for a new type of newspaper—one aimed at the growing urban audience and filled with the type of "news" that this audience wanted to read. These publishers introduced newspapers that were far less hobbled in their journalistic ambitions by party affiliations. But these new papers were not any more objective or balanced; they were just more independent. Though they no longer served the narrow interests of the parties, they instead represented the voices and the idiosyncrasies of their individual publishers.

The most influential, and infamous, representative of this new journalistic direction was the New York Herald, founded by James Gordon Bennett in 1835. The Herald was actually something of a copycat, aping many of the defining features of Benjamin Day's New York Sun, first released in 1833. But Bennett perfected the style and his Herald soon far outpaced the Sun in circulation. Both papers sold for only a penny a copy (the older papers generally cost six cents), and both were filled with stories aimed, like their price, at a larger slice of New York's booming population. Far less highbrow, the new penny papers wallowed in stories of crime and corruption that both horrified and fascinated urban residents; the Herald's ascent to popularity was fueled largely by its extensive (and often lurid) coverage of the grisly 1836 murder of a high-class Manhattan prostitute.

The undeniable sensationalism of the news peddled by these penny papers can obscure the more serious innovations that they contributed to the development of the modern newspaper. At the Herald, Bennett assigned writers to specific areas of the city, thus introducing the beat reporter. He conducted the first journalistic interviews and became the first journalist to file a report after touring a crime scene. He also rapidly incorporated new technologies, such as the telegraph, that accelerated the pace of collection and publication of the news. Bennett also opened a European bureau—an American newspaper first—to collect overseas news for American readers.

Thus there was much that was decidedly modern about the Herald. Even its tabloid-like reporting of crime and scandal and its coverage of sporting events—all frowned upon in 1830—paved the way for the "legitimate" coverage of these types of stories by the mainstream papers. But the Herald was also decidedly unmodern—even quaint—in that it served largely as the personal mouthpiece for the opinions and idiosyncratic obsessions of one man, James Gordon Bennett. Readers of the Herald were treated to a regular dose of Bennett's musings on religion, politics, and life in general. In a sense, James Gordon Bennett himself was the newspaper's biggest story. In fact, the front page of the 1 June 1840 edition featured a bold-faced headline announcing the editor's impending marriage.

Bennett's literary indulgences were often offered tongue-in-cheek. He filed his wedding announcement under the teasing headline: "Declaration of Love—Caught at last—Going to be Married—New Movement in Civilization." Most of the other penny paper publishers were less whimsical in their coverage, but they were just as personal in their journalistic mission; they took themselves just a bit more seriously, but they shared Bennett's belief that their papers ought to serve as a soapbox for the dissemination of their own personal views.

Horace Greeley

If Bennett was the most sensational of the penny paper editors, Horace Greeley was the most influential. The son of a poor farmer, Greeley launched the New York Tribune in 1841. Dedicated to a long list of social and political reforms, Greeley's Tribune never matched the Herald's circulation. But the Tribunewas more influential and more seriously read than the Herald. On its pages Greeley addressed almost every issue that crossed his imagination. He opposed slavery and supported labor unions. He promoted vegetarianism and denounced alcohol. He even defended the "truths" of spiritualism—the popular belief that spirits surrounded us and could be contacted through séances and meditation. Most famously, he supported westward expansion and the development of a national infrastructure that would facilitate this growth. "Go west, young man, and grow up with the country," he urged from the pages of the Tribune.9 And he complemented this advice with demands that Congress pass a Homestead Act that would make federal lands inexpensively available to settlers, along with an internal improvement package that would finance the construction of railroad and telegraph lines that could tie America's expanding population together.

Like Bennett's Herald, Greeley's Tribune was largely a vehicle for the dissemination of his own beliefs—but he drew to its pages other prominent antebellum reformers. Margaret Fuller and George Ripley, leaders in the transcendentalist movement and activists in a host of social reforms, both served as literary editors at the Tribune. Karl Marx, the intellectual father of communism, was Greeley's London correspondent until a pay dispute convinced Marx to escape wage slavery by quitting the paper.

In 1872, Greeley attempted to move from the newsroom to the White House, running as a third-party candidate for president against the incumbent, Ulysses S. Grant. But he was crushed at the polls and the disappointment of his defeat, coupled with his wife's sudden death, accelerated his own decline. Greeley died just weeks after the election. But his death did not end this era of the newspaper. The torch soon passed to two new news barons who competed for the mass audience that Greeley and Bennett had cultivated.

Pulitzer and Hearst

William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were in many ways mirror opposites. Hearst was the son of a mining tycoon who was handed the San Francisco Examiner by his indulgent father and soon discovered that he had a talent for the news business. Pulitzer was a self-made man who financed his passage from Hungary to America in 1865, at the age of 17, by enlisting in the Union Army. Within a decade, he had learned to speak English, become a citizen, won a seat in the Missouri state legislature, passed the state bar, and bought and sold several newspapers. He completed his rags-to-riches ascent by buying the New York World in 1883.

Both Hearst and Pulitzer built newspapers on the Bennett model, providing unflinching (and often salacious) coverage of the gritty details of urban life. Both men also promoted social and political reform from the editorial pages they tucked in between the more sensational coverage of their front and back pages. Hearst urged his readers to combat the political corruption that plagued San Francisco during the 1890s. Pulitzer committed his paper to a laundry list of civic improvements that included increased taxes on luxuries, anti-trust legislation, and civil service reform. But both men realized that the key to boosting their circulation was crime, scandal, and conflict.

From the moment Hearst arrived in New York in 1896 and launched the Journal, he and Pulitzer battled for the same readers. In this contest Pulitzer had the advantage of an established following, but Hearst was younger and had access to his father's vast mining fortune. He bought talented reporters from all over the country and experimented with eye-catching new uses of color; in 1897, the Journal published the nation's first color Sunday funny papers. But Hearst knew that color comic strips were not enough to win over Pulitzer's readers—and so when Cuban peasants rebelled against Spanish rule in 1898, he jumped enthusiastically behind their cause, building readership by printing extravagant tales of Spanish misdeeds. The World had no choice but to follow the Journal's lead.

As the Journal and the World competed for readers by offering increasingly sensationalized and exaggerated accounts of events in Cuba, they succeeded in most of their goals. They did boost their circulations—within a year both claimed more than a million readers—and they did help push the United States government toward intervention on behalf of Cuban revolutionaries. It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer caused the Spanish-American War, all in the interest of boosting circulation. But their success in stirring up a militaristic patriotic frenzy came at a price. Many journalists condemned the irresponsible practices of the two papers, especially their wallowing in "yellow journalism"—their exaggeration and embellishment of news in order to attract readers.

Pulitzer, more than Hearst, was stung by these criticisms, and over the next decade he sought to restore his and his paper's reputation. He now recognized that a newspaper could not be all things to all people—that it had to be more selective about its content and its audience if it wanted to be respected as a reliable and responsible institution in society. And to a large extent he succeeded in redefining his paper; by the time of Pulitzer's death in 1911, the World was recognized as a far more serious newspaper than the Journal. But in a certain sense, forces much larger than Pulitzer were converging to force all newspapers in this same direction.

The Twentieth-Century Newspaper

As the United States entered the twentieth century, the era of the "personal paper"—the newspaper shaped largely by the personality, politics, and idiosyncrasies of its owner—began to disappear. A new model gradually emerged, shaped largely by the new economic realities of the industry. A new type of newspaper came to dominate the American press—more sober, more moderate, more businesslike in its presentation of the news.

The transformation of the newspaper was driven largely by rising costs within the industry. James Bennett had launched the Herald in 1835 with a start-up fund of $500. By the end of the century, production costs had risen exponentially. Reporting staffs, international bureaus, and new high-speed presses all contributed to the rising expense of publishing a paper. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat spent $140,000 on telegraph dispatches alone in 1896. The Cincinnati Enquirer spent $252,000 a year just on paper at the turn of the century.10

As production costs rose, publishers were forced to turn increasingly toward new sources of revenue. Subscriptions and street-corner sales were just no longer enough to turn a profit. To supplement these revenue sources, publishers relied more and more on advertising. Advertising had always provided part of a publisher's income. But over the course of the nineteenth century, the percentage of revenue generated by advertising grew steadily. In 1879, newspapers collected roughly $39 million from ad revenues—about 44% of their total revenues. Twenty years later, they earned $96 million, or 55% of their total revenues, from advertising.11 (By 2000, ad sales would account for 80% of all newspaper revenues—and nearly half of that came from classified ads, a market that would soon begin to dry up with the rise of online competitors like craigslist.12)

As newspapers grew to depend more heavily upon advertising revenue for their survival and profitability, they also grew vulnerable to pressure from their advertisers to modify their content. Sometimes advertisers made only small demands on the papers—for example, a brief mention in an article that the gun used to apprehend a criminal was a Smith & Wesson. But other times they demanded more dramatic concessions from the editors. Many advertisers insisted, for example, on "reading notices"—product advertisements that looked just like real articles and were visually integrated into the news to complete the deception. In negotiating these reading notices, advertisers demanded that the font and style of the notice exactly replicate those used in regular news items—and that they be surrounded by "real" news.

Advertisers sometimes also demanded that the newspapers receiving their ad dollars support their interests on their editorial pages. They screened newspapers' presidential endorsements, their stands on congressional legislation, and their positions on local politics. In one famous episode, patent medicine companies demanded that their newspaper clients oppose legislation that would require that the content of their medicines be disclosed on the label. These producers worried that the public would react poorly to the revelation that alcohol was often the largest single ingredient in their "medicines."

As newspapers grew more sensitive to the needs of the business community that supported them, they also grew more reliant upon emerging organizational trends within the business community. Like other American industries, the press turned to consolidation as a means of increasing efficiencies and reducing costs. An individual paper might not be able to make it—but a chain of papers that shared reporting, managerial, and distribution costs probably could. In the first decades of the twentieth century, more and more papers were forced by rising costs into the chains forged by a handful of newspaper moguls like William Randolph Hearst and E.W. Scripps.

There were other alternatives for the small newspaper struggling with rising costs. The most popular was to purchase a large part of their news from "newspaper unions." These sold templates, partially filled with national news and broadly-aimed feature stories, to small newspapers that were then completed by local reporters covering the local news.

The growth of chains and use of newspaper unions allowed America's network of newspapers to segue into the more economically rational twentieth century. But there was a price for all this. In order to reduce costs, news writing had to be centralized. This meant that reporters had to write for a national, and therefore regionally and politically diverse, audience. Opinions had to be tempered; potentially offensive elements had to be removed. This centrally generated news was cost-effective, but it was also bland; it allowed small papers to fill their pages inexpensively, but the news that they delivered was stripped of the edge that had given the nineteenth-century paper much of its character.

The result was that as the newspaper transitioned into the new century, it did so only by sacrificing many of the qualities that had made it such a vibrant part of American culture in the nineteenth century. Of course, this also meant that some of the excesses that accompanied these earlier forms of journalism were abandoned as well. The vicious attack on a political opponent and the indulgent rant from an eccentric editor disappeared from the news pages of America's mainstream press. In this sense, the newspaper matured; it took on the sober, careful, balanced tone of the modern press.

But for many, there was more lost than gained. Newspapers were more sober but less courageous, more cautious but less committed to advancing the civic welfare. The partisan crusades that formerly had alienated half the readers were viewed as a vital part of political mobilization by others. The idiosyncratic rant that had offended some readers was a seen as a necessary call for justice by others. And while some defended the bland new tone as the price paid to free newspapers from the control of political parties and egomaniacal local editors, others complained that America's newspapers weren't any more independent than they ever had been. They were no longer the tools of a party or the mouthpieces of an individual, but they had become dependent on their advertisers and, at times, servants to their interests. More subtly, they were forced to print papers that would please rather than offend, that would cultivate rather than challenge readers in order to satisfy the circulation-counting advertisers who paid the bills.

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