Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book Review: "Prophets of the Fourth Estate"

In their Prophets of the Fourth Estate: Broadsides by Press Critics of the Progressive Era (Litwin Books, 2012), Amy Reynolds and Gary Hicks provide a close look at what progressive-era critics of the press wrote about the dangers of corporatization, consolidation, and the rise of a propaganda/public relations regime to American journalism.

The book reprints a number of editorials and essays, including journalist Charles Edward Russell's "The Keeping of a Kept Press," about the trend of advertisers calling the shots in newsrooms, and "How Business Controls News," which examines corporate "sponsorship" of the lecture circuit. An anonymous The Public editorial bemoans the loss of multiple daily newspapers in cities across the country, and NAACP head Moorfield Storey's "The Daily Press" (1922) calls out newspapers for their lurid sensationalism of unimportant stories:

"Instead of filling pages with incessant harping on some worn-out joke; ... instead of page after page devoted to sports, adorned by portraits of boys and men who are members of some team, why not educate readers to something better than sport? The facts which underlie labor unrest could be studied carefully and published, greatly to the benefit of us all. The real incidence of taxation, and how the burden can best be distributed, would interest a suffering public. What portion of our expense is waste, and where we practice undue economy, is a fertile subject, where careful study would lead to constructive suggestion. The truth on matters of real public interest, well-weighted advice, - the news that is fit to print, - are what we have a right to expect from our newspapers; and if our expectation, our reasonable demands, were met, the press would be a great power for good, and would lead the public up. To-day it is abandoning its high place, and, so far from educating the people, is too often corrupting and debasing them."

Some things never change, at least not for the better. Then as now, of course, there are journalistic outfits doing great and good work, but for every one of them, there's another whose goal seems to run in the opposite direction. The trends of corporate ownership and media consolidation have only continued, making the arguments reprinted in this volume seem just as relevant today as when they were originally published.

Reynolds and Hicks provide short contextual essays on the period covered by their book, and capsule biographies of the major players: Russell, Storey, and Oswald Garrison Villard. The essays, which provide some background on the progressive era, muckraking journalisam, and the other goings-on of the time, might have benefited from another round at the editor's desk, and a few chronological mistakes crept in (most notably on p. 117-118, where the timing of McKinley's inauguration is misstated, which leads to a cascading run of errors about the timing of the runup to the Spanish-American War).

The reprinted pieces alone would make this book well worth a read. They serve as a useful reminder that the trends we see today are nothing new (though I hasten to add that I don't believe that the journalism of earlier eras was any less sensationalistic or profit-driven than that of the Progressive era ... the corporatization and consolidation has simply allowed it to get increasingly more concentrated over time).

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