The First Mass Media

Our readings these week explore turn of the century newspapers and magazines and demonstrate how cultural ideals, such as miserablism and consumerism, shaped mass media while at the same time mass media shaped cultural ideals.  Historians agree these transformations had implications for power and control, but disagree on the resulting degree of polarity between political and businesses interests.

Chalaby (1996) illustrates the role of society in shaping news by comparing journalistic practices in England and America to those in France.  The French held literary arts, such as poetry and theatre, in higher regard than English cultures and as a result their literary icons were more active in the press.  A comparison of French and English papers from the same time period reveals the more emotional and sentimental approach of French journalists.  Government bribes still played heavily in determining what news was reported so they didn’t need to rely on private advertisements for financing.  In direct contrast to the consumer culture of America (Ohmann 1996), the French valued miserablism as the moral and noble traits to aspire to and this was reflected in their editorial style.

In contrast,  Ohmann’s vibrant analysis of early American magazine advertisements reveals the underlying assumptions and  values promoted by rising capitalist involvement in the press.  These advertisements defined culture by demonstrating to readers how to properly participate in society.  The ads depict a pastoral portrait of what one’s private life should look like in order to be a proper, upstanding public citizen.  By presenting only what is good, beautiful, and admirable they promote consumerism as the easy path to attaining these respectable qualities so that one could fully engage in the ideal imagined community.

Perhaps the most significant change to the practice of journalism throughout the course of the nineteenth century was the transformation from political partisanship to editorial objectivity. This transformation had far reaching implications in terms of political economy, power, and control.  When government and political bodies could no longer be relied upon for financial support, the press began to support itself through advertising as the main revenue stream.   Baldasty (1992) notes how this transferred the editorial power from political to economic influences so that instead of viewing readers primarily as voters, publishers viewed readers as consumers.  The news became a manufactured product, strategically engineered to please advertisers and attract readers.  Baldasty even goes so far as to claim that news became a commodity valued more for its ability to generate revenue than to properly inform the public.

However, Allen (2008) critiques viewpoints like Baldasty’s as oversimplified and misleading and maintains that the boundaries between politics and consumerism remained blurred.  Early 20th century newspapers addressed readers as both citizens and consumers.  For example, publishers may have added women’s sections to newspapers to more effectively target the primary household purchaser, but at the same time these sections also reported on (and raised awareness of) women’s political groups.  In fact, by expanding the size of the newspapers beyond four pages, reporters widened their scope to cover a variety of societies’ and associations’ activities, public opinion pieces, and general interest stories.  This illustrates that post 1930’s readers were still addressed as citizens, but by this time they were conscious of a more expanded public sphere.

To summarize, although there was a general shift away from politics towards consumerism in the late 19th century, evidence shows this transformation remained fluid so that while readers may have been valued as consumers, they were still addressed as active public citizens.


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