The Power of the Press

The Power of the Press : The Birth of American Political Reporting

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Many books have shown that journalists have political power, but none have offered a more wide-ranging account of how they got it. The Power of the Press is a pioneering look at the birth of political journalism. Before the American Revolution, Thomas Leonard notes, the press in the colonies was a timid enterprise, poorly protected by law and shy of government. Newspapers helped make the Revolution, but they were not fully aware of the way they could fit into a democracy. It was only in the nineteenth century that journalists learned to tell the stories and supply the pictures that made politics a national preoccupation. Leonard traces the rise of political reporting through some fascinating corridors of American history: the exposes of the Revolutionary era, the "unfeeling accuracy" of Congressional reporting, the role of the New York Times and Harper's Weekly in attacking New York City's infamous Tweed Ring, and the emergence of "muckraking" at the beginning of our century. The increasing power of the press in the political arena has been a double-edged sword, Leonard argues. He shows that while political reporting nurtured the broad interest in politics that made democracy possible, this journalism became a threat to political participation.
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Product details

  • Hardback | 278 pages
  • 148.8 x 226.1 x 23.6mm | 530.71g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • frontispiece, line illustrations
  • 0195037197
  • 9780195037197

About Thomas C. Leonard

Thomas C. Leonard is Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of Above the Battle: War-Making in America from Appomattax to Versailles.
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Review quote

'"The Power of the Press" deals with basic issues, byt Mr Leonard is too good a historian to confine himself for very long to disembodied speculation. He keeps close to events and personalities, and enlivens his narrative with diverting detail.' New York Times 'the most perceptive and provocative study of the history of the press to appear in some years' The Philadelphia Enquirer 'the reader even remotely interested in how the news he gets comes to be the way it is, will enjoy the story as Mr Leonard tells it' The Washington Times Magazine 'Leonard's selective hitory of political reporting's long halting advance in the pre-broadcast era offers rewarding perspectives for both consumers and providers of news' Kirkus Reviews 'an important and radically new history of American political journalism...a splendid episodic book' Los Angeles Times
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Review Text

The whole of this inquiry into the origins and implications of political reportage in the US is less than the sum of its frequently fascinating parts. Using a somewhat discontinuous series of case histories, Leonard (journalism/California, Berkeley) traces the emergence of political reporting that gave "form and weight to new attitudes about government," from pre-Revolutionary days through the early years of the 20th century. Among the pioneers, he cites James Franklin (Ben's older brother), who broke with the Colonial press's tradition of local boosterism by using his Boston-based Courant to crusade against inoculation during the plague year of 1721. Subsequently, both before and during the struggle for independence, newspaper owners fostered greater interest in political issues, mainly by relating abstractions and remote events to workaday happenings. In the formative years of the republic (whose leaders were far from reconciled to full disclosure), the author asserts "journalism was the business of upstarts." As one result, he notes, the press tended to cooperate with politicians, allowing them to edit their remarks for publication. By the mid-1850's, however, factionalism led to "unfeeling accuracy" in the reporting of statements by elected officials, hence a breakdown in the collaborative system. During the post-Civil-War period, Leonard recounts, Thomas Nast's political cartoons (some are included in the text) helped Harper's Weekly and its newspaper allies bring down New York City's Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall cronies by adding a pictorial dimension to civic corruption. In a 1906 expose of the Senate, Hearst's Cosmopolitan achieved even greater impact with unposed photographs (snapshots) of target legislators. In the meantime, sensational police-beat reporting (initiated by James Gordon Bennett in his New York Herald) sharpened journalists' forensic skills and accustomed the reading public to investigatory stories, which paved the way for muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens. Typically, these socioeconomic critics would report on local scandals in nationally distributed periodicals - American Magazine, Collier's et al. Ironically, the author observes, the widespread availability of essentially nonpartisan political coverage during progressivism's heyday was accompanied by a coincident decline in public participation in the electoral process. In his less-than-satisfactory and largely undocumented explanation of this apparent paradox, Leonard speculates that most Americans were not "experienced consumers of political revelations." In the absence of insights on how the political system worked, he concludes, the mass of facts detailing ways in which it could - and did - misfire alienated large numbers of voters. Whether a breakdown in communication, informational overload, or other factors is the primary cause of voter apathy remains an open question. Nonetheless, Leonard's selective history of political reporting's long, halting advance in the pre-broadcast era offers rewarding perspectives for both consumers and providers of news. (Kirkus Reviews)
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