Walter Cronkite’s recent death reminds many of the turning of a page. Journalists in a traditional mold followed the dictum to educate, inform and hold power to account. There is a history and a practice to help consumers decide if the modern media measures up.
The history of journalism in the United States and the notions of the special place of newspapers was best stated by two of America’s great statesmen and founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. They believed the press had supreme value of the functioning of a democracy, a need to give voice to the people’s need to know and desire to learn, grow and develop through reading, understanding and discussing common concerns and ideas with their peers. Jefferson and Washington had somewhat different accents on what they considered to be the essential role of a free press, but both valued it highly. The following quotes demonstrate their beliefs:
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”-Thomas Jefferson, 1787.
“For my part I entertain a high idea of the utility of periodical publications; insomuch as I could heartily desire, copies of … magazines, as well as common Gazettes, might be spread through every city, town, and village in the United States. I consider such vehicles of knowledge more happily calculated than any other to preserve the liberty, stimulate the industry, and ameliorate the morals of a free and enlightened people”.- George Washington, 1788.
Both Jefferson and Washington saw in newspapers the notion of enlightenment and the preservation of freedom provided by the press. Could they ever have anticipated the 24/7 nature of newspapers and the notion that anybody can in terms of reporting the news? Of course, we don’t know for sure, since they aren’t here to tell us; but we can examine their opinions and look the prism of present experience to determine for ourselves whether or not newspapers today meet the obligations set forth by the framers of the Constitution as being essential in a free country. In short do newspapers benefit democracy as the founding fathers wanted or has news become something other than what was conceived?
Newspapers go back much further than the founding of America, with the first newspapers having been initiated by Julius Caesar with what historians say was the Roman Acta Diurna, which appeared approximately 59 B.C. This was the emperor’s method of keeping his subjects informed about political and social events. News was written on large white boards then posted in popular places like the Baths. The Acta was said to have kept the Roman citizens informed about government scandals, military campaigns, trails and executions.
The Gutenberg Press, invented to Johann Gutenberg in 1447, brought modernization of methods in informing the public, allowing the spread of knowledge during the Renaissance. Newsletters were exchanged among the merchant class informing them of relevant news concerning commerce and trade. In the 15th century manuscript newssheets were widely circulated in Germany. These were often filled with sensational ritings. As an example, one of them reported on the abuse of Germans in Transylvania at the hands of Vlad Tsepes Drakul, also known as Count Dracula. It was also in this era that readers began paying a small coin to receive these pamphlets.
Media expanded in the 17th century to include local news in different parts of Europe. With the advent of the telegraph, the ability to transmit information made communication more capable, efficient and faster than it had been before, allowing news to travel to many places.
The “Golden Age” of newspapers occurred between 1890 to 1920, when the titans of print media built huge empires. These individuals included such prominent names as William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, and Lord Northcliffe. The power of the press became in fact real in this era, as the owners of newspapers wielded considerable influence on the political and social landscape. The advent of radio and television brought decline in readership of print media, but not its absolute demise, as the ratio of readership of one newspaper for every two persons dropped to one for every three.
The valiant, the intrepid, the dedicated, the earnest and the tireless reporters are chronicled in a timeline of stories and names of those who have contributed to information in the best of the tradition of news. These are the folks against whom modern media might check to determine if they measure up.
Walter Cronkite was one of those finest in the news media. He was old school, in the tradition of looking good, sounding good, relaying news crisply and writing and speaking with clarity and facts. This was the impression of his peers and his readers over the years. His was the style of straight-talk news. The feature man, Edward R. Murrow relied on his investigative skills, his ability to deliver information in a dramatic but carefully toned and detailed way so public trust was engendered as a result. These were two journalists most experts consider to be the best in the tradition of news reporting. Both presided over major events in a fashion that folks saw as calm and competent, Cronkite with his reporting of the Kennedy assassination and Murrow his dissection, digesting and disseminating information about Joseph McCarthy and exposure the hysteria in the Senate over communism.
Today the Internet is fast becoming one of the major sources of news for millions of people. In reviewing the history and tradition of journalism, one might look through that prism of information and understanding and ask if name-calling, abbreviated speech, and trash talk that sometimes goes on would be embraced by the greats in the newspaper industry. It is also useful to examine present news from the Internet, including that done by “civilian” reporters, against the demands in a democracy as outlined by Jefferson and Washington, to be fair, balanced and focused on the good of the nation’s interests.
It is what the founding fathers maintained their best hope for the country, for the media to be maintained as the hallmark of freedom as history and practice reveal.
A Brief History of Newspapers
2. World Association of Newspapers
Newspapers: A Brief History
3. Great News Reporters in American History
Overview – 1860 – 2009
4. The Moderate Voice
10 Reasons Why We Will Never See Another Walter Cronkite Again
5. The Museum of Broadcast Communication
Edward R. Murrow, U.S. TV Broadcast