When our seventh grade U.S. history teacher found out I was interested in news history, and particularly in how competing perspectives influence narrative in the news, he invited me to lend a hand with his annual John Brown research project. Every year, he asks his students to investigate the life of John Brown, culminating in his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry and subsequent execution, and write a persuasive argument stating whether he was a martyr or a terrorist. I was thrilled to be asked to help curate resources for this project and was particularly excited to dive into old newspapers.
One of the many pleasures of reading Harold Holzer’s Lincoln and the Power of the Press is getting to know the big three New York newspaper editors who framed political debate during Lincoln’s ascent to the presidency. James Gordon Bennett, Horace Greeley, and Henry Jarvis Raymond were prominent features in Lincoln’s political landscape. Their competition, always bitter, led to innovative practices that grew the editors’ readership, influence, and profits. Lincoln spent significant energy cultivating relationships with these men, knowing they were the key to swaying public opinion and winning elections. He obsessed over their editorials and coverage. He wrote to them often, at times directly and at times through “private” letters released to competing editors. Bennett, Greeley, and Raymond were celebrities, and not for lack of self-promotion.
Rodger Streitmatter first published Mightier than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History in 1997. It was intended to be both a textbook for his popular undergraduate journalism course at American University and a general reader for anyone interested in exploring the news media’s influence on our democracy. In his preface to the fourth edition, published in 2016, Streitmatter attributes the book’s popularity to the readers who “enthusiastically embrace its thesis: for more than two centuries the American news media haven’t merely reported and commented on the news, but they’ve also played a significant role in shaping this country’s history” (ix).
Streitmatter delivers on defending his thesis, with examples of how the news media has both championed and failed the American people, from our country’s founding to present day. Check out the table of contents for sixteen chapters in American history that get the treatment from Streitmatter. Each stands on its own and is designed to be readable and easy to integrate into the classroom. You and your students will recognize some of these chapters – yellow journalism, muckrakers, Watergate – but some are less well known, such as the discrediting of the movement for women’s rights in the mid-nineteenth century, standing up to the Klan in the 1920s, or the role the press played in electing our first African American president.
I went into Richard Kluger’s book, Indelible Ink: The Trials of John Peter Zenger and the Birth of America’s Free Press, thinking I was in for a First Amendment origin story. The heroic struggle for free speech. Humble colonial printers pushing back on the crown’s policy of forbidding seditious libel. I got an origin story, but not the one I went looking for. I was expecting a triumphant little-guy story, that feel when you watch a movie like Rudy. Instead I felt like you do after watching Dangerous Liaisons, scandalized and a little sad.
Kluger gives us an account of the trial and ultimate acquittal of John Peter Zenger, printer of the New-York Weekly Journal, who was accused of seditious libel by then governor William Cosby. The colonies had never seen a trial or verdict like this before. The year was 1735. Not long before in England, it was illegal to print anything negative about those in power, whether or not one was printing the truth. The very suggestion of weakness in the ruling class could threaten faith in the social order, and the ruling class wouldn’t allow it. Printing anything even remotely seditious could lead to jail time, the loss of an ear, even death.