Richard L. Kaplan. Politics and the American Press: The Rise of Objectivity, 1865-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 224 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-62151-9; $33.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-521-00602-6.
Reviewed by Debra R. Van Tuyll (Augusta State University)
Published on Jhistory (September, 2006)
Full-fledged book-length examinations of the role of the press in America's various party systems are not common. When they have been written at all, they have been written primarily by historians like Jeffrey L. Pasley, who wrote an excellent study of newspaper-based politics in the Early National period, "The Tyranny of Printers": Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic (2001). More often, historians have dealt with the symbiotic relationship between nineteenth-century newspapers and political parties in much more abbreviated fashion. Two examples representative of this genre would be J. Mills Thornton's Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800-1860 (1978) and Anthony Gene Carey's Parties, Slavery and the Union in Antebellum Georgia (1997). Both acknowledge the press as central to the antebellum party system, but they demonstrate that centrality in only a handful of pages. William David Sloan's many contributions regarding the earliest partisan press period are among the best works on the topic, but he, too, has produced mostly abbreviated examinations in the form of journal articles.
Richard L. Kaplan's new book, Politics and the American Press: The Rise of Objectivity, 1865-1920, is an exception. It is a book-length treatment of the press and politics in Detroit, Michigan, from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. In this work, Kaplan, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, generalizes the experience of the Detroit press to the entire United States. He proposes that the rise of objectivity as a press value was tied to the changes in the political system and the voting public. The book makes this proposition not just to offer a new view on press-party relationships in the period, but also to advocate on behalf of a press reform movement that arose in the late twentieth century, public journalism.
The title of Kaplan's new book leads one to expect a book in the tradition of Pasley's "The Tyranny of Printers" or Glenn C. Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin's, Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century (2000). Pasley's book examines the rise of a Republican party press in the late eighteenth century and its efforts to wrest control of the American government from the much more powerful Federalist party. Altschuler and Blumin offer a survey history of the politics and public life in the nineteenth century. Like Kaplan, their analysis is based in large part on newspaper content and deals closely with press involvement in the politics of the day. Kaplan provides, as these previous authors have done, a credible and interesting interpretation of the press and the politics of the period, and he argues that politics, not shifting newspaper economics, was the contributing factor to the rise of objectivity. But that is not all he does.
What begins as a perfectly straightforward, and exceedingly well-done, analysis of the political history of the press and parties in the Gilded and Progressive eras ends as a polemic for public journalism. By the time the reader arrives at the final chapter, he or she will already have a pretty good indication that this book has an agenda beyond its title. One does not even have to be a careful reader to realize that much of the book's content is building toward support for some sort of call for journalistic reform, and anyone who is familiar with the intellectual history of public journalism can easily discern that it is going to be the one Kaplan favors. Polemics, particularly about contemporary issues, may be standard in sociological works, but they are out of place in historical studies, for they open the author to accusations of whiggishness.
Nevertheless, the early chapters of the book do provide an excellent examination of the partisan press system after the Civil War. Further, this work may have considerable relevance for those of us living in America today. Kaplan's consideration of the politics and press coverage of Reconstruction policy after the Civil War, for example, is enlightening and may offer insight that is applicable to the politics of reconstruction in Iraq. Further, Kaplan offers a sound history of political ideology in the period, and he does an equally fine job of demonstrating press involvement in the dissemination of that ideology.
His analysis does need greater depth, however, in its consideration of the actual involvement of journalists themselves in parties and party activities. Kaplan should take note of Pasley's work on this point. Pasley has tracked down the elected and party offices held by many of the editors he studied, and he uses this to demonstrate the intimate nature of the party-press relationship in the Early National period. Pasley is able, therefore, to illustrate just how closely intertwined the press and parties were at that time. A similar analysis would be useful in helping the reader accept Kaplan's arguments.
Kaplan's methodology really precludes such an analysis, however. This is because the author tells his story through the experience of the press of a single city, Detroit. This sort of approach is well known among historians. A good previous example is John Nerone's 1989 study of the cultural role of newspapers in young America, The Culture of the Press in the Early Republic: Cincinnati, 1793-1848. Although the method is well accepted, one cannot help but wonder about the ability to generalize the experience of the press in a single city to the entire country, especially if one is familiar with Altschuler and Blumin's work. The postbellum section of their book examines the experiences of seven different cities, including two towns in the South where there was no meaningful two-party system following the Civil War. They found, as Kaplan did, that the old political rituals and spectacles persisted at fairly high levels through the late nineteenth century in the larger towns such as Detroit or Syracuse, New York, but in smaller towns and villages, people scarcely even bothered to notice the Fourth of July. Such nuance of experience illustrates the dangers of attempting to generalize national experience from a single city. To strengthen his case, Kaplan should strengthen his evidence that Detroit and its newspapers were, in fact, representative of the rest of the country. He tells the reader that they were, but he needs stronger evidence to bolster his argument.
The book deftly uses historical evidence to illustrate why the author believes the objective press has failed both American democracy and American journalism, but again the work fails to be entirely persuasive because Kaplan does not give sufficient consideration to the full meaning of his evidence. For example, Kaplan claims the journalists' conception of the watchdog role of the press died out with the Progressive movement, and he implies that journalists were cowed by Teddy Roosevelt's pejorative of them as "muckrakers." Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and their cohort of crusading investigative journalists did not appear to be fazed by Roosevelt's disapproval, and certainly today, investigative journalists wear the moniker "muckraker" as a badge of honor.
Kaplan's book has valuable aspects, too. He is absolutely correct when he argues that politics, public life, and culture are mightily important in determining how the press functions at any given time in American history. Journalism is intimately bound to all three, and as a result, it will never be entirely independent from politics. It cannot be. From the very beginning of the American republic, the press was cast in the role of political accomplice. Twentieth-century journalism historians have spent much paper and ink congratulating the profession on finally progressing to the model of objective, detached, dispassionate journalism, and in proclaiming it to be the acme of press function. Many have portrayed all of journalism history as a progressive march toward objectivity, with the occasional unfortunate misstep toward some lesser model. Contemporary experience seems to be giving a clear indication that the inverse is true and that the norm for American journalism is the partisan, not the objective, press.
American journalism today is rapidly moving in the direction of reinstituting the partisan press model. Several recent scandals from the national press offer strong evidence to support this contention, including the payment from the U.S. Department of Education to columnist Andrew Williams to gain his public advocacy for the No Child Left Behind program. Such exchanges were commonplace not so long ago, just as was the movement of men from politics to journalism and back again.
The television news programs especially have been criticized for hiring men like George Stephanopoulos and Pat Buchanan as commentators, but in the nineteenth century, men who hoped to rise in a party were expected to pay their dues doing party scut work, including running party newspapers. Journalistic service was almost a rite of passage to higher levels of party involvement. The dominance of political partisanship in contemporary media, particularly on talk radio and some television news talk shows, is really nothing more than conventions of the partisan press brought forward and fit into the economic, political, technological, and cultural environments of the twenty-first century.
Given the new rise of the partisan press in America, perhaps it is unfair to criticize Kaplan for his advocacy of public journalism; after all, he is only following in the footsteps of those about whom he is writing. Further, the book is valuable for what it reveals about a slice of American political culture and public life.
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Debra R. Van Tuyll. Review of Kaplan, Richard L., Politics and the American Press: The Rise of Objectivity, 1865-1920.
Jhistory, H-Net Reviews.
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