20 Kasım 2013 Çarşamba

Quotation: Princeton University A World History of The World, "Newspapers: Enemies of the State, or Allies of the Establishment?"


The history of popular movements is tightly entangled with the development of information technology. It is difficult to imagine the masses gaining any sort of collective consciousness about their grievances, let alone a path to redress without some type of unifying shared narrative to contextualize their experiences. Information technology, encompassing everything from religious dogma to word of mouth to newspapers, can provide that shared narrative.
Before we dive too deep into that heady topic, there is a worthy aside to make. In our discussions in precept on tuesday, our statements relied heavily on the same concept that arose in my opening paragraph, that of 'the masses.' Almost every comment made some reference to this mysterious entity, and we all more or less accepted that we knew what we meant by 'the masses.' However, it's worth pointing out that a unified popular class that possesses knowledge of its on interests, let alone one that acts on them, is not necessarily a given. In fact, without the very same type of contextualizing information that will be explored in the rest of this post, there may be no sense to calling any group of people 'the masses.' Even if people have a good awareness of their position and society and the position of those around them, it is again not immediately clear that they will know where their interests lie, or how to go about furthering them. We live in a privileged time, where we all have the opportunity to learn to our hearts' content about virtually any topic we choose. In order to truly understand the impact that newspapers and other forms of information dissemination would have had, it would behoove us as students of history to attempt to put ourselves into the mindsets of a population for whom information is extremely scarce. Prior to the private press, there may have been only one viewpoint available for consumption, that of the established institutions of authority and even once more viewpoints become available, they may be difficult to come by, due to censorship, expense or distance. Only by appreciating these realities can we hope to understand the impact of newspapers in our areas of focus, 1830s France and Civil War United States.

With that appeal made, lets consider the role of newspapers as allied or oppositional forces to governments. Our two case studies leave little to interpretation as to where the newspapers fall. In France, the king is clearly interested in limiting the spread of alternate political narratives to his own, whereas in the United States, newspapers are being used to spread political advocacy and decentralized self-government in a time of crisis. Newspapers are thus shown to be possible of both opposing and strengthening the state. The more interesting question to ask is: What factors lead to the private press choosing the side of the state. The most obvious difference between our two case studies is the type of government we're dealing with. Although the French king was no longer an absolutist leader, he is still a monarch, whereas the Union government was a representative democracy, explicitly created to serve the interests of the people. In France, the king and his immediate allies view their interests as very much divorced from the interests of the common people, and thus are interested in limiting and controlling the flows of information down the social pyramid. I would argue this is a natural consequence of any political system in which power is concentrated in the hands of the few at the expense of the many. On the other hand, the Union government, being made up of elected officials, with a hopefully well developed sense of civic duty, feels itself to be allied with the common people, even synonymous with the will of the people. It is no wonder then that the government sees newspapers as it's ally in organizing local councils. It is particularly interesting that these local councils will presumably serve as conduits of information back to the central government, informing it of the opinions and desires of the constituents on a local basis, as town hall meetings do today in the US. The more egalitarian government not only uses newspaper as a freer method of communication, but also uses it to ensure flow of information back the other way.

Another way in which newspapers interact with governments is through explaining or relating events that occur far from the average person. This was particularly relevant in the colonial era, particularly since methods of communication had not caught up with the expanses of empire yet. For example, the british government was in the business of administrating the lives of more people outside the boundaries of the british isles than it was inside them, yet the only people who could even pretend to have political influence lived on the home islands. This necessitates some flow of information about what is going on in the British colonies to the people who will attempt to influence the government at home. The government itself has it's own methods of communication, but newspapers provide an important channel for the man on the street. By examining images of the British colonies that arrived in the streets of London, we are perhaps unsurprised to find that the newspapers served primarily as an echo chamber for the prejudices and opinions of the british public. The rebelling soldiers of the Sepoy Mutiny are presented as savages worthy of being crushed by the angel of justice, while British destruction of the Garden of Perfect Brightness is a happy event worthy of an afternoon tea, with a sullen native waiter looking on and passively reinforcing the implicit power hierarchy that the british public no doubt expected. Perhaps due to a lack of developed journalistic standards, newspapers were prone to failing to relate the whole truth, even in societies with more decentralized power structures and more interests in an empowered popular class. Of course, this is no surprise the modern reader, living in the time of deeply partisan news sources and with such a plentiful supply of echo chambers for any possible set of views available on the internet.

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