Thursday, December 12, 2013

Mightier than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History

Roger Streitmatter

Mightier than the Sword
How the News Media Have Shaped American History

Illustrations, Notes, Bibliography, Index
xii + 287pp. $34.27

Colorado: Westview Press, 1997


“Burke said that there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate, more important far than they all” – Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). In his trailblazing book, “Mightier than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History”, Roger Streitmatter recounts how important this Fourth Estate is. From the 1700’s through to the 1900’s, he gives a gripping account of fourteen distinct occasions when the news media not just reported, but played an active role in events that made history in America.

Between 1830 and 1850, the abolitionist press – both black and white achieved the thorny feat of disseminating throughout America the evils of slavery thus resulting in the Civil War. In due course, this dark aspect of American history was relegated into near oblivion and slavery abolished in 1865 as a direct result of the Civil War.

A journey through Roger Streitmatter’s “Mightier than the Sword” takes you through a string of comparable incidents when American journalism had a part to play in the shaping of this nation’s history. The cases of the abolitionist movement as well as that of the struggle for women’s rights, the civil rights movement and Watergate all depict instances when the American press had a positive impact on the history of that country.

Streitmatter however does not concentrate just on the gallant roles the media played in shaping American history but also touches on a couple of instances when the press abused the mighty power it wields. On these occasions, the media did have an influence on society and brought about a change – not necessarily appealing to the best in human nature. The warmongering efforts of some journalists contributing to the Spanish-American War, the press slowing the pace of women’s rights and the Anti-Semitism fomentation of one man via radio illustrate such instances. Spanish Commander Valeriano Weyler captured the manner in which the press abused its power when he said of the Spanish-American War – “The American newspapers are responsible. They poisoned everything with falsehood.”

Roger Streitmatter also gives an account of one occasion where the positive and the negative role the media played in American history came out. This was the story of Joe McCarthy and his use of the media to terrorize Americans. Ironically, the media also caused the exposé of McCarthy as well as his downfall.

A trip through Roger Streitmatter’s “Mightier than the Sword” brings to light the gradual evolution of journalism from just the use of the print media to the use of radio and television as well. The author utilises a systematic approach in doing this by telling his story in a sequential manner. He focuses on a particular period and the form of media available and then moves on to the next while bringing out the transition from the use of print to the use of both print and electronic media.

Streitmatter spares his readers from the wearisome task of reading through countless names, dates and newspaper headlines that characterise most books on history. He is however able to tell his story accurately by bringing out the facts. Looking at Roger Steitmatter’s account of Watergate in comparison to that of Katherine Graham in her autobiography, Streitmatter brings out the essential details of the case and the important personalities directly involved thus making it easy to follow and understand. Graham on the other hand, having had a direct involvement in Watergate, made mention of every single person involved as well as all the dates on which events took place. In “Mightier than the Sword”, Streitmatter succeeds in summarising this incident without leaving out any vital information.

In his final chapter, Roger Streitmatter tells of how the news media influenced various incidents in the past. According to him, “The news media have shaped American history. Absolutely. Boldly. Proudly. Fervently. Profoundly.” Streitmatter gives a synopsis of the various chapters while bringing out elements the news media employed in shaping the history of America. The author signs off making suggestions to “the citizens of the Fourth Estate” on how to develop themselves and utilise effectively the powerful tool they have.

Roger Streitmatter’s “Mightier than the Sword” succeeds in taking readers on a whirlwind expedition through American history while bringing to the forefront the various roles the media played in shaping this history. As a journalist cum cultural historian it is evident Streitmatter has more than a fair idea of this subject matter. This is noticeable in his other works, which include “Sex Sells! The Media’s Journey from Obsession to Repression”, “Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America” and “Raising Her Voice: African-American Women Journalists Who Changed History”. In all these books, he documents how the media have had an impact on American culture, as we know it today. Streitmatter does this remarkably in “Mightier than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History”. Here, he is able to accomplish the grueling task of summarising fourteen major and discrete events in American history without leaving out vital details and at the same time avoiding the clutter of too many names and dates.

Not all is perfect, of course. In his introduction, Streitmatter identifies one of his target audiences as journalism students. A journalism student myself, I found it a bit difficult understanding some of the words he used as they were unfamiliar to me. Some may argue that this probably serves as an opportunity for students to enhance their vocabulary but I found it a bit tedious shuffling between the book and my dictionary.

Roger Streitmatter set out to increase our understanding of both American journalism and American history in “Mightier than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History”. This he did beyond reasonable doubt. To portray just how influential the media is, Canovas del Castillo, the Spanish Prime Minister at the time of the Spanish-American War summed it all when he said to an American reporter “The newspapers of your country seem to be more powerful than the government”.

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