DISCOVERING THE NEWS: A Social History of American Newspapers by Michael Schudson
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DISCOVERING THE NEWS: A Social History of American Newspapers

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Upon two currently red-hot ideas--the claim of professions to ""objectivity,"" the alleged non-objectivity of new reporting--Michael Schudson, a young University of Chicago sociologist, has constructed an intricate, broadly challenging reinterpretation of U.S. newspapering. First, he contends that the very idea of ""news"" was invented in the egalitarian 1830s, the era of Jackson, when the independent, middle-class-oriented penny press overtook the political and commercial press of the early Republic. To the extent that ""news"" expanded to include ordinary events and became the papers' chief basis of competition, the argument holds; but Schudson, pressing the point, asks why there and then? Neither technological change nor increased literacy, though necessary, was sufficient to foster a newsy, mass-circulation press, he argues persuasively; required besides was a democratic market society, offering advancement to all. ""This was the groundwork on which a belief in facts and a distrust of the reality, or objectivity, of 'values' could thrive."" The next watershed he sees as the 1890s, when the professional reporter emerged, bent on being both colorful and responsibly factual, but factual in accordance with his own implicit moral values: for the Progressive era, for a Lincoln Steffens, facts were levers of progress and reform. Then came the First World War, the growth of propaganda and public relations, and a new awareness of the subjectivity of perception. Together, these phenomena undermined the faith in facts per se, and led to both institutionalized subjectivity (e.g., political columns) and the idealization of strict ""objectivity."" And it is this last that drew fire--in the charge, for one, that ""the straight reporter passively accepts the public record""--from the adversary culture of the Sixties, which Schudson hails qualifiedly as stimulating interpretive and investigative reporting, or reviving ""a literary tradition and a muckraking tradition."" A feeble finale, perhaps, to a work otherwise so probing; but Schudson's intent is less to prescribe than to explain. He is a passionate asker and an honest doubter who unabashedly invites rebuttal: ""No generalization is safe,"" he inserts parenthetically, ""but we live by them and with them.

Pub Date: Oct. 6th, 1978
ISBN: 0465016669
Publisher: Basic Books