A loose-knit history of American journalism that promises more than it delivers. Leonard (Journalism/Univ. of Calif., Berkeley; The Power of the Press, 1986, etc.) concentrates not so much on newspapers themselves as on their cultural influence and how they have been variously read and interpreted. For example, one of the bestselling books prior to the Civil War, American Slavery As It Is, was a collection of clippings culled from southern newspapers. These items, unnoteworthy to southern readers, were read by northerners as damning indictments of slavery. As Leonard ably demonstrates, newspapers came to occupy a central cultural position in 19th-century America. Most hotels had a special reading room, taverns boasted of the numbers of papers they subscribed to, and with the democratic intent of widely disseminating information, Congress mandated a significantly reduced postal rate for all newspapers. By 1918, the average household subscribed to 1.4 daily newspapers. From there it was all downhill until the nadir of the 1970s, when most cities were left with only one daily paper and many publications were actively looking for ways to get rid of less affluent subscribers. Leonard blames all the usual suspects but is hardest on newspapers themselves, mainly for forgetting their particular communities and for dumbing down content. And he is certain that technology will continue to play its usual supporting role, in the form of computers and the Internet. There is the core of a fascinating book here--although the incessant journalistic hand-wringing grows tiresome--but Leonard jumps carelessly from idea to idea, making this seem more like a collection of musings and short essays than any kind of serious, developed history. Flashes of insight, but few scoops or exclusives.