Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THE POWER OF THE PRESS: The Birth of American Political Reporting by Thomas C. Leonard

THE POWER OF THE PRESS: The Birth of American Political Reporting


Pub Date: March 1st, 1986
ISBN: 0195037197
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press

The whole of this inquiry into the origins and implications of political reportage in the US is less than the sum of its frequently fascinating parts. Using a somewhat discontinuous series of case histories, Leonard (journalism/California, Berkeley) traces the emergence of political reporting that gave ""form and weight to new attitudes about government,"" from pre-Revolutionary days through the early years of the 20th century. Among the pioneers, he cites James Franklin (Ben's older brother), who broke with the Colonial press's tradition of local boosterism by using his Boston-based Courant to crusade against inoculation during the plague year of 1721. Subsequently, both before and during the struggle for independence, newspaper owners fostered greater interest in political issues, mainly by relating abstractions and remote events to workaday happenings. In the formative years of the republic (whose leaders were far from reconciled to full disclosure), the author asserts ""journalism was the business of upstarts."" As one result, he notes, the press tended to cooperate with politicians, allowing them to edit their remarks for publication. By the mid-1850's, however, factionalism led to ""unfeeling accuracy"" in the reporting of statements by elected officials, hence a breakdown in the collaborative system. During the post-Civil-War period, Leonard recounts, Thomas Nast's political cartoons (some are included in the text) helped Harper's Weekly and its newspaper allies bring down New York City's Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall cronies by adding a pictorial dimension to civic corruption. In a 1906 exposÉ of the Senate, Hearst's Cosmopolitan achieved even greater impact with unposed photographs (snapshots) of target legislators. In the meantime, sensational police-beat reporting (initiated by James Gordon Bennett in his New York Herald) sharpened journalists' forensic skills and accustomed the reading public to investigatory stories, which paved the way for muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens. Typically, these socioeconomic critics would report on local scandals in nationally distributed periodicals--American Magazine, Collier's et al. Ironically, the author observes, the widespread availability of essentially nonpartisan political coverage during progressivism's heyday was accompanied by a coincident decline in public participation in the electoral process. In his less-than-satisfactory and largely undocumented explanation of this apparent paradox, Leonard speculates that most Americans were not ""experienced consumers of political revelations."" In the absence of insights on how the political system worked, he concludes, the mass of facts detailing ways in which it could--and did--misfire alienated large numbers of voters. Whether a breakdown in communication, informational overload, or other factors is the primary cause of voter apathy remains an open question. Nonetheless, Leonard's selective history of political reporting's long, halting advance in the pre-broadcast era offers rewarding perspectives for both consumers and providers of news.