News, Public, Nation

There is a palpable nervousness when journalists talk about the future of journalism these days. Books are published in the ether, stories break on-line, young people who don’t know the difference between an editorial and a news story expertly surf the Web. Is this the end of the several hundred year run of journalism in human history? It seems a moment ripe for assessing the role of the press—and for purposes of this review, particularly the newspaper press—in modern history.

Newspapers have sung their own praises from the beginning, as pillars of democracy, scourges of tyranny, mass communication bards, and builders of community, but few historians or political and social theorists have reflected at length on news as an institution. Nor, with rare exceptions, have literary scholars reflected on news as a cultural form. Media specialists may pronounce journalism to be “the sense-making practice of modernity” and “the most important textual system in the world,” but most humanities scholars have paid no heed.[1]

In the corpus of grand social theory, journalism received attention only in passing from Karl Marx, who for some time supported himself as a journalist. Max Weber outlined, but never undertook, a full-scale study of the press. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a few stunning pages on the American press, still worth close reading, but this pales in comparison to the hundreds of pages he devoted to government and law.

Journalism simply never became a major topic of study among historians or social scientists. Of the famous Chicago School of sociology, only Robert Park, himself an ex-journalist, wrote at length about the press (The Immigrant Press and Its Control, 1922) and among leading political thinkers of the past century, only Walter Lippmann, also a journalist, considered the press with intellectual rigor (Public Opinion, 1922). Journalism schools have not to this day nurtured a substantial research tradition; near the bottom of the academic pecking order at most institutions (Missouri and Northwestern are notable exceptions), their university colleagues do not expect or demand much from them. This is not to deny that occasional works of substance and influence have come from them, but most work from the journalism schools and too much of the work from the communication research programs that burgeoned after World War II has been undefiled by serious study of leading thought in economics, sociology, political science, or history.

Most people readily (perhaps too readily) grant that the media are important, but identifying their role in human affairs, especially a specific causal role, is difficult. The mass media, through symbols, make possible social coordination, yet this is so general, pervasive, and widely distributed a function that it is hard to trace its specific imprint on human affairs. The mass media are probably more potent in creating solidarities than in breaking them, but building solidarity through culture rather than, say, conquest, is a slow, accretive process all but impossible to measure. Moreover, while the press establishes and sometimes helps expand the borders of consciousness for individuals, it much more rarely determines what people focus their lives on or what moves them to action. The press may surround the attentive news audience with cues, counsel, and guidance to behavior, but it has little say in determining which of these multiple and conflicting tools for living the news consumer will choose to adopt. As communication scholars say, the news may do more to influence what people think about than what they think, and the press may exercise more clout in what it omits than in what it disseminates.[2]

Most of the time, news coverage moves few to reflection and fewer still to action. It then becomes hard to attribute very much causal weight to the headlines on the rare occasions when they do anger or inspire or mobilize. Even then, how is the analyst to distinguish the effect of the information conveyed from the effect of the legitimation that information gains from being conveyed by a reputable and widely distributed source or from the effect of the way the medium frames the information it offers? Without sorting out these features of news, it is difficult to say whether the effects of news are “media” effects, wrought by the framing or cultural assumptions journalists or their employers bring to news, or “source” effects, engineered by the sources who provide journalists their information.[3] News today is only occasionally political in a direct sense, that is, something authored with the purpose of changing policy or power, but it is often the medium for politics. It is not a social trend, but it can amplify social trends; it is not a social movement, but it can contribute to a social movement’s growth or its containment; it is not a moral panic, but it can spread the seeds.

It will always be difficult clearly to identify the power of the press.[4] Nevertheless, media history in recent years has been taking on greater prominence. In some measure, this is simply because the rapid and radical transformations of the delivery of news in recent years impresses itself upon us. This ranges from the growth of television news in the 1960s to the growing commercial competition to public broadcasting in Europe to the availability of cable and satellite-beamed news delivery, all contributing to the widespread sense that everyday life is increasingly oriented toward information, personalities, and styles originating in or propelled by the mass media. To some degree, growing interest in media history is a happy by-product of the developing “history of the book” subfield. In the United States, Robert Darnton’s stimulating explorations have been especially influential, culminating in his call, in his 1999 AHA presidential address, for more study of “how societies made sense of events and transmitted information about them.”[5] A “cultural turn” in historical studies generally has also helped, although amidst a vast array of objects from the past suddenly turned read-able, from cockfights to funeral processions, the humble newspaper has not proved particularly fashionable. Most of all, new interest in media history derives from two broad perspectives that place the media in a position of importance, those provided by Jürgen Habermas and Benedict Anderson.

With the work of Habermas, the emergence of the newspaper as a going concern in the eighteenth century takes on world-historical grandeur as a central institution of “the public sphere” and modern democratic discourse.[6] Before Habermas, there were of course substantial works on the freedom of the press and works on the role of “the fourth estate” as a factor in political life, but not within a broad framework of social theory. This is what Habermas provided.

As is well known, Habermas found that a “bourgeois public sphere” opened up in parts of Western Europe toward the end of the eighteenth century, a social space and set of attendant norms that enabled and encouraged private persons to come together without the sponsorship or surveillance of government to discuss public issues and to do so in a way that placed a premium on the use of individual reason. Newspapers, pamphlets, coffeehouses, and salons were among the key instruments that made this public sphere possible. Unfortunately, this moment of freedom began to be shut down by the mid to late nineteenth century, as the power of capital turned a realm of liberty into an occasion for profit, an opportunity for enlightenment into a marketplace of sensation. Capitalism “refeudalized” public life, even as capitalism had been a primary force in shattering feudalism in the first place.

The particulars of this argument have now been challenged again and again, and few scholars would today accept the Habermasian view as Habermas originally proposed it—and this includes in at least some respects Habermas himself. Habermas presented his work originally in something of an exceptionalist vein—as Weber asked why rational capitalism arose in the West and not elsewhere, Habermas inquires why a bourgeois order, and not others, gave rise to a free domain of reasoned public discourse on politics. While the historical argument has been debated, the category of “public sphere” has been lifted out of it as a normative model of exemplary civic life, and this has inspired research in a wide variety of nations and periods.

The other theoretical account of the media’s role in modern times to attract wide interest among scholars across the disciplines is Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983). In this fertile and provocative essay, which covers 500 years of world history in less than 150 pages, Anderson proposes that all nations and, indeed, all communities larger than small villages—and maybe even these—are “imagined communities,” that is, entities that exist in people’s minds as objects of orientation and objects of affiliation. The emergence of national consciousness in the European nation-states was produced by a conjunction of capitalism, print, and the “fatality of human linguistic diversity,” in Anderson’s account.[7] Anderson gives special credit to newspapers and novels as instruments of national imagined communities, but I think by his own account this works out better for the Americas than for Europe. In Europe, the nineteenth-century spread of national consciousness and nationalist movements was less a product of popular literature than of intellectuals who produced grammars, dictionaries, histories, and high literature in a vernacular language.

With respect to newspapers, Anderson stresses the ceremony of common readership and its role in national consciousness, the idea that everyone is simultaneously reading the same thing, or at least aware of it. This is a wonderful, if exaggerated, image. Circulations of newspapers were small everywhere until late in the nineteenth century. Multiple, often party-oriented, newspapers not only saw the same news from different perspectives but often covered different news events altogether. Still, Anderson has been important and inspiring in drawing attention to the role of print, language, popular literature, publicity, and intellectuals in the rise of national consciousness.

Habermas focuses on the exchange of reasoned opinions about politics in a newly emerging, semi-autonomous public forum in which publicity is both the means of public life and armor against its repression. There is all the difference in the world between a community (Anderson’s focus) and a public (Habermas’s concern); the former tends to imply a common emotional identity, the latter only a common set of norms for public conversation. The former indicates fellow feeling on the basis of interaction (even if it is mediated interaction), the latter suggests civil interaction around a common political subject even in the absence of fellow feeling. Where Anderson examines social membership, Habermas looks to criticism of the state and the formation of liberal institutions. Anderson’s “imagined communities” have nothing to do with liberalism but everything with national consciousness; the Habermasian “public sphere” has everything to do with liberalism, both its achievements and its limitations.

Anderson’s work potentially promotes a much more expansive reading of news than Habermas inspires, a recognition that news is not only the raw material for rational public discourse but also the public construction of particular images of self, community, and nation. It implies that the study of news should be kin to other studies of the literary or artistic products of human imagination more than to studies in democratic theory.

Habermas provides powerful inspiration for many contemporary scholars. Still, the utility of his framework for journalism history is constrained in two respects. First, its emphasis on what is general to bourgeois societies leaves to the sidelines the differences among them—and increasingly media scholars find interest in the differences. Second, his emphasis on the commercialization of the media in the nineteenth century picks up only one part of a two-part development—that journalism as an occupational field professionalized at the same time journalism as a business enterprise commercialized. In the past two centuries, news has come to be a professionally created and commercially distributed product in most parts of the world. The movement from a party or government press to a commercial press accelerated sharply in the 1830s in the United States, the 1850s in Britain, the 1880s and 1890s in Japan. As the press became differentiated from political parties and political movements, it grew not only more driven by commercial considerations but also more organized by self-governing professional norms and practices, although the norms and institutions that conveyed them look different as you move from France to Britain to the United States. Parties retained a firmer hold on newspapers in many parts of Europe than in the United States, while in China, the former Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe, commercialization took off only in the past decade after several generations of state-authorized news. The journalism of France has been notably less oriented to reporting, investigating, and scandal-discovering than Anglo-American media, although in France, Latin America, and elsewhere, a growth of investigative journalism has accompanied a rise in “infotainment” journalism during the past decade.[8] Newspaper readership, relatively low in the United States and Canada, and declining, has grown in Europe even in the past half-century. Circulation of newspapers per 1,000 population is nearly three times higher in Japan and the Scandinavian countries than in the United States, Canada, France, or Belgium. Britain has a thriving tabloid sector, but the United States, Italy, France, and the Netherlands do not.[9]

With all this variability, global terms like “the public sphere” and “refeudalization” (or “imagined community,” for that matter) are not in the end going to be enough to understand the local terrain of media history. Habermas draws attention, both normatively and empirically, to the central issue of commercialization. What is commercialization and what are its consequences? The profit motive, like, say, sexual desire, can have terrible consequences, but it is one of the forces in life powerful enough to push people ahead in the face of risk, tyranny, and physical and moral hazards. What have been its costs and benefits and its variations across national traditions? The same questions should be asked of the concomitant development of professionalism—the differentiation of journalists as a distinct occupational group with distinctive norms and traditions and, depending on the time and place, some degree of autonomy from parties and publishers. A third central topic is the differentiation of the press from government or state control or, to put it differently, the emergence of legal protections for an independent press. A fourth theme deserves but almost always eludes the attention of media history, for lack of convincing evidence: the changing receptivity of audiences for different types of news, different quantities, styles, topics, and levels of seriousness of reportage.

All these themes are at play in the works considered here (even as the last of them remains in the background). These works are chosen not to offer a comprehensive review of work in media history nor even because they are exemplary but only to give a sense of the landscape. Only the work by Jean Chalaby, The Invention of Journalism (1998), offers broad generalizations about journalism as such and has begun to influence others in media history broadly. Chalaby’s work is implicitly comparative, as I will indicate; the work by James Huffman is a comprehensive overview of newspaper history in Japan in its first three-quarters of a century and does not aspire to broader claims; Susan Tifft and Alex Jones’s study of the New York Times examines one newspaper through its entire history and, likewise, makes no overarching propositions. The works together, however, do afford an opportunity to think through aspects of the question of commercialization and professionalism.

The most provocative of the books under review is Jean Chalaby’s Invention of Journalism. It is also the most orthodoxly Habermasian in its “rise-and-fall” view of the past 200 years of public discourse. It holds that “journalism” as we have known it over the past century is essentially a product of Anglo-American culture that has diffused, with greater or lesser success, to other nations. As this institution, rooted in the marketplace, developed in mid to late nineteenth-century Britain, it displaced and destroyed a vibrant public life. The extent to which journalism, as it is widely understood today, is a product of a specific Anglo-American “news discourse” of mid-to-late nineteenth-century origins is the claim at the heart of Chalaby’s book, and it is worth serious consideration.

There are two parts to Chalaby’s thesis. First, he holds that the profession of journalist and a specific discourse or “field of discursive production” called journalism emerged in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century. Second, he insists that journalism so understood was a retreat from a better model of discourse “political at heart and public in character.” Journalistic discourse replaced the “publicity” model of discourse that “prevailed in the press of the pre-journalistic age.” As the market principle came to dominate, the press kept the popular classes “in a state of ecstasy” that denied them knowledge of the world and of their place in it.[10]

In Chalaby’s scheme, publicists, like the writers who produced the unstamped newspapers for a working-class audience in the 1820s and 1830s in Britain, write to articulate the political ideology and interests of a group, especially a social class. They analyze current affairs from “a perspective proper to a social class and thereby develop the aptitude of the members of this social class to see things in their own terms.”[11] They are normally active members of political organizations.

During the 1830s in Britain, 200 unstamped journals existed at least briefly, half of them with politics at their center and most of these staking out a working-class, ultra-radical view.[12] These newspapers informed readers of the activities of the political associations they represented and publicized others whose work was allied with them. Chalaby holds that the publicists addressed readers in their political and social dimensions and sought to persuade and struggle with readers’ presumed preconceptions.[13] He then takes this to represent an era of public discourse from which “journalism” represents a decline.

This is an oversimplified view of a remarkable moment in British working-class history. First, the unstamped papers represent a moment rather than a whole era, a year or two surrounding political struggles in 1819 and the half-decade of the flourishing unstamped working-class press of the 1830s. Second, Chalaby’s view ignores the half of the unstamped papers that were not principally political. Third, it omits the complexity within the political papers themselves, the fact that these paragons of political virtue—to Chalaby, they were at once principled, dialogic, public-spirited, and pure of heart—were “read and sold less for their political and economic doctrines than for their cheap news.” That, at least, is the view of Patricia Hollis, whose 1970 study The Pauper Press remains the standard on the subject.[14] Chalaby neglects as well the perturbations in these papers as, in seeking to survive, they moved from radical political essays to police news and efforts to entertain as well as to instruct. Henry Hetherington, one of the leading editors of the radical press, promised his readers in 1834 that henceforth his paper would become “a repository of all the gems and treasures, and fun and frolic and ‘news and occurrences’ of the week. It shall abound in Police Intelligence, in Murders, Rapes, Suicides, Burnings, Maimings, Theatricals, Races, Pugilism, and all manner of moving ‘accidents by flood and field.'”[15]

In a word, the journalism Chalaby attributes to a later day and finds a danger to public life was practiced by the publicists of his pre-journalistic Eden. Chalaby seeks to explain how Britain moved from an outpouring of political publicity to the cut-and-dried, conservative, and anti-political “journalistic field.” The turning point for him is the repeal of the taxes on knowledge between 1855 and 1861. (In Chalaby’s account, this just happens, an uncaused cause.) The tax repeal enabled newspapers to sell on the streets for a penny and created a market and marketplace competition, rather than a “public.” In what is a familiar refrain in contemporary writings on mass culture from the left, the public is replaced by the market, the citizen by the consumer. For Chalaby, the new commercial popular press “offers a magic resolution to personal and social problems.” It addresses readers’ fantasies and constructs “a world of illusions around their readers’ dreams.” He concludes, “Most differences between public discourse and journalism for the masses originate from the fact that publicists wrote to transform the world, journalists to brighten it.”[16]

Chalaby claims that after 1855 there was a reduction in political news, although that is not what his evidence shows. He shows a reduced percentage of news about politics among all the news in the papers he samples, but with market incentives making possible a vast increase in the number and size of newspapers, the total quantity of political news must surely have grown. (American data on this point are compelling, even though Gerald Baldasty, the historian who gathered the best data, focused like Chalaby only on the percentage of total news devoted to politics and ignored his own evidence of huge increases in the total amount of political news from the 1830s to the 1890s.[17] ) For Chalaby, the decline of the parliamentary column and “unmediated” communication between politician and the public is a particularly grievous loss in the commercial press.

Despite Chalaby’s nostalgia and knee-jerk opposition to the marketplace, he still authors a strikingly new formulation in specifying some of the features that define the discourse of journalism. Note especially his simple and important observation that “reporting” is its primary feature—what he calls a “fact-centred discursive practice.”[18] This was a distinctively Anglo-American development. More than Chalaby suggests, the Americans led the way; both British and continental observers of U.S. journalism after the Civil War were appalled at the emphasis on reports rather than essays, commentaries, and editorials. Chalaby offers a useful discussion of “objectivity” as a discursive practice, the “crusadism” of Anglo-American journalism, jingoism (“one way of overcoming the difficulty of producing exciting reading material without offending any substantial group of readers”), and sensationalism.[19] There is more to be done here in describing the history of the discursive forms of journalism—for instance, Chalaby offers just three paragraphs on the emergence of interviewing, an American news invention, but Chalaby makes a genuine contribution in locating media history at the level of genres, texts, and literary forms.[20]

For all the originality and wit of this book, its thesis of decline and fall runs away with it. Curiously, Chalaby’s sense of a world in a deplorable downward spiral is entirely absent from his earlier article, “Journalism as an Anglo-American Invention.”[21] The article differs from the book in three respects. First, it is nearly as attentive to American as to British journalism. Second, it gives depth to the concept of a “fact-centred discursive practice” by keeping present a contrast between Anglo-American and French journalism, whereas France is almost invisible in the book. Third, the article offers a multi-faceted historical account of why the Anglo-American press promoted a “fact-centred discursive practice” and the French press failed to do so, an account as much cultural and political as economic. Where the book reduces the explanation of journalistic discourse to market forces, the article suggests that it emerged in the Anglo-American world and not the French for cultural and political reasons, not just economic. He observes that there is a weak hierarchy of discursive forms in the Anglo-American world, where in France the prestige of literary discourse kept the essay, rather than the news report, the dominant literary form. Moreover, there was limited government repression in the Anglo-American cases, compared to the French, and news reporting could develop more freely.

The difference between Chalaby One and Chalaby Two raises an important question: does the profit motive, standing against government censorship and against elite literary castes and forms, produce a better, more free journalism—as the Chalaby article hints—or does it kill off a political press and produce a hopelessly compromised retreat from vibrant political discourse, as the book boldly asserts?

The case of Japan offers a useful perspective on this, though not one that can be made to arbitrate decisively between the two Chalabys. At the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, there was essentially no such thing as journalism in Japan. When it began, it borrowed directly from the West, especially the American model. But it took the reporter to be a lowly figure, the essayist a highly esteemed one. Looking primarily to the Anglo-American model, the Japanese, operating from their own traditions, concocted the French!

The Japanese case is well described in James Huffman’s Creating a Public.[22] Huffman has written an exhaustively researched work, lucid, conscious of issues of comparison and theory, even if these enter the careful chronological narrative less often than they might have. Someone who has mastered the complexity and subtlety of social change in the press the way Huffman has is someone whose views on wider controversies of press history would be worth hearing. Huffman’s theme in Creating a Public is that the public created a press of a certain kind as much as the press brought into being a public. Huffman puts this well: the Japanese press was transformed between 1870 and 1910 from small, gray, dense political papers into newspapers reaching a mass audience, packed with sensation, exposés of corruption, and the sex lives of the powerful, as well as serialized novels and family columns. The newspapers, managed throughout this period by editors and publishers attached to elitist political values and Confucian paternalism, certainly influenced the public, but the influence was in both directions. “The newspapers,” Huffman summarizes, “turned the people into citizens; the people turned the papers into mass media.”[23] But just how did this happen?

Before 1868, freedom of expression—in domains from puppet theater to book publishing—was tightly controlled to preserve the authority of the shogunate families, government, and the samurai class. Newspapers did not exist, apart from kawabaran, occasional one-page black and white broadsheets, until the 1850s. At the time, the Tokugawa government began collecting and publishing foreign news gathered from European newspapers for an audience of officials. The government relied on the foreign press even for news of Japan. The first sustained news publication, begun in 1860, was a government abridgment of a Dutch newspaper published in Java. The first non-governmental newspaper began in 1861, a shipping news semi-weekly printed in English by an English grocer for the expatriate merchant community.

At the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, then, Japanese journalism had been small-scale, hesitant, short-lived, and more likely to be in English than Japanese. But from March to August 1868, a moment of freedom and confusion before the new rulers had determined policy or consolidated power, a private, political, vigorous, anti-regime press arose. Before the year was out, as the Meiji government consolidated power and influence, Tokugawa-style restrictions on free expression were reinstituted. Only three small non-governmental papers survived—two protected by their publication in Yokohama, a treaty port, and the third decidedly pro-government.

This 1868 journalism of political advocacy is still widely taken to be the prototype for the modern Japanese press, but this may flatter the Japanese press too much. The most distinctive features of modern Japanese journalism date only to the 1870s, when private papers deferential to the government were established with the backing of government bureaus.[24] The government directly encouraged a newspaper habit with the establishment of reading rooms and newspaper discussion clubs in towns and villages. Newspapers and nationalism went hand in hand.[25] Paternalism characterized both the relationship of the newspapers toward readers and hierarchy in the news organizations—editors at the top, essayists next, and, at the bottom, the newsgatherers, who turned their notes over to office-based writers. The editors of these papers “preferred influence to freedom, a platform to independence.”[26] Their papers were political, elitist, pro-government, and willing tools of an establishment intent on civilizing the nation.

Still, the range of topics and assertiveness of criticism grew in the 1870s in this establishment press, the oshimbun. In the late 1870s, the koshimbun, or “small papers,” also emerged—written in vernacular prose, featuring sensational news, sold cheaply on the streets, short on politics and editorials and long on human interest, with furigana, phonetic aids for reading the Chinese characters. At first, the establishment press were untouched by this development; they remained consumed with politics and content with their small, intellectual, and influential readership. But in relatively short order, the two ends of the journalistic continuum would seek middle ground, both moving toward a blend of politics and profit.[27]

In the late 1870s, the oshimbun grew more independent and more confident, jockeying with government censors, especially after a severe new press law in 1875. They even hired surrogate editors whose only job was to serve out jail terms when the newspaper was prosecuted.[28]In general, the papers maintained Confucian propriety and loyalty to the national cause, but they also sought to shape policy debates by their own lights and increasingly to champion constitutional government.

Yomiuri, which had been launched in 1874 as the first of Tokyo’s koshimbun, in the 1880s began to cover politics and government. A growing politicization of the press was met by the government with new forms of political control: an extensive, secret distribution of money to a wide range of journalists and, in a new law of 1882, the establishment of a security deposit system—a fee any paper had to deposit with the government to begin publishing. The deposit system helped eradicate the most poorly financed (and often most critical) newspapers. This was on top of the usual censorship of specific articles, fines, jail sentences, and suspension or closure.

During the 1880s, new leaders of the press were “in every case, less partisan, more news-oriented, and more popular.”[29] The largest circulation paper in the country, Osaka’s Asahi shimbun, became in the early 1880s independent of party, oriented to news rather than editorial, and dedicated not only to politics but, in the editor’s words, “to record the world’s new expressions, to describe the mysteries of society, to assist in spreading knowledge among the people.”[30] Asahi entered the Tokyo market in 1888 as a genuine blend of oshimbun and koshimbun: its pages were gray but its writing simple; it ran serialized novels, it provided furigana, and “it marketed its product with the zeal of an American Pulitzer or a British Northcliffe.”[31] What began to emerge was convergence on a middle way—politics and entertainment, political news rather than political essays, and politics made attractive for a mass audience.

After the promulgation of the Meiji Constitution in 1889, this development only accelerated, along with the general adoption by the press of a strongly nationalist spirit. Even the traditional papers acknowledged that news was a business, that high circulation was a prize dearly sought, and that political influence by itself was an insufficient goal.[32] News reporting, not political essays, became the center of political coverage. Asahi in Osaka sent out correspondents and established bureaus around the country. Asahi and other “middle-road entrepreneurial papers” pioneered the use of the telegraph, the telephone, and much improved printing technology.[33] Like the penny press in the United States half a century before, business-minded, entrepreneurial leaders were the carriers of innovation and, as Chalaby would put it, the sources of a fact-centered news discourse.

There is much more in Huffman’s book, especially concerning the nationalist fervor of the press during coverage of the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) and Russo-Japanese War (1903–1905), but I want to dwell for a moment on one thing that is missing from it. As news became the mainstay of the press, reporters’ clubs emerged at parties and cabinet ministries. Huffman is no more admiring of these kisha (press) clubs than other observers, but he gives them relatively little attention, as they did not become crucial until the very end of the period he covers.[34] Yet they have become one of the most distinctive features of the Japanese news media to this day. They are the subject of another fine book, Laurie Anne Freeman’s Closing the Shop: Information Cartels and Japan’s Mass Media (2000). Freeman, a political scientist, writes about the Japanese press of the 1990s from the privileged vantage point of someone who gained access (through Asahi shimbun) to the kisha clubs in the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters, the Diet, and the prime minister’s office. Freeman finds the Japanese press deficient compared to its European and North American counterparts, far too deferential to government and unable properly to police or “audit” the government.

Where Huffman is even-tempered throughout, Freeman is openly critical of the Japanese press, past and present. Where Huffman takes pains to understand the Japanese press in its own terms, Freeman measures the Japanese media against what she takes to be a universal standard of a free, watchdog press. She recognizes that no national press lives up to the ideals she favors, but she convincingly shows that the American and British press have greater access to official sources and greater willingness to speak out on important matters than the Japanese press. Her general historical explanation of this is plausible—that the Japanese press emerged in a country with a limited civil society and a well-established tradition of strict controls on public expression, while the Anglo-American press emerged along with liberal capitalism and the end of formal state censorship.[35] As for the kisha clubs, she unhesitatingly concludes that they should be disbanded.

A Habermasian model of the fall of the public sphere would not fit Japan. In Japan, there was no golden age, no burst of energies of a press critical of state power, apart from the sputtering freedom of the spring of 1868. The press was fully complicit with power from the beginning, part of an elite modernizing movement. In this situation, commercialism is not the heavy but, perhaps, the hero. Although Huffman finds the commercializing press troublingly nationalistic, he also sees it as indispensable in “creating a public” and bringing the masses into a participatory modern world. Freeman judges the press in Japan deficient not by virtue of its commercialism but by the conjunction of a commercial industry with a state-centered, elite-dominated public culture. And Huffman’s achievement is to show how commerce was an agent of an anti-elitism. It did not replace citizen with consumer but, in a sense, initiated the Japanese populace in citizenship through a consumerist appeal.

But here at the heart of Huffman’s work, there is an awkward silence. The difference between nation and public, national consciousness and liberal public sphere, is elided. Huffman makes no reference to Habermas; his one footnote to grand theory cites Anderson—and rightly so. The story he tells is about creating a national consciousness, not a bourgeois public sphere. Yet he also aspires to something more, to seeing in the “public” that the newspapers helped create more than a mass of common feeling, as easily turned to nationalism and militarism as to reasoned discourse. I think he means to evoke in the term “public” something more normative—and to be praising Japanese newspapers as agents of its creation. Yet this remains in the end a hint or a hope, no more.

And where is the American experience in relation to this? In The Trust, Alex Jones and Susan Tifft take on the most celebrated and distinguished news organization in the United States, the New York Times.[36] They are not the first to do so, of course. There are two older in-house histories, several substantial memoirs (notably by Harrison Salisbury and Max Frankel), works by David Halberstam and Gay Talese and Edwin Diamond.[37] Even so, Jones and Tifft provide fascinating details of family and business history available nowhere else. At first blush, in fact, their book says little about the New York Times as a news institution but a lot about it as a family business. The book weaves a collective multi-generational family biography and a business history, a non-fictional Buddenbrooks. Its heavy 780 pages are justified only by the great importance of the New York Times—otherwise, this account of four generations of the Ochs/Sulzberger family’s depressions, dalliances, divorces, and chilly emotional distances between parents and children would seem to have little to commend it to our attention. There are enough characters here for a Russian novel, one in which the scene is the drawing room, the office, and the country estate, not the battlefield, dueling grounds, or the street. The stage is designed more for human comedy than high drama.

Take, for instance, Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger, who ran the Times from 1963 to 1992, deeply reluctant to make tough personnel decisions, backing into them as if he were going to the dentist. One feels for him—after all, he was trying to make his name in the business his father and grandfather had run before him, and he often faced decisions about hiring and firing his cousins! And yet, as comically conflicted as Punch was making decisions in the paper, he was rock-solid in deciding for the paper. He trusted absolutely in the paper’s integrity to battle the government over the Pentagon Papers or, even in his freshman year as publisher, to simply ignore a direct request from President John F. Kennedy to remove reporter David Halberstam from Vietnam. At the age of thirty-seven, the newly installed publisher met at the White House with President Kennedy. Kennedy told him that Halberstam was “too close to the story, too involved” and should be reassigned. Punch did not hesitate for a moment. He told the president that Halberstam had not lost his objectivity and would stay in Saigon. “Punch emerged from the meeting clearly shaken and immediately instructed Halberstam to cancel his scheduled vacation so that it would not appear that the Times had capitulated to White House demands.”[38]

Tifft and Jones show the balancing act it has been for the New York Times to serve news and profits simultaneously. Huffman also shows a balancing act, but one in which the market plays a generally progressive role, liberating the press from Confucian elitism while promoting a zealous, modernizing chauvinism. Collectively, these works raise as a question what both journalists and historians of journalism have often taken as a settled answer: that money corrupts. This is as much a reflex of professional journalists as it is a theoretical premise in Habermas or Chalaby, and it requires reconsideration on several dimensions. Journalism has emerged and struggled as a marriage of democratic aspirations and commercial ambitions. Its greatest achievement is not engaged citizens or even government officials who know they operate under public scrutiny but the maintenance of an organizational form, built on bottom-line profits, that sustains this over time. The historic achievement is this awkward blend, both Thomas Jefferson and Coca-Cola.

How is it that commercial objectives can aid the public purposes of the press? First, commerce has a populist appeal that breaks through elitist disdain for the masses. This is the Japanese story of commerce versus samurai elitism, and it is also part of the explanation for why the strong commercial and weakly institutionalized literary culture of the Anglo-American tradition produced a more vigorous and more innovative journalism than the French.

Second, commercial imperatives can be combined with others; they need not displace all other motives or means. This is the lesson Tifft and Jones implicitly offer. Their theme, convincingly presented, is that the Ochs/Sulberger family ran the newspaper as a family “trust” rather than a business. “In many ways,” the authors say, “the Times operated more like a foundation or an educational institution than a commercial enterprise.” Arthur Hays Sulzberger as publisher (from 1919 to 1961) “deliberately remained ignorant of where the Times put its surplus cash, fearful that he might make an editorial decision, however unintentionally, that favored the investment. He kept his personal money exclusively in U.S. Treasury bills.”[39] The business culture at the Times, such as it was, was “similar to that of a mom-and-pop store.” This began to change when the company became publicly traded in 1969. Arthur’s successor as publisher (after a brief interim command by his son-in-law Orville Dryfoos), his son “Punch,” declared that the newspaper’s first job was to make a profit and then to cover the news. Punch Sulzberger and Abe Rosenthal, editor for much of his tenure, were willing to break down what had been a “rigid compartmentalization” between the news side and the business operations of the paper, “the temple and the countinghouse.”[40] But with a difference. What was that difference?

Jones and Tifft, previously authors of a biography of the Bingham family and its ownership of the Louisville, Kentucky, Courier-Journal, contrast these two wealthy newspaper families. The Binghams, they write, did good works because they owned Kentucky’s leading newspaper and, out of the social superiority of their station, embraced an ethic of noblesse oblige. The Sulzbergers, in contrast, believed that “the family belonged to the newspaper” rather than the newspaper to the family, and they felt they had to “prove themselves worthy of the association.”[41] As much as the Times reflected assumptions of the privileged classes who owned it, ran it, and wrote it, it also represented their refusal to take the paper as anything but a sacred trust.

Clearly, there is more than one way to be a commercial media organization. There is more than one form of business organization, and there is more than one prevailing ethos that can survive within each form. The laws of the marketplace are variable, even to a degree forgiving, and manifest in practice only as they are interpreted through both national and family tradition.

Tifft and Jones do not aspire to social theory; their work is divorced from any conversation with Habermas or Anderson or, for that matter, any other tillers in the field of media history. It is framed by the walls of the organization they describe and the family tree of its owners. This is old-fashioned journalism history, untouched by any of the academy-based intellectual ferment of the past several decades. What their work does it does well, but they leave entirely to others the task of making it bear on broader questions of the media’s place in history.

The implication of their work is more dark than what I have drawn from it. They can be read as saying that commercialism used to be adaptable to the public interest, so long as it was directed by idiosyncratic families, some of them nobly committed to the general good. Now that more and more media outlets are run by fewer and fewer corporations, and these corporations increasingly are dominated by Wall Street investors, refeudalization has at last taken hold. When family capitalism finally expires, the corporate capitalism that remains will not be tolerant of the mixed motives of bottom line and public service.

This is a common view among many conscientious observers of the present scene. I cannot be sure it is wrong, but I think it is premature. No one has yet worked out why fact-centered discursive practices, centered in commercial institutions, should have had as long as a run as they have of routinely criticizing, embarrassing, and exposing government leaders in the United States and elsewhere, and even occasionally criticizing, embarrassing, and exposing powerful corporations. No one has yet probed what protects professionals in media organizations, so anxious have media watchers been to raise the alarm about what endangers them. Nor do we know just how far to take the metaphor that discourse speaks us rather than we it—that, in this case, the language of observation, analysis, and public accountability that characterizes the news may have set roots deep in our cultural soil and so have some hold over the media giants even as the giants try to take hold of it.

Michael Schudson is a professor of communication and adjunct professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of books and articles on the history and sociology of the American news media, including Discovering the News (1978) and The Power of News (1995). His most recent work is The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life (1998).


1 John Hartley, Popular Reality: Journalism, Modernity, Popular Culture (London, 1996), 32–33.

2 The origin of this phrase appears to be in Bernard C. Cohen, The Press and Foreign Policy (Princeton, N.J., 1963), 13: “This is to say, then, that the press is significantly more than a purveyor of information and opinion. It may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.”

3 I develop this analysis further in The Sociology of News (forthcoming).

4 A particularly deft, and skeptical, effort to think through the independent influence of the mass media on political affairs is Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, “Mass Media and Mass Actions in Urban China, 1919–1989,” in Jeremy D. Popkin, ed., Media and Revolution: Comparative Perspectives (Lexington, Ky., 1995), 189–219.

5 Robert Darnton, “An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris,” AHR 105 (February 2000): 1.

6 Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Thomas Burger, trans. (1962; Cambridge, Mass., 1989).

7 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, 1983), 46.

8 Silvio Waisbord, Watchdog Journalism in South America: News, Accountability, and Democracy (New York, 2000).

9 Pippa Norris, A Virtuous Circle: Political Communications in Postindustrial Societies (Cambridge, 2000).

10 Jean K. Chalaby, The Invention of Journalism (New York, 1998), 1, 2, 5.

11 Chalaby, Invention of Journalism, 16.

12 Chalaby, Invention of Journalism, 13.

13 Chalaby, Invention of Journalism, 29.

14 Patricia Hollis, The Pauper Press: A Study in Working-Class Radicalism of the 1830s (London, 1970), 285.

15 Hollis, Pauper Press, 122.

16 Chalaby, Invention of Journalism, 193.

17 Gerald J. Baldasty, The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century (Madison, Wis., 1992), 153–57.

18 Chalaby, Invention of Journalism, 5.

19 Chalaby, Invention of Journalism, 147.

20 On the history of the interview, see Michael Schudson, The Power of News (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), 72–93.

21 European Journal of Communication 11 (1996): 303–26. Serious media history seems as or more likely to turn up in communication journals as history journals. Good work has been published in the European Journal of Communication, Media, Culture, and Society, and the Journal of Communication. The journal Media History began in 1995.

22 James L. Huffman, Creating a Public: People and Press in Meiji Japan (Honolulu, 1997).

23 Huffman, Creating a Public, 3.

24 Huffman, Creating a Public, 53.

25 Huffman, Creating a Public, 67.

26 Huffman, Creating a Public, 63, 61.

27 Huffman, Creating a Public, 94.

28 Huffman, Creating a Public, 109.

29 Huffman, Creating a Public, 142.

30 Huffman, Creating a Public, 144.

31 Huffman, Creating a Public, 145.

32 Huffman, Creating a Public, 178.

33 Huffman, Creating a Public, 174.

34 Huffman, Creating a Public, 352–53.

35 Laurie Anne Freeman, Closing the Shop: Information Cartels and Japan’s Mass Media (Princeton, N.J., 2000), 171.

36 Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones, The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family behind the New York Times (Boston, 1999).

37 Elmer Davis, History of the New York Times, 1851–1921 (New York, 1921); Meyer Berger, The Story of the New York Times, 1851–1951 (New York, 1951); David Halberstam, The Powers That Be (New York, 1979); Gay Talese, The Kingdom and the Power (New York, 1969); Harrison E. Salisbury, Without Fear or Favor: The New York Times and Its Times (New York, 1980); Max Frankel, The Times of My Life and My Life with the Times (New York, 1999); and Edwin Diamond, Behind the Times: Inside the “New” New York Times (New York, 1994).

38 Tifft and Jones, The Trust, 389.

39 Tifft and Jones, The Trust, 321.

40 Tifft and Jones, The Trust, 321, 512.

41 Tifft and Jones, The Trust, 588.