Newspapers and the Making of Modern America: A History

Article excerpt

Newspapers and the Making of Modern America: A History. Aurora Wallace. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005. 214 pp. $49.95 hbk.

Aurora Wallace's Newspapers and the Making of Modern America collects brief histories of a handful of newspapers, from small-town weeklies to the national news leaders, and uses them as cases studies to demonstrate the influence the press has had on nation building in the twentieth century. Wallace, an assistant professor in the Department of Culture and Communications at New York University, builds her case in a semi-chronological way, starting with the tabloids of New York City that grew to prominence in the first third of the century. She then moves to papers she calls "small-town reform newspapers," papers such as the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette and the Anniston (Alabama) Star.

From there, she moves to the black press, urban newspapers, the development of newspaper chains, the alternative press of the 1960s and 1970s, and finally to the papers she considers the voices of the nation. The chapters are really chronological only in their introductory information, though, because some of the papers did not exist until the last half of the century. The chapter on national news, for example, focuses on the New York Times and the Sullivan case of 1964 and on the Washington Post's Watergate coverage, never giving much depth to their roles as the newspapers of record at the end of the century.

Wallace's goal is to provide readers with a history that traces the way newspapers and their owners in all parts of the nation influenced those regions economically, socially, and culturally. Newspapers were especially successful in nation building, this book points out, when they operated as privately owned, independently thinking organs. Once American newspapers became publicly traded commodities or parts of large chains, they lost much of the fire that drove them. A community paper owned by Media General, for example, might still provide local news, but, according to Wallace, now it only "champions the local in the abstract as it commits fewer and fewer resources to its service" of the local community. The bottom line of the ledger became more important than community building and unique service to local readers.

But even with newspapers being independent organs, the best interest of a community was often what was best for the owners of newspapers, and the discussion that Wallace provides on the agendas pushed by newspapers in various parts of the nation throughout the century is illuminating. One must read three-fourths of the book before Katharine Graham says, "The power is to set the agenda," but her statement provides the underlying strength of this book. …