Giving Meanings to the World: The First U.S. Foreign Correspondents, 1838-1859/fanatics & Fire-Eaters: Newspapers and the Coming of the Civil War

By Mindich, David T. Z. | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
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Giving Meanings to the World: The First U.S. Foreign Correspondents, 1838-1859/fanatics & Fire-Eaters: Newspapers and the Coming of the Civil War


Mindich, David T. Z., Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


* Dell'Orto, Giovanna (2002). Giving Meanings to the World: The First U.S. Foreign Correspondents, 1838-1859. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, pp. 149.

* Rainer, Lorman A. and Dwight L. Teeter, Jr. (2003). Fanatics & Fire-Eaters: Newspapers and the Coming of the Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, pp. 138.

James Gordon Bennett, the founder of the New York Herald, had this to say about the leader of Catholicism, the faith of Bennett's birth: "If we must have a Pope, let us have a Pope of our own,-an American Pope, an intellectual, intelligent, and moral Pope,-not such a decrepit, licentious, stupid Italian blockhead as...Rome condescends to give the Christian world. . ." Fifty years before Joseph Pulitzer claimed that the New York World had no friends, James Gordon Bennett set the standard in friendlessness, never to be equaled. With his attacks on everyone-Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, natives, blacks, men, women, drunkards, temperance advocates, and abolitionists, to name a few-Bennott proved himself to be an equal opportunity critic. he even criticized slave owners, despite the modern notion that Bennett was an unwavering apologist for slavery (an apologist he was, but he wavered). The friendlessness of Bennett extended into presidential politics as well: Bennett endorsed a Democrat in 1836, a Whig in 1840, a Democrat in 1844, a Whig in 1848, a Democrat in 1852, and a Republican in 1856.

Bennett and other practitioners of the new, independent, and nonpartisan journalism of the antebellum era play a strong supporting role in two new books, Giovanna Dell'Orto's Giving Meanings to the World: The First U.S. Foreign Correspondents, I838-1859; and Lorman A. Ratner and Dwight L. Teeter, Jr.'s Fanatics & Fire-Eaters: Newspapers and the Coming of the Civil War. While those books have differing themes and foci, each provides journalism professors and their students new ways of looking at how journalism evolved from the birth of the penny press to the start of the Civil War.

Dell'Orto's book concentrates on how antebellum journalists made sense of world events. In the late 1830s, newspaper publishers began to make use of transatlantic steamers to get news from Europe. Bennett himself traveled to Europe to set up news "bureaus" that would report back to the American market. Dell'Orto carefully connects the rise of international reporting with the birth and success of the penny press model in the 183Os. This is true for three reasons: First, American newspapers now had enough money, generated from street sales and advertising, to greatly expand their staffs. second, the culture of reporting had surely matured during this period. When James Gordon Bennett heard about the ax-murder of a beautiful prostitute in 1836, he walked down the street to the brothel and surveyed the crime scene. This spirit of enterprise reporting departed from the partisan press model and set the stage for the kind of international reporting that would follow. No longer would editors be content with cutting and pasting their news from the European dailies. Third, the emerging culture of proto-objectivity was shaping both the domestic and international coverage. "Being in the dark," wrote a correspondent for the Tribune in 1859, "...I do not guess, but report and pass on." (p. 89) As editors and writers departed from the partisan model of expressing opinions forcefully, they tried, with mixed but growing success, to write dispassionately about the world around them.

Ratner and Teeter's book about the coverage of events leading up to the Civil War emphasizes not the growing independence of the mid-nineteenth-century press but the lingering partisanship. In their introduction, the authors repeatedly emphasized what they called the "lack of independence in political terms" (p. 21). They used Horace Greeley and Henry Raymond, of the Daily Tribune and Times, respectively, as exemplars.

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