"Conflicts of Interests": Covering Reform in the Wisconsin Press, 1910-1920

By Burt, Elizabeth | Journalism History, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

"Conflicts of Interests": Covering Reform in the Wisconsin Press, 1910-1920


Burt, Elizabeth, Journalism History


The early twentieth century in the United States was a period of social and political unrest during which two reform movements-- woman suffrage and prohibition-- adhered to the belief that the press could serve as a powerful ally in molding public opinion.1 However, their opponents-an informal coalition that included anti-suffragists, anti-- prohibitionists, the brewing and liquor industries, the Roman Catholic Church, and German-Americans-held the same belief.2

The battle raged on both the national and the local front. It was particularly heated in Wisconsin, where a combination of social, political, and economic forces made it pertinent to a large part of the population. Thus, the general circulation press became a major battlefield for these reformers and their opponents. By the early 1900s, all sides in the conflict were well organized. Representing suffrage on the national front was the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), while in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association (WWSA) coordinated the movement.3 The prohibition movement was best represented by two national organizations, the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) and the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), both of which had branches in Wisconsin. As for opponents to the reforms, the oldest anti-suffrage organization was the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Woman Suffrage (MAOFEWS), founded in 1887; the best organized was the National Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Woman Suffrage (NAOFEWS), established in 1911. Both these organizations sent representatives to Wisconsin during suffrage campaigns and the state had its own anti-suffrage association from 1911 to 1915.4 Anti-prohibitionists were represented mostly by industry and industry-backed groups such as the National Wholesale Liquor Dealers Association (NWLDA), the National Retail Liquor Dealers Association (NRLDA), and the United States Brewers Association (USBA), each of which had active state chapters.5

Although all these organizations had their own organs through which they reached their membership, both the reformers and their opponents attempted to win positive coverage and editorial support of their views in the general circulation press and devised specific strategies to accomplish this.6 They bombarded the press with press releases and requests to run regular columns on their position, staged events to attract media coverage, and attempted to enlist the support of publishers, editors, and reporters.7 In addition to using these tactics, the financially solvent liquor and brewing industries invested large sums in advertising in the hope that their advertising dollars would make editors more positive toward them and, in the case of last resort, bought space for their own "news" stories and editorials.8

When they were dissatisfied with press coverage, the reform groups and their opponents also employed a variety of strategies. They denounced the press in public meetings and in their own publications, organized letter writing campaigns to set erring editors straight, threatened readers' boycotts, and, in the case of the liquor and brewing industries, hinted at the withdrawal of advertising dollars.9

But the reform movements and their opponents faced a greater challenge than simply convincing the press that their side was right. For the general circulation press was far from a blank slate passively waiting to absorb and reproduce any information presented, even the most compelling. It was, instead, a highly evolved information processing system influenced by a multitude of economic, social, political, and historic factors. Nor was it a monolithic institution, but was made up of a wide variety of organizations, each one representing an individual publication or group of publications driven by individual factors. Suffrage and prohibition, as well as anti-suffrage and anti-prohibition, represented a mere fraction of the issues faced by publishers, editors, and reporters of this period. …

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