Mightier Than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History

Mightier Than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History

Mightier Than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History

Mightier Than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History


In this pathbreaking book, Rodger Streitmatter takes the reader on a sightseeing tour of American history as influenced by the public press, visiting fourteen landmark events in U.S. history, from the abolitionist movement & the struggle for women's rights to the civil rights movement & Watergate.


In 1990, I created a course titled How the News Media Shape History. The interdisciplinary course, which combined journalism and history, became part of the General Education Program at American University. After receiving positive responses from the students who had taken the course, the director of the program was soon urging me to teach the course not just once a year, but twice--or even more often, if I was willing. I still remember the vivid image that the director, Ann Ferren, used to persuade me: "Rodger, students are clamoring to get into this course. If you teach it only once a year, it's like putting one tiny little jelly bean in the middle of the quad and telling all 12,000 of our students to fight over who gets it."

Why have students been so eager to grab my little jelly bean of a course? They have been strongly attracted, hundreds of students have since told me, to the concept of the news media shaping this country.

Today's college students, as well as the public in general, recognize that the American news media are one of this country's most powerful institutions. They see journalism as so powerful, in fact, that newspaper publishers and television anchors are perceived as more influential than members of the United States Congress or Supreme Court. Many students and other observers criticize the news media as being too powerful; others praise the news media's power, arguing that a free press is fundamental to democracy. But the detractors and defenders both agree on one point: The news media have impact.

It is those perceptions that have made my course popular, and it is that continued popularity that has impelled me to commit the material I use in the course to paper. Mightier than the Sword describes fourteen discrete episodes in American history during which the news media have played a critical role in shaping landmark events.

I have chosen the word shaping with considerable care. For as I try to impress upon my students at the beginning of each semester, I do not mean to imply that the Fourth Estate single-handedly causes events to occur. To suggest such a causal relationship between the news media and American history would be simplistic, as it would ignore the interdependence among governmental, legal, social, and economic institu-

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