Academic journal article Journalism History

Another Test of the News: American Partisan Press Coverage of the French Revolution

Academic journal article Journalism History

Another Test of the News: American Partisan Press Coverage of the French Revolution

Article excerpt

In a pioneering content analysis published in the New Republic in 1920, journalists Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz assessed the New York Times coverage of the Russian revolution. They concluded that the Times' reporters and editors tended to report the news as they wished it to be. "The news," they wrote, "is dominated by the hopes of the men who composed the news organization." While scholars have used this concept to study the coverage of subsequent revolutions, this is the first content analysis to look back at the French Revolution in the late 1700s. It finds, as Lippmann and Merz did, that "hope and fear" shaped coverage by the partisan press. That journalism in two very different periods had similar tendencies suggests the inherent difficulty of covering a revolution in any time period with a press of any type.

In a pioneering content analysis published in 1920, journalists Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz assessed the New York Times coverage of the Russian revolution. "A Test of the News," which appeared in the New Republic, concluded that the newspaper misreported and distorted the events leading to the taking of power by the Bolsheviks, the Russian withdrawal from World War I, and the several failed attempts at counter revolution by anticommunist forces.1 Time and again it predicted the imminent collapse of Lenin's government, which paradoxically the paper linked to a rising "Red Peril." In each case, the Times reporters and editors tended to report the news as they wished it to be. "The news," Lippmann and Merz wrote, "is dominated by the hopes of the men who composed the news organization."2

Subsequent scholarship, looking for example at coverage of the later Chinese Communist revolution,3 also has found that journalists are apt to perceive such sweeping political upheaval through their "hope and fear," to use Lippmanns and Merz's phrase.4 No one, however, has looked back and used their qualitative content analysis technique to do a thorough, methodical investigation of news reports in the early American press of the French Revolution, which offers the first historical evidence of American press attitudes toward a revolution abroad. Historians have provided ample context for such a study. They have chronicled the rise of American newspapers and printers of the late eighteenth century and shown how their attachment to America's fledgling political parties led them to take sides on the revolution. But scholars who have undertaken the kind of systematic examination that documents bias in news reporting abroad have opted to study conflicts that have emerged with more sophisticated content analysis techniques.

The American republic was fresh from its own revolution when the French were beginning their struggle in the spring of 1789. Historians have argued that Americans initially supported the French Revolution because they saw it as an extension of their fight for liberty and thought the fate of republicanism rested on its outcome.5 As one newspaperman wrote in 1793: "Upon the establishment or overthrow of liberty in France probably will depend the permanency of the Republic in the new world."6

As the French Revolution progressed, however, opinion divided.7 While many Americans continued to herald the collapse of the ancien régime and the triumph of popular government, others believed the revolution's violence and extremity separated it from its relatively moderate American predecessor. Opposition and support coalesced around America's political parties: the Federalists, led by Washington's secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and the Republicans, whose leader was Thomas Jefferson, Washington's secretary of state. As historian David WaIdstreicher argued in his 1997 work on the birth of American nationalism, the early American parties "disagreed passionately" about "untested forms of republicanism . . . even as they affirmed a republican national identity."8 The Federalists Party championed notions of order and unified nationhood, and, rather than seeing themselves as a political party, Federalists believed they were the chosen government of the people. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.