Academic journal article Journalism History

Pandering to the Crowd: The American Governing Elite's Changing Views on Mass Media and Publicity

Academic journal article Journalism History

Pandering to the Crowd: The American Governing Elite's Changing Views on Mass Media and Publicity

Article excerpt

On November 21, 1888, Puck magazine featured a cartoon by graphic artist Syd Griffin (1854-1910) titled "The Evil Spirits of the Modern Daily Press," reproduced as the cover of this issue of Journalism History.1 A decade before critics coined the term "yellow journalism" to describe irresponsible, sensationalized reporting, Griffin's pastel-colored lithograph questioned the impact of the new mass media on the democratic process. Editorial cartoonists had taken jabs at politicians and party platforms since the 1790s, but the nation's earliest newspapers and magazines had largely been aimed at those wealthy enough to subscribe to the expensive periodicals of the day. By the time Griffin's lithograph appeared in print, however, technological advances and greater distribution had lowered prices to the point that most Americans, no matter their class, could afford a daily newspaper and a monthly magazine. Some saw the expansion in readership in a positive light. Not only had inexpensive periodicals brought more people into the political process, but they also gave commentators the ability to deliver their observations and opinions to a truly national audience. Others, however, agreed with Griffin that the modern press had produced a number of negative, and perhaps even dangerous, consequences for America's traditional political system.

"The Evil Spirits" captures the mood of the late nineteenthcentury governing elite: the dismay of the wealthy, educated class, the intelligentsia, social commentators, and middle-class professionals over the failure of popular newspapers and magazines to produce better-informed citizens. In the background of the lithograph is a high-speed Hoe printing press. With dragon claws and a serpent's tongue, it spews out a host of demons with sinister faces. "Cheap Sensations," "Hypocrisy," "Objectionable Ads," "Garbled News," "Bad Pictures," "Paid Puffery," "Suggestiveness," "Abuse of Rivals," and "Boasting Lie," caper behind the leaders of the pack, "Scandal," "Personal Journalism [celebrity gossip]" and "Criminal News [fabricated crime waves]." Whether Griffin intended to emphasize the demons placed in the front and center of his piece is unclear, but by the 1880s, social commentators roundly condemned these three features, warning that the irresponsible American press had conditioned readers to forgo reason and to respond to issues emotionally. In the hands of a media savvy demagogue, they warned, mass media could become the means to manipulate susceptible lower-class voters much like a rabble-rouser would a mob.

There is considerable irony in Griffin's warning regarding the new developments in American journalism-an irony that closely mirrored the reaction of the upper class to using public relations-like activities (often called "proto-PR") to communicate with the nation's emerging mass society. While "The Evil Spirits" clearly condemned emotional popular appeals, the cartoonist's ability to convey his critique to a national audience depended on attracting the reader's attention with an entertaining form of visual communication. In like manner, the governing elite would need to adopt the same strategies and practices that they claimed were endangering the nation's traditional political structure if they hoped to reach lower-class voters. Finesse was needed to navigate the new field of "publicity," the term most often used for marketing and public relations-like activities during the nineteenth century.2 Those who adopted the same techniques as showmen, advertisers, and other pioneering publicity specialists to reach the masses would need to keep the public's best interest foremost in their minds or they could be accused of pandering to the crowd themselves.

Traditional studies of American public relations usually begin with World War I when a cadre of publicity experts trained by the Committee on Public Information (CPI) and backed by military psychological studies began forming agencies that fostered a new way of thinking about mass media and the democratic process. …

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.