Book Reviews -- Media and Revolution Edited by Jeremy D. Popkin
Stephens, Mitchell, Journalism History
Popkin, Jeremy D., ed. Media and Revolution. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995. 256 pp. $29.95.
The pairing of the words "media" and "revolution" in a book title is exciting for those of us who ponder the political effects of mass communication. What better test is there of the media's power to threaten authorities, as the discontented dream and the satisfied feat, than their presence in the avant garde of attempts to upheave the political, social and economic order?
As long as journalism history in the United States limited itself to occurrences on this continent, there was only one true revolution available to study (although the word "revolution" has been applied to everything from the ascension of Andrew Jackson to the arrival of the World Wide Web). And ours was an odd revolution at that, notably short on social and economic upheaval. Jeremy Popkin reports that some sociologists lately have even taken, rather harshly in my view, to excluding our expulsion of the Redcoats from their lists of great global revolutions.
Two of the three journalism historians represented in this collection confine themselves to matters American (Owen Johnson, who writes about Czechoslovakia, is the exception). However, nine of the other ten contributors belong to a discipline more used to crossing borders--history--and eight of these historians find their revolutions overseas. The other contributor, a literature professor, is French and writes about events in 1789. This book, consequently, broadens considerably the material available to us as we attempt to establish the role of media in revolutions.
As I have noted (rather wistfully since I have my moments of discontent), the absence of news has often proven more destabilizing than its presence, a fact which tends to undercut the reputation of news organs as rabble rousers. The storming of the Bastille in July 1789, after all, was spurred by false rumors, spread by word of mouth, and then was not even mentioned in the next issue of the Gazette de France. In succeeding weeks, the lack of reliable sources of information in the news-starved provinces contributed to similarly false and terrifying rumors-the "Great Fear"--which helped the French Revolution spread.
This book will do little to restore the news media's reputation in revolutionary circles. "There have been at least four revolutionary periods in the history of Czechoslovakia," writes Johnson. "In none of them did the mass media play a dominant role. …