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

By Rodger Streitmatter | Go to book overview

What are--or should be--the limits of news media influence? Mightier than the Sword speaks to each of these questions.

Some historians will criticize my tight focus on the news media, saying it does not provide sufficient context. Those critics will be on solid ground. I readily acknowledge, for example, that my chapter about the news media's role in Watergate could be expanded into a 200-page discussion of the various forces that brought about and helped expose the men responsible for that shocking episode of political corruption. Indeed, dozens of books have been written on that subject. What has not been written--until now--is a single book that synthesizes a sampling of major events, such as Watergate, that have been shaped by the news media. This is the unique perspective Mightier than the Sword offers.

Some critics also will find fault with several of the works I classify as news media. They will argue that Paine's essays are partisan rhetoric, not journalism, and that Limbaugh's and Father Charles Coughlin's jeremiads are social and political commentary, not journalism. I disagree. Paine's essays were news in the 1770s because they introduced new ideas into the most vital conversation of the day. The essays functioned as journalism, even though they sought not only to inform readers but also to persuade them to support a particular point of view. All colonial publications were partisan, as the concept of journalistic objectivity did not emerge until the nineteenth century. If 1700s partisan publications are not news media, eighteenth century American journalism did not exist. As for Limbaugh's and Coughlin's tirades, I see no difference between them and the opinions published on the New York Times editorial page. Indeed, if the words of these two radio commentators are not part of the news media, neither are Times editorials.

Before beginning the story of how the news media have shaped American history, I want to acknowledge the man who inspired the title for this book: Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to Tom Paine in 1792, Jefferson lauded Paine's critical role in propelling the American colonists toward independence from Great Britain and then wrote encouragingly: "Go on then in doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword: show that reformation is more practicable by operating on the mind of man than on the body."1

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