Violence against the Press: Policing the Public Sphere in U.S. History

By John Nerone | Go to book overview

October 1917, Congress passed a law requiring German-language publications to provide verbatim translations of all material dealing with the United States or the war to local postmasters. The simple cost of this measure prompted many papers to suspend operations. Further, inexact translations, even if inadvertent, could lead to prosecution; as a result, many German-language publications avoided printing any war news. In addition, editors, along with other German-American leaders, could be interned as aliens. 135 Congress also obliged President Wilson with the passage of acts regarding espionage and sedition, the first federal legislation in this area since 1798.

Government officials seemed by their actions to support popular intolerance. Officeholders, candidates, judges, and the press often explicitly endorsed the actions of vigilante groups. 136 One could argue that had official action not been taken, popular violence would have been much more extreme. It is hard to credit this argument, however; in practice, it seems that legal intolerance generally serves to exacerbate popular intolerance, largely by legitimizing the attitudes that support intolerance.

The end result of legal and extralegal actions against the German-language press was stunning. Between 1910 and 1920, according to census figures, the number of German-language papers fell from 488 to 152, and their aggregate circulation declined from 3.4 to 1.3 million. The dropoff in daily newspapers was even more dramatic: from 64 with a circulation of 935,000 to 14 with a circulation of 239,000. This decline was concentrated in the war years. 137 It signals nothing less than the disappearance of a highly significant group voice. Even Louis Hammerling's American Association of Foreign-Language Newspapers had had its teeth pulled. In December 1918, after a senatorial investigation had discredited Hammerling, he sold his controlling interest in the association to backers of the corporate- controlled American Inter-Racial Council, who installed assimilationist Frances Keller as its head, and used the association's control of national advertising to flood foreign-language newspapers with patriotic articles and antiradical propaganda. 138 This shift stands as a striking testament to the shift in the social function of the "immigrant press" generally and the German-American press specifically from preserving a separate voice in public discourse to facilitating assimilation into the mainstream. 139


Conclusion

Groups have had a real presence in U.S. history. Defined both by their apartness from the mainstream and by their internal sense of identity, ethnic and racial groups have been both objects and subjects of action. The United States has been not just a polity of individuals but also a polity of groups.

But U.S. political ideology has always had trouble with the notion of group rights. Proponents of a republican vision of polity were always wary of the machinations of classes and factions, and classical liberals have also condemned group "interference" with individual freedom. The realm of freedom and justice has generally been conceived of as a realm of rational individuals, grounded in a commu

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Violence against the Press: Policing the Public Sphere in U.S. History
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgments v
  • Contents vii
  • 1 - Introduction 3
  • 2 - The Press and the American Revolution 18
  • Conclusion 50
  • 3 - Antipress Violence and Politics in the Early Republic 53
  • 4 - The Crusade Against Abolitionism 84
  • Conclusion 110
  • 5 - The Civil War and Civil Liberties 111
  • Conclusion 126
  • 6 - Violence and Minority Media 128
  • Conclusion 163
  • 7 - Labor-Related Violence 165
  • Conclusion 195
  • 8 - Recent Violence Against the Mainstream Press 196
  • Conclusion 211
  • 9 - Conclusion 213
  • Appendix A - Survey Questionnaire 219
  • Appendix B - The Flow of Antiabolitionist Violence 221
  • Notes 231
  • Index 293
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