An Unreliable History of the News in 500 words

April 6, 2007

An Unreliable History of the News in 500 Words

Ever wondered where the modern news media started? Germany, 1450s – Johann Gutenberg invents movable type printing and brings out the Bible. Problem with the Bible? You only buy it once.

New translations keep presses rolling. They also raise political problems (like Tyndale‘s translation in England). Readers can use their Bible to make up their own minds on issues previously interpreted for them by the Church.

Printing needs more knowledge that goes out of date faster. So in 1611, when the King James Bible is produced (47 translators working in three different places) – the crowning achievement in vernacular Bible translation – the news industry is already cranking up in and around London’s cathedral, St Paul’s. Down the main aisle news is traded by out of favour courtiers and army officers waiting for a commission.

Around St Paul’s, the printing industry is turning out not just ballads but news sheets: freak births and freak weather. Ben Jonson sends up the business in The Staple of Newes in the 1620s. Religious wars in Europe and civil war in England feed a growing demand for news. It is either a distraction from religious study or a means of discerning God’s hand in human affairs.

Religion remains the dominant frame of reference in the seventeenth century. Even a writer as atheistically-inclined as Thomas Hobbes makes over 650 biblical references – including the title – in his great work of political philosophy, Leviathan.

The eighteenth century’s increasing literacy and urbanization sees the beginning of daily newspapers.

Newspapers are a progressive force, breaking down parochialism, increasing wider sense of shared community and interests – especially social class. They help promote the idea of new and growing cities and nations too – ‘imagined communities.’

By the nineteenth century news has begun to supersede religion as the common frame of reference for individuals. It inspires the novels of Dickens, the social investigations of Engels and Mayhew, and the political commentaries of Marx.

The American Civil War and the subsequent U.S. economic and population explosion sees the balance of news power shift from London to New York.

The ritual of news reading replaces Bible study. Columnists replace preachers. The anonymity of modern society is made bearable by common social information. By WW1, the ‘yellow press‘ has undermined the educational aspects of the news media. Mobilising support for the war emphasises – perhaps misleadingly – the importance of the news media in social control.

In the later twentieth century TV and radio supplant news print. Citizen Kane dramatises concerns over media ownership. Network captures television at its zenith.

By century’s end the mainstream media is losing both audience and revenue base. News content and its professional theology – fact, objectivity, accuracy – are under attack.

In the West, the ‘imagined communities‘ it helped create are fragmenting too, with low participation in representative democracies, erosion of state-level decision-making, and the complete collapse of rural life.

Is organized news about to go the way of organized religion?

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