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Print­ing needs more know­ledge that goes out of date faster.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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