When Race Is the Story: The Advent of Modern Journalism

Thomas Jefferson viewed the rudimentary forms of mass media he experienced as necessary components of democracy, providing the populace with indispensable information to make informed decisions. In the early years of the nation until the 1830s, those newspapers were the nation’s first mass media systems. Media scholars (Schudson 1978; Tuchman 1978) have noted that early American newspapers were distinct in the following ways: they were partisan, often due to their funding by political parties; “news ’’coverage was limited; and there was a plethora of advertising. These papers were replaced in the early nineteenth century by the Penny Press. The symbiotic relationship between white racial group consciousness and the new economic model of mass media raises the following question: how did this new medium convey “news” about the republic to the growing white audience that was expanding westward and southward? Did the way they conveyed news help build ideological unity between Europeans as a dominant “race” over blacks?

In the burgeoning United States in the decades before and after the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, the society experienced tremendous socioeconomic and political upheavals. Mintz (2003) notes that

A surge of democratic fervor swept the country in the 1820s and 1830s. ... Between 1820 and 1840, most states eliminated property qualification office-holding. To encourage popular participation in politics, states reduced residency requirements for voting, opened polling places in more convenient locations, and eliminated the practice of voting by voice. In addition, direct methods of selecting presidential electors, county officials, state judges, and governors replaced indirect methods. But while white manhood suffrage was becoming a reality, women and most African Americans were denied the right to vote.

Some media scholars (Schudson 1978; Tuchman 1978) and historians (Saxton 1975, 1984) contend that the Jacksonian Era, during the 1830s, ushered in a new period in the history of “news” in newspapers. Jacksonian democracy ac?companied a new social model that eschewed “birth and breeding” and increased opportunity (Schudson 1978: 44). Landed aristocrats were being pushed aside by a growing middle class, which got position in society through money earned as merchants and investors. The growth of “popular” democracy represented an increasing diversity of new ideas that required journalism to develop a new way to incorporate. Schudson viewed these changes as the growth of a democratic market society. However, the growing democratization of society was consigned to white communities.

The Penny Press led this new era in American newspapers. Due to their lower costs—one cent—these papers increased readership quickly and were instrumental in spreading their particular brand of “democracy.” Journalism’s new economic foundation developed with the newly articulated independent labor/“white” group consciousness that was reflected in the news values of the budding mass media system in the United States. Scholars (Saxton 1984; Schudson 1978; Tuch- man 1978; Wilson & Gutierrez 1995) have identified a qualitative correlation between changes in news values and the advent of this new economic model. From the point of view of story or topic selection, this change translated into a dramatic change in newspaper content. No longer beholden to politicians and political parties, some “Penny Press” papers eschewed direct coverage of politics and political opinions. Others continued to cover politics, but with an emphasis on independence from partisan politics (Schudson 1978: 22).10 The move away from politics and business as the main areas of coverage and the expanded readership paved the way for an increasing variety of subjects for coverage. Topics of newspaper articles expanded into other areas of people’s social interaction, including crime and sex (Saxton 1984: 223). Other topics considered newsworthy were issues related to race and slavery. These topics were covered within the context of the great issues of that period.

One of the great issues of that day was territorial expansion, including annexation of parts of Mexico. The issue of westward expansion had an impact on interaction between the dominant culture and Native Americans and Africans— both enslaved and freed. The federal government wanted control of the Southern territories where many Native Americans still lived:

At the time Jackson took office, 125,000 Native Americans still lived east of the Mississippi River. Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek Indians—60,000 strong—held millions of acres in what would become the southern cotton kingdom stretching across Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. The key political issues were whether these Native American peoples would be permitted to block white expansion and whether the U.S. government and its citizens would abide by previously made treaties (Mintz 2003).

The Penny Press solidly backed the Jacksonian party’s call for territorial expansion, although it meant the forced removal of Native Americans from much of south?eastern United States (Saxton 1984:229). The U.S. leaders also wanted Texas, then part of Mexico. Annexing Texas would complicate the debate over balancing slavery among the newly incorporated states—a debate that had been going on since the formation of the union.

Debates over the future size and shape of the union were splayed across the pages of this new mass media system. Saxton found that while there was initial ambiguity in the positions taken by the Penny Press about Native American resistance to westward expansion, the papers eventually acquiesced to Jackson’s position: “Conflicts with Indians typically were summarized under such headlines as ‘More Indian Outrages in Florida’” (231). While the papers were divided on the issues of slavery, particularly as it related to expansionism, Saxton found that their “disagreements did not necessarily differentiate the editors in terms of their racial concepts” (234). Despite differences in positions on expansionism, they represented blacks and Indians in the most derogatory terms possible. What could be responsible for mass media supporters of abolitionists representing Africans in derogatory terms? Two separate processes appear to be taking place simultaneously, the distinction between black and white labor and the elevation of the position of the latter.

Whether white racial group consciousness was manifestly articulated as a news value is not the point; the point is that stories about other racial groups were presented in the context of problems whose resolutions could decide the fate of the union. Saxton’s research points out that identifying white racial group consciousness as a news value in journalistic judgment is important because above all else it points to people actively engaged in constructing group differentiation. “Racial categories are not natural but constructs, not absolutes but relative, situational, even narrative categories, engendered by historical processes of differentiation” (Shohat and Stam 1994:19).

The basis for the existence of the new mass circulation newspapers was the greater “egalitarianism” of the Jacksonian era. In tangible terms the new printers, who became newspaper publishers, joined that rank due to a lowering of social and economic bars. Saxton noted that their coverage of other issues related to working-class rights promoted a more democratic sensibility. What were the structural factors that encouraged pejorative language and other negative representations of racial minorities? The language in the Penny Press was possibly a greater bellwether of racial meaning than the language in the partisan press of the previous era. The economic model of the mass circulating Penny Press required that papers sell their readers to advertisers. Consequently, presentation of the content had to appeal to the broadest possible audience. As Wilson states:

The function of the content of the mass media in the nineteenth century and much of the

twentieth century has been to reach the lowest common denominator in the society and address the media content to that level... . [T]he fundamental relationship ... between advertising and the media has not changed. In the period when the mass audience media dominated all other forms, this relationship dictated that minority groups were treated in the mass media in terms that did not offend or, in fact, reinforced the attitudes of the dominant society toward those groups (Wilson & Gutierrez 1995: 40—41).

During this period, white racial group consciousness appeared to be a news value; specifically, particular racial meanings appeared to be delineated by the economic foundation of the system. In other words, race appeared to be part of a structural formation. On the cognitive level, the race of non-whites was associated with barriers to the transplanted European republic becoming a unit. This defined the concept of “race” and “people with race” as a “problem” for the republic. The incorporation of this particular meaning of race in the economic structure of mass media strongly suggests that studies of “race and mass media” are really about racial consciousness,11 particularly among the dominant group.

In the case of the dominant group, the media also served to normalize the race of all people of European descent. The connective tissue was a shared identity—as citizens defined as non-black—that was being developed in the discourse of the media during this period. What is taking place is a development of a form of nationalism:

nationalism is best seen as a relational identity. In other words, the nation, . is hardly the realization of an original essence, but a historical configuration which is designed to include certain groups and exclude or marginalize others—often violently (Duara 1996:


Prasenjit Duara argues that national identities are relational. There are times when people will feel connected as a group and other times when this feeling will be submerged and a sense of connection with another group will be privileged (1996:165). Duara defines identities as in flux; “forged in a fluid complex of cultural signifiers; symbols, practices, and narratives.” This is the discursive arena in which Duara argues that nationalism is developed.

This suggests that the media are a likely place for the development of feeling of national identity. In the case of the Penny Press, the media were used as a vehicle to distinguish one group from another—“black” from “white” and enslaved labor from free labor—and to forge a common identity with another—working- class European with upper-class European. The narrative in this case was the narrative of citizenship.

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