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The Media’s Role in Defining the Nation

The Active Voice


David Copeland

In 1897, William Randolph Hearst said that his newspaper did not simply cover events that had already happened. «It doesn’t wait for things to turn up», Hearst said. «It turns them up.» This book traces the close relationship between media and the United States’ development from the colonial period to the twenty-first century. It explores how the active voice of citizen-journalists and trained media professionals has turned to media to direct the moral compass of the people and to set the agenda for a nation, and discusses how changes in technology have altered the way in which participatory journalism is practiced. What makes the book powerful is that its assessment of the influence and use of media encompasses many levels: it explores the potential of media as an agent for change from within small communities to the national stage.


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4. The Great Organ of Social Life, the Prime Element of Civilization: The Antebellum Era and Civil War 69


4. The Great Organ of Social Life, the Prime Element of Civilization: The Antebellum Era and Civil War In the initial issue of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett pro- claimed that the press was “the great organ of social life, the prime element of civilization.”1 In antebellum America, he was correct. The press drove national discussion in a continuation and accelerated capacity from the first decades of the nineteenth century because of the rapid increase in the num- ber of newspapers and in the expansion of the press to meet the needs of var- ious groups. Abolitionists, African Americans, religious denominations, women, and others created media outlets to address issues. Technology played a role, too, with the invention of the telegraph, new and faster printing press- es, and visual images. The issues that the nation faced, however, often tran- scended the multitude of outlets that developed even though they had additional items on their agendas. Sectional divisions grew increasingly, and slavery was the issue that lay at the root of these divisions even though many claimed that states’ rights or popular sovereignty were the reasons that the country was slowly pulling apart and moving toward disunion. In 1820, 512 newspapers were published regularly in America with a cir- culation of slightly less than 300,000. By 1860, about three thousand news- papers were regularly published, with more than 350 daily papers with their circulation reaching nearly 1.5 million. Magazines grew at an even more phe- nomenal rate....

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