Book Review: Behind the Headlines: The Story of American Newspapers by Thomas Fleming

Book Review: Behind the Headlines: The Story of American Newspapers by Thomas Fleming

 

A part of the “Walker’s American History Series for Young People” series, this nonfiction book was published in 1989. I picked it up when I took over the newspaper at my high school in an effort to brush up on my knowledge of newspaper history. Printed in bold text and generous spacing, the book seemed like it would be a fast read. That was back in September.

Now, in November, I finally got around to finishing it. While the facts presented were interesting, they were presented in a fairly dry manner. If I weren’t inherently interested in the topic, I would have abandoned the book months ago. Nonetheless, given this year’s election and the role of the media in it, I wanted to finish before November 8.

What I found most interesting is the fact that newspaper journalism has been biased from the start. Early in their history, newspapers were written with a definite purpose in mind—other than providing information. They have been used to sway opinions and win (or lose) wars. Cronyism even played a role in newspaper’s history, with certain reporters having more direct access to presidents and generals.

The book presents several important examples of journalists and newspaper owners who used newspapers for their own purposes or benefits, newspapers that failed, and ones that flourished. I also found it interesting that newspapers faced trouble with the advent of radio (because of competition for advertising dollars) the same way newspapers today seem to falter in the light of television and Internet.

I enjoyed reading about particular historical figures. For instance, “In the New York Herald Tribune, John Steinbeck described in savage detail Joseph Stalin’s absolute power and his hatred of the United States” (123). And I enjoyed reading about historical examples of investigative journalism by writers who weren’t afraid to question authority:

“In 1950 Edwin O. Guthman… spent five months researching facts that cleared a … professor of charges that he was a Communist. Anthony Lewis…took on the entire Navy Department…” (125).

Yes, newspaper has the power to change people’s lives, but it was disheartening to read just how many episodes in the history of newspaper involve manipulative journalism.

The main disappointment, however, is that the book was published almost 30 years ago, so there’s no mention of the role newspapers have today. Fleming remains optimistic in his last chapter, noting that the “new” phenomenon seems to be national papers, such as The Wall Street Journal, rising in popularity. I wonder how he would feel about the bias we see in newspapers today, with some being purportedly liberal and others conservative.