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NEW HISTORIES OF AMERICAN NEWSPAPERS

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Peer-reviewed

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Article

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Authors

ARNOLD-FORSTER, TOM  ORCID logo  https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3317-7091

Abstract

jats:pWill Irwin worked as a reporter and muckraker for ten years before he wrotejats:italicThe American newspaper</jats:italic>(1911). Published byjats:italicCollier's</jats:italic>magazine over fifteen issues, it was a pioneering study of ‘journalism in its relation to the public’, and it has been much cited by historians. Irwin argued that American newspapers in the early twentieth century had come to possess enormous power; indeed, ‘no other extrajudicial force, except religion, is half so powerful’. Newspapers had been significant influences on public opinion since the early nineteenth century and had become even more important and popular with the rise of ‘yellow journalism’ in the 1890s. But Irwin worried about conflicts between ‘the business attitude’, which insisted that newspapers were commercial products above all, and ‘the professional attitude’, which identified journalism with civic education and the public interest. He was especially anxious about ‘the advertising influence’, on which newspapers depended for economic survival, and which necessarily damaged their journalism. For when advertisers wanted stories spiked or editorials altered, they generally had their way. And when publishers courted businessmen over drinks and dinner, they grew fat and corrupt. So ‘the perplexity of free journalism’ was that ‘so long as our American capitalism retains its insolence and its ruthlessness of method, commercial publishers of million-dollar newspapers must recognize this [advertising] influence whether they like it or no. And many of them do like it.’ Irwin's sense that newspapers claimed to be the people's tribunes but often served their owner's interests made him think that ‘the system is dishonest to its marrow’. Thus his study raised some enduring questions for historians: why were newspapers so powerful? How important were their publishers? Is free journalism ever possible?</jats:p>

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Keywords

4303 Historical Studies, 43 History, Heritage and Archaeology

Journal Title

The Historical Journal

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Journal ISSN

0018-246X
1469-5103

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Publisher

Cambridge University Press (CUP)