the great war

Before I have to return it to the inter-library loan system, I want to note a book that will stick with me for a long time and, really, should be read by anyone practicing media these days.

It’s from 1995, it was written as an academic study and as far as I can tell, has had no afterlife. Which is a shame, because “Media at War” is superb history and most relevant to the current moment.

(By the way, there are a few books with that main title; the one you want is “Media at War: Radio’s Challenge to The Newspapers, 1924-1939” by Gwenyth L. Jackaway.)

What’s it about? Back when radio was first becoming a thing, it toyed with broadcasting news bulletins. Newspapers, which used stories about radio to goose circulation, treated the new medium with gentle condescension.  Except it turned out that radio in all its forms, including news, was phenomenally popular. It rapidly became a threat to the utter dominance of newspapers as the public’s source of news, prompting a 15 year “war” is which the newspapers tried to beat back radio by, variously, withholding access to national and international news, setting up their own “radio bureau” by which a trickle of news to radio could be tightly controlled and, most interestingly to me, making appeals to morality.

My takeaway is threefold – and remember, this slim book (168 pages) was written before the real rise of the web, and maybe more important, before the rise of smartphones. Takeaway 1, and this is minor: newspapers had roughly the same attitude toward the internet that they did towards radio, and it’s ended about as badly; Takeaway 2, and this is more important: that the war between old media and challengers is about economics but it’s never just about economics – it’s about who gets to say what’s news and be paid attention to; Takeaway 3, and most important: whether it’s newspapers, radio, TV, whenever an established medium feels threatened, it falls back on a handful of responses, most of which are self-interest disguised as something else.

None of the internet stuff is explicitly in the book, though the author pretty clearly was writing with one eye towards the immediate future, but it’s right there in the text anyway.

Two paragraphs from pages 147-148:

“New communication technologies threaten to replace older ones. By definition this means that they threaten to render the established media institution functionally obsolete. If the new technology can perform the same communication function as the older one, and do a faster, more efficient job of it, the older institution is no longer needed. Not only is this an economic threat, but it is also quite threatening to the social, cultural and political power enjoyed by the established institution. The established media institution fights back in self-defense. One of the best ways to defend one’s own interest is to link it to the interests of society at large. The use of democratic or other “sacred” rhetoric effectively masks the self-interested nature of the argument, for who can argue with someone claiming to be protecting democracy?

“At stake in battles between old and new media is the struggle for the enormous power that comes with controlling the channels of communication. It is a power that derives from serving certain communication functions in a society. The story of the Press-Radio war suggests a pattern: Faced with the possibility of being displaced from a long-established role, communication institutions are likely to fight back by accusing the new medium of being dangerous to one of society’s sacred values. They will wrap their own interests in the flag of democracy, the family, the church, or whoever appears to be the best ideal to hide behind. They will take this sacred rhetoric to Congress, the FCC, the courts, or whatever regulatory or legal body has the power to protect the communication status quo, and they will argue that unless they retain their role and continue to serve “their” institutional function, this sacred ideal will be endangered or destroyed entirely.”

Those two paragraphs come at the end of the book, so by quoting just them you don’t get the detail the book is built on, the careful recounting of how the press tried to tame radio, then oppose it, then make a sort of peace with it, and finally, simply lost the argument. It’s well-written, carefully researched history, and is a model of good academic writing.

Of course, the current moment, with its severely partisan media, its viral fake news, its increasing concentration of the public’s news sources in two or three places – Facebook, Twitter – is different from the newspaper-radio conflict. History doesn’t repeat itself; it echoes and yes, the downside risk to democracy is greater now that it was 80 years ago. But perhaps those of us who practice media for a living can take a page from what happened then, and realize that all the disruption of the last long while is new – but not entirely so.

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