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stephens.1 - A??? W vafiéfl a??? THIRD EDITION HISTORY...

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Unformatted text preview: A??? W vafiéfl a??? THIRD EDITION HISTORY or NEWS MITCHELL STEPHENS New York University New York Oxford Oxford University Press 2007 Why News?— The Thursty Desyer That All Our Kynde Hath to Know With our morning, evening and late evening television There is no Humour newscasts, our newspapers and magazines, our 24-hour news channels, our satel- lites and our websites, late 20th«century Americans appear to receive and desire _ more news than any previous people. “We have become a country of news Wh'Ch I am more junkies,” concludes Helen Thomas, a long-time White House correspondent.2 In~ enclined to wonder at, deed, our era would seem to be characterized by an obsession with the news. So it might be surprising to learn that more than 275 years ago the English— . though they had no radio, television, satellites or computers, and though men ob- Tm,“ after News‘ tained much of their news at the coffeehouse—thought their era was characterized by an obsession with news. The condition was described in a 1712 newspaper as “the furious itch of novelty,” and it was said to have “proved fatal to many fami- lies; the meanest of shopkeepers and handicrafts spending whole days in coffee- houses, to hear news and talk politicks, whilst their wives and children wanted bread at home.”3 Similar behavior had been noted in the mid-17th century in Cam~ bridge. “Scholars are so Greedy after news . . . that they neglect all for it,” one concerned observer complained.4 Just as we are hardly the first people to believe we live in both the most exciting and the most frightening of times, we are hardly the first to believe ourselves unique in the attention we pay to the current events that are exciting or frightening us so. Acomparable appetite for news could also be found in 16th— century England. A newsbook reporting on a military expedition in 1548 announced it was out to satisfy “the thursty desyer that all our kynde hath to know.”5* Nor were the En- in my Countrymen, than their general -—Joseph Addison, 1712‘ * Original punctuations and spellings (with the exception of theffor s or the v for u) are pre- served wherever possible in this book. (They are not always preserved in citations, however, and modem spelling is. of course. employed in translations.) 7 8 i CHAPTER ONE Why News?—-The Thursty Desyer That All Our Kynde Hath to Know Meeting Digitally A hunger for news can be found in both the least The Internet and the cell phone. like paths in and the most technological of societies. We can Outer Mongolia. have become places where share news today by sending short text mes- people “meet” and. therefore. places where they sages or gossipy instant messages. by joining find new ways of asking and answering a very online news groups or chat rooms specializing old question: “What’s new?" in everything from news of particular neighbor‘- hoods to news of particular hip-hop performers. glish the only people before us who thirsted after news. In the middle of the fourth cen‘ tury B.(‘.. for example. Demosthenes portrayed his fellow Athenians as preoccupied with the exchange of news: “Thus we all go about framing our several tales."6 The desire to pass on tales ofcurrent events could be found even in cultures that did not have writing—let alone printing presses or computers—to whet or satisfy their thirst for news. Observers have often remarked on the fierce concern with news that they find in preliterate or semiliterate peoples. A missionary writing in 1857 about a Zulu tribe in southern Africa observed behavior similar to that Demosthenes remarked upon in Athens: “The men. especially. having no serious occupation. spend much of their time telling and hearing some new thing.”7 Further evidence of the extent to which news has occupied thoughts can be found in the extent to which it has dominated conversations—from Manhattan dinner parties to the paths of Outer Mongolia. "The first question Mongols put to each other when they meet." a researcher reported in 192]. "is invariably the same: What‘s new? And [then] each of the interlocutors begins to pour out his whole supply of news."8 It is difficult. if not impossible. to find a society that does not exchange news and that does not build into its rituals and customs means for facilitating that exchange. In- deed. there are many societies in which that exchange seems to consume much of their members” time and attention. Take the inhabitants of Tikopia. a Polynesian island in the western Pacific. for a final example. According to the anthropologist Raymond Firth. when the Tikopia met within a village. they cross-examined one another about events they had witnessed. When they met on the beach. they automatically swapped the sto— ries they had collected. When they met on inland paths. they began to brief one another on their respective villages. Upon arrival from another side of the island. a visitor could expect to undergo an interrogation on the latest news before any other business would be transacted." During Firth's two stays on the island—in the l920s and the l950s—speech was virtually the only form of communication available to the Tikopia. Yet. according to Firth. the inhabitants of the island were able to exchange a “vast” amount of news each day by word of mouth. In fact. the Tiltopia used the same word for news. turanga, that they used for speech. The Need for Newsm—A Social Sense What is the cause of this obsession with news that we share with the people of 16th—. 17th-. and 18th—century England. with the people of Athens. Outer Mongolia. Tikopia. and. undoubtedly. with most of humankind‘.’ Firth suggested that the Tikopia's “avid interest" in news could be explained by the small size and the isolation of their community. which forced them to focus on "the minutiae of social existence in their tiny area." Yet many Americans believe our current obsession with news is a function ofjust the opposite condition: of the power and involvement of our community. of life in the "global village." Both these theories must be wrong. We do not follow news because of anything unique or idiosyncratic about our society: the Tikopia did not follow it because of any— thing unusual about theirs. This obsession can only be explained by qualities we and the Tikopia and the rest of humankind share. The Need for News—A Social Sense Fora period of time while he was living on Tikopia. Raymond Firth would walk every day from his house in the village of Faea to the temple of the chief in Uta. And every day the chief in Uta would greet him with the same question: “Any news from Faea‘.’"“’ Why do we ask such questions"? What motivates us to search for news‘.’ One approach to understanding the news‘ attraction is to examine how people re- spond to its absence. Some references to the torments of life without news can be found in anthropological accounts and historical records: Firth mentions the “anxiety” the Tikopia displayed when deprived of news of some kinsmen: a letter written in 1461 de- scribed London before news of a battle had been received as a "sory cite": in l 814 a New York newspaper complained that lengthy interruptions in the flow of news from Europe on Napoleon‘s fate had the effect of “leaving us for a while in a state of breathless anxiety."” There are. in addition. reports of a Frenchman in l87l. who had been confined to his house for many days during a period of turmoil. having "begged for a newspaper": of ranchers exiled to the open spaces of central Wyoming early in this century having experienced “a starvation of print"—a deep hunger for newspapers.” And this is how the English poet George Crabbe described in 1785 the situation ofthose “far from town" when the post failed to arrive with their supply of newspapers: We meet. but ah! without our wonted smile. To talk of headachs. and complain of bile: Sullen we ponder o‘er a dull repast. Nor feast the body while the mind must fast.13 The gloom occasioned by the absence of news has become even more noticeable in the 20th century—both because of the brightness of the light normally emitted by mod— ern news media and because upon occasion that light has abruptly been turned off. For l7 days. beginning on June 30. 1945. a newspaper strike almost completely shut down the medium most New Yorkers had relied on for most of their news. The sociologist Bernard Berelson studied the reaction to the strike of a sample group of New Yorkers.H 10 CHAPTER ONE Why News?—The Thursty Desyer That All Our Kynde Hath to Know A participant in the news system on the island of Tikopia. “Is it very important that people read the newspaper?” Almost everyone Berelson interviewed answered with a “strong ‘yes.’ ” The newspaper’s importance, most agreed, lay in its coverage of what Berelson labels the “ ‘serious’ world of public affairs.” New Yorkers in the summer of 1945 were being deprived of updates on the last months of World War ll and on the first months of the Truman administration. However, despite their avowals of the importance of such news, Berelson found that only about one—third of those he interviewed during the strike could say they missed the chance to keep up with particular “serious” stories. Readers, Berelson learned, have other, less noble—sounding uses for their newspa- pers: They use them as a source of pragmatic information—011 movies, stocks or the weather; they use them to keep up with the lives of people they have come to “know” through the papers—from the characters in the news stories to the authors of the columns: they use them for diversion—as a “timevfiller”; and they use them to prepare themselves to hold their own in conversations. This list might serve as an outline of the basic functions news performs in any so— ciety. When he asked Firth for news each morning, the Tikopian chief, like approxi- mately one—third of New York newspaper readers in 1945, exhibited some concern with public affairs: Firth reports that the chief was eager to learn of the activities of his coun- terpart in Faea. In addition. the chief was looking for information of potential pragmatic value—on the fishing in Faea, for example-«and he was interested in following the lives of the villagers in Faea: Had there been any illnesses or deaths there? A desire for diversion must also have spurred the chief’s request for news. Firth em- phasizes the “delight” the Tikopia took in news. They looked to news for much more than a terse listing of information: they wanted elaboration, drama, emotions. Among the great attractions ofthe news is its seemingly inexhaustible supply of tales with which we can delight and divert each other. The exchange of news ensured that the chief’s daily encounter with that anthropologist would pass pleasantly, and it gave the chief a supply The Need for News—A Social Sense 11 The Thirst News is never as important as when we are afraid. Americans were afraid on Sept. 1 l. 3001. as hijacked airplanes were steered into the two World Trade Center towers. causing them to col- lapse. and into the Pentagon. No one knew what might happen next. Most of the citi/ens of this country——so un— used to being attackedmsettled themselves in front of their televisions. (Newspapers were too slow: lledgling Internet news sites crashed with Ellis. Don Dahler. Anne Thompson and Byron Pitts. often covered with the dust of the fallen towers. attempt to gather and transmit informa- tion on and images of what was happening. They watched anchors like Tom Brokaw. Peter .lennings. Dan Rather and Aaron Brown attempt to separate rumor and fact. And many. many Americans felt. as they sat and watched. an ancient thirst: for facts. for knowledge. for a sense of what was happening now. for a sense of what might happen next. for the increased traftic.) They watched reporters and producers like Christian Martin. Rehema an idea of why—for news. of news frotn Faea that he could share during the course of his day. The news Firth brought to the chief. like the news in a newspaper. had what Berelson terms “conversa- tional value." These various uses of news seem universal: still. Berelson‘s list appears incomplete. The specific personal and social tasks the news accomplishes for New York newspaper readers or fora chiefon Tikopia are there. but Berelson himself sensed in the comments of the news~deprived people he interviewed a longing for something more “diffuse and amorphous.” The basic need for news appears to he not only more amorphous but more powerful than this list of functions indicates. There was an insistency to the chief's dain question—“Any news from Faea‘.’"—~ that is not entirer explained by the need to learn about tishing conditions or to be en- tertained by well-told tales. (“A master—passion is the love of news/Not music so com- mands. nor so the Muse." Crabbe wrote in I785.)IS And some of the victims of the newspaper strike of l9—lS quoted by Berelson clearly were expressing more than mere inconvenience or boredom. They were in pain: I am like a fish out of water. I am lost and nervous. I‘m ashamed to admit it. I feel awfully lost. I like the feeling of being in touch with the world at large. lfl don‘t know what‘s going on next door. it hurts me. It‘s like being in jail not to have a paper. You feel put out and isolated from the rest of the world. I am suffering! Seriously! I could not sleep. I missed it so.” These comments recall the mttch more awful plaints of those who have been de— priv ed of sight or hearing. And perhaps the news is best seen as one of our senses—as a I CHAPTER ONE Why News?—The Thursty Desyer That All Our Kynde Hath to Know /i§ 14? s‘ 1 The steady flow of news is easy to take for granted in modern democracies. Often it takes an interruption of that flow for us to realize its importance. On June 25. 1975. Indian Prime Minister In- dira Gandhi proclaimed a state ofemergency and severely restricted political freedom in the coun— try. That night police cut off power on the street Pulling the Plug on the Press where many of the country‘s major newspapers were published. and strict censorship was soon imposed on newspapers and magazines. The people of India knew what they had lost. After democratic freedoms had been restored. and Gandhi had been defeated at the polls. the circulation of daily newspapers in India shot up by 40 percent (Jeffrey). sense that leaps over the synapses between people. a social sense. The news. viewed from this perspective. is our eye on occurrences beyond the reach of our sight. our car on conversations beyond the range of our hearing. It is our way of monitoring what is going on in other huts. in Faea. and in other villages. Is this not why a regular supply of information on current events/eels so indispen- sable? As is the case with our biological senses. the importance of the news transcends the importance of the items upon which it focuses. More than specific information on specific events. the great gift a system of news bestows on us is the confidence that we will learn about m1)~ particularly important or interesting events. The news is more than a category of information or a form of entertainment; it is an awareness: it provides a kind of security. It does not matter whether we are used to following news across an island or around the world: when the news flow is obstructed—depriving us of our customary view—a darkness falls. We grow anxious. Our hut. apartment. village or city becomes a "sorry" place. However large our horizons were. they grow smaller. “Without news.“ writes the historian Pierre Sardella. “man would find himself incommensurany diminished."I7 This. perhaps. is the most terrible of the consequences of the limitations governments have so often placed on the free flow of news. The sociologists Harvey Molotch and Marilyn Lester credit our interest in news to an “invariant need for accounts of the unobserved.”I8 The humanoids in whom our genes developed must have survived in part because they were curious about the “an— observed.” with its potential threats and potential rewards. Our compulsive interest in events in the next village may have been born of that instrumental curiosity. but it has grown into a generalized need to remain aware. And it is that need. whatever its origin. that is behind the chief‘s daily request for news from Faea. behind our newspaper read- ing. and behind our newscast viewing. We may savor the insights. the stimulation that the choicest news items bring. but we are driven to ingest this mix of current information each day by a hunger for aware- ness. That is the source of our obsession. The Urge to Tell 13 Catching Up "Hardly a man takes his half hours nap after dinner but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks "What‘s the news?‘ " Henry David Thoreau wrote this in the mid— dle of the 19th century a time when after- dinner naps were more common and methods of learning "What's the news?" more limited (McKibben). It was not then possible to turn on CNN or peruse that hour‘s headlines on some that we should have deeper. more significant concerns than learning. for example of "one man robbed. or murdered. or killed by accident" (see Chapter 15). Nonetheless. this need to catch up with news we have missed—while napping or away. be— cause it took place out of sight or beyond hearing exists today: it existed among preliter- ate people: it seems basic to being human. online computer service. Thoreau reported on all those news—hungry nappers with considerable disdain. He argued The Urge to Tell In Palestine early in the 20th century. an Arab woman went up to the sister of a man who had been away for years and exclaimed. “Happy news [for] thee. Halimel" "Tell!" demanded the man‘s sister. But it was not to be that easy. The first woman asked. “What wilt thou give me for my news?" "One shilling." “ls it a chicken that l announce?" the news—bearer said. with some annoyance. The two women haggled back and forth. until finally the man‘s sister agreed to pay four shillings. “Thy brother returned from America!" she was then told.” This exchange sounds wrong. In fact. these Palestinians are the exception that proves a rule: Most of the world‘s peoples have given away the news they have stum— bled upon without charge. Although news is sometimes manipulated for political. social or economic profit. most individuals when asked "What‘s new?" have not haggled: they have responded. Even where news dissemination becomes a profession. those profes- sionals. while they may charge for their products. have found that they can obtain most of their raw material—fresh information~—t'rom their sources without financial charge?" Unlike food. shelter or clothing. most news has value only in the telling; it is worth- less when wrapped in silence. And news spoils too quickly to allow it to be squirreled away for future use. Had there not been an established tradition of rewarding the bearer of good news in Palestine. that man's sister could simply have refused to pay anything. She would have learned soon enough that her brother had arrived. and the other woman would have been denied the joy of informing her. There are occasions when hoarding news might bring economic advantages: Being the only inhabitant of a village who knows the fish are feeding near the north end of the ljord might lead to some large catches. But lips are loosened in most societies by a value T CHAPTER ONE Why News?—The Thursty Desyer That Alt Our Kynde Hath to Know Blogs The "blog”—~a “Web log" often reported. writ— ten. edited and produced by one person—wtook journalism by surprise and by storm in the years after the turn of the millennium. Matt Drudge‘s [Nudge Report. which broke the news that Pres- ident Bill Clinton was having an affair with an intern named Monica l.-ewinsl<y in January l998. may have been the first notable blog. though the term was not used to describe his site. By the 2004 presidential campaign in the with opinion. free with rumors and speculation. often early with important analysis and facts—— had itself become a major news story. Soon there were millions of blogs. High school students. porn stars and even journalism professors had their own. And something re— turned that had seemed to be missing in the world of news produced by large organizations and read or viewed by masses: the ability of in- dividuals. lots of them. to be news-tellers. United States. the influence of bloggersmvt‘ree system that encourages the free flow of information. Among the Lapps at Revsbotn Fjord in northern Norway in the l950s. anyone who failed to share findings on where the fish were running would be “regarded with disdain."3l Not that we bother to calculate the perishability or economic utility of some choice bit of news before we share it or wait for a nudge from social pressure to spread the news we have collected. We give news as we receive it eagerly. We are. most of us. free and enthusiastic news—tellers. When bearer and bearer get together. their exchange usually commences either with a general request for information by the news'hearcr t “Any news from Faea‘?") or with a teasing introduction from the news—bearer (“Happy news [for] thee. Halitnel”). fol- lowed by an expression of interest by the news-heater ("Telll"). Then the news itself is related—~21 story is told—«and the person who has heard it is expected to respond with some gesture of appreciation or. better. surprise. The privilege of summing up after the news has been presented is usually reserved for the newsmonger. (The CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite would close his televised news exchanges with th ‘ archetypal summa— tion "And that‘s the way it is”) From such exchanges. listeners can expect to receive potentially useful information. entertainment and the blessing of invigorated awareness. But while contributing all this to their audiences. newsmongers are hardly shortchanging themselves. The act of telling news brings with it a series of ego gratifications: the opportunity to appear well in- formed. knowledgeable. current (to indulge in “the vanity of the ‘tirst to know‘ ")1:2 the chance to capture attention. to perform and win appreciation: and the privilege of brand— ing events with one‘s own conclusions. There is also a more subtle reward: Newt’s-tellers gain the right to have their own perceptions and experiences enhanced by externalizing them. by sharing them. The Bella Coola Indians of British Columbia. for example. were anxious to proclaim mar— riages or divorces in front of as large a crowd as possible because the "validity" of these transactions would depend “on the presence of witnesses": their "importance . . . on Questions i 15 the number of witnesses.”23 Newsmongers have that power to invest validity and im- portance. to transform the happenings they have experienced or witnessed into events with the stature of news. This power, these pleasures——worth many shillings to most to us have inspired numerous excursions to the battlefield. the scene of the crime or the next village. When a bishop arrived in aTucano Indian settlement in Brazil in 1956 on his way to pay a sur- prise Visit to some missionaries. one of the Indians hopped in his canoe and traveled 30 kilometers at night just for the honor of informing the missionaries of the impending visit.24 The search for thejoy that Indian expected to receive in telling his news is what makes newsmongers. It moves news. News. then. is both pulled and pushed through our society. through Tikopia society. through all societies: the uninformed anxious to obtain news. the informed eager to give it away. Even without the benefit of sophisticated information technologies. the news. driven by these complementary desires. can attain impressiVe speeds. Questions W 1. Does the intensity of the obsession with news today vary among different age groups, economic classes, social groups or cultural groups? 2. What examples are available in contemporary societies of the strength of the human need for news? 3. A few newscasts and news publications recently have outraged many journalists by paying sources for stories. Consider this prac- tice in light of the discussion of "The Urge to Tell” section in this chapter. ...
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stephens.1 - A??? W vafiéfl a??? THIRD EDITION HISTORY...

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