Communications and the Press

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Modern communications had congealed during the 1920s. Fashion and design, news, film, radio, promotion, and popular culture became intertwined and profitable as corporate entities. They projected public excitement about modern consumer culture, often from New York and Los Angeles, while slighting regional and ethnic variety. The condensation of news, seen in the newly established Reader's Digest, Time Magazine, the tabloid press, and the fast paced newsreels, exuded a gauzy glorification of the modern that often mocked traditional values while ostensibly speaking for the "democratic market."

With the Great Depression, the political stakes related to the corporate definitions of news and prevalent cultural values took on sharper relief and more urgency. The sliding economy devastated the communications industry, while business slipped in public esteem. Movie attendance was off by a quarter and many of the major studios declared bankruptcy. Newspaper circulation was down; advertising revenue was off 45 percent. In this context, however, the consequences of bringing sound and sight together for the first time in feature films and newsreels were far reaching but subtle. Half of American homes had a radio by the mid 1930s. Warren Susman has written that "sound helped mold uniform national responses; it helped create or reinforce uniform national values and beliefs in a way that no previous medium had ever before been able to do. Roosevelt was able to create a new kind of Presidency and a new kind of political and social power through his brilliant use of the medium."

Franklin Roosevelt's ability to make news was reinforced by his adept use of press conferences (he held 337 in his first term alone) and fireside chats. Photographers collaborated by not featuring him as a man without the use of his legs. Rivals such as Senator Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin competed with Roosevelt for attention through commercial radio, and all of them received thousands of letters from listeners each week.

The National Industrial Recovery Act, through its codes of fair competition, put the stamp of approval on media oligopolies in 1933. The next year Roosevelt signed the momentous Communications Act, which updated the 1927 Radio Act and created the Federal Communications Commission. Corporate media gained a largely compliant commission and what was lost in the legislative rush was any significant place for noncommercial or educational broadcasting. As Robert McChesney has shown, NBC and a gaggle of lawyers and lobbyists reframed questions about the value of noncommercial stations so that network control of broadcast frequencies was made to look patriotic. Educational radio was effectively limited, and commercial broadcasters were given free use of the public airwaves with little financial return to the public or control by regulators. That structure has dominated American cultural life and the communications industry with few challenges ever since.

Modern propaganda was being developed in Germany during the same years that New Dealers experimented with forms of mass persuasion. America's limited efforts resulted in controversy, such as the response to Pare Lorentz's pathbreaking Resettlement Administration documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), which highlighted the plight of those in the Dust Bowl and implicitly called for greater federal assistance. Republicans decried its message as overly partisan in an election year.

Reporting on social issues took on new urgency, as writers traveled about the land as never before. They developed a passion for documenting concrete facts and facing authentic misery by observing conditions firsthand, then translating their concerns into powerful writing, seen notably in the work of Edmund Wilson, Lorena Hickok, and James Agee, and in magazines such as Survey Graphic and Life. The documentary form expanded through the widespread use of photojournalism, under both government auspices and commercial syndicates. Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Walker Evans, and Paul Strand all galvanized public attention through the sensitivity and intimacy of their photographs. The picture of poverty described in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) was so powerful that it was spun off as a feature film, although director John Ford gave the story a more conservative slant.

Newspaper chains, largely controlled by ideologically conservative owners, featured editorials that bristled with anti-Roosevelt invective, while their news columns often dished out the New Deal press releases. The larger chains included those controlled by William Randolph Hearst, Roy Howard, and Colonel Robert McCormick. New magazines created during the Depression years, including Life, Look and Fortune, all featured compelling photo essays.

Interpretive reporting, columnists, and specialized experts became more widely read in the 1930s as well. Louis Stark of the New York Times became the preeminent expert on labor relations. Prominent political columnists included Walter Lippman and David Lawrence. Dorothy Thompson wrote on international affairs for the Herald Tribune. Drew Pearson initiated his popular political gossip column. Americans could read the right-wing vitriol of Westbrook Pegler or the more gentle counsel of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt's column "My Day."

Censorship of news stories, feature films, and literature included such examples as the banning of Henry Miller's book Tropic of Cancer (1934). The Catholic Legion of Decency pressured Hollywood to adopt the Production Code in 1934. Yet in 1931, a landmark Supreme Court decision, Near v. Minnesota, had overturned state gag laws as unconstitutional forms of prior restraint, thus strengthening First Amendment guarantees.

Depression-era promotional strategies, the measurement of the public taste, and altered designs for consumer goods were masterfully explored in two books by Roland Marchand. He notes how advertising appeals often reinforced consumers' guilt over their economic failure as personal rather than systemic while championing products to make them more successful or attractive job applicants. Public relations efforts sought to identify corporations as patriotic community builders rather than union busters. Opinion surveys were becoming institutionalized, most often identified through the work of George Gallup or Elmo Roper and their organizations.

The prevailing view of communications has long told a story of growing homogenization of the public through the mass media. Propaganda studies that began emanating from universities in larger numbers by the 1930s reinforced such a view. Yet in recent years, scholars have focused on resistance to mainstream media by workers, ethnic groups, and diverse regional affinities. The continuing attraction of "race movies" and the black press, the regional theaters promoted by the Federal Theatre Project, and the work of regional muralists, such as Thomas Hart Benton, all helped promote diverse local contexts, ideas, and images. Spanish-language radio had its first female host in 1932 when Maria Latigo Hernandez became host of a show called La Voz de las Americas, a daily afternoon program on KABC in San Antonio. Hernandez used the show as a platform for civil rights and other local issues. That same year the Japanese American Citizens League, organized in 1929 in California, first published Pacific Citizen, aimed at combating anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States.

Labor unions initiated their own newspapers, journals, and documentary film units during the 1930s. The Film and Photo League was created in the early 1930s by radical documentary filmmakers, some of whom were associated with the Communist International. The League covered strikes, hunger marches, racism, and other issues of social inequity that were often ignored by the mainstream media. Upton Sinclair, the famous writer and critic, ran for the governorship of California in 1934 and lost, but he aroused a strong constituency and the powerful wrath of the conservative movie moguls, who used newsreels and a major media campaign to bury his candidacy. In Lords of the Press (1938), journalist George Seldes attacked William Randolph Hearst and groups like the National Association of Manufacturers for assisting Spain's Francisco Franco, Germany's Adolf Hitler, and Italy's Benito Mussolini.

Americans were soon drawn to the crackling urgency of Edward R. Murrow's broadcasts describing the London bombings. Yet fundamental questions addressing the democratization of information and the oligarchic power of commercial media raised by Seldes and others had largely been finessed during the previous decade, and the new wartime climate would obfuscate them even more.



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Gregory W. Bush

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Communications and the Press