In Prophets of the Fourth Estate, Amy Reynolds and Gary Hicks have given us a window on the relationships among money, politics, and the press during the Progressive Era in the U.S. or perhaps their window is really a mirror for our own times. Certainly, the book is first and foremost an excellent account of criticisms of the press in the Progressive Era, but the parallels to today are unmistakable.
The first chapter is a brief history of the politics of the Progressive Era. While it is true that important reforms were won by progressive political forces, regressive forces were not without accomplishments. The Progressive Era in politics was also roughly co-terminus with the regressive Lochner Era in American legal history during which the power of corporations became firmly entrenched for decades. Furthermore, the elections of William McKinley and the rise of the big money politics of Mark Hanna permanently transformed politics. Overall, the era saw a bitter political struggle between more or less equally powerful political factions that broke apart during the four-candidate presidential election of 1912. One aspect was largely progressive, though: the prominence of muckraking journalism, especially between 1903 and 1912. Reynolds and Hicks recall the work of Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, and Upton Sinclair, but also provides us with a more in depth account of the earlier work of Jacob Riis.
The primary focus of the work, however, is on the effect that advertising and other "controlling interests" have on newspapers, the lecture circuit, and their role in forming public opinion. The final chapter directly addresses propaganda and the rise of the public relations industry. Their analysis is based on a careful study of both secondary and primary material. Indeed, the most noteworthy feature of the book is the republication of media criticisms published during the Progressive Era. Prophets of the Fourth Estate provides us with the full text of articles by Charles Edward Russell, Robert L. Duffus, Morefield Storey, Oswald Garrison Villard, Donald Wilhelm, and Roscoe C. E. Brown.
The relevance of these articles to late 20th century media criticism is astonishing. One might think that the objects of the Progressive Era critics were Fox, NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, NPR, Talk Radio, the major city daily newspapers and most of our popular news magazines. This is both a strength and a weakness of the work, though. Prophets of the Fourth Estate provides valuable insight into a one hundred year period of the press in the U.S. How relevant the analysis is to "new media" is questionable. The basic principles that it exposes are likely, however, to be relevant to a new, contemporary analysis.
The finest analysis of the press in the 20th century is Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. In it they describe a propaganda model that is a natural creation of the private ownership of media and the commodification of information. Herman and Chomsky point out that the imperatives of the market require media corporations to present information or programing (including news) that is not dysfunctional to their profitability. To do this, publishing executives must accept a moral and economic world view that will not compromise the interests of stockholders. They must hire editors who will do the same, who in turn hire reporters of a like mind. Whatever information that results from these institutions can be thoroughly critical of any organization or sector of society except those upon which the media corporation is dependent.
Advertisers are particularly important. For a media corporation to succeed, it must attract advertising dollars. Consequently, presenting programing that will be attractive to businesses with a lot of money is critical. Finally, a well-heeled audience is the bedrock of the entire system. The product of media corporations are not newspaper copy or programing, it is the audience which they sell to advertisers. A large audience is important, but more important is the amount of disposable income that the audience commands. A large but impoverished audience can be less valuable to an advertiser than a smaller but much richer audience. Every element of the system works toward skewing the media's message toward what is compatible with consumer capitalism. Prophets of the Fourth Estate makes it clear that most of this was very well understood by a number of journalists in the Progressive Era. This may be the most significant difference between the late twentieth century and the Progressive Era: decades of institutional pressure have selected for journalist who are largely unaware of their conformity to the dictates of power.
Extending the analysis into the 21st century is, however, problematic. New media have created avenues through which critical voices can speak. Just as Facebook and Twitter have facilitated communication from and among democratic movements in the Middle East, they have helped coordinate actions of the Occupy movement and exposed brutal police responses. It has become commonplace to suggest that new media is and will become a leveling technology that will democratize political discourse. This may well be true, but it remains to be seen.
Two factors suggest that new media will be less destabilizing than is thought. First, while social media permits communication from and to countless people, the channels through which they communicate are increasingly narrow. The vast majority of messages sent over the internet are carried by Verizon, AT&T, and cable companies that have little competition, and of course Google dominates internet searches. The movement to guarantee "Net neutrality" is critical to keeping these corporations from obstructing free expression, but as internet communication will always be controlled by major corporations, it is likely that corporate America will be able to legislate "exceptions" to unrestricted speech, probably in the name of national security, cybersecurity, or the "war on terror," systematically eliminating threats to corporate power.
Second, while the internet may permit the proliferation of voices and an increase in the sheer amount of information available to the public, the time that the public has to assimilate this information will not expand. "Data smog" and on line distractions are an increasingly significant obstacle to gaining a deep understanding of the political world and the role of corporations in our lives and government. Under these conditions, organizations will need significant resources to mount effective communication campaigns, be they corporate or anti-corporate, giving clear advantage to plutocratic messages.
Prophets of the Fourth Estate is an extremely valuable analysis of the press of the 20th century. Whether we can glean from the last century the principles that allowed corporations to control the press and apply them to the 21st century is an open question.