News over the Wires - Book Review

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Telegraph Wires

In News over the Wires: The Telegraph and the Flow of Public Information in America, 1844-1897 published by the Harvard University Press, Menahem Blondheim argues that the telegraph was a crucial moment in the change from an "age of transportation" to an "age of electric communication." He quotes an 1847 poem to highlight the difference, with rhapsodizing over "the sleepless heralds [who] run along the smooth and slender wires." An earlier idea of communication as a messenger traveling across space has survived in the emerging nineteenth-century ways of understanding "instant" transmission. The possibility that information could be transmitted immediately to multiple points seemed wondrous to people of the time, as if it were a force of nature, like the rays of the sun. The telegraph could allow details of life and death importance to be conveyed much more quickly. Its utility to the financial industry (e.g., verifying checks against existing accounts, developing networks) was evident.

The 1840s and 50s saw a reduction in price differences between different regional markets, as information about goods could become more widely shared by people geographically separated. Some noted the potentially adverse effect of the telegraph on state sovereignties and local authority, as people's access to information grows more uniform, and sources become more centralized. Blondheim is particularly interested in the role of the Associated Press, first as an oligopoly (the New York AP and the Western AP) and then as a monopoly of information when two competitors joined forces.

Blondheim is careful to note that the telegraph only improved upon rapid and recent gains in the speed of information. Between 1790 and 1817, the time it took for messages to reach Boston from Washington went from 18 to 6.2 days, and by 1841 it took only 2.8 days. All this without the telegraph. The author says that the new device only improved the speed by a day or two, but that is also supposing that the news travels between two major cities with significant transportation infrastructure. At the start of the nineteenth century, there was a dearth of news since the population was small, scattered, and locally focused, and even the party papers had not gotten fully started yet. Blondheim describes this period as the 'discovery of timeliness,' as instant transmission meant getting the scoop on a story was more important than ever. He quotes James Carey: "when information moves at unequal rates of speed, what is already the past for the privileged is still the future for the deprived." Using the mail system privileged private correspondence over the cumbersome process of editing and printing a publication. This system favored insiders, so newspapers invested in a costly pony and locomotive express to get new information faster. This change allowed the public sphere to compete with the private in terms of speed. By the time these accomplishments had been made, the telegraph came along (1844) to nullify their significance.

Oddly enough, Samuel F.B. Morse's dad was the Noah Webster of teaching geography in America. And he missed his wife's funeral because of the slowness of the news. "Unlike most previous technological advances applied to communications, the telegraph was not a vehicle but a channel." It was multidirectional, as evidenced in the role it played in the 1844 Democratic nominating convention when Silas Wright let the Dems know he declined to join the ticket with James Polk. While older systems such as the mails or private expresses favored those with connections or large capital investments, the telegraph did not destroy all such inequities - geography still played a role, even though lines proliferated rapidly in the 1840s and 50s. Nearness to the lines and points of convergence in the networks, like New York or Boston, still mattered. In this sense, the network was nearly as rigid as the railroads and perhaps even more centrally controlled.

Some thought instantaneous communication should have helped resolve social problems, but the author points to Lewis Mumford's ideas about communication's "paradox" - basically, that the more people talk to each other, the more they disagree. The AP had existed 15 years prior to the Civil War, but it had not fostered an adequate enough understanding of regional differences to prevent conflict. Indeed, Blondheim argues, "The change in the speed and scope of political reporting accelerated escalation of the sectional issue… Ultimately, rapid and intensive circulation of political statements nationwide made it impossible for the parties and candidates to say different things in different areas." Robert Wiebe may have described Americans as living in "island communities" at the start of the Gilded Age, in the late 19th century, but Blondheim argues that the telegraph began to expose people to more homogenized insights about the outside world once the Civil War and Reconstruction had come to pass. On one hand, we may say that the AP, being a monopoly that could easily impose a uniform slant on its reporting, meant there was very little choice available in terms of news. On the other hand, one could say that the telegraph and the AP made a greater number of political viewpoints available since the various parties' actual platforms were better known throughout the country than they had been in earlier years.

News over the Wires contains an argument about longer-term American political and social development. It makes a nice companion piece to Michael McGerr's The Decline of Popular Politics, which illustrates the shift from a classic nineteenth-century model of high voter turnout, intense partisanship, political machines, and pageantry, to a new politics characterized by "education" (intellectual arguments about policy, widely distributed), advertising, and sensational mass journalism. Blondheim sees the AP replacing the old partisan journalism with a new, "objective," rationalized, mass-market form of knowledge, lacking in regional curiosities. "The wire service was not a local institution," he notes. AP leaders emphasized facts, unjudged, and considered information to be a commodity like any other. Blondheim acknowledges that this regime of supposed neutrality tended to favor Republicans, business, and anti-labor politics, and may have influenced key elections along the way, but he does not account for how the intensely biased media institutions of distinctive personalities like Pulitzer and Hearst grew up alongside this so-called monopoly of singular general knowledge.