MEDIA Essay, Research Paper

The American media, through its choice of news content and manner of

presentation, has changed and shaped the course of American history and

American policy. The media?s powerful influence can be seen through its

portrayal of major events like the Vietnam War, the Spanish-American War,

the “Tweed Ring,” Watergate and several other minor events.

Through the years the role of media in public affairs has changed as its

influence has grown. When the media began, it had a political agenda. It was

an outlet through which the common people could criticize the aristocracy

and the government. This right to criticize was established in 1735 by

American John Peter Zenger. Zenger was the first journalist to publicly

criticize the government in his newspaper, the New-York Weekly Journal.

Zenger was jailed by the government but was later found not guilty by a jury.

This was the first time anyone had publicly protested the government, fought

persecution in the courts and won. This case set the precedent a half-century

later for the First Amendment, which guarantees the freedom of the press.

Most newspaper articles were editorials in the early history of American

journalism. As the media?s influence grew and it gained in popularity,

government began to take notice. Beginning in the 1920?s the government

began passing regulatory laws and set up the Federal Communications

Commission to monitor and regulate the broadcast media. Over the years new

laws have been passed and repealed both in favor and in opposition of the

media. Today the media reaches over 100 million people a day. It has even

been described as having enough impact to set the public agenda each day.

Another name for the media is the Fourth Estate. This came about in British

Parliament one day. A member of Parliament was describing the structure of

British Parliament and the “three estates,” the House of Commons, the House

of Lords, and the Prime Minister; then the member looked into the balcony

surrounding Parliament and noticed the members of the press. He then

referred to the press as the “Fourth Estate” because he said they had as much

an impact on politics as the other three estates. Due to its tremendous

audience and the impact it has, the media has been able to shape public

opinion, American policy and even American history.

The far reaching influence and power of the media was illustrated quite well

in the 1870?s. William “Boss” Tweed was one of the most corrupt politicians

in the history of New York. He totally controlled politics in New York during

the 1870?s. He regularly fixed elections, took bribes and bribed other

politicians himself. His greatest exploit, though, was what led to his downfall.

The newspapers were always attacking Tweed, but they could never uncover

any hard evidence. However, in 1871, the New York Times uncovered

Tweed?s grand scheme. Over the course of 30 months Tweed and his cohorts,

the Tweed Ring, swindled New York out of nearly $2,000,000. Tweed was

arrested but made bail and instantly disappeared. During this whole time

political cartoonist Thomas Nast was making a name for himself by drawing

Tweed. One of Nast?s cartoons was seen by Spanish soldiers in Santiago who

recognized Tweed as a sailor in port. The soldiers instantly arrested him and

turned him over to the American military. Had it not been for Nast?s cartoons

Tweed may never have been caught. Nast?s cartoons were so powerful that

“one of the Tweed miscreants said he didn?t care a straw for all the papers

said of him, as most of his adherents couldn?t read, but those pictures, whose

meaning everyone could see at a glance, they hurt him badly.”

The Tweed incident helped establish political cartoons as a powerful tool for

the media. Nast?s all-telling caricatures were an effective tool in ending that

period of misgovernment in American history. The media was, in some

respects, the most powerful tool of all.

An example of the media?s influence is the Spanish-American War. In 1898

negotiations were going on between the United States and Spain over the two

countries? involvement in the Caribbean. William Randolph Hearst, editor

and owner of the New York Daily and media pioneer, sent artist Fredrick

Remington to Cuba to paint pictures of what was happening because Hearst

believed war was eminent. Remington reported back that there was nothing to

paint and negotiations were going well. Hearst responded “You furnish the

pictures and I?ll furnish the war.” The USS Maine mysteriously sank off the

coast of Cuba, and a painting of this was sent to Hearst. Even though it was

never discovered what made the USS Maine sink, Hearst printed a story that

said Spain was directly responsible. The American people were so outraged

that they called for immediate action against Spain. Congress had no choice

but to declare war on Spain. From this war the United States established itself

as a superpower, annexed the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and Hawaii.

These annexations affected the United States, in that, Hawaii became the

fiftieth state and Puerto Rico is pushing hard to become the fifty-first. What

Hearst did was one of the earliest and most notorious examples of yellow, or

tabloid, journalism. He used the power of the media to mislead the people for

his own gains. Today the terms slander and libel have been created to combat

yellow journalism. Through the media Hearst created a major war in

American history which led to the annexation of territory, the fiftieth state and

helped set the stage for yellow journalism and its role in American policy.

In more modern times, one of the most famous and oft-argued events in

American history was the Vietnam conflict. Today debate still continues

about the Vietnam conflict. Should the United States have been there or not?

Few people realize, however, that the United States was present more then 10

years before war even broke out. What most people knew at the time they

learned from the media. The Vietnam conflict is often referred to as the first

war on TV. Every day people sat around the television at dinner time to find

out the latest news from Vietnam. This immediate and easy access to the war

led to a period of protest and riots throughout the United States. Young

people across the nation stood up and voiced their opinions. The National

Guard and riot police had to be sent into several colleges to restore order.

Some colleges even experienced periods of shut down due to the protests and

riots. The 60?s and 70?s are known as a period of protest, among other things.

The Vietnam conflict provided the ultimate basis for the people to make their

opinions heard. Due to the growing protest from the people, Nixon was

forced to withdraw troops from Vietnam to get re-elected. Also, Congress

was forced to pass the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which seriously

limited the President?s ability to commit troops to a foreign country or to use

American troops to help fight a war without Congressional approval.

However, without the media very little would have been known about the

Vietnam conflict and the United States? involvement.

One of the most recent and probably most stunning examples of the media?s

power was Watergate. Watergate is a general term used to describe a

complex web of political scandals between 1972 and ?74. A burglary arrest at

the Democratic National headquarters (Watergate Hotel- hence the name

Watergate) started the unraveling of the web. At first, the burglary seemed

minor and unnewsworthy and no one was really interested. Two reporters

assigned to the story by The Washington Post, Carl Bernstein and Bob

Woodward, found some unusual anomalies during their investigation of the

story. They proceeded to follow up on the burglary after everyone else gave

up. Their investigation led to the discovery of the scandals which had a

tremendous impact on the United States. The term Watergate eventually took

on broad and numerous meanings such as political burglary, bribery,

extortion, wiretapping, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, destruction of

evidence, tax fraud, illegal use of the CIA, illegal use of the FBI, illegal

campaign contributions and use of taxpayer?s money for private purposes. All

of these crimes were committed by the Nixon administration and were

uncovered by Bernstein and Woodward?s investigation into the Watergate

burglary. As a result of Watergate, Nixon became the first President to resign,

and 40 government officials were indicted or jailed. Also as a result of

Watergate, the media became more aggressive and investigative journalism

became widespread. In 1976 a new wave of Democrats was elected as a

result of the public?s distrust of Republicans because of Watergate. On

January 30, 1974, Nixon gave his State of the Union address and said, “I have

no intention whatever of walking away from the job that the American people

elected me to do for the people of the United States.” After considerable

pressure from the press, however, Nixon resigned the Presidency of the

United States on August 9, 1974. In his resignation speech Nixon said,

From the discussions I have had with congressional and other leaders, I

have concluded that because of the Watergate matter I might not have

the support of the Congress that I would consider necessary to back the

very difficult decisions and carry out the duties of this office in the way

the interests of the nation would require. America needs a full-time

President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with the

problems we face at home and abroad.

There are also several other examples of the media?s power and effect on

American history and American policy that weren?t as publicized as the

aforementioned incidents. In 1914 the Atlanta Georgian began publishing

stories about children in sweatshops. It showed the poor and hazardous

working conditions the children were exposed to and the low wages they

received. In the 1930?s the Houston Press did the same thing on the behalf of

women. Because of the Atlanta Georgian and the Houston Press the

government passed labor laws and forced factories to improve working

conditions and wages. In the 1920?s the New York World began a crusade

against the KKK. Many newspapers spoke out against the KKK but were not

brave enough to begin a crusade for fear of losing circulation. The New York

World went on with the crusade anyway and documented numerous crimes

committed by the KKK. By the time the New York World finished its expose

the KKK?s influence and power were severely lessened. In 1930 a fire broke

out in Ohio State Prison which resulted in the death of 317 convicts and

injury to 231 convicts. Not many people paid attention because it was a

prison and only convicts were affected. The Cleveland Plain Dealer,

however, began a crusade on behalf of the convicts. Their investigation

uncovered serious fire hazards, a lack of safety systems and a lack of trained

personnel to handle emergency situations. These conditions existed not only

in prisons but also in state mental institutions, schools for the handicapped

and state run nursing homes. The state was forced to correct these conditions

because of the Cleveland Plain Dealer?s expose, and other states soon


The media?s influence over American history and American policy has been

apparent through the years. The media has added to American history such

events as the Spanish-American War, the end of the Vietnam Conflict, the

first Presidential resignation and the weakening of the KKK. The media has

also added federal commissions, libel and slander laws, the War Powers

Resolution, labor laws and safety guidelines for state institutions to American

policy. Joseph Stalin once said, when referring to the Communist Revolution,

“Print is our strongest weapon.” Perhaps Thomas Jefferson best summed up

the media when he said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have

a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I

should not hesitate to prefer the latter.” The media is one of the most

powerful and influential forces in the world today.


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