A Lesson from History

Earlier this fall, Foreign Affairs asked me to write a review essay for the January-February issue about Journalism's Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting by John Maxwell Hamilton, founding dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. The book is an expansive, colorful portrait of foreign correspondents down through the ages. If this is a subject of interest to you or someone you know, it would make an excellent Christmas gift. But that is not the main point of this piece. In a brief section of the narrative, Hamilton describes the rise of radio in the early decades of the twentieth century. What became clear as I read along is that, in many respects, "Internet" could be substituted for "wireless" and later "broadcast" as a profoundly disruptive but ultimately essential means of delivering news and information.

What emerges from Hamilton's summary is that, whatever is happening now in the dissemination of news, it is bound to keep changing. Someday, the Internet will have a place alongside its predecessors as a means of transmission, but as one of several such communicators and perhaps not even the dominant one.

Thumbnail image for radios.JPGThe most remarkable thing about radio, as I've argued many times before, is that it still plays so vital a role in the world of information and commentary. On the upside, there is public radio, especially NPR's news output and documentary shows such as This American Life. On the downside, depending on your perspective, is talk radio's vituperative but influential stream of right-wing rabblerousing. (The left remains inexplicably weaker in that realm.) The saga of radio reinforces my belief that newspapers--the printed product that leaves ink on your fingers--will, in some form, withstand the tides of history no matter how bleak the future seems at the moment.

According to Hamilton's account, the first broadcast--on Christmas Eve, 1906--was a violin solo beamed to ships by Reginald Fessenden, an inventor who, working for the U.S. Weather Bureau, devised early warnings systems for storms. Another pioneer was Lee De Forest, who came up with the vacuum tube. De Forest said he "looked forward to the day when . . . news and even advertising will be sent out over the wireless telephone." A press release from an unidentified source saw a future for radio in the emerging automobile. As so often happens in technology, radio was enhanced substantially by military research in the World War I years. At the end of 1922, Hamilton writes, "the Ford Motor Company, the Omaha Grain Exchange, St. Matthew's Cathedral in Laramie, Wyoming; Gimbels; and the Alabama Power Company, as well as seventy-four colleges and universities and sixty-nine newspapers, all owned radio stations."

The role of radio in news remained unclear for the rest of the decade. "If radio is to be the means of distributing news," a newspaper publisher in North Dakota wrote to a colleague in 1924, "the newspaper of the United States will soon have little to offer." In a 1931 speech, Merlin Aylesworth, the president of NBC (which RCA had established as a subsidiary to its electronics company) declared: "The broadcast news flashes are simply glorified headlines that whet the appetite of the listener and make him buy the newspaper for amplification." In the midst of the Great Depression, Hamilton reports, newspapers moved to limit radio news to "two five-minute daily summaries based on bulletins provided by the newly created Press-Radio Bureau. . . . NBC and CBS could not sell ads around the news broadcasts and they were to stay out of the news gathering business. In return, newspapers agreed to run their daily schedules."

Events around the world and the increasing popularity of radio made those restrictions absurd. By the outbreak of World War II, broadcast news over the airwaves was established. "Radio's performance in the current turmoil," said Newsweek, "has proved it the fastest agency yet devised to flash world-shaking events into every home that can afford a receiver. Newspapers were now running schedules as an indispensable service to readers wanting to know when programs would be aired."

Thumbnail image for radio2.JPGAll this comes to mind in the current battle between newspapers and Google over the aggregating of news and the allocation of money from the advertising around search results. Eric Schmidt's "How Google Can Help Newspapers" piece in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month reiterated his mantra that the "current crisis in the print industry . . . a traditional technology struggling to adapt to a new, disruptive world . . . is a familiar story." His solution is ingenuity by publishers in a way that will turn the Internet into a distribution asset rather than the existential threat it now represents. But Schmidt's guidance on how that should happen remains more rhetorical than substantive. On the overriding issue, history does provide an encouraging lesson: "I don't believe that the Internet will mean the death of news," he wrote. "Through innovation and technology, it can endure with newfound profitability and vitality." The capsule conclusion of Schmidt's piece highlighted in bold type was this: "Video didn't kill the radio star, and the Internet won't destroy news organizations. It will foster a new, digital business model." Let's hope that turns out, again, to be right.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Flickr Users Alebonvini and [JP] Correa Carvalho