Title: News Over the Wires: The Telegraph and the Flow of Public Information in America
Author: Menahem Blondheim
Categories: Communications, Business History, Telegraph, Western Union, Associated Press, News, Spatial
Place: United States
Time Period: 1844-1897
Menahem Blondheim examines the creation of a "news monopoly" and the nationalization of news by the Associated Press via its alliance Western Union telegraph in the second half of the nineteenth century. Blondheim argues that the Associated Press played a centralizing and modernizing role as one of the nation's first non-local corporate institutions who consolidated its hold on an information monopoly by gathering local news and repackaging it into a national system of information.
The Associated Press began operations in 1846 and over the next decade consolidated its hold on national news by building telegraph lines and consolidating regional companies. Blondheim set the stage for the telegraph by discussing how newspapers in the early republic competed for time-sensitive information (particularly commercial news from Europe), and charts how spatial arrangements lead to New York City's newspapers gaining a virtual monopoly in the news sphere. With its potential to eliminate this spatial inequality, the telegraph had the potential to serve as a great equalizer. Instead, Blondheim argues that the telegraph actually enhanced monopoly. Because of it's channel-like nature of allowing only one message to be transmitted at a time, controlling the telegraph lines provided exclusive control over what information flowed over them. The New York Associated Press took advantage of its position in the major port city of New York to achieve a stranglehold over commercial news from Europe.
After the Civil War, the Western Union and Associated Press built an enduring alliance that served as a symbiotic relationship for both. Blondheim argues that their merging gave the Associated Press a monopoly on news and opened up troubling questions about the control of information. He goes on to chart the rise of anti-monopolist sentiment that called for government takeover of the Associated Press in order to safeguard the flow of information as a public good and limit harmful discrimination. These calls for regulation were, in Blondheim's view, quite justified. In the 1880s, for instance, the Associated Press entered into a secretive agreement to distribute exclusive news to regional news-brokers while excluding others in return for a kickback. Blondheim also notes how the Associated Press worked to cultivate a veneer of objectivity in news reporting while simultaneously engaging in extremely biased coverage - for example, in its pro-Republican coverage of Rutherford B. Hayes' election in 1876. By consciously hiding their presence and operating behind the scenes, the Associated Press masked their overwhelming monopoly on the flow of information in the late nineteenth century and its nationalizing effect on American society.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Timeliness and Information - works in the vein of Innis and Pred by looking at how time lag of information affected its value (tended to coalesce in foreign news from Europe and commercial news)
- Monopoly - AP had a "news monopoly" but this wasn't necessarily complete/stable. Constantly having to negotiate with Western Union, splinters within the AP (ex. NYAP vs. Western Associated Press).
- Role of the state - in 1870s shift towards idea of government nationalizing the AP just like it did the US Post, as the AP was increasingly seen as dangerously in control of information
- Alliance of Western Union and Associated Press - from 1867-1881 - symbiotic relationship
- Objectivity - raised troubling issues about who was controlling news and information and presenting it as unbiased (when in fact had lots of political bias - ex. Rutherford B. Hayes election in 1876
- Associated Press as a powerful modernizing, centralizing, and nationalizing force
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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