Review of “Covering America” by J&MC Quarterly

I am posting this enthusiastic review in the scholarly journal Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly because the journal charges a lot for access.

Book Review:

CA cover final 2Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism

Reviewed by Giovanna Dell’Orto (University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA)

 

This engrossing, wide-ranging history of American journalism from

the colonial era to the present makes a tremendous contribution to

mass communication education by being that rarest kind of

textbook—one that reads like literature instead of CliffsNotes.

Covering all the bases, from the Zenger trial to the Huffington Post,

and with excursions into much lesser known histories across news

media, Covering America makes perfect and enjoyable mandatory

reading for undergraduate and graduate classes in journalism history.

Christopher Daly, an associate professor at Boston University’s

Journalism Department, approaches this monumental historical

survey with the reportorial flair appropriate for a former Associated

Press and Washington Post journalist, which sets it apart from more

pedagogical classics like Emery, Emery, and Roberts’s The Press

and America. Literally from the first line, Daly grabs the reader with

striking, cinematic details that make the past come alive. Page 1

opens with a teenage Benjamin Franklin skulking along the dark

streets of eighteenth-century Boston, trying to put one over his

brother in order to start his writing career—and the readers are

hooked, be they scholars who have been teaching colonial journalism

for years, like this reviewer, or freshmen who might have never heard

of Franklin.

Similarly intimate visual vignettes are peppered throughout the next

nearly five hundred pages, including an iconic Ed Murrow “sitting on a

bench in a White House hallway, chain-smoking Camel cigarettes” as

FDR decides how to react to just-received news of Pearl Harbor. At

the other end of the press–government relationship spectrum, we are

treated to the image of President Nixon dancing at the White House

wedding of his daughter at the very same moment when “the

typesetters and pressmen at the [New York] Times started printing”

the Pentagon Papers stories.

Most helpful for classroom use, in all these cases and across the

volume, Daly assumes no prior historical knowledge on the readers’

part, and retells the basics of U.S. history through the eyes of the

journalists and media owners who put its first draft in front of the

American people. Most chapters even conclude with short summaries

of how their main characters—from Franklin to David Halberstam—

ended up, much like the end titles in documentaries, so that no gaps

are left in a remarkably comprehensive story.

Some journalism historians might object that this volume skates very

close to the “Great Men” tradition. The narrative focus is unabashedly

on the major figures that made journalism what it is (and yes, for the

vast majority of the three hundred years covered it was mostly white

men). As Daly puts it repeatedly, social, political, economic, and

technological developments influenced the shape of journalism, but

for the major shifts to happen, “somebody had to do something.”

Since this book’s main audience is not the specialist, focusing on the

adventures of those various “somebodies” at the expense of scholarly

interpretative controversy seems an effective trade-off for terrific

storytelling that gets the major points across memorably.

In addition, the book does make two fundamental conceptual

arguments that give it depth and a unifying thread. Daly argues that

journalism has been central to the history of the country. From the

early Republic Party press all the way to today’s blogs (which, as

Daly notes, are not that different), the media history narrated in the

volume shows how journalism helped shape American life.

Sometimes, it has done so with nefarious effects, but also with a

“long tradition of service to humanity.” That service, however, has

recurrently been imperiled by the practice of journalism as a

business.

The most heartfelt, compelling question raised is the strange bed

fellowship of journalism and money. At the end of chapter 12, which

focuses on the Pentagon Papers and Watergate and is perhaps the

book’s best, Daly reflects on what he feels was the “apotheosis” of

the raison d’être for independent, aggressive journalism: “Build a big

enough audience so that you can make enough money to tell anyone

to go to hell. The risk of such an attitude is sounding arrogant, but

without it there is no real journalism.” But money, as the book shows,

is not always a journalist’s friend—not when it has meant

acquiescence to governmental or corporate interests, not when it is

intended to fatten shareholders’ wallets instead of newsgathering

operations, and not when it is made by pandering to the evil twin of

mass interest, the enduring prurient passion for celebrity scandals

and gore.

For an overview book, the level of detail is astounding, especially

since it does not detract from the narrative flow. With illuminating

forays into law, technology, and policy making, readers are

introduced to pamphleteers, editors, reporters, columnists, and

broadcasters, from Thomas Paine to Matt Drudge by way of Horace

Greeley, Ida B. Wells, Adolph Ochs, Harry Luce, and less obvious

figures, such as Harold Ross and Walter Winchell. From the smelly

printing equipment in colonial shops to the Supreme Court justices’

opinions and the account behind the iconic napalm-burned

Vietnamese girl photograph, there are no major stories left untold.

Striking quotes straight from the media—the Liberator’s opening

editorial, Ernie Pyle’s Captain Waskow’s tribute, Earl Caldwell’s

report of the King assassination—enrich the atmospheric narrative.

Until, that is, the digital era: The one major criticism of this volume is

that its treatment of what Daly calls the last major period of journalism

history, the digital revolution from the mid-1990s onward, is

unsatisfactorily perfunctory. The entire digital era gets a twenty-page

chapter that does not even mention such critical developments as the

rise of fake news shows or shattering scandals such as the Jayson

Blair affair, which is hinted at in the conclusion.

Writing what amounts to a history of the present is certainly difficult,

but the end of the book feels abrupt, and the first decade of the

twenty-first century deserves the same lively, in-depth study as the

other eras so masterfully narrated. Despite that shortcoming, this

volume is a top-choice main history textbook and reference work for

journalism educators, researchers, and students at all levels.

Leave a comment

Filed under Covering America, history, Journalism, journalism history

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s