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Those Dangerous Daily Newspapers

Dumbing down America

dailynews womanGeorge Lunt was Harvard-educated and elitist. Edgar Allan Poe called him “a poet of much vigor of style and massiveness of thought.” Lunt's argument against the daily newspaper has since been leveled against every type of  popular writing from novels and comic books to blogs and rock lyrics. But Lunt’s concern was genuine, and his arguments are hauntingly familiar to those who feel overwhelmed by the tsunami of data in the Digital Age. These snippets of daily news, Lunt argued, were too brief to be meaningful, too immediate to be trusted, and too transient to be bothered with.   

Like modern “tweets” and Facebook postings, Lunt saw the morning and evening dailies as “brief as lightning” and as “swift as a shadow.” It was too much too fast.

“No method of merely human intellect could … keep pace with the ever-moving and constantly intermingling squadrons of the modern press,” he warned.

Lunt, of course, could not have imagined that computers would be doing most of the sorting, analyzing, and disseminating of data. Today, in the time it takes for you to click on a Web page,  automated software has examined your online search-and-purchase history, determined what products you might buy, auctioned you off to the highest robot bidder, and posted the most likely digital advertisements on the page you selected.  It all happens in a particle of a second. But for Lunt, the very idea of  aggregating all the wisdom in the world was repugnant.  

“Who would wish that all sacred and tender mysteries of life should be accurately surveyed, and sounded, and mapped-out before his eyes?” he wrote, as if anticipating the World Wide Web.

The relentless march of science, commerce, and industry, Lunt warned in 1856, was already on the verge of destroying religion, mystery, and creativity. Human beings were on their way to becoming little more than drones and consumers. He blamed the “impertinent aggressions of modern curiosity.” Mankind, it seemed, could not control its desire to unravel the secrets of the universe, no matter what the cost.

dailyn ews burning manEven in Lunt's era the newfangled photographic camera seemed to be probing everything with its “cold scrutinizing eye." Electronic telegraphs, he feared, might soon be sending messages from one bed-chamber to another. Meanwhile, the latest 19th century steam-powered printing presses could print a million sheets of paper in a single day. Peering into the future, Lunt imagined a world where the daily news might infest our lives like a plague of locusts.

“Vice is publicly paraded” while “modesty shrinks away and virtue is appalled,” Lunt told his audience. At its current rate of growth, Lunt predicted that the news industry might expand into a monster that he called  “a power multiform.”  Who would control a “thousand scribbling men and women?" Lunt asked. Would these bland reporters of facts turn America into a “well-defined mediocrity?”

“We rely on newspapers instead of thinking for ourselves,” Lunt complained as if referring to the talk radio and TV shows of today. Therefore, he reasoned,  the faster the information flowed, the more its consumers might come to depend upon it. The public would become "the puppet of others." Motivated by profit rather than by quality content, a growing swarm of newspapers might be “prompt to listen to any scandal, glad to sell mischief and abuse.”

As proof of the vapid content of dailies, Lunt pointed to the rising horde of what we might call media celebrities in the mid-1800s. Newspapers were lavishing too much praise on “inferior people,” Lunt said. The dailies tended “to make heroes and geniuses out of very flimsy commonplace material.” Lucky for Lunt, he died long before the rise of reality TV.

As a member of the dying Whig political party, Lunt saw America spinning out of control. The federal government was growing too powerful. Slavery, on which he believed the economy of both the North and South depended, was tearing the nation apart.  On the brink of the Civil War, Lunt believed that the news media, instead of "digging for the truth," was making things worse. The dailies  “demeaned public sentiment, dulled public taste, [and] weakened public judgment."

The fast-paced media, he pointed out with a biblical reference, was becoming the new Tower of Babel. By feeding its readers sweets rather than meat, he said, the penny press was “converting men and women into children again.”

Where to from here? 

Times were tough in 1856 and they would only grow worse. Within a decade 660,000 Americans would die in the War Between the States.  George Lunt referred to his era as “this modern busy bustling world.” As if channeling the Internet Age, he described his contemporaries as people “who live in a blaze which serves only to dazzle and bewilder them.”

Lunt knew it was "rank heresy" to speak out against the penny press. People loved their daily newspapers. His speech was the equivalent of asking distracted Americans today to toss away their iPhones and unplug from the electronic information grid that controls our lives.

The speaker apologized for his radical views. His goal, he said, was not to limit the freedom of the press. Instead, he hoped the media would heal itself by hiring the best people and redoubling its efforts to publish truth and excellence. The role of the media, Lunt said, was to deliver “the solid food of the mind” and not to be “swayed by the slightest impulse.”

"He who undertakes to instruct others should be himself a person of sound education," Lunt told the editors and publishers and reporters of his time.

Newspapers should not substitute themselves, he noted, "for higher and better sources of knowledge.” Instead, the job of the newspaper was to lead its readers to the works of  the statesman, the historian, the philosopher and the poet.

Should the media not repair itself, Lunt concluded, then the public must step up and demand a "higher tone." Readers must insist that the news not simply “pander to popular appetite.”

The daily papers, George Lunt told his audience, must not turn its readers into "slaves of opinion,"  but liberate them to become free-thinkers. The press had a moral and patriotic duty to build a nation of intelligent men and women. Instead, he complained, the increasing output of the ephemeral news was creating a community of  "artificial and superficial" people. Would future Americans tap into the news hourly? If so, who would have time left to contemplate the wisdom of the past, to marvel over the mysteries of the present day, or to plan for the uncertain future? 

SOURCE:  Lunt, George. 1857. Three eras of New England, and other addresses, with papers critical and biographical. Boston: Ticknor and Fields.

Copyright © 2014 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS.      

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