Morgan on Rodgers, 'The Struggle for the Soul of Journalism: The Pulpit versus the Press, 1833-1923'

Author: 
Ronald R. Rodgers
Reviewer: 
Merritt Morgan

Ronald R. Rodgers. The Struggle for the Soul of Journalism: The Pulpit versus the Press, 1833-1923. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2018. 348 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8262-2158-2

Reviewed by Merritt Morgan (Independent Scholar) Published on Jhistory (December, 2021) Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56133

Ronald R. Rodgers, associate professor of journalism at the University of Florida, has produced an impressive work that offers a theoretical framework for the history of journalism during the early nineteenth to the early twentieth century in the United States. This book explores religious discourse about the secular press, tracing central arguments of the religious criticism of the newspaper industry to identify a past ethical practice of journalism. Following a lengthy introduction into the dialectic tension between the religious and secular newspapers, Rodgers analyzes decades of commentary on the growing dissatisfaction of mainstream Protestant thinkers over what he views were determining factors for the deterioration of the industry's news ethic. He explores American journalism at a time when the nation was increasingly engulfed by the rapid effects of industrialization and modernization, transitioning the news industry from "a partisan to a commercial business model" (p. xxv). Throughout the text, scholarly books, labor and union newspaper trade journals, religious and popular periodicals, and unique autobiographies are thoroughly utilized.

The work illuminates the role of nineteenth-century daily journalism as the industry standards became increasingly challenged by the controlling social currents in a rapidly modernizing and secularizing nation. The devotion of the press to profits over the principle of facts incited severe criticism from clergy and social reformers over the decline of the industry’s authoritative and legitimate practice of ethical service to society. In the 1830s, the sensational rise of the penny press emphasizing profit as the primary principle of the press fueled consumer interest in innovative investigative reporting practices that quickly caused print publications to become popular and controversial. Arguably launching the nascent profit orientation of the press, the mass appeal of the daily penny press set the stage for the origins of a new national audience that became increasingly interested in ethical standards for practice in the industry.

By the nineteenth century, evangelical thinkers had created generations of dialogue discussing what ethics would be without possessing Protestant concepts of virtue. In chapter 1, Rodgers explores the work of renowned nineteenth-century Protestant leaders of the Social Gospel movement, including Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch, to document how clergy and social reformers responded to economic and political influences prompting the priority of news over ethics. The Social Gospel movement created a sense of public and private responsibility to balance evangelistic principles and methods with a sense of Christian ethical practice in response to the rapid changes and social problems in urban life. Chapter 2 focuses on the rise of the Sunday newspaper as a clever invention that promoted the complexities of a modernizing society in conflict with the established traditions of religious culture, mainly focusing on the media’s lack of observance of the Sabbath day. Nineteenth-century religious reformers argued that the publication of the lengthy and attractive Sunday newspaper was a vehicle for secularization, which rivaled the traditional American values connected to Protestantism and distracted people's attention from religious matters.

Chapter 3 expresses the incredible heritage between the press and the pulpit affording significant discussions and arguments by religious reformers and clergy who held respectable positions in the news industry. Christian journalists played central roles in influencing public opinion, providing a validating perspective of how religious reformers and the clergy worked within the industry as chief negotiators to enforce standards for new ethics. Despite the informal alliance between the church and the newspapers, the commercialization of the daily press caused increasing contention between economic forces and religious reformers over journalistic content and conduct theories. Researching decades of efforts to create a Christian daily newspaper that would reach a wider audience beyond a distinctly religious class culture, chapter 4 discusses the discord between the church and the growing commercial forces fostering the increasing power of the secularized newspaper industry. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, religious and secular newspapers and various publications inspired the public to consciously and actively become involved with the issues facing journalistic content and practices that were indicative of American interests identifying with the condition of the news within the larger context of the print industries.

Analyzing articulations between the pulpit and the press in search of the principle of newspaper responsibility to society, chapter 5 recounts the national debate sparked in 1900 by the Reverend Charles Sheldon, which highlighted the importance of the journalism industry's responsibility to protect the moral good of the public even at the expense of newspaper profitability. Weighing profits versus moral responsibilities in defining the newspaper's success within the larger context of social responsibility was a decades-long battle that elevated pastoral criticism to a place of heightened national significance during the Gilded Age. Rounding out the volume is a chapter emphasizing the influences of the Social Gospel movement becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the newspaper's lack of emphasis on pressing religious issues, which left many in the journalism industry struggling over ideas about morals and ethics.

Overflowing with numerous examples of the tensions between religion and journalism, The Struggle for the Soul of Journalism illuminates the news industry’s role in spreading and forging a national identity. Covering journalists working in the trending phenomenon of the American press, Rodgers explains the press contained a sacred mission intending to the betterment of society that was made evident predominantly by the organizational efforts of clergy and religious reformers. The work is a valuable contribution to the history of the press and journalism culture. Perhaps the greatest weakness is the focus on the second half of the nineteenth century, which ignores the broad range of religious publications such as the nearly six hundred religious magazines published in the US between the 1790s and 1830s.[1] Also, many Protestant women of the middle and upper class were publishing during the nineteenth century, and the lack of emphasis on women's significant religious contributions in journalism makes for somewhat of a dry read. Adding to the list of leading contributors during this period, Frances E. Willard, president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union for nineteen years, made significant contributions to press relations and journalism as the most influential female public speaker of the century.

Note

[1]. Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), 227-29; 219-24.

Citation: Merritt Morgan. Review of Rodgers, Ronald R., The Struggle for the Soul of Journalism: The Pulpit versus the Press, 1833-1923. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. December, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56133

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