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Modern Newspapers and the Formation of White Racial Group Consciousness

Natalie P. Byfield

The centrality of mass media to modern, western-type democracies has been undisputed for over 200 years. Until the latter part of the twentieth century, newspapers were the main type of information media. Social theorists often discuss the context of the expansion of individual rights and the sovereignty of the people over the ruling groups, ideas that define the era of the European Enlightenment. As such, newspapers were a part of American colonial society. However, the early colonial press in America was an advance over the press in Europe at the time. In England, newspaper publishers were required to buy a license for the right to publish. That was one of many restrictive policies whose aim was to “control the flow of information on government affairs” (Pasley 2000: 53). Fearful that such policies would lead to newspapers that were mouthpieces for the government, the colonial administration in America refused to adopt these types of measures (54). Many of the values being institutionalized in the press in colonial America were newfound principles based on freedom from domination. These principles were an extension of ideas from the Enlightenment, whose philosophers also grappled with the issues of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the New World (Davis 1975). These values thus conflicted with the most significant features of the economic system in colonial America.

This clash of values was evident on the pages of colonial and post-colonial newspapers in the U.S. During the nascent years of the nation, there were essentially two kinds of newspapers, partisan and commercial. The partisan papers represented political parties and were a platform for their views. The commercial papers were essentially advertising sheets. The commercial papers shared features of the political papers in that their editorials also were partisan and their “news” coverage was limited. However, advertising was the focus of the commercial papers. Those in the coastal cities served as business journals that were essentially “shipping newsreporting the payload of cargo ships (Schudson 1978: 14). While these colonial newspapers carried advertising, they were very different in their business or economic structure from the “modern” or “free market” newspapers that would develop in the early nineteenth century.

This difference in business structure would prove to be quite significant as far as the role of the media in society was concerned. Advertising would play a new role in the “free market” papers of the early nineteenth century reshaping the relationship between media and society. This relationship was determined at the time when the future of slavery was also being decided. Hence, the new role for advertising also tells a story about race in America. It is the story of the development of white group consciousness and the importance of the emerging “free market” mass media. Ultimately, this new role for advertising suggests that in a racialized state like America, the market gave birth to and built some elements of white nationalism.

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