School Improvement in Maryland
Clarifications: Each clarification provides an explanation of an indicator/objective to help teachers better understand the skills and/or concepts.

Standard 1.0 Political Science

Topic B. Individual and Group Participation in the Political System

Indicator 1. Analyze the influence of individuals and groups on shaping public policy

Objective a. Analyze the influence of the media on political life

Clarification

Although technological innovations have changed the means by which Americans gather information about current affairs, since colonial times the media has played an important role in shaping citizens’ perspectives about the issues of the day and the public officials that address them. Undoubtedly, the Framers were well aware of the media’s role in creating an informed democratic citizenry when they protected the freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The case of John Peter Zenger marked an early milestone in the history of the American press. In 1735, Zenger, publisher of the New York Weekly Journal, was tried for “seditious libel” for publishing articles critical of the governor of New York. Zenger’s attorney in the case, Andrew Hamilton, mounted a successful defense of his client on the grounds that what the Journal had published about the governor had been true. Following Zenger’s acquittal, Hamilton wrote an influential essay arguing that newspapers should be free to publish truthful criticisms of government officials. Hamilton’s article helped spark a democratic spirit in the colonies that contributed to the Revolution and the eventual protection of freedom of the press in the Bill of Rights.

Prerevolutionary newspapers and pamphlets played an important role in providing American colonists with public opinion-shaping ideas and information. During this time, weekly publications frequently criticized British colonial leaders and supported the Patriots’ cause. Perhaps the most prominent example of the media’s ability to influence the public during this time period was Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies overall and was reprinted in 25 editions in its first year alone. Common Sense is widely credited by historians with presenting a case for independence rather than reconciliation with Great Britain that appealed to everyday Americans from different backgrounds.

During the early decades of the 19th Century, American newspapers were largely partisan publications that mixed news reporting with subjective analysis of the events of the day. Various newspapers provided multiple perspectives on the same news event, and stories about these events were often filtered through the lens of the writer’s or publisher’s political or social agenda. In the years preceding the Civil War, abolitionist activists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass advanced their case against slavery in newspapers that catered to both African American and largely white readerships. At the same time, proslavery newspapers featured racist and stereotypical depictions of slaves in cartoons, illustrations, and other forms of artwork.

As the 1800’s progressed, advances in printing and paper technology made newspapers and magazines accessible to larger audiences than ever before. First published in 1841, Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune reached a circulation of 250,000 in its first decade, and published influential pro-Republican commentary on important events such as the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford. Later, Harper’s Weekly magazine, featuring cartoons by Thomas Nast and illustrations by Winslow Homer, became a leading source of Civil War coverage for readers in the North.

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