— the role of print and broadcasting in major social movements

When Martin Luther stood out against the corrupting Roman Church in the 16th century, his publications that carried the soul of his advocacies, sold over 300,000 copies between 1517 and 1520. Such enormous sales were nothing but an impossibility in his time, which was nevertheless made possible through the emerging printing press. Eisenstein notes that the Protestant Reformation was “the first movement of any kind, religious or secular, to use the new presses for overt propaganda and agitation against an established institution” (Eisenstein 1983). As a direct product of printing, Protestantism won its popularity not only by the huge production of copies, but from the print’s feature of typographical fixity as well, which preserved their works against the test of time and ensured the survival of this new-born reformation.

It has always been amazing to explore the how powerful a role the press could play in the development of a society. It’s hard not to find the mark of the print or broadcasting when we look into those major social movements: the Protestant Reformation, French Revolution, American Revolution, the Independence War, Fireside Politics, the Civil Rights Movement, etc. By evaluating these histories, the profound influence of the voicing power – the press – and its legacy in our society has been unveiled in front of us.

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The major movements associated with print started from the early modern Europe. Eisenstein’s “The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe” provided the first full-scale treatment of the role of early print. The 15th century witnessed a notable communication shift from the script from the print. Since then, the print culture, featured in the wide dissemination, rapid output, increased diversity, enhanced data reorganization, and preservation, etc., had played a significant role in major religious, political and social movements in the Europe. The most distinct relationship in the early days is found between print and religion. As noted above, the Protestant Reformation achieved the landmark success in the history of religious movements, despite the severe pressure from the Catholic Church.

An “expanding republic of letters” was brought about by the early print as well. Major effects were seen: secularization and weakened local community ties; political leaders extended their powers by use of print. Most importantly, there was a rise of a new class of “men of letters” who created new forms of group identity with cross-cultural interchanges. This set the social and cultural footstone to later movements and revolutions. With better communication among local regions, states began to form and nationalism became commonplace, which also led to widespread reform in politics.

In France, an early information society came about with a sophisticated communication system in which oral, written and printed forms intersected and overlapped. News-mongers, journals, gazettes, newspapers, anecdotes and forbidden books, etc., led to the wake-up of public ideas. Particularly, the illegal literature, such as philosophical, sexual and anti-monarchical books, not only shaped general readers’ view of politics and authorities, but also “undermined the regime by striking at their legitimacy” (Danton 1995). Those forbidden bestsellers eventually contributed to the Enlightenment and French Revolution.

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While the social, political and religious conflicts were underway in Europe, the national identity was being built in North America in the revolutionary era through the power of print and consumer culture. David Nord states that the printing press spread the festive celebrations, religious rituals, and political practices over further geographical reach and largely unified nationalist ideology across America. Early consumer culture was another great force to the birth of American nationhood. Breen’s “The Marketplace of Revolution” shows that consumer activities severed colonists from Britain and created the imagined community among Americans assisted by print. The freedom of choice and empowerment in the marketplace quickly translated into politics when conflicts between colonial tea drinkers and their British homelands deepened. This led to the creating the American national identity and finally the American Revolution.

After the Independence War, the new nation was built “within the controversies and crises of state building” (Nord 2001), the newspaper continued to affect the nationhood building. Nord’s “Communities of Journalism” notes that newspapers on one hand brought about disputes that undermined the government or disrupt the state; on the other helped to standardize a political language of the state. Later, controversies in print over slavery deepened the national crises with the fragmentation of the country into geographical factions. The postal system further extended and intensified the conflicts. In the 1830s, the abolition of slavery, particularly in the organization of the American Anti-Slavery Society, flooded the mails with their newspapers thanks to cheap postage. Those publications were sent free to all over the country, especially in the South, and aroused a hysterical response from Southerners. Assisted by the postal system, national debates about slavery were sharpened by newspapers and other publications. The political conflicts finally turned into the Civil War, in which newspapers played a critical role.

Over the democratization of early American political system, partisan newspapers were believed to be an important promoter in Pasley’s “The Tyranny of Printers”. His account of partisanship of the 1790s locates newspapers at the heart of politics, especially with the emergence of the Republicans as an opposition to the Federalists. Newspaper editors not only published dissenting voice to the ruling Federalists, but also rose to political positions themselves and helped to democratize the political system. Whether or not Pasley’s argument is persuasive, it’s doubtless that partisan newspapers increased the Americans’ awareness and public participation in politics, making a step toward democracy. The later flush of commercial newspapers helped to create an independent press with higher advertising revenues. Detached from political parties, the press became less biased and more objective and increased the “relative importance of large groups of the population” (Petrova 2009). This in turn democratized the nation, as the preferences of ordinary citizens mattered more.

The latter half of 19th century saw the flowering of newspapers in America, with the process of urbanization and rise of metropolitan press. Nord’s chapter “The Urbanization of Journalism in Chicago” provides a case in point on how these two social phenomena were interconnected. He notes that the community with shared “interdependence and identity”, “sentiment and sympathy” (Nord 2001), coalesced with daily newspapers, and that within the context of industrialization and urbanization, newspapers such as the Chicago Daily News helped to create a new type of public community that blurred traditional distinctions between the public and private realm. Meanwhile, as Altschuler et al ’s “Rude Republic” points out, as the urban civilization boomed in the Gilded Age, the political practices adopted a new form and manifested the urbanization of politics and social class.

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Entering the era of broadcasting, two political practices stood out in history associated with the role of radio: the fireside chats and the civil rights movement. As Craig’s “Fireside Politics” identifies, the “fireside model” was born from the interconnections between broadcasting and politics. The radio not only shaped the approach politics made to the public, but also served primarily to reinforce the dominant political, commercial, and cultural order, resulting in “radio citizenship” that cultivated passivity in citizen listeners. In the battle for civil rights, the radio served as the front for the African Americans’ freedom struggle during in the middle of the 20th century. Ward’s “Radio and the Struggle for Civil Rights in the South” looked into the national civil rights organizations’ attempt to gain support from the white by using radio; how the civil rights groups, individual activists, and sympathetic broadcasters used radio to support the battle; and the struggle of national civil rights organizations, community groups, and industry to increase black ownership of radio stations thereafter. He concludes that radio shaped the development of the struggle for freedom significantly.

Above all, no consideration of major religious, political and social movements – even revolutions – would be complete without understanding the role of print and broadcasting. We have to admit that the press has always been entrusted as a progressive voice for social changes while its negative sides tend to be overlooked. However, those marks on our histories that print and broadcasting had left are never to be erased, whether they positive or negative.


Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. “The Printing Revolution of Early Modern Europe”. Cambridge University Press, 1983Danton,
Robert. “An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris”. 1999
Danton, Robert. “The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France”. W. W. Norton & Company, 1996
Breen, T.H. “The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence”. Oxford University Press, 2004
Nord, David Paul. “Communities of Journalism: A History of American Newspapers and Their Readers”. University of Illinois Press, 2001
Pasley, Jeffrey L. “The Tyranny of Printers: Newspapers Politics in the Early American Republic”. University Press of Virginia, 2001
Petrova, Maria. “Newspapers and Parties: How Advertising Revenues Created an Independent Press”. 2009
Altschuler, Glenn C. et al. “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century”. Princeton University Press, 2000
Craig, Douglas B. “Fireside Politics: Radio and Political Culture in the United States, 1920-1940”. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000
Ward, Brain. “Radio and the Struggle for Civil Rights in the South”. University Press of Florida, 2004