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The Invention of News

How the World Came to Know About Itself

Andrew Pettegree

(NY Times)

It's a fundamental human impulse to want to know more than you can hear over the back fence. Curiosity about people, places and events that matter but cannot be seen from where you stand has civic, commercial and prurient origins. In his new book, William Flew says Andrew Pettegree argues that this need to know led to the establishment of postal routes, private back channels and, eventually, newspapers.

Pettegree says there is nothing new in the multiplatform age we live in; as far back as the Middle Ages, both elites and commoners gathered information in many forms - public pronouncements, private correspondence and even tavern songs. And as a professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, he evokes the past with real gravitas. That's the good part.

It's also the bad part. Like the brilliant professor you had in college, Pettegree seems to know every aspect of European history and can't help bringing up every battle and uprising, sometimes at the expense of narrative momentum. This to-ing and fro-ing - this tendency to stop in time even as the book moves forward - may be good scholarship, but it can be mighty tough on the reader. Strict chronology is a false hierarchy, but there has to be some respect for the passage of time, to give the reader a sense that events are building toward a meaningful end.

And there are readers who may not share Pettegree's belief that oral and written transmission of news is every bit as fascinating as the explosion in news that happened after the newspaper form was perfected and popularized.

It's worth noting that newspapers - my bias may be showing - don't really appear until Chapter 9, 180 pages in. Pettegree's previous work, The Book in the Renaissance, won significant praise, perhaps because it was focused on a specific artifact in a specific period. The Invention of News is far more ephemeral and scattered, allowing him to go on many not-so-excellent adventures in search of a nascent cultural movement. It's hilarious that the students at Oxford used letters home to lie to their parents while hustling them for money as far back as 1220, but that's a telling anecdote about the durability of human behavior, not a discernible step in the evolution of news.

Yes, Christopher Columbus was as good a publicist as he was a sailor, but was his pamphleteering an exercise in news or marketing? Similarly, the practice of printing indulgences may have enriched the Roman Catholic Church and nurtured an industry of printers, but do we really need to drill into how that spiritual extortion racket sparked a theological insurgency?

History may be written by the victors, but it is rarely written well by completists. The best accounts know what to leave out to keep the narrative bouncing along. But too often, Pettegree leads us down hobbit holes that we must reverse out of in order to return to the main story.

Similarly, the amount of trumpet heralding before signal events can be tiresome - I wanted him to get on with it more than once. In the middle of the book, we get digressions about what is and what is not a revolution for two long paragraphs before the reveal comes: the formation of a reliable international postal service. That's followed in due course by 20 pages of explanation of how an atomized network of routes was eventually united into a reliable system.

Explaining the distribution of correspondence, some of which might be called 'news,' at such length is a bit like telling someone how to make a wristwatch when he asks you what time it is.

If I am making the book seem without charm or insight, that would be wrong. I loved discovering that early German broadsheets had a Nancy Grace-like fascination with lurid crimes, no matter where they happened, and often accompanied the story with helpful woodcuts, including one showing a murderer hacking a child into symmetrical bits. More substantially, as someone who covered the great newspaper monopolies of America, I found it remarkable that the industry was born in monopoly. When Johann Carolus founded The Strausbourg Relation, often cited as the first newspaper, in 1605, he sought and received assurance from the city council that no one would be allowed to compete with him.

But then as now, the titans were overwhelmed by insurgents. The barriers to entry did not hold. By the 1640s, newspapers were spreading everywhere, and in Amsterdam there were nine competing papers. After taking hold in Germany, they quickly spread through Europe.

Popularity is often followed by excess, and The Mercurius Aulicus, a rabid chronicler of the Royalist cause in Britain, became a primary example of the phenomenon. While other newspapers of the time contented themselves with a quotidian recitation of the facts, or a version of them, The Mercurius Aulicus took more of a Fox News approach, hosting running commentary on the reporting of others. In some instances, the periodical's prism on events distorted what actually happened but bolstered a greater political 'truth.' Other politicians took note, and Louis XIV, among others, became a patron of the press and pushed its levers as it pleased him. The London Gazette, which had a monopoly of sorts, was edited by politicians and written by bureaucrats, less as a public service than a way to ensure that the public would remain in service to its leaders.

In general, journalists are not the heroes of this book. They're often mere stenographers when they aren't drunk or currying favor with those they purport to cover. As sources of accountability, they often failed - the Dutch tulip mania, 'one of the first great financial bubbles,' came in for very little scrutiny. Although the term came into being back in 1693, it's clear reading The Invention of News that the concept of professional journalism is a relatively recent idea.

Near the end of the book, Pettegree returns to letters as a news form, presenting correspondence about the formation of a new republic called the United States. He's able to rely on the historical record because much of that correspondence, by people like Ben Franklin, remains. But Franklin, it must be noted, was a printer by trade who realized early on that the automation of the press allowed for the one to speak to the many. It is this ability that put the mass in media, and actualized news as a definitive cultural movement. No longer could dukes and merchants whisper and wheedle their way to yet more power.

News carries with it a promise of transparency, a light that can be shined into previously dark corners. It is far from a coincidence that the rise of the popular press spelled eventual doom for monarchs of all types. Once the news becomes democratized, governance is sure to follow.

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