The Struggle for the Soul of Journalism

The Pulpit versus the Press, 1833-1923

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Ronald R. Rodgers
Journalism in Perspective
  • Columbia, MO: 
    University of Missouri Press
    , April
     2018.
     366 pages.
     $40.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780826221582.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Facebook. Fake news. Twitter. Fox. Are we living in a singular age or have other generations felt similar anxieties about social disruption, corporate corruption, sleazy politics, and an unreliable news media? Surprisingly—since it feels as if never, ever has democracy faced such grave challenges—no, this is not new, and yes, American democracy and the free press have survived previous trials. 

That’s why Ronald R. Rodgers’s timely study, The Struggle for the Soul of Journalism: The Pulpit versus the Press, 1833-1923, is as relevant for classes in history and American studies as it is for classes in journalism and religious studies. Rodgers places today’s struggles in historical context, demonstrating that press critics in previous eras asked journalists the same fundamental questions we do today: Whom do you serve? What is your purpose? 

Rodgers’s focus is on Protestant press criticism from the dawn of the penny press to the “first formal call for press responsibility” (xi). The time span parallels the Protestant establishment’s recognition of its waning hold on American culture. As ministers realized the ramifications of disestablishment, religious pluralism, public education, and secularization, they sought alternate outlets for moral education and ethical instruction. The profession they deemed most likely to influence public opinion in their stead was the press. Ministers, as well as citizens and politicians, believed that journalism’s mission was to serve the public. “The soul of journalism” (xvi), according to many, was the provision of reliable information that helped citizens make ethical decisions and lead moral lives. 

The problem, however, was that newspapers—the predominant news outlets during this period—were increasingly dependent on advertising from, in the language of the times, “soulless corporations,” fraudulent businesses, and ungodly entertainment sources. The press, therefore, was pulled in two directions.

In eight chapters, Rodgers details the long and tangled relationship between the pulpit and the press. He restores religion to its place in journalism history—adding to scholarship by Doug Underwood, Bruce Evensen, and David Paul Nord among others—and he probes the debate over journalism as a public good versus a moneymaking enterprise. The tension between journalism as profit or prophet came to a head in the early 20th century as both the Progressive and the Social Gospel movements confronted public corruption, corporate malfeasance, and systemic injustice. 

Rodgers reminds readers that many preeminent Social Gospel ministers were also journalists. Likewise, some of the muckrakers, Progressive era investigative journalists, had religious commitments or religious backgrounds. Rodgers also examines several flashpoints between the press and the market, including the fight over Sunday newspapers (which clergy claimed desecrated the Sabbath) and attempts to launch a general interest Christian newspaper.

Among Rodgers’s signal achievements is a discussion of the application of Social Gospel theology to journalism. Because of their belief in God’s immanence and therefore the sanctity of all secular activities, leaders of the movement pressed journalists to put mission above market. Safeguarding the welfare of society dictated confronting systemic evils caused by capitalism. In other words, protecting the common good trumped individual success and financial reward.

In closing, Rodgers asks readers to see today’s concerns about news and the news media as part of a longstanding debate over the purpose of journalism and the loyalties of journalists. Do reporters have a duty to the public and the well-being of a democratic society or are they beholden only to the hedge funds and corporations that pay their salaries? 

The Struggle for the Soul of Journalism: The Pulpit versus the Press, 1833-1923 is a penetrating reminder that the challenges currently facing journalism are real and longstanding. As Walter Lippman wrote almost a century ago: “We are unsettled to the very roots of our being and we don't know how to behave when personal contact and external authority have disappeared. There are no precedents to guide us, no wisdom that wasn't made for a simpler age. We have changed our environment more quickly than we know how to change ourselves” (136).

Given this uncertainty, what indeed is the soul of journalism and what does it mean for the mission of the press and the well-being of society?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Diane Winston holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California.

Date of Review: 
August 20, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ronald R. Rodgers is Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Florida and lives in Gainesville, Florida.

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