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Social Science History 24.2 (2000) 395-413
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Group Enmity and Accord:
The Commercial Press in Three American Cities
Judith R. Blau *
Social theory provides two opposing views about the role played by mass communications in modernizing America. Mass society theorists, including José Ortega y Gasset (1932), George Seldes (1938), and Joseph Bensman and Bernard Rosenberg (1963), and also critical theorists, especially Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (1991 ) and Jürgen Habermas (1989), maintained that the mass press weakens authentic forms of community, whereas, in contrast, Chicago School sociologists, especially Robert Park [End Page 395] (1971 ), contended that the newspaper, notably the ethnic press, buffers the individual against the brutalizing effects of the city’s impersonality and disorganization.
Instead of encouraging reflective and rational thought, the commercial press, according to Habermas (1989: 195), is both emblem and harbinger of the decay of civil society as it reinforces the totalizing processes of modernity and offers the public crass and stultifying banalities. A famous dictum of mass society theory is that the media caters to the “lowest common denominator” (see Bensman and Rosenberg 1963; see also Nevins 1928; Seldes 1938).1 The Chicago School advanced an alternative view of the role of the urban press. According to Park (1971 ; see also Wirth 1938; Hughes 1940; Burgess and Bogue 1967: 179; Janowitz 1952), individuals are not estranged and isolated in the city precisely because urban institutions, especially newspapers, provide information about services, reinforce traditions, and define symbols of belonging and identity. However, with the notable exception of Helen MacGill Hughes (1940), the focus of these researchers was on newspapers that served the ethnic enclave or local community, and most Chicago sociologists were not especially concerned with the commercial press. Yet, it is important to distinguish the commercial press from newspapers published for political parties, ethnic groups, and communities (Lee 1973 ; Emery and Emery 1992; Blyer 1927; Blau 1998; Blau et al. 1998).
Thus, we have two perspectives on urban communities and their newspapers. For mass society and critical theorists, urban society is an aggregation of individuals, and the danger is that isolated individuals will be plunged into a sea of disintegrative and anomic experiences. This perspective suggests that the links between individuals and larger society are important and problematic and that the mass media degrade these links. For authors within the Chicago tradition, what integrates individuals into their communities are local institutions, notably the ethnic and community newspaper.
An alternative line of inquiry builds on the writings of Georg Simmel (1950; 1955 ). His metaphor of overlapping circles of association suggests that we consider individuals’ membership in society as constructed from memberships in various groups, which in turn intersect to form realms of publicness. This view suggests that there is a flexible articulation involving individuals, groups, and public life, and, moreover, that people are neither [End Page 396] adrift as strangers in amorphous cities nor encapsulated within tight-knit communities.
I proceed here on the assumption that the urban commercial paper, however sensational and crass, was important for promoting intergroup ties and shared experiences. I argue that the commercial press helps to create and reinforce intergroup relations and to create overarching understandings about urban life and community. It does so because as papers provide reports on various facets of city life, they thereby “introduce” individuals to one another who otherwise would not meet and have little in common. In an important sense, the urban daily helps residents construct a narrative about others who differ from themselves in important respects, including social class, language, religion, race, and native origins.2
Inferences for Newspapers
American cities underwent profound and rapid social change between the Civil War and World War II. Urban populations increased dramatically, giving rise to problems of inordinate complexity for residents and immigrant newcomers. But cities were different from one another, owing in large part to differences in their economies and ethnic composition (Katznelson 1981; Boyer 1978). The city was a bewildering and ever-changing mosaic of ethnicities, religions, languages, classes, occupations, and industries, and...