In his introduction to his latest tome, Radio Journalism in America: Telling the News in the Golden Age and Beyond, author Jim Cox tells a story about a conversation he had about an earlier book he had written on the history of passenger trains. A reader of that book said it was both "refreshing and intriguing." After questioning the person on what he meant, the reader explained "while it is a history book, you make it interesting."
With the latest book from the author published by McFarland, Cox has taken on quite a task in trying to pull together a history of how media has created, altered, and molded the news. His primary focus is radio, which he unabashedly admits, but besides focusing on the various networks or "webs" as they were called in the business, he covers many individual stations that might have played a part in the history of broadcast news. He even begins the journey in Roman times quickly coming into the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Though it seems to be quite a task, I have to say that the author has created a book that provides an excellent overview of how the media has impacted journalism as well as how each medium interacted with the other over its history.
In 1939 Edward R. Murrow said about the news that his team was "trying to bring you as much news as we can, avoiding so far as it is humanly possible, being too much influenced by the atmosphere in which we work." In Radio Journalism in America" Cox writes outside of that atmosphere and presents the elements that shaped news and public affairs. From the rise of electronic journalism and its dependence on print news, the author details the early Press-Radio Wars and the formation of early network news organizations. He writes about early coverage of special events, the governmental influence as to who owns the airwaves, and censorship of the news.
Broadcast journalism's slow rise to prominence is detailed: newspapers, which could only deliver its news later in the day, and radio news delivering "its product to everybody tuning in at the very same time." Radio was able to bring us all together at the same time and on the same page and that provided strong proof of the importance of radio news.
While the book seems to be heavily CBS-centric, some of that is justified by our knowing that it was Paley and Murrow and others from the Columbia Broadcasting System who built the first major broadcast news organization with a reputation that continued even to television. He does spend some time also on Sylvester "Pat" Weaver and his creation of the NBC Monitor news magazine on radio in the fifties when radio needed an injection of purpose. There is a detailed account of the public affairs roundtables from the forties and fifties which were pre-cursors to programs such as Monitor. Cox sees these roundtables as exceptions to radio news personalities' own biases and the network opinions expressed even as the networks claimed to be neutral.
I would recommend Cox's book if you are looking for an introduction into broadcast journalism (including the rise of the Internet and Twitter, among others) with its excellent overview of the history of media and how news fit into it. If you are looking for a much deeper study, the book is well annotated allowing for those who want to research beyond the author's work.
One of the things, author Cox does well (in all of his books on media) is offer clear explanations of various highlights in broadcast journalism's history. For example, he explains the effect of the Radio Act of 1927 and the Communication Act of 1934 and their impact ultimately on journalism in the broadcast medium; something admittedly I was not clear on.
Due to the complexity of the subject matter and the breadth of his attempt to pull it together, sometimes the book goes off on tangents that can throw the more casual read into confusion. But in fairness, his scope was probably not easy to pull into a clean concise organization. He does a very good job nonetheless and I wasn't found wanting as I followed through this maze of history. He does only barely touch on the newest media of the Internet, smartphones and tablets and the part they play in affecting news, but perhaps that is for another book.
The book is a breathtaking ride on the history of our technology and how it shaped the news and information we get on a daily basis. Jim Cox is to be applauded for taking on such a monumental task. For those who want more information on many of the foremost names of news and public affairs, he offers a "Biographical Dictionary" with short bios of over 120 persons.
Article © James F. Widner, 2013