In the early hours of June 5 1944 Joan Ellis, a British telephonist working for the Associated Press in London, fed a tape into a teleprinter. The tape carried the story of an invasion of northern France and as a result Americans awoke that morning to hear their local radio stations giving the "news" that D-Day had dawned. The "news" would have been correct but for bad weather in the English Channel. As it was the invasion was postponed until the next day when it was reported correctly. Whether mistake or misinformation the incident shows that there was close collaboration between the Allied armies and the Associated Press in the management of "the news".
Menahem Blondheim's book traces the origins of the Associated Press and the beginning of their collaboration with governmental news management. He tells a series of stories that start long before the invention of the electromagnetic telegraph. At the end of the 18th century "news" was only a minor part of the material published in the many local journals that made up the American press. The transport revolution brought about by the development of stagecoaches, turnpike roads, steamboats and, most important of all, steam railways changed the nature of the press. More news could be published more often with the result that weekly journals became daily newspapers. Newspapers began to compete for "newsbeats" (scoops). To this end new technology in the form of specially chartered railway trains and steam boats was combined with the traditional technology of express horse couriers and carrier pigeons for the fastest transmission of information.
With the opening of the first American telegraph between Washington and Baltimore in 1844 there was little initial change. However, as lines proliferated and New York became the centre of the developing network the "first come first served" rule of the early telegraphs ran into difficulty. Reporters arriving in telegraph offices, sometimes days ahead of anticipated news, would occupy the line by paying for the transmission of whole books of the bible until they had "real" news to send. Because this excluded other valued customers as well as rival newspapers the telegraph owners imposed a rule that restricted use of the line to 15 minutes per person if others were waiting. This 15-minute rule together with the rapidly escalating costs of hiring special trains and steamboats forced a group of New York newspapers to collaborate. Starting with the news received from the Mexican war front during May 1846 six newspapers combined to form what later became the New York Associated Press (NYAP).
European newspapers brought over by the steamships of the Cunard Line and others became the next focus for competition among newspapers. A freelance reporter Daniel H. Craig worked himself into a position of dominance of this "foreign news" market. Recruited as the NYAP "foreign news" agent in Boston, Craig soon rose to be the general agent.
Almost a quarter of the book is devoted to Craig's exploits. Having bought the patent rights to David Edward Hughes's printing telegraph Craig combined with Cyrus Field (promoter of the Atlantic telegraph) and the American Telegraph Company to attack the two major Morse System patent holders Francis O. J. (Fog) Smith and Henry O'Rielly. Having beaten Smith and O'Rielly Craig turned in 1859 against the American Telegraph Company which had fallen under the control of an old enemy Robert W. Russell. Once again Craig won. The civil war made the NYAP the "semi official" channel for the government and appeared to confirm Craig's dominant position. However with the coming of peace, and more particularly with the opening of a successful Atlantic cable, he fell out with his employers, was sacked and slowly faded from the scene.
After Craig a number of new telegraph cables were opened and a number of local press associations were established. First the Western Union Telegraph Company and then the (Chicago based) Western Associated Press came to dominate the "news market". Finally, in 1897, the NYAP was dissolved and the Western Associated Press became simply the Associated Press. The book ends with a return to the 1870s and 1880s and an examination of the claim that the reporting of the Associated Press during this period was biased in favour of the Republican Party.
One third of Blondheim's book is devoted to lists of sources, notes and an index. Though extensive these are not very helpful. There is a name index but no subject index; the name index covers the main text but not the notes; and the notes, for the most part, give abbreviated titles of works. So if a reader, as I did, happens to miss the first of the many references to Reid's The telegraph in America he might mistake this for a modern history of technology text. As it is, James D. Reid's The Telegraph in America: its Founders, Promoters, and Noted Men was written in 1878. This indicates a deeper problem with the work. There is no evidence that Blondheim has consulted any part of the very considerable modern scholarship on the history of technology and there are no discussions of social construction or technological determinism. While many of us would regard the latter as a point in favour of the book, the absence of any useful analysis leaves the work unfinished.
The absence of analysis is not total. In the introduction there are references to the writings of a Canadian communication theorist, Harold Adams Innis and one of his followers Marshall McLuhan. Thank goodness this sociological mish-mash does not seriously infect the rest of the work. Neither Blondheim nor his general editor use the phrase but the work is simply a piece of narrative history. And like all good narrative history it is a good read. I recommend it to you.
Joseph O. Marsh is a lecturer in the history of science and technology and institute archivist, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.
News over the Wires: The Telegraph and the Flow of Public Information in America, 1844-1897
Author - Menahem Blondheim
ISBN - 0 674 62212 X
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £31.95
Pages - 305