The Washington Post

October 5, 1988, Wednesday


HEADLINE: Flash! It's the News!; A History of People's Thirst for the Latest

BYLINE: Jonathan Yardley

A HISTORY OF NEWS: From the Drum to the Satellite

By Mitchell Stephens

Viking. 401 pp. $24.95 (more on this book)

Mitchell Stephens is here to tell us what, in our vanity and ignorance, we too often forget: that there is nothing, or at least precious little, new under the sun. In his thorough, scrupulous and witty history of news, Stephens amply demonstrates that man's fascination with news and his determination to disseminate it are no offspring of this age of technology, but are as old as man himself; in subtitling his history "From the Drum to the Satellite," Stephens means for us to understand that the two means of transmission have far more in common that we might at first think possible.

This is "an interpretive rather than an exhaustive history," one more concerned with "the nature of journalism" than with the many particulars of its development. Defining news as "new information about a subject of some public interest that is shared with some portion of the public," Stephens goes on to examine the manifold forms this information takes and the equally manifold ways in which over the years it has fascinated all people in all societies.

The first thing to be said of Stephens is that he is neither a snob nor a purist. Persons looking for a defense of journalistic sobriety and a condemnation of sensationalism will not find it here. Stephens believes, and he is right, that in giving full play to what is startling and unusual and even grotesque and/or offensive, the press merely gives people what they want -- that the human appetite for sensation is natural and that "without gossip, without crime -- without the humanizing and stimulating touch of occasional inanities and outrages -- the news would lose much of its vitality."

Stephens is a realist. He knows that "the news is not about life but about ... those dramatic moments when the spell of daily reality is broken by the death of a dictator, a defection or a drowning," and that this has been true for as long as people have asked the question, "What's new?" Whether the news is delivered by the oral systems of ancient societies or the television programs of our own, its essence is the same:

"When we choose to enter the world of breaking news, we enter a fun house. Abnormalities loom large in journalism's bent mirrors; perspectives are distorted; horrors materialize out of nowhere; everywhere we turn there is blood and danger. If there is a logic to the collection of intense moments that journalists package, it is a logic of discontinuity -- a carnival logic of freaks and catastrophes, a logic beyond the reach of the conventional sentiments with which most daily journalism must make do. Much of the time journalists, like circus announcers, are reduced to barking and adding admonitions: 'Marvelous!' 'Prodigious!' 'Frightful!' 'Lamentable!' 'Horrible!' "

This is entirely true, but in emphasizing it I do not mean to minimize the more serious aspects of Stephens' analysis. Among these are a persuasive argument that "the circulation of news ... in the long run strengthens a society" by emphasizing the commonality of interests and experiences its inhabitants share; a discussion of how the coming of literacy to Roman society introduced the elements of dispassion and analysis into the news; a reminder that journalistic institutions are inherently conservative, inasmuch as they depend for their survival on the patronage of any society's predominant forces; and a forthright but uncondescending acknowledgment that "the journalist's tendency toward superficiality" comes, as they say, with the territory.

These and other themes Stephens explores within the framework of a deft tour through the history of news. From oral news systems to handwritten bulletins to the Gutenberg press to news ballads to newspapers to radio and television, he doesn't miss a beat. Though he is himself a professor of journalism (at New York University) he has written not an inside-baseball book but one for the general reader; he has given the news and those who disseminate it a degree of legitimacy previously unsuspected by or of them, and he makes a powerful case for treating "the news" as seriously as any other aspect of common human interest and endeavor. "A History of News" is in all respects first-rate, and original, work.