“How the Penny Press Brought Great Journalism to Populist America,” by me, at The Daily Beast.
The “Join, or Die” snake is one of America’s most recognizable, beloved and replicated icons. Emblazoned on flags and t-shirts, pillow cases and iPhone cases, and even on tv show title cards and in comic books, the image is upheld today as a both specifically as an emblem of American independence, and generally as bid for unity against a common oppression. But the world’s most adored reptile didn’t start this way.
Created by Benjamin Franklin in 1754, the “Join, or Die” snake originally signified loyalty to the English empire. It wasn’t a call to action, but an order to fall into line. It was only later that “Join, or Die” evolved into a revolutionary rallying cry — and when it did, it became America’s first meme, too.
Today marks the 277th anniversary of Boston-based publisher Andrew Bradford releasing American Magazine; or Monthly View of the Political State of the British Colonies.
Meanwhile, three days from now, February 16, marks the same amount of time since Bradford’s protégé and later rival, Benjamin Franklin, published his The General Magazine, and Historical Chronicle for all the British Plantations in America.
Neither publication lasted very long: American Magazine shuttered after three months and Franklin’s in six. Media in America, and in general, has always been a tough gig – and that’s putting it nicely.
On November 14, 1959, two months before announcing his presidential campaign, John Kennedy published a TV Guide article evaluating television’s influence on American politics. His assessment? It’s complicated.
Clearly the then-new media was already instrumental in engaging and informing the public and would continue to be for generations, but the future president also worried about PR hacks creating fraudulent charlatans, feared media manipulation, and fretted about how prohibitive advertising costs would keep good politicians down.
From the conclusion of his piece, “A Force That Has Changed The Political Scene:”
…Political success on television is not, unfortunately, limited only to those who deserve it. It is a medium which lends itself to manipulation, exploitation and gimmicks. It can be abused by demagogs [sic], by appeals to emotion and prejudice and ignorance.
Political campaigns can be actually taken over by the “public relations” experts, who tell the candidate not only how to use TV but what to say, what to stand for and what “kind of person” to be. Political shows, like quiz shows, can be fixed-and sometimes are.
The other great problem TV presents for politics is the item of financial cost. It is no small item…. If all candidates and parties are to have equal access to this essential and decisive campaign medium, without becoming deeply obligated to the big financial contributors from the worlds of business, labor or other major lobbies, then the time has come when a solution must be found to this problem of TV costs.
…The basic point is this: Whether TV improves or worsens our political system, whether it serves the purpose of political education or deception, whether it gives us better or poorer candidates, more intelligent or more prejudiced campaigns-the answers to all this are up to you, the viewing public.
It is in your power to perceive deception, to shut off gimmickry, to reward honesty, to demand legislation where needed. Without your approval, no TV show is worthwhile and no politician can exist.
Kennedy was of course right about it all, as he was when he noted that television would breed a new generation of polished and youthful candidates. The only thing Kennedy got wrong in his essay? This: “Today a vast viewing public is able to detect [political] deception…” He always was an optimistic one…