Mightier than the Sword

How the News Media Have Shaped American History


By Rodger Streitmatter

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In this engaging examination of the media's influence on US history and politics, Rodger Streitmatter visits sixteen landmark episodes, from the American Revolution to the present-day fight for gay and lesbian marriage equality. In each of these cases, Streitmatter succinctly illustrates the enormous role that journalism has played in not merely recording this nation's history but also in actively shaping it.

Mightier than the Sword offers students and professors a highly readable and accessible alternative to journalism history textbooks. Instead of trying to document every detail in the development of US media through dry, dull lists of names, dates, and headlines, this book focuses on sixteen discrete episodes that illustrate a point that is much larger than the sum of their parts: media have played and continue to play an enormous role in shaping this nation.

The fourth edition features an entirely new chapter on the way US media have championed various gay and lesbian rights initiatives, from the 2003 Lawrence vs. Texas sodomy case through the June 2013 Supreme Court decision striking down DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act). Balancing criticism and celebration of news media and exploring both print and electronic platforms, Mightier than the Sword provides students with a sense of the power and responsibility inherent in the institution of journalism.




IN THE SUMMER OF 1776, A BAND OF POLITICAL REBELS TURNED the world upside down. They showed, for the first time in the history of the world, that the discontent of a few colonists could swell into open rebellion so potent that it could create a world power all its own. Such impudence evolving into pure might was unheard of in the eighteenth century or in any of the centuries before it. The same process would occur again—in France, Russia, Cuba, the Philippines—but the events of 1776 stand alone. For they were the first.

Such redefinition of human history doesn’t erupt overnight, as forces had been working long before the fifty-six rebels signed their names to the Declaration of Independence. Among those forces were the words of determined men who possessed talent as well as intellectual insight. Passionate prose written during the era demanded freedom from an oppressive government and ultimately changed the course of human events by transforming lukewarm patriots into fiery revolutionaries.

The transformation unfolded through a series of publications produced by political dissidents. These wordsmiths created the mindset that allowed for political and social revolution—as well as armed conflict. Milestones in the journalistic march toward independence included the “Journal of Occurrences” in 1768 and 1769, followed by the verbal response to the Boston Massacre of 1770. Those two publishing phenomena set the stage for Tom Paine’s clarion call for independence in 1776, as his Common Sense impelled discontented subjects of the British crown to become insurgents fully committed both to revolution and, ultimately, to shaping American history.

Dissension Takes Root

One place to begin the political background of the American Revolution is with the 1763 British victory over the French. That military triumph meant the French were expelled from the American colonies, leaving the fur trade solely to the British. But the high cost of a decade of fighting left the British treasury nearly bankrupt.

Officials in London decided the colonists should pay the bulk of the war debts as well as the cost of defending the frontiers that had been won. The colonists were willing to help—up to a point. Colonial legislatures increased levies, but they didn’t raise enough revenue to satisfy the British.

Economics wasn’t the only factor in the coming revolution, as ideas were stirring people, too. This is where the press played a pivotal role. The writing of the era appeared in newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets that expressed the rebels’ arguments. Revolutions don’t occur because of logic. They require passion, and this emotional element was brought to the movement by a group of visionaries fully aware of the power of the press.

The earliest wave of rebels insisted that the people deserved a larger voice in their governance. Specifically, they believed the colonies should make the laws governing them, although all but the most radical of them accepted that the British crown should remain the final authority in their lives.

Sam Adams: Firebrand of the Revolution

The best known of the early writers was Sam Adams, the cousin of John Adams and the man who would, in 1773, organize the Boston Tea Party. In the 1760s, he became a prominent voice in the Boston Gazette, writing hundreds of essays and news articles. Because other newspapers reprinted his pieces, Adams’s thoughts spread throughout the colonies.

Beginning in 1764, Adams argued that the British Parliament was imposing too many taxes on the colonists. If the House of Commons could compel New England to pay ruinous taxes on a staple such as molasses, Adams insisted, the colonists’ liberty was in jeopardy. “If our Trade may be taxed,” he asked rhetorically, “why not our Lands? Why not the Produce of our Lands & every thing we possess or make use of? This we apprehend annihilates our Charter Right to govern & tax ourselves.” Adams’s protests, in short, represented an early cry against taxation without representation.1

Adams and the other men who gathered around him in the Boston Gazette office came to believe that the only way the colonies could resolve their disputes with England was to secure home rule. This meant they’d come to the position—shocking to the vast majority of British citizens—that the colonies, not the Mother Country, should establish their own laws vis-à-vis how they’d be governed, although the crown would continue to hold veto power. This idea was considered radical—tantamount to a child determining his or her own behavior.

Although Adams was Harvard educated and from a prosperous family, he was also a backstairs politician who understood the need to arouse public opinion as a step toward gaining grassroots support for the revolutionary ideas that he and his associates espoused. He wrote, “Where there is a Spark of patriotick fire, we will enkindle it.”2

“Journal of Occurrences” as News Service

To this end, Adams conceived of what became America’s first systematic gathering and distributing of news, a precursor of today’s Associated Press. Adams named his service the “Journal of Occurrences,” and it quickly evolved into a communication network that spread his anti-British rhetoric to every corner of the colonies.

Items for the journal were written by Adams and other Bostonians before being reprinted in the thirty-five weekly newspapers being published in the colonies at the time. The process began with Adams and others in Boston writing accounts of events and sending them to John Holt, who published the New York Journal. Upon receiving an item from Boston, Holt would print it in the next edition of his weekly paper. Holt then sent copies of the Journal to newspaper publishers throughout the colonies, who reprinted the items in their next issues.

Adams’s impetus for establishing the news service was Britain’s decision to station large numbers of troops in Boston. Officials of the crown were concerned that they were losing control of the colonies, particularly because of an increasing number of protests over tax initiatives. So the British sent four regiments of soldiers to Boston to maintain order and remind the colonists that they were, in fact, British subjects.

The “Journal of Occurrences” began in September 1768, the same month the troops arrived. It became immediately apparent that the purpose of Adams’s journalistic venture was to build opposition to the troops—and therefore to the British—by creating and disseminating a record of the loathsome acts the soldiers were committing against the colonists.

The journal was organized like a personal diary. Each installment listed the dates for a particular week, and under each date were descriptions of the individual bits of news that had occurred on that particular day. The first installment ended with a note to publishers: “The above Journal you are desired to publish for the general satisfaction, it being strictly fact.”3 Adams wrote most of the items, although bylines didn’t appear with any of them.4

The “Journal” created a startling record of misdeeds. Many items spoke of the soldiers’ uncouth behavior and low morals. Some reported that the soldiers uttered “profane & abusive language,” and others said the troops were constantly involved in “drunkenness,” “debaucheries,” and “licentious and outrageous behaviour.” Still other items accused the men of committing crimes such as extorting money from colonists who were walking on the street and stealing merchandise from colonial shopkeepers.5

The single most frequent subject covered in the “Journal” was soldiers mistreating law-abiding citizens, with most of the victims not identified by name. Accounts told of physicians and merchants being “jostled,” having bayonets thrust at them, and being knocked to the ground. Typical of the items was one relating how three soldiers surrounded a man walking on the street, “damning him, and asking why he did not answer when hail’d; immediately upon which, one of them without any provocation gave him a blow, which was seconded by another, whereby he was brought to the ground; they then stamped upon him; then they robbed him of all the money in his pocket.”6

Most disturbing of the items were those chronicling brutalities against Boston women. One item began, “A girl at New-Boston, was lately knock’d down and abused by soldiers for not consenting to their beastly proposal.” Another read, “A young woman lately passing thro’ Long-Lane, was stopt and very ill treated by some soldiers, the cry of the person assaulted, brought out another woman into the street, who for daring to expostulate with the ruffians, received a stroke from one of them.”7

Numerous items involved serious offenses. One reported that a woman had filed a complaint with a local magistrate “against a soldier, and some others for a violent attempt upon her, but a rape was prevented, by the timely appearance of a number of persons.” Another described a soldier who entered the home of an “aged woman” and then “seized her, by the shoulders, threw her upon the floor, and not withstanding her years, attempted a rape upon her.” The item reported that the “brutal behaviour” ended only because the woman’s screams brought help from neighbors.8

Regardless of the circumstances, the items came wrapped in a tone of outrage, as Adams and the other correspondents made liberal use of strong phrasing. Affronts against the colonists were described as “gross” and “shocking to humanity.” The soldiers were labeled “villains,” “wretches,” and “bloody-backed rascals.”9

Readers found these spicy news items far more interesting than the diet of sermons and outdated weather reports that dominated the newspapers of the day. The descriptions of improper behavior by the British troops became popular reading—as the blood pressure of the colonists quickly rose.

British officials denied that the troops were the monsters Adams painted them to be. Massachusetts Colonial Governor Francis Bernard denounced the news items as “virulent & seditious lies.” Thomas Hutchinson, soon to replace Bernard, wrote, “Nine tenths of what you read in the Journal of Occurrences in Boston is either absolutely false or grossly misrepresented.”10

And yet the British officials also had to acknowledge that the accounts were having the impact Adams had hoped. As early as January 1769, Hutchinson wrote British officials that the items were turning large numbers of American colonists against the crown. Six months later, feelings toward the troops had grown so rancorous that British officials admitted that the presence of the regiments was increasing hostility rather than reducing it. Officials therefore decided to withdraw the militiamen, who left Boston in August 1769. In short, Adams and his journalistic strategy had triumphed.11

The “Journal of Occurrences” then ceased operation. It had produced some 300 individual entries, one for each day during the ten months that British troops had been stationed in Boston. The incidents chronicled in the “Journal”—occurring day after day, week after week, month after month—were effective in ridding Boston of the unwanted British soldiers and in gaining support for Adams and his radical notions. According to today’s standards of news professionalism, however, there was a fundamental problem with most of the accounts: they weren’t true.

Evidence that many of the items were either fabrications or extreme exaggerations evolves from the exact dates they appeared in the papers. The attempted rape on the elderly woman, for example, allegedly took place on April 30, but it wasn’t reported in Boston newspapers until June 26. If such a violent physical attack actually had occurred, surely the Boston newsmen would have warned their fellow townspeople as quickly as possible. There’s no logical reason why they would have followed the drawn-out procedure of first publishing the item in the New York Journal and only several weeks later publishing it in the Boston papers—resulting in a two-month delay between the attack and its being reported to local residents. If such an attack against a local woman had, in fact, occurred, and the story about it was news rather than propaganda, certainly the Boston correspondents would have reported the event in their local papers in the next weekly edition so townspeople could have taken precautions to protect themselves from the danger in their midst.12

The colonial editors apparently felt justified in publishing the descriptions of exaggerated and imaginary incidents because they believed fanning the flames of hatred against the British served the patriot cause.

Boston Massacre: Not to Be Forgotten

Although British officials withdrew the four regiments of militiamen from Boston in the summer of 1769, they left a handful of men in the city as guards. The colonists resented the presence of even these few soldiers. On March 5, 1770, several young colonists gathered outside the British Custom House and threw snowballs at the guards. After some time passed, one of the colonists hit a soldier with a club, knocking him to the ground. The soldier discharged his musket, possibly by accident as he fell, and the bullet struck a colonist. Action then escalated, with the colonists swinging clubs and the British firing guns. By the end of the melee, five colonists were dead and the incident became known as the Boston Massacre.

Adams shrieked with outrage when the trial of the British officer and six of his men involved in the incident led only to light punishments. Five of the men were exonerated, and the two others were ordered merely to have their hands branded. Writing angrily in the Gazette, Adams labeled the British soldiers “barbarous & cruel, infamously mean & base.”13

The most incendiary material about the massacre didn’t follow immediately after the trial, however, but in later years. That rhetoric appeared primarily in the form of one-page fliers that were produced more quickly than multipage pamphlets. Tacked at night on trees and the doors of neighborhood taverns, these fliers were read aloud to groups of colonists, and so their influence spread far beyond literate men and women.

Typical were the histrionic words distributed widely on the second anniversary of the 1770 event. One flier began, “AMERICANS! Bear in Remembrance the HORRID MASSACRE!” It went on to describe the five victims as “Being basely and most INHUMANLY MURDERED!” Such exclamations of rage didn’t just keep the fight for liberty fresh in the minds of citizens but also fueled a public desire for retribution—challenging the colonists to avenge the murders.14

In the words of David Ramsay, a soldier who fought in the American Revolution, the fliers that were written about the Boston Massacre “administered fuel to the fire of liberty, and kept it burning with an incessant flame.”15

Tom Paine: Voice of Inspiration

The final and most decisive phase of the pro-revolution media campaign began after armed hostilities had broken out in Lexington and Concord in April 1775 and was led by the most important writer of the colonial era, Tom Paine.

After an initial failure in the corset-making business in London, Paine had been hired to collect taxes on liquor and other items. When he began to agitate for higher pay for himself and his fellow workers, however, the British government discharged him. By happenstance, Paine met Benjamin Franklin, then at the height of his career as America’s chief spokesman in Europe. Franklin saw so much merit in Paine that he encouraged the fiery young agitator to go to America, providing a letter of introduction for him.

When Paine arrived in Philadelphia in November 1774, the thirty-seven-year-old came with the intent of founding an academy to educate young women. But he veered from his course when his connection to Franklin led to an offer to edit Pennsylvania Magazine. Paine’s writing in that publication gained him a reputation as an insightful commentator on the issues of the day.

Common Sense Ignites a Nation

In January 1776, Paine wrote the material that secured him fame as a revolutionary writer. Common Sense evolved after a friend urged him to write an essay on the future of the American colonies “beyond the ordinary short and cold address of newspaper publication.” That he did.16

Others had offered political and economic arguments, but Paine advocated nothing short of social revolution. His pamphlet served as important a purpose as any piece of journalism in the history of this country. Its message has been credited with transforming thousands of mildly disillusioned colonists into defiant rebels fully prepared to fight for a utopian new world.

Before Paine published his pamphlet, most colonists had aspired only to protect their rights as English subjects. Common Sense argued that those men and women not only deserved, but also were obligated, as citizens of the human race, to demand much more. Paine’s central message was that the issues facing the colonists weren’t transitory or parochial, but timeless and universal. He wrote, “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind . . . the concern of every man to whom nature hath given the power of feeling.” He returned to the theme repeatedly in later passages, appealing to his readers’ sense of destiny by writing, “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. ’Tis not the affair of a City, a County, a Province, or a Kingdom. ’Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be affected even to the end of time.”17

Paine dubbed King George III “the Royal Brute of Great Britain” and the English constitution “the base remains of ancient tyrannies.” He further struck out at the monarchy by boldly saying, “Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.” Paine was the first writer in America to denounce the British monarchy and constitution so utterly.18

Only after dispensing with these institutions did Paine’s pamphlet begin to discuss colonial independence—a concept so controversial that other patriots had counseled him to avoid using the word “independence” at all. Radicals such as Sam Adams had mentioned the concept occasionally, but most colonists still refused to consider such an extreme step. Paine, in contrast, presented separation from Britain as the only option for the colonies and then went on to sketch a breathtaking vision of what American independence could mean for all of humankind, saying, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. The birthday of a new world is at hand.”19

After the pamphlet Common Sense appeared in January 1776, the concept of independence spread like wildfire through the American colonies.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

With Common Sense, Paine pioneered a new style of political writing aimed at extending political discussion to all classes. Authors of the eighteenth century believed that to write for a mass audience meant to sacrifice refinement for coarseness, to reject a lofty literary style in favor of a vulgar one. The American pamphleteers before Paine had come largely from the high social strata of lawyers, merchants, and ministers, but Paine had sprung from that same mass audience that he was so successful at reaching.

Paine later wrote, “As it is my design to make those that can scarcely read understand, I shall therefore avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet.” He eliminated the flowery language that might have impressed highly educated readers, so the hallmarks of his writing were the same as those of journalism today—clarity, directness, force. His vocabulary and grammar were straightforward, and he carried his readers along with great care from one argument to the next. Paine’s message, stated explicitly and reiterated by his tone and style, was that all citizens could grasp the nature of—and play a role in—their own governance.20

The response to Common Sense was astonishing. At a time when colonial newspapers were lucky if they sold 2,000 copies and pamphlets were printed in one or two editions of a few thousand, more than 150,000 copies of Common Sense were sold within three months. And by year’s end the pamphlet had gone through twenty-five separate editions.

Impact wasn’t measured in numbers alone, however, as Paine’s words instantly affected people, reading the simple message and overnight becoming committed to independence. In a matter of weeks, his passion had infected virtually every American colonist who was either literate or was in earshot of one of the hundreds of voices who read the words aloud in coffeehouses, taverns, and town squares from Maine to Georgia.

In the most famous comment on the impact of Paine’s words, General George Washington said, “By private letters, which I have lately received from Virginia, I find ‘Common Sense’ is working a powerful change there in the minds of many men.” Others agreed. Abigail Adams thanked her husband, John, for sending her a copy and gushed about its impact in Massachusetts, writing, “Tis highly prized here and carries conviction wherever it is read. I have spread it as much as it lay in my power, every one assents to the weighty truths it contains.” Thomas Jefferson also observed, “No writer has exceeded Paine in ease and familiarity of style, in perspicuity of expression, happiness of elucidation, and in simple and unassuming language.”21

Common Sense didn’t single-handedly cause the American Revolution or propel the authors of the Declaration of Independence to craft their historic document less than six months after Paine wrote his extraordinary pamphlet. But there’s no question that his words had significant impact. Paine articulated the larger meaning of the struggle with Britain to readers focused on attaining their rights—and suddenly those same citizens embraced the concept of independence that previously had been anathema to them. Paine biographer Eric Foner wrote, “The success of Common Sense reflected the perfect conjunction of a man and his time, a writer and his audience, and it announced the emergence of Paine as the outstanding political pamphleteer of the Age of Revolution.”22

Crisis Essays Inspire an Army

Despite Paine’s singular contribution to the revolutionary cause, his work as an inspirational writer hadn’t yet ended. He joined the Continental Army in August 1776 and, like his fellow soldiers, felt the might of a well-armed and well-trained British army. As the summer wore into winter, companies began breaking up. The British cut the Americans to pieces in numerous battles, and Paine saw hundreds of his adopted countrymen die.

Making his way to Washington’s headquarters, Paine saw the defeated Americans preparing to retreat across the Delaware River. Legend has it that Paine wrote his Crisis essays at Washington’s request. The general could see that the winter cold, combined with poor food and inadequate uniforms, was taking a severe toll on his soldiers. So he called on Paine to write words that would motivate the men to continue fighting.

In December 1776, the first installment of the Crisis papers went into print in the Pennsylvania Journal. The piece was immediately reprinted as a pamphlet and distributed throughout the colonies. Washington had the essay read to his suffering and dispirited troops, and a week later they won a crucial victory at Trenton.

That first essay began with the line that was to be remembered by future generations as Paine’s most famous: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” For more than two centuries, literature classes have admired the power of that alliterative phrasing. Paine continued, “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”23

Other Crisis papers appeared as the need demanded, with twelve being published by December 1783. Each burst with a new flurry of inspiration, including, “Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it and to repulse it.”24

After inspiring the colonists to seek independence and later fighting in both the American and French revolutions, Tom Paine died in 1809. His tombstone listed his most important accomplishment as creating Common Sense.

Stunning Impact

Just as the American Revolution stands as a seminal event in the history of the United States, colonial American journalism provides a salient example of the impact the news media have had on shaping American history. For the series of publications produced in the colonies during the 1760s and 1770s helped lead the colonists toward political and social revolution. “That rebellion,” one historian wrote, “would have been impossible without the spur of the press.”25

Historians credit essay writer Tom Paine with helping to transform lukewarm patriots into fiery revolutionaries.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


  • “Exciting, easy to read, and something students will find different from that 15-lb. boring historical tome. It gives snippets of history but still leaves the reader with an understanding of the importance of the media in U.S. History. I highly recommend it.”
    —Susan J. De Bonis, Georgia Southern University

    <emPraise for the previous editions:

    “In this engagingly written collection of case studies, Rodger Streitmatter demonstrates that journalism history is much more than a static gallery of the usual portraits. . . . Overall, the second edition of Mightier than the Sword is well worth acquiring, as it offers substantial new content and updates. As in the first edition, Streitmatter writes gracefully and concisely, in a style sure to command students? interest. He embeds considerable scholarship in each chapter, so that readers wishing more can easily see where next to go. . . . This book will continue to be useful not only in the standard journalism history course but in myriad others from media and society to media criticism to reporting.”
    Journalism History (Nancy L. Roberts, SUNY-Albany)
  • “A nice, tight package of meaningful topics… quite readable… balanced…a fine work…short but substantive… innovative in form and content…accessible and insightful…dynamic range of topics. A great supplemental text in a mass media survey or media and history course.”
    —Charles Lewis, Minnesota State University

    “Accurate, engaging, and succinct. Provides ample starting point for further discussions and exploration…Very readable; the author has a sure hand on his history and makes it accessible to the reader… extensive bibliography is a real plus.”
    —Joe Zubrick, University of Maine, Fort Kent

    “Streitmatter?s book stands alone as the best thematic approach to history available. Students respond to the storytelling tone; the narratives connect the dates and people for them.”
    —Susan English, Gonzaga University

    “Impressive. Many texts are chock-full of facts and figures that put students to sleep, not so with Streitmatter?s accessible story-telling approach. The evolution of news, from the American revolution to journalism?s current condition, is outlined in manageable chapters that capture the imagination.”
    —Selene Phillips, University of Louisville
  • “In succinct, engrossing prose, Streitmatter shows how courageous, effective communicators have accepted their own and their media?s limitations to shape the outcome of events from abolitionism to anti-Semitism, women?s rights to civil rights, the Ku Klux Klan to Vietnam.”

    “An easy-to-digest . . . overview of the media?s influence on American history and politics. . . . A fine introductory textbook for a journalism class.”
    Kirkus Reviews

    “A novel approach to journalism history, presenting key episodes in an engaging style bound to appeal to students and the general public alike. Streitmatter?s lucid prose draws on study of both primary and secondary source material to provide a provocative synthesis and serves as a basis for thoughtful examination of the role of the news media in American society.”
    —Maurine H. Beasley, University of Maryland at College Park

On Sale
Jul 28, 2015
Page Count
320 pages

Rodger Streitmatter

About the Author

A journalist and historian, Rodger Streitmatter is a leader in exploring how communication has helped shape the history of the United States. He is a professor of journalism at American University, where he has integrated his research into his teaching and created more than a dozen new courses including popular offerings on how the news media shape history, the role of dissident media, and the media and sexuality. He is a contributor to The Washington Post, The Advocate, and other periodicals, and as a journalism scholar, he has written for Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, American Journalism, and Journalism History, where he is a corresponding editor. He has been a member of the Board of Directors of the Journalism Historians Association, and on the Executive Committee of the History Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. He has received honors from the Virginia Press Association for his reporting, and from the American Journalism Historian Association as Outstanding Researcher.

Learn more about this author