The Power of Newspapers

When World War I swept away the monarchy in Germany, a social-democratic government took office in Berlin. Afterward, Communists tried to overthrow this new government. Both the Communists and the government felt that controlling the press would mean controlling not just public opinion but the people as well. Thus began a fierce battle for the power of the press.

OVER the past few centuries, newspapers have shaped culture, influenced politics, played an important role in business, and affected the daily lives of millions. What role do they play in your life?

Apparently, in 1605, Germany became the birthplace of the first newspaper in Europe. In some places today, about 3 out of 4 people over the age of 14 read a newspaper daily. While certain developing countries have fewer than 20 copies of a daily newspaper for every 1,000 inhabitants, Norway has more than 600. Altogether, around the globe, about 38,000 newspapers compete for readership.

Everywhere, newspapers inform the public of important affairs. But they do more than that. They provide information on which many readers form opinions. “Our daily newspaper reading,” claims Dieter Offenhäusser of the German Commission for UNESCO, affects “our attitudes, our conduct, and even our fundamental moral values.”

Historians say newspapers have instigated, supported, and justified wars. They cite the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War, the Spanish-American War of 1898, and the Vietnam War of 1955-75. Many businessmen, scientists, entertainment stars, and politicians have come to grief over a scandal publicized in newspapers. In the famed Watergate scandal of the mid-1970’s, investigative journalism set off a series of events that forced U.S. President Richard M. Nixon to resign. Yes, for good or for bad, the press can be a mighty power to reckon with.

But how did this influence begin? How reliable is what we read in our newspapers? What precautions can help us benefit from them?

[Picture on page 3]

The Berlin newspaper war following World War I