There were a variety of reactions to the fledgling American press. The travelers were all astounded by the wide dissemination of printed material throughout the young republic. Some saw the newspapers as the key to the success of the new democracy and while others maintained their poor quality, immorality, and wide availability would be its ruin.
Alexander Farkas sees the American press as an integral part of an enlightened democratic culture.
"In Europe it is considered nothing short of magic, the means by which the American people were raised so quickly to such a high degree of culture and flourishing state...One of the instruments of this magic is the publication of newspapers. The laws of the nation confer the complete and unquestioned right on every citizen to start a printing press without any special permit or the surveillance by censorship of any kind and freely print any text as long as it does not violate the rights of others. This is the simple means by which the large number of journals of science and learning in every field disseminate so quickly and inexpensively knowledge, reason, and culture" (60).
Thomas Hamilton, Harriot Martineau and George Combe find the press to be immoral and inaccurate. Hamilton especially is disgusted with the press, finding it "utterly contemptible in point of talent, and dealing in abuse so virulent as to excite a feeling of disgust not only with the writers, but with the public which afforded them support" (444). Harriot Martineau feels the same. "The profligacy of newspapers, wherever they exist is a universal complaint; and, of all newspaper presses, I never heard any one deny that the American is the worst" (103). Martineau finds that the editors will not publish any opinions contrary to those that are commonly accepted, and they refuse to take the higher moral ground. She is horrified when she discovers that a Missouri paper has not spoken out against a recent lynching. "The majority of newspapers editors made themselves parties to the act, by refusing, from fear, to reprobate it" (103).
The criticism is not completely harsh. Martineau realizes that the country needs more time to improve its press, "There will be no great improvement in the literary character of American newspapers till the literature of the country has improved" (104). She also praises "a spirited paper in Louisville" and notes that "Two New York papers, the New York American and the Evening Post, have gained themselves honour by intrepidity of the same kind, [as the Louisville paper] and by the comparative moderation and friendliness of their spirit" (106).
George Combe has no problems with the content and politics of the American press, he simply finds it full of mistakes. Like he has before, Combe looks beyond the surface and attributes the causes of the sloppy press to the shortage of labor in America.
"Many complaints are made against the morality of the American Press, but I have hitherto had experience only of its blunders. Labor is here so valuable, that every man does too much, and in consequence work is executed in a slovenly manner. At New York, the huge placards of my lectures posted in the town bore that I proposed to lecture on "Phrenology applied to Elocution" instead of Education; a most unfortunate blunder for me, as my elocution is sadly defective, and deeply tinged with a Scotch accent...The reports of my lectures in the Daily Whig of New York were often blundered in the names, grammar and spelling...In this city (Philadelphia), which is famed for the superiority of its press, the printer omitted the hour in the placards announcing my first lecture!" (189).
No matter the quality of the newspapers, all of the travelers are astounded by their number and popularity.
"Everyone of these villages, however small, prints one newspaper at least" (Hall, 49).It was not just the cities and small townspeople that read newspapers, they also were delivered far into the wilderness. Farkas is amazed at this process and recalls it in full detail.
"...it could happen nowhere out of America, that so raw a settlement as that at Ann Arbor, where there is difficulty in procuring decent accommodations, should have a newspaper" (Martineau, 161).
"What increased my astonishment even more, was that a newspaper is published here, twice a week, the Winchester Sentinel, Mr. Marks, publisher" (60).
"In America the stagecoaches usually deliver the newspaper, too, and I had found their method of distribution very interesting and in this wilderness quite surprising. No matter how poor a settler may be nor how far in the wilderness he may be from the civilized world, he will read a newspaper. When our coach emerged into a clearance from the woods, our driver would blow his horn, signaling the settler that we were approaching. There was a box full of newspapers at the foot of the driver and he threw the settler's paper on the side of the road without stopping. This scene was repeated all day long, the driver throwing the papers left and right, on whichever side the settler might be" (151).
A few of the Europeans do not feel that the widespread distribution of these corrupt newspapers was a good thing. Martineau observes, "It is hard to tell which is worse, the wide diffusion of things that are not true, or the suppression of things that are true" (103). They maintained that the thinly educated lower classes would not be able to see through the rhetoric and sift the truth from the lies.
"The influence and circulation of newspapers is great beyond any thing ever known in Europe. In truth, ninetenths of the population read nothing else, and are consequently mentally inaccessible by any other avenue. Every village, nay, almost every Hamlet has its press, which issues second-hand news and serves as an arena in which the political gladiators of the neighborhood may exercise their power of use and abuse" (Hamilton, 266).Neither Martineau and Hamilton's harsh criticism of the crude beginnings of the American press reflect their educated, upper-class status in England. Hamilton actually applauds the English papers for their expense because it keeps them from the lower classes. The American press is one of the strongest symbols of its democratic government and high standard of living. Here is another instance where the English are not comfortable with the absence of hierarchy in the United States. The aristocratic travelers coming from a class-structured society can only see the unsightly condition of the crude American newspaper, and not its virtues. Alex Farkas was the only one who saw the widespread and widely read press as a symbol of the enlightenment and equality of America.
"Newspapers are so cheap in the United States, that the generality even of the lowest order can afford to purchase them. They therefore depend for support on the most ignorant class of the people. Every thing they contain must be accommodated to the taste and apprehension of men who labour daily for their bread, and are of course indifferent to refinement either of language or reasoning...strong words take the place of strong arguments, and every vulgar booby who can call names, and procure a set of types upon credit, may set up as an editor, with a fair prospect of success" (Hamilton, 447).