Morality in the Media

Anthony Comstock believed that media was extremely powerful. Based off of his reading, it would seem as if he thought the slightest amount of exposure to mediums such as newspaper articles, advertisements, and novels, would corrupt the minds of young people.

Comstock believed in the great power that media had to influence people, for better or for worse. His book, Traps For the Young, focused on forms of communication that he perceived to have a negative effect on youth, or as he referred to them, “Evil Reading”.[1] He seemed to believe that these forms of communication consisted of “traps” for young people, as indicated by the book’s title, and each of its chapters. For example, he, at one point, wrote of how dime-novels, and other “low-priced pamphlets” and “story papers” were traps set by Satan, for the young.[2]

Indeed, the way he talked about this kind of media, and others, made them seem like traps. He discussed, at multiple points in this text, how a youth would come across one of these forms of media, and described how the influence of the media would begin a chain of events that would lead that youth to ruin. For example, Comstock wrote of how, upon reading about crime in the papers, children would discuss the topic with their friends, but not with their mothers, as “They would be ashamed to let their parents know that they think anything about such things.”[3] This shame, combined with curiosity, would inspire the children “to practice deceit,” and to hide their interest in such sinful subjects.[4] The papers would thusly “stimulate ambition to imitate deeds of bloodshed and desperation.” These youths would now be open to doing evil things because “Foul thoughts are the precursors of foul actions.”[5]

As one might have expected, it seems that Comstock put most of the responsibility for media’s content on its producers. He blamed editors and publishers for the sinful content of their newspapers. He called for them to instead feature headlines about “deeds of moral excellence.”[6] He wanted them to focus on the good, and not the bad. Sometimes, he mentioned less direct ways in which people could influence the content of media. He believed writers who included indecency in their books did so in order to attract reviewers.[7] Comstock wrote that attacks by reviewers were “the very best advertisement” for these books.[8] So here, according to Comstock, it was writers of books who were indirectly controlling the content of newspapers. This tied back into the idea of the nature of content that newspapers would feature. Comstock preferred that newspapers made no mention of these books.[9]

As we discussed in class, it seems that Comstock believed that all of the power lay with the media. To him, it was as if readers would believe any and all things that were communicated to them through media, and that other forces could do little to counteract these influences. It seems that he believed the only way for parents to protect their children against such influences was by shunning “Evil communications.”[10] He wanted parents to avoid doing business with vendors who sold things like dime-novels, and to rid their homes of any such “household traps.”[11] Even though he was primarily concerned with young people, a group whom, some would argue, are more susceptible to being influenced, this viewpoint seems a bit extreme. As does his belief that the slightest exposure to any kind of indecent media would begin a chain of events that would lead youths to a life of sin and ruin. And yet, Comstock was not mistaken in his awareness of the power of these forms of communication. I believe his biggest mistaken lay in his certainty of the irresistibility of that power, which is why he came to such extreme conclusions on how to combat such media.

[1] Anthony Comstock, Preface to Traps for the Young, 3rd ed. (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1883), ix.

[2] Anthony Comstock, Traps for the Young, 3rd ed. (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1883), 20-21.

[3] Ibid, 15.

[4] Ibid, 15.

[5] Ibid, 15.

[6] Ibid, 15.

[7] Ibid, 44.

[8] Ibid, 44.

[9] Ibid, 44.

[10] Ibid, 41.

[11] Ibid, 42.


One thought on “Morality in the Media

  1. Derek I really liked this post. I think one thing that I took away from it was the fact that Comstock believed in the power of the media to corrupt youth. You made this very clear throughout your post, and I was wondering to myself as I read why Comstock thought that the media only had the power to influence the youth in a negative way. According to Comstock the media was a very powerful entity, one that had the power to corrupt absolutely. If the media was this powerful then why did Comstock believe that it only had the power to influence people in a negative way? His argument is extremely one sided and I think that is where he fails to be convincing; he understands the media’s ability to influence people very well but he leaves out its ability to effect their lives in a positive way.


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