Comstock and Morality in the Media

Throughout the history of Media and Communications there have been those who believe that communication should be regulated in order to protect morality within society. Over time as media has evolved so has the definition of what is morally acceptable in society, so it is important to study the evolution of media alongside this definition of morality in order to properly understand regulation and censorship. I think that the most important author to examine from our readings is Anthony Comstock. Comstock published a book in the late 19th century called “Traps for the Young” in which he details the “dangers” of contemporary (contemporary to the 1880’s) forms of communications. It was the belief of Comstock – and others we have read – that “we assimilate what we read… [t]he pages of printed matter become our companions.” [1] At the time people like Comstock believed that the public was in danger of absorbing and subscribing to any ideas that they read. According to Comstock there were two kinds of reading, good reading which elevated the mind and stimulated ambition to higher goals, and evil reading which exerted mighty control over young people and sought to corrupt their moral purity. [2] Comstock’s focus is on this evil media, the forms of communication the forms of communication that he thought were threatening the morals of young people at the time. One of the major forms of communication at the time, the newspaper, was heavily decried by Comstock; he believed that newspapers were sensationalizing crime and other things of that nature and while the well-rounded mind of an adult would be able to recognize the evil, the developing mind of a child would not. At this time newspapers and any other printed material being circulated were extremely popular, this was the way that everyone got the bulk of their information. Now Comstock’s quarrel wasn’t with the newspapers directly, just their tendency to sensationalize crime and promote morally corrupt material; he stated that “there is a wide difference between publishing a fact of a crime committed and making a sensational article containing all the foul doings of corrupt men and women.” To call special attention to these crimes according to Comstock was an “outrage upon common decency.” [3] If people were familiar with crime and its inner-workings then they would perpetrate crimes themselves. This process of sensationalizing news has been studied by many and is known as yellow journalism, publishers would do their upmost to bend the truth to their needs and sell as many papers as possible. We saw this with world famous newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst who is one of the most notorious yellow journalists in media history (he would have been about 20 years of age at this time). One would think that Comstock would blame publishers like Hearst for corrupting the morals of society and indeed he does condemn them, but from what I have read I believe that Comstock lays most of the responsibility for the corruption of children on their parents or guardians. [4] The parents had the ability to control what their children were seeing inside of their homes (as well as outside often times), essentially the publishers were vial but the parents were being lazy and unmindful of their children’s moral purity. Comstock was dealing with a monumental task, written media in the form of newspapers, half-dime novels, and story papers was so pervasive in society that they were everywhere. While Comstock was concerned with the ability of parents to protect their children he never really attacks the people who controlled the content, the publishers. In 1873 however the Comstock Act was passed, it stated that no one could send any birth control, or information about birth control or contraceptives through the mail. This stems from Comstock’s belief that lust was the most evil thing that could be expressed in the media, he believed that “lust is the boon companion of all other crimes.”[5] In getting the Comstock Act passed Anthony Comstock effectively demonstrated that the government could control and censor certain forms of media, which is a very big deal within the history of Media and Communication. Anthony Comstock is one of the most fervent supporters of censorship in American history and his writings on moral corruption and the media are invaluable to the study of media and communications in the late 19th and early 20th century.

  1. Anthony Comstock, Traps for the Young (New York: Funk & Wagnalls: 1883), ix.
  2. Comstock, Traps for the Young, ix.
  3. Comstock, Traps for the Young, 13-14.
  4. Comstock, Traps for the Young, 17.
  5. Comstock, Traps for the Young, 133.
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6 thoughts on “Comstock and Morality in the Media

  1. Great post! IYou put in a lot of information about all the things Comstock hated and that is no easy feat since he hated pretty much everything! I think the most interesting thing he hated was the newspapers. I just don’t understand his logic. If people read about crime, they will commit a crime? There’s literally no evidence to prove this. I feel like a math teacher, “Show your work, Comstock!”
    While reading your post I also kept thinking of Citizen Kane. It was obvious in that movie that the newspapers were looking for interesting news to print to sell more. Comstock would have wanted them to have just printed the censored version. I think that using Comstock’s ideas the media would not have become as big as it is today. People would have grown tired of the same old news and they would have gone to other places for entertainment.

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    • That point you make at the end Vikki, is even bigger than we think. Because the Comstock laws were so repressive and that that ultimately led to media bein used as a form of dissent it is interesting to ponder what the media would look like today if someone other than Comstock had written early media’s censorship laws. The point I am trying to make here is that the oppression of the media created by the Comstock Acts, I believe, may be one of the reasons why the original idea of what a newspaper should be, became so radicalized as the acts stop being reinforced. What we saw in Citizen Kane when he was running for governor of New York fell nothing short of the kind of media the public was exposed to this entire past election. I feel like if the Comstock Laws focused more of the validity of content rather than Comstock’s own personal opinion on content, news today may not be such a fallacious medium.

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      • Hi Taylor,

        I totally agree. I think that Comstock should have focused more on the validity of content than his personal beliefs of what is right and what is wrong. I feel like indirectly he started paparazzi. I realize that sounds like a stretch but don’t worry I’ll explain. As I said in my original comment, because of the Comstock laws there was more of a need to print things that were interesting after the laws were enforced so now we have reporters who are stalking celebrities just trying to find something interesting. They might not even print the truth but people but it up because obviously what Kim Kardashian does is more important than the real news like a pipeline in North Dakota.

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  2. I love both of these comments, thank you guys!! Vikki I got the same feeling while reading Comstock; it is difficult to understand someone’s train of thought when it is so radical and absurd. However I think it is important for us to remember just how integrated religion was with the social world at this time. The morals that guided society were the morals of the church, and to Comstock following morality to a “T” was of the upmost importance. Taylor I really like what you said about how Comstock’s radical nature leading people to use the newspaper and other forms of media as a form of dissent; so in a way Comstock, although extremely radical in his censorship, can be seen as part of the reason our media is so liberal today.

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    • Thanks! It’s just so weird to think of a time when religion was so integrated with society, and I went to Catholic School! It’s crazy that as a society, they were able to pass laws based on religious beliefs, and have these laws affect so much of what the people were hearing and reading. It’s like if the Westboro Baptist Church became a reliable source for the government. It makes you wonder how these laws were even passed, church and state are separate and there’s freedom of speech and press; so how did this happen? Comstock is just crazy.

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  3. I enjoyed reading this post because it made me realize that although I agree with Comstock and his beliefs that there should be morality in the media, I do not agree with the Comstock Act (pretty contradictory I know). The way I see it is that what is written in the media, or now shown in the media, effects the world around us, and influences the way people act. But I feel the media is a place where there shouldn’t be censorship and that people should be able to say/write what they believe. The media should want to be more moral to better society around us, but shouldn’t be forced to do so by censorship. If that doesn’t make sense I totally understand, I was just glad your most was able to make me think more deeply on the matter!

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