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.”  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.  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.”  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.  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.” 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.
- Anthony Comstock, Traps for the Young (New York: Funk & Wagnalls: 1883), ix.
- Comstock, Traps for the Young, ix.
- Comstock, Traps for the Young, 13-14.
- Comstock, Traps for the Young, 17.
- Comstock, Traps for the Young, 133.