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February 10, 1998

All I Know Is What I Read in the Newspaper

Professor William H. Stewart, a member of the 1998 Alabama Humanities Foundation (AHF) Speakers Bureau, will give a presentation titled "All I Know Is What I Read in the Newspapers" on Thursday, February 26 at 7 p.m. in Room 150, Humanities Building on the campus of the University of South Alabama. AHF creates and encourages public programs such as the Speakers Bureau for the examination of life through the humanities -- history, literature, philosophy, ethics and other disciplines. AHF is the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The February 26 program is free and open to the public.

The Harbinger interviewed Prof. Stewart about his upcoming talk. Stewart is also Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department of the University of Alabama.

Q: Professor Stewart, what will you be discussing in your upcoming presentation in Mobile?
A: I will be discussing the role played by newspapers in Alabama, making comparisons and contrasts between the 1890s and the 1990s, which is the overall theme of this year's Alabama Humanities Foundation speakers' bureau series. I will discuss in what I hope will be a humorous but also informative way how newspapers covered stories related to such subjects as amusements, education, economics, religion, youth, tobacco, prohibition, war, crime, etc. This presentation is not designed to be an in-depth lecture on any particular aspect of newspapers, but I will be happy to respond to any questions of a specialized nature.

Q: People say two-newspaper towns are disappearing from the American landscape. In Alabama, did bigger cities such as Birmingham and Montgomery ever have two newspapers? The City of Mobile once had two newspapers.
A: The decline of newspaper competition is one of the most pronounced media trends of the past century. Not only did cities like Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile formerly have severe competition between two newspapers, they used to have more than two. For example, in Birmingham there have been the Age, the State Herald, the Ledger, the Post, etc. Now, of course, there are the News and the Post-Herald.

Q: You hear concerns expressed in recent years as business conglomerations were buying up local and national print and electronic media. Are the concerns justified or is it just crying wolf?
A: It is sad to see the decline of local ownership, but I would rather have distant ownership than have the newspapers disappear. Actually, despite the nonlocal ownership, newspapers are much more objective today and more balanced in their coverage than they were in the 1890s. Years ago newspapers were mostly party organs which stuck very close to the party line and ignored other points of view. The paper I read a few minutes ago had much more diversity of opinion, particularly in the op-ed columns, than what one used to find.

Q? Are economic pressures on the media greater today than before? I notice even newspapers such as The New York Times has cut back news coverage but expanded the lifestyle and arts section. Is that necessarily bad? After all, people say the arts can tame the savage beast within us.
A: Commercial pressures are greater, but I believe this can lead to a better product. I believe strongly that newspapers are our best source of information. With the Internet, we have access to more newspaper content than ever before. Whatever one's interest, one can find it in the newspapers.

Q: You see the media frenzy in covering the recent political scandal in Washington, D.C. What about the press covering scandals in Montgomery, were they and are they just as frantic?
A: In a traditional political culture such as Alabama's, politicians have been more shielded from the prying eyes of the public as represented by the media. I know of nothing closely comparable at the state level to what we have witnessed at the national level since mid-January. In a traditional political culture people do not follow politics as closely, and generally assume that those occupying the highest positions in government generally have considerable freedom to do what they wish, both in their private affairs and in affairs of state, if they are discrete about it.

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL