The box appeared to be unremarkable. A thin layer of dust had accumulated on its lid, and it didn’t seem to close properly. However, hidden inside was an astonishing trove of artifacts – and they concerned some of the most important episodes in modern American history.
A Michigan woman who goes by the online name “Doggetofftheqcekmty” published photos of the find on imgur in July 2017. She had stumbled upon the box while digging around in her grandpa’s closet, but initially she wasn’t all that impressed.
“It’s not a very good box,” she wrote. The real value of the object, however, lay in its contents. You see, inside was a stash of historical documents. Some of them, like this tattered high school diploma, had special personal value but little wider significance. Others, however, documented events of exceptional public importance.
The woman found the documents after removing a wooden drawer at the top of the box. Stacked in a tidy pile, they had apparently been collected over many decades. So, she removed them and began to look closer – and it was then that she realized just what she had found. “Jack-Frikin-Pot!” she wrote.
The box contained newspapers and magazines that had apparently been saved for their national and historic significance. As sources, they offered not only detailed records of major events in American history but also intimate glimpses of American society and how it had viewed the world – and itself – at different historical junctures.
For example, this supplement from the Miami Herald marks the American bicentenary on July 4, 1976. The headline, “We hold these truths…,” is a quote from the opening of the American Declaration of Independence, while the soaring eagle is instantly recognizable as a symbol of American identity. That said, the style and tone of the rendition thoroughly belong to the 1970s.
Of course, newspapers do not necessarily reflect changing times, at least not accurately. In fact, the media often frame events according to their own agendas. News values, for example, determine the placement of an article on the basis of its perceived “newsworthiness.” News values include familiarity, conflict, predictability, personalization and reference to elite individuals, to name but a few.
Agendas also reflect political positions. By today’s standards, this front page from the Detroit Times is rather chilling. “Atom Bomb Hits Japan,” proclaims the headline, followed by the words, in red, “Turns Steel Buildings Into Gas.” Triumphant and awestruck, the opening paragraphs continue to emphasize the destructive power of the bomb.
Indeed, one would actually expect wartime news to closely reflect government agendas. For one thing, significant deviation might even be perceived as treason. And, in fact, governments have been involved with wartime propaganda since the First World War, whether to manipulate populations at home or to influence those abroad.
For example, in September 1914 a secret organization called Wellington House was established in Britain. Its members included journalists and editors who wrote and disseminated articles and stories favorable to the United Kingdom. And their reports were able to reach international news agencies much faster than the German equivalents because British forces had severed German underwater communication cables.
Moreover, during the Second World War, Joseph Goebbels made history as one of the world’s darkest propagandists. Using techniques borrowed from the American advertising industry, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda was and still is notorious for his ruthless scapegoating of Jewish immigrants. He also used his connections in the arts and media to keep the country “on message.”
And, of course, while most media output is not propaganda, often it still transmits hegemonic values and agendas. That is, it reflects the cultural or ideological influence wielded by a dominant group in society. In essence, hegemony refers to the leadership of ideas. For example, the framing of Roosevelt’s death as a national tragedy supposes the culturally dominant value of patriotism.
Furthermore, while patriotism might well be a cultural virtue that most Americans agree on, media hegemony is more controversial than that. It reveals how the mass media can act as a vehicle for ideological control – not necessarily through conscious design, but through mechanisms of social consent.
Naturally, the values that permeate a culture evolve organically with time, as do the ways in which the media frame stories. Published on July 25, 1969, this commemorative supplement from the Miami Herald marks the historic moment that Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. The headline reflects a stirring optimism: “We came in peace for all mankind.”
Certainly, to some, the Moon landing represented something more than a spectacular scientific achievement. Marking the end of a decade of profound social change, it symbolized a revolution in technology and ideas, the dawn of a new era. These headlines reflect a hope for global peace, with landing on the Moon perceived as the destiny of humanity.
But beneath that singularly historic moment was a different reality. The Moon landing actually symbolized a major victory in a long and costly battle between the United States and Russia. For years, both countries had fought for the glory of putting the first man on the Moon. But NASA had little interest in world peace; its goal was to win the Space Race.
Yet no other single event has been more significant in forming America’s modern identity than the assassination of President Kennedy. After all, an entire generation knows where they were when it happened. To some extent, it symbolized a collective loss of innocence. And it exposed a deep public uncertainty over American political institutions, which many would argue has continued to this day.
For example, this edition of Life magazine called into question the basic assumption that a single shooter, Lee Harvey Oswald, was responsible for Kennedy’s death. “Did Oswald Act Alone?” it asked, arguing the case that the official version of events was “a matter of reasonable doubt.”
The mass media, then, is rarely, if ever, impartial. It is, and always will be, an intensely political institution. Nonetheless, it does serve a vital role in questioning power – when not given to the mindless transmission of hegemony. And so despite its flaws and limitations, journalism is essential to democracy.
Ultimately, what makes this collection so interesting is the many stories it tells. The first man on the Moon. The first use of atomic weapons. The assassination of Kennedy. All these stories are part of American identity. They will continue to be told and re-told. And these precious documents are among the first ever accounts of the moments that changed the course of American history forever.