“The Revolutionary Evolution of the Media”: I Spy, You Spy, We All Spy – Paul S. Maxwell

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Cover image for  article: “The Revolutionary Evolution of the Media”: I Spy, You Spy, We All Spy – Paul S. Maxwell

“The Revolutionary Evolution of the Media” Continues

This is a book in progress … How a changing world has made media what it is today.

Go here to read the previous chapters.

Chapter 5, Part 3

Up until the end of the 16th Century, the most common manner of binding one country to another involved intermarriage.

The outlier in the 14th and 15th Centuries was, of course, Rome. The first more or less official ambassadors were the representative of countries in and adjacent to the Holy Roman Empire who had been sent to Rome to influence the Pope and his court and to beg for recognition, help and forgiveness. Not to mention trying to figure out how elections to replace a late Pope might turn out. The lack of automatic hereditary succession made the elections harbingers of significant change and shifting alliances, or not. Tracking the unknown became the major job as they reported back to their Kings, Princes or Regents.

The first major figure to send ambassadors, really spies, to other countries to act as news agents was Ferdinand of Aragon in the early 1500s … more than half of them got sent home. Ferdinand’s wife was the Isabella who sent Columbus off to find a shortcut to India. Almost a century later, Spain’s representatives in England acted as a 5th column even before the Armada sailed reporting that a third to half of Englishmen would support the invasion. As the Armada sank 1588 forever changing the genes in Ireland (all those Spanish sailors and soldiers who made it ashore), their reports back to Spain indicated great successes.

Not an auspicious start for what we today call diplomacy.

Of course, they weren’t so much ambassadors as agents.

After Ferdinand, almost every European power tried it with the same result: lots of spies.

So what’s that got to do with news and media?

Well, no one could really trust those early agents, neither the country sending them nor the country receiving them. Not that today exhibits any real difference (note the Israeli ambassador to the US, the House of Representative’s Speaker and the Prime Minister of Israel).

An early player in attempting to earn a living from reporting news was the Florentine Benedetto Dei who had traveled thru France, England, Germany, Asia and Africa and returned to Florence from Constantinople in 1468. He was a gregarious and friendly guy with contacts from everywhere he’d traveled. Those connections and his correspondence with them provided a ready source of gossip. He then began issuing regular bulletins that resembled newsletters more than epistles … not unlike Communications Digest or the early CableFAX.He would gather a number of news items and reduce them to a sentence or two. He was also the first (that we know of) who used a dateline and the first to boast of a weekly, regular service. His biggest and best-paying customer was the Sultan of Egypt, a major figure in the Ottoman Empire.

The overriding question for the various nation’s rulers sending an ambassador was changed from just spying to figuring out how to find news they could trust. So the first major news agency was created and funded. While that didn’t stop the growth of the so-called diplomatic corp, it did open a new line of business.

In Italy around 1590, a guy named Giovanni Poli was what the Italians called a novellante, a new, growing group of writers offering subscribers a commercial news-gathering service. Poli – smart, cautious and discreet – had assembled as subscribers almost every ruler on the peninsula. Once a week he would write his reports very early in the morning and then walk across Rome to deliver them personally to the postal service. (No telling how many so-called ambassadors bribed postal workers, though. The English agent in Venice had a budget of £40 for bribing postal workers.)

Not everybody was happy with the news. Pope Pius V, in 1570, decried the defamatory broadsheets. Not long after he had the writer Niccolo Franco arrested, tried and executed.

A word that found its way into news about Sarah Palin in 2015 originated in Rome around that time … pasquinades. Satiric notices on an ancient statue of an unknown person nicknamed Pasquino were anonymous and usually libelous, unrestrained and willfully defamatory.

The news service business migrated north to Germany and the Netherlands with the city of Augsburg being the first to report as well and translate and reprint. The Fuggers family prospered as close associates of the Hapsburgs but faltered as their allegiance turned to Phillip II. Amazingly, there are 27 volumes in the National Library Vienna dating from 1569. The Fugger’s newsletters were commercial in nature so much so the next generation hired what might be called the first editor to create digests of incoming news for further distribution.

These commercial manuscript newsletters were the main news vehicles for almost two centuries lasting through the early 18th Century.

Next week: Chapter 6, Part 1 –– The Tavern & Marketplaces

In an almost 50-year career writing and reporting on media, Paul S. Maxwell started and/or ran some 45-plus publications ranging from CATV Newsweekly to Colorado Magazine to CableVision to Multichannel News to CableFAX and The BRIDGE Suite of daily newsletters and research publications. In between publishing stints, Maxwell served as an advisor and/or consultant to a number of major media companies and media start-ups including running a unit of MCI and managing a partnership of TCI and McGraw-Hill.

Send any and all criticisms, suggestions, rants, threats, corrections, etc. to him at cablemax@mac.com. He has a new Web site coming soon!


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