Controversial Role of Newspapers in the History of Hawaii Examined

Review: "Shaping History: The Role of Newspapers in Hawai'i" by Helen G. Chapin
By Tom Brislin, Professor of Journalism, University of Hawai'i


In the Introduction to her just-published "Shaping History" (UH Press, 1996), Helen Geracimos 
Chapin states: "There are many histories of Hawai'i. But there are no assessments of the role that 
newspapers have played in that turbulent and contested history."

Chapin takes the first major steps in filling that void with this superbly researched and 
documented history, subtitled "The Role of Newspapers in Hawai'i." Chapin is a vice-president 
at Hawaii Pacific University and the undisputed dean of  Hawaii journalism historians. 

In this major undertaking she expands upon her own studies of early Hawaii newspapering,  
published mostly in the Hawaiian Journal of History,  as well as those by such Hawaii scholars 
as Esther Mookini and former state statistician Robert Schmitt. There are more than 400 
scholarly works cited, and more than 100 personal interviews and conversations with 
contemporary journalists and journalism-watchers. 

Most histories of Hawaii make use of newspapers as original source material for documenting 
events, and most note the interrelationships among the owners, editors and writers in the 1890s 
mainstream press and the architects of the Overthrow and Hawaii Republic. Chapin's book 
significantly widens the historical context and perspective, combining a political and social 
history as perceived -- and as influenced -- by Hawaii's powerful press in all of its forms: the 
mainstream or "haole;" Hawaiian language; Japanese language; plantation; Neighbor Island; 
alternative; and even the student press. 

Chapin explores the contributions to this volatile mixture of printer's ink and politics made by 
missionaries, "crossover" journalist-politicians,  labor leaders, women, cartoonists and the 
contemporary journalist-social engineer who use both pen and poll to shape public opinion.
Critical events in Hawaii's printed history --  from the arrival of the first press through the 
Mahele, waves of immigration, labor strikes, the Massie Case, cries of "communist" and 
"godfather," statehood to sovereignty -- are viewed through the lens of the press at the same time 
the press is critically analyzed for any blurs in its vision.

In addition to revisiting and re-visioning traditional episodes in Hawaii's history, Chapin makes 
some original contributions in her analysis of "The Folio," the first feminist publication in the 
islands, the influence of the plantation press, and the status-quo shaking effects of the alternative 
and student press, particularly "The Honolulu Record," "Hawaii Journalism Review" "Hawaii 
Observer," and the little newspaper with the longest legacy for launching simultaneous political 
careers, scandals and lawsuits -- the "Valley Isle."  

Chapin's chapter on the struggles by the UH-Manoa student paper, "Ka Leo 'O Hawai'i," to shine 
some light of reason on the chilling anti-Communist decade of the 1950s should be must reading 
for those -- including contemporary student and professional journalists -- who feel the fight for 
freedom of expression is even more critical in an era of increasing government and social 
secrecy.

 Chapin's book belongs on the general interest shelf for those interested in Hawaii history and 
social development as well as for those interested in the evolution of Hawaii journalism from 
handset missionary messages to computer-generated, satellite-enhanced information packaging.

All histories have to end somewhere, and Chapin chooses the mid-70s for the effective terminus 
of her voyage by offering a "back to the future" sense of closure: As satellites were connecting 
the islands with the instantaneous information age, the Hokule'a was reconnecting  Hawaii with 
its heritage. Reams of new information from the outside flooded into Hawaii as a renaissance of 
language, culture and identity took root from within. 

Hawaii journalism played key, activist roles in shaping the modern state -- wild, uninhibited 
advocacy from Overthrow to Statehood. What roles will journalism play in the quest and 
attainment of sovereignty, both outside and inside the movement?
It's a question Chapin invites future historians to observe, document and analyze. For that work, 
she has set the most solid of foundations.