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
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.