The Print Media - 6
The Beginning of Mass
The United States
By 1835, the United States was making newspaper history. Newspapers had freed themselves from government control over content, and there were more newspapers and newspaper readers than in any other country...
It also helped that because of intense competition, the cost of some newspapers had come down to as low as one-cent a copy. Although this seems like a very low price, we have to remember that was about 175 years ago.
By this time advertisers had been attracted to newspapers and young boys were hawking newspapers on street corners. At about this point in history the average citizen was reading two or more newspapers a day. This era, commonly called the era of "The Penny Press," is considered my many historians as the beginning of mass communication in the United States.
The modern beat system of news coverage, where a reporter regularly covers specific sources, such as the police station or city council, was also developed during this period.
Many of the present-day newspapers got their start during this time, including The Chicago Tribune in 1847, and The New York Times in 1851.
Among the newspapers to also appear in the mid-1800s were several that served minority interests. Most notable was Freedom's Journal, a paper serving the interests of, in the worlds of the masthead, "the colored American." This was the first of more than 40 black newspapers to appear.
When the Cherokee Indians were evicted from their home in Georgia, they started the Cherokee Advocate in their new settlement in Oklahoma. Another Cherokee publication to appear at about the same time was the Cherokee Phoenix, which was written in both Cherokee and English.
The Associated Press Founded
By 1848, the newspapers were trying to cover a wide range of events -- even events in Europe. Newspaper couldn't afford to send reporters everywhere, so a system of sharing news was worked out. One reporter would cover an event and then share the story with other papers. This cooperative evolved into the Associated Press (AP), now the world's largest newsgathering organization.
Associated Press Statistics
The Effect of the Civil War
The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) quickly stretched the boundaries of newsgathering. Before this time newsgathering had been a bit amateurish and disorganized. However, the public's intense interest in the progress of the war pushed journalism to new levels of efficiency.
War reporting introduced the inverted pyramid style of writing news. Reports from the battlefield often had to be sent by telegraph, which was not totally reliable in those days.
Since a report could be interrupted before the transmission was complete, or the story might have to be cut down because of financial and space considerations, reporters started the story with the most important developments and facts. These facts were expanded as the story was developed. (Note illustration on the right.) Thus, the story could be cut without losing the most important facts.
The inverted pyramid style has also become know as the who, what, when, why, and how approach to writing, where each of these questions is answered in the first sentence of the news story. Although this style has continued to this day for hard news in newspapers, broadcast writing uses a different style.
The Beginning of Photojournalism
By this time, still film cameras had been invented, even though a method of reproducing photos in print was a few years off. Instead, line drawings were made from photos.
Matthew Brady was the most famous Civil War photographer. His photos brought the horrors of war home to readers. At that point military leaders took it on themselves to censor and limit battlefield news coverage.
By the late 1800s, a halftone process for reproducing newspaper photographs from photographic prints had been invented. This introduced photojournalism and further spurred interest in newspapers. The history of photography is covered in a bit more detail in another module.
The 1800s marked the beginning of many mainstream daily newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, which published Volume 1, Number 1, on Sunday, December 4, 1888. The four-page paper featured about an equal number of columns of advertising and news. According to one ad, men's business suits were selling for $16 (marked down from $20).
The Era of the Newspaper Baron
As newspapers became more successful in the late 1800s and early 1900s, newspaper tycoons such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer (of Pulitzer Prize fame) built empires. Although supposedly fiction, the film, Citizen Kane, which we discussed in another module, is widely believed to document Hearst's life -- so much so that Hearst used his considerable influence to try to (somewhat unsuccessfully) get it banned.
Competition between newspapers became intense and ushered in the era of yellow journalism. Although yellow journalism generally connotes an era of sensationalism, where crime, social scandals, and sex are used to sell papers, the term actually refers to a comic strip -- one of the first to appear in any newspaper. The comic strip appeared in Pulitzer's New York World newspaper and included a character called the Yellow Kid, printed in yellow ink.
During this time, Hearst in particular blatantly used his papers to promote his own causes and to viciously attack his enemies.
He was even accused of starting a war to sell newspapers by pushing for U.S. involvement in what turned out to be the Spanish-American War. Hearst sent a reporter to the front to cover the rumored war. When the reporter cabled back that there was no war in progress and that he was ready to come home, Hearst reportedly wired back, "Please remain. You supply the pictures, and I'll supply the war."
After Hearst regularly published a steady stream of vitriolic editorializing against President William McKinley, the President was assassinated. Today, we don't have such vitriolic editorializing in our mainstream newspapers, but some radio talk show hosts generate audiences using the same approach.
The yellow journalism era was followed by the era of Jazz Journalism. This started in 1920, when Hearst and Pulitzer extended yellow journalism into tabloid journalism with an emphasis on sex, violence, murder, and celebrity affairs.
Tabloid newspapers are generally half the size of a normal newspaper, or about 11 by 14 inches.
Popular ads of the day were for soaps (see photo on left), and various creams, ointments and tonics that would supposedly cure about anything.
Papers such as the New York Daily News used screaming headlines, large photos, and short, punchy text to lure readers. It was a New York Daily News reporter that strapped a miniature camera to his leg and secretly took the notorious front-page picture of Ruth Snyder, as she was being electrocuted at Sing Sing prison in 1928.
The original tabloids put a heavy emphasis on blood and gore. However, when supermarket sales became a major outlet, this was replaced by more acceptable fare: "tearjerker" stories, celebrity gossip, psychic tales, religious anecdotes, and various bizarre accounts.
The Era of Responsible Journalism
After the era of jazz journalism (where the content of news and sensationalist fiction frequently overlapped), many people were ready for more accurate and responsible news reporting.
A man by the name of Alolph Ochs believed that a newspaper didn't have to resort to sensational crime, sex, and gore to sell papers. Ochs purchased the New York Times and told readers that his paper wouldn't "soil the breakfast cloth."
It was an idea that was long overdue, especially with middle and upper class readers. Some other New York papers followed, and the era of "responsible journalism" ensued.
Even so, Hearst and Pulitzer kept their focus on "the working class," and tended to stick the concepts of jazz journalism -- concepts that are still "alive and well" in today's supermarket tabloids.
Radio and TV Impact Newspaper Circulation
By the 1960s, radio and TV news had cut into the circulation of newspapers. Although most people turned first to the broadcast media for fast-breaking news, many relied on newspapers to fill in needed details. (The text of a typical radio or TV newscast wouldn't even fill one page of an eight or nine column newspaper.)
TV also changed readership patterns.
Before TV, most people picked up their afternoon newspaper after work. Now they turn on TV news at this time and prefer to read a morning newspaper over breakfast.
Consequently, the afternoon newspapers, which had long been popular, lost favor. One of the causalities was the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Once the nation's largest afternoon daily, the Herald Examiner ceased publication on November 2, 1989.
By this time, most of the mainstream press had moved away from the excesses of yellow journalism and jazz journalism into an era of responsible journalism. The nation's larger newspapers -- particularly The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal -- enjoyed wide respect. The public at that time also had an almost unquestioned loyalty to the nation and its leaders.
This unquestioned loyalty then took two major hits: the publication of the Pentagon Papers, and the Watergate scandal.
When the Watchdog
Goes To Sleep
Journalists for the major news media have a responsibility -- one that often conflicts with prevailing public opinion.
Throughout history, political, legal and economic pressures have been applied -- often successfully -- to keep journalists from doing their jobs as watchdogs for democratic societies.
Although such pressures are commonplace in autocratic societies such as North Korea, China and Iran where news people end up in jail or worse for simply telling the truth, we assume that such things are rare in the United States.
Unfortunately, this is not true.
What follows are three examples. We will not include the recent stock scandals or the religious molestation crimes that have ruined many lives, as bad as these have been. The implications of the following examples go beyond even these.
The Pentagon Papers
The Pentagon Papers were top-secret documents detailing the decisions and policies behind the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1965-1973).
During the Vietnam War between three and four million Vietnamese on both sides were killed, and more than 58,000 Americans lost their lives. All of their names are engraved in the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. (See photo.) For years this war saturated each night's TV news.
The Pentagon Papers brought to light the political and military thinking behind the war -- including some decisions and justifications that in retrospect ware questionable.
The government knew that bringing this information to light would undermine the public's confidence in their government -- and, as it turned out, they were right.
Before the war was over, a large percentage of Americans at home and serving in Vietnam had turned against the war. An estimated 250 underground antiwar newspapers were published by active-duty soldiers and distributed in coffeehouses.
Opposition to the war started on college campuses and was fostered by campus newspapers. Since the general public was originally behind the war, a major "generational rift" resulted with many young people being arrested and in one case even killed for protesting the war.
As questions about the war continued to surface, and as the toll of dead and wounded mounted, antiwar sentiments transcended generational views.
The U.S. news media, which originally had an almost unquestioned allegiance to the war effort, started reporting the major differences in what they were being told by the Administration and what they were finding out on their own.
Feeling that the public had a right to know what went on behind the scenes of the war, The New York Times announced that they were going to publish the Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg, who helped write this exhaustive, top-secret study for the government, had tried to get the report to the Times. His efforts to get these papers to the New York Times, and the government's efforts to find and stop him, represented a vicious cat and mouse game for many weeks.
Ellsberg was finally able to get the papers to a reporter, but he was subsequently arrested for treason, which can carry the death penalty.
Fortunately for him, the government had resorted to illegal and highly questionable activities in perusing him, and when this came out during the trial, the judge threw out the charges.
Even so, the Nixon administration moved to block the publication of the papers and successfully won temporary injunctions against the New York Times, and later, the Washington Post, which by this time had also planned to publish them.
But, on June 30, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that stopping publication amounted to “prior restraint,” which violated free speech protection.
Both the New York Times and The Washington Post then published Pentagon Papers. While this was a victory for freedom of the press, the revelations undermined the public's confidence in pursuing this ill-fated war -- a war which in essence we ended up losing.
Years later, even the major architect of the Vietnam war, the late Robert McNamara, who had been Defense Secretary during that time, publicly disavowed his decisions on the war as, "wrong, terribly wrong."
This misunderstood and misrepresented chapter in American history is chronicled in the 2009, 94-minute, Academy Award nominated film, The Most Dangerous Man In America.
But, after these revelations another major jolt was on the horizon.
The Watergate Scandal
Having learned from the Vietnam experience, the press now questioned the credibility of government briefings and press releases.
In 1973, two reporters for the Washington Post faced down major threats and engaged in some tenacious investigative journalism to bring to light the corrupt dealings of President Richard Nixon.
The story of the Watergate Scandal and reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post is documented in the Academy Award-winning film, All the President's Men, from which this photo was taken.
The film, which documents what led up to the resignation of the only president in U.S. history, is worth renting for both its educational and dramatic values.
The general mistrust between the government and the press that emerged during these times continued until the
9/11 terrorist attacks in United States in 2001.
Patriotism and the Press
After 9/11, patriotism again soared, and, again, the mainstream press failed to critically examine the premise of a war. In the case, the Iraq war.
The Bush Administration first tried to tie the 9/11 terrorist attacks to Iraq (later, and Administration conceded there was no real connection) and to the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (none were ever found).
In short, the primary justification for going to war with Iraq was bogus -- a fact that was rather openly stated by the leaders of many of our allies at the time but ignored by the Bush Administration.
Although the facts are all there for anyone that takes the time to find them, even now much of the public continues to believe in the discredited justification for the war. Studies have shown, once most people believe something, they tend to hang onto those views, even in the presence of new and more valid information.
In a rare admission, The New York Times, considered the nation's most influential newspaper, accepted some of the blame. The Times had gone along with one of their reporter's pro-war reporting -- a reporter who it turned out had a less than objective relationship with the Republication administration.
Those who questioned the justification for the war were discredited and even branded as traitors to the country.
The dramatic DVD Nothing But the Truth is loosely based on events at the time. This docudrama parallels the case of Valerie Plame, whose status as a CIA agent was exposed in the media after her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, wrote a New York Times opinion piece charging the Bush administration with manipulating intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. As documented in numerous books on the subject, this charge was later substantiated.
This photo of Ms. Plame is from her subsequent book, Fair Game, which tells the story from her perspective.
Knowingly exposing a CIA agent's identity and possibly jeopardizing her life and the lives of associated agents is a federal offense of the highest order. But in this case short-term political goals were seen as more important and some in the Administration put considerable effort into destroying the credibility of Ms. Plame and especially that of her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, whose work the Bush Administration had previously praised.