WORLD Magazine / Central Ideas / Opening Words


Rise of the Corruption Story

Macrostories in Conflict

Breakthrough of the Oppression Story



Central Ideas cover
"Public opinion on any subject," Abraham Lincoln once said, "always has a `central idea' from which all its minor thoughts radiate."[1] This book applies Lincoln's statement not to American public opinion generally but to journalism specifically (which is often at the base of public opinion). Writers and editors have espoused so many different philosophies over the years that American journalism history might seem to be a crazy-quilt, but the thesis of this book is that a broad look at the whole pattern shows three central ideas achieving dominance, sequentially.

The first of these central ideas in journalism-I call them macrostories because they overatch the daily bits and pieces of journalistic coverage-could be called the official story. Dominant until the 1 Sth century in most of Europe and America, this macrostory was built on the belief that power knows best, and that editors should merely print whatever the king or goveroor demands. Published news was what state authorities (and, sometimes, their allies in established churches) wanted people to know.

The press continued to be dominated by the official story until growing numbers of journalists, heavily influenced by the ideas of the Protestant Reformation, began to emphasize the corruption story. T'his macrostory, rather than serving as public relations for the state, emphasized the universality of human failings and the tendency for individuals in positions of power to abuse their authority and then attempt to cover up wrongdoing. Journalists from the l7th through l9th centuries who embraced the corruption story invented much of what we associate with modern journalism at its best: A sense of purpose, a willingness to oppose arrogant rulers, and a stress on accuracy and specific detail.

Mid- and late-l9th-century editors such as Horace Greeley and Joseph Pulitzer achieved their prominence and influence on the foundations laid down by corruption story journalists. However, they and others scorned the theology on which that macrostory was based; instead of seeing sinful man and demanding personal change, they believed that man is naturally good but is enslaved by oppressive social systems. In this third of journalism's central ideas, the oppression story, problems arise not from personal corruption but from external influences, and the role of journalists is to put a spotlight on those influences. The hope is that if man's environment is changed, man himself changes, and poverty, war, and so on, are no more.

This change affected not only story content but reporters' methods. Corruption storyjournalists tended to have limited personal agendas because they emphasized personal transformation rather than social revolution. Oppression story journalists, who came to dominate the most influential publications early in the 20th century, believed their own work could be the breakthrough to a better world. As the great ends of oppression story journalism-peace, justice, freedombegan to seem attainable, means began to be negotiable.

This book narrates the history of those macrostories in American journalism from its European beginnings in the l6th and l7th century (my starting point is Martin Luther's editorial on the cathedral door in 1517) up through 1917, when the impact of the Russian Revolution began to open up a new phase in journalistic perceptions. Along the way we take a fresh look at Greeley, Pulitzer, and other legends of journalism history, and we also recall long-forgotten figures such as John Stubbes, an English Puritan who in 1579 wrote a pamphlet criticizing Queen Elizabeth. Stubbes was punished by having his right hand "cut off by the blow of a Butcher's knife."[2] A contemporary account tells of his amazing response: "John Stubbes, so soon as his right hand was off, put off his hat with the left, and cryed aloud, God save the Queene."[3] Such bravery deserves to be remembered, and the motivation for such actions understood.

This book is a narrative history rather than a philosophical tome; a previous book of mine, Prodigal Press, examined more systematically questions surrounding objectivity and journalistic ethics. I have retained early spellings whenever the meaning is clear. Four appendices provide additional detail; readers who wish to know more about the macrostory concept itself should not overlook Appendix C.

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Introduction Notes

1. Roy Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Rutgers, 1953), vol. II, p. 385.

2. William Camden, Annales (London, 1625), book 3, p. 16. Stubbes' offending pamphlet is also available in some rare book libraries: See The Discourie of a Gaping Gulf Whereinto England is like to be swallowed by another French marriage; if the Lord forbid no the banes, by letting her Majestie see the sin and punishment thereof (London, 1579).

3. Ibid.