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Modern Journalism Emerges

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Now we approach the time when leading American journalists forgot what their predecessors had learned about man and God, and began to contend that man could be God. The change came slowly at first: Horace Greeley’s rationale remained dormant for a generation, in part because his utopianism to some degree undergirded the northern movement toward civil war and helped fuel southern reaction.

The American Civil War ended up not only as a slaughterhouse of men but a killing field of utopian thought. The blood-soaked realism that sank in and powerfully affected the politics of the 1870s and 1880s led to a concentration on individual morality that left those demanding social restructuring on the fringes of American society. By the 1890s, a new generation of reporters had arisen, and some newspapers and magazines began giving favorable publicity to the work of "Christian socialists" such as Professor Richard Ely.

Ely, founder of the American Economic Association, strove to apply principles enunciated by Brisbane and Greeley to all of American society. Demanding that all unite behind the "coercive philanthropy . . . of governments, either local, state, or national," he received favorable coverage from journalists who also fulsomely praised the gospel of salvation-through-government promoted by books such as William H. Fremantle’s The World as the Subject of Redemption. Government alone, Fremantle asserted, "can embrace all the wants of its members and afford them the universal instruction and elevation which they need"

Much of the new doctrine came in old wineskins. Fremantle, for example, praised the worship of governmental power as a mere furtherance of Christian worship of God, with the state taking on the church’s traditional functions of charity.

We find the Nation alone fully organized, sovereign, independent, universal, capable of giving full expression to the Christian principle. We ought, therefore, to regard the Nation as the Church, its rulers as ministers of Christ, its whole body as a Christian brotherhood, its public assemblies as amongst the highest modes of universal Christian fellowship, its dealing with material interests as Sacraments, its progressive development, especially in raising the weak, as the fullest service rendered on earth to God, the nearest thing as yet within our reach to the kingdom of heaven.

It is hard to know how much of this many journalists absorbed and believed–but these notions did begin receiving favorable press. It was easier to attribute problems to social maladjustments than to innate sinfulness; if personality was a social product, individuals were not responsible for their vices. Crime reporting began to change as journalists began to attribute "antisocial action" to the stress of social factors beyond an individual’s control. Editorial pages began calling for new government action not merely to redistribute income but as a means to achieve a cooperative commonwealth in which men and women could become godlike.

Joseph Pulitzer popularized such ideas in a New York newspaper, the World, that combined easy-to-read, gripping stories with economic envy. Typical World headlines were like a dragon’s fire: "Death Rides the Blast," "Screaming for Mercy," "Baptized in Blood," "A Mother’s Awful Crime," "A Bride but Not a Wife," and "Victims of His Passion." Readers who paid a penny in response to such appeals would encounter, on inside pages, Pulitzer’s political agenda: tax large incomes, tax corporations, tax inheritances, redistribute income.

Pulitzer’s World juxtaposed current horror with future social salvation; it transmitted a message of hope through science and material progress, evenly distributed by benign government agents. Features such as "Experimenting with an Electric Needle and an Ape’s Brain" showed that scientific transformation of man’s thought patterns was just around the corner. Stories such as "Science Can Wash Your Heart" suggested that immortality was possible. In the meantime, however, monstrous crime and terrible scandal rode mankind.

In one sense Pulitzer was merely imitating the methodology of the Puritan press two centuries before: emphasize bad news so that the need for the good news becomes even greater. But the message was totally changed: Instead of pointing readers toward man’s corruption and God’s grace, the World portrayed itself as the battler against systemic oppression, and proposed running over anyone (including business owners in America, Spaniards in Cuba, and Boers in South Africa) who stood in the way of "progress."

The World’s circulation rose from sixty thousand in 1884 to two hundred thousand in 1886 to one million during the Spanish-American War in 1898. For journalists yearning to transform society and have fun and profit, the World became the New York workplace of choice, much as the Tribune had been at mid-century. The World’s full-time workforce numbered thirteen hundred in the mid-1890s, and the growing arrogance of what had become a major institution soon was apparent: "The World should be more powerful than the President," Pulitzer argued, since presidents are stuck with four-year terms but the World "goes on year after year and is absolutely free to tell the truth."

Eternal life plus absolute knowledge of good and evil: Pulitzer believed he had feasted from both of Eden’s trees, but he found no joy. By 1900, Pulitzer was spending most of his time on his yacht, with seventy-five employees trained to cater to his whims. As one biographer put it, "The yacht represented the logical end toward which the eccentric despot, so concerned with democracy, had been working for decades. It gave him complete control. It was an absolute monarchy."

The second major editor-publisher of the period, William Randolph Hearst, took Pulitzer’s insights and spread them across the nation through a mighty newspaper chain. One reporter described his excitement upon going to work for Hearst.

At last I was to be the kind of journalist I had dreamed of being. I was to enlighten and uplift humanity. Unequaled newspaper enterprise, combined with a far-reaching philanthropy, was to reform . . . the whole United States. The printing press, too often used for selfish ends, had become a mighty engine for good in the world, and I was to be a part of the directing force. Proudly I was to march under the banner of William R. Hearst, helping to guide civilization’s forward strides.

Hearst made the San Francisco Examiner profitable by adopting Pulitzer’s combination of sensationalism and exposure of oppression. In 1895, he purchased the New York Journal and soon became famous for sending dozens of reporters to the scenes of crimes on bicycles or in carriages pulled by fire and cavalry horses; Hearst himself could be seen "leaping wild-eyed and long-legged into a carriage, to be whisked like a field marshall on the scene of battle." He loved newspapering. One reporter described how Hearst:

spread the proofs on the floor, and began a sort of tap dance around and between them. . . . The cadence of it speeded up with his reactions of disturbance and slowed down to a strolling rhythm when he approved. Between dances, he scribbled illegible corrections on the margins and finally gave the proofs back to me.

Hearst ordered his editors to "make a great and continuous noise to attract readers; denounce crooked wealth and promise better conditions for the poor to keep readers. INCREASE CIRCULATION." As one historian has noted, the "yellow journalism" pioneered by Pulitzer and Hearst was characterized not only by big headlines and exciting stories, but by "ostentatious sympathy with the underdog." Hearst’s capital-S Sympathy was his first step toward making readers think he cared about them; calls for socialism came next. Hearst wrote in one signed editorial that socialistic management was the key to advancement, for:

combination and organization are necessary steps in industrial progress. We are advancing toward a complete organization in which the government will stand at the head and to be the trust of trusts. It is ridiculous to attempt to stop this development.

By 1904 Hearst was explicitly arguing that "the greatest need of this republic today is an aggressive and well organized radical party." Liberal Herbert Croly compared Hearst to Robespierre, writing that Hearst’s ambition was to bring about a "socialistic millennium." Hearst evidently believed that the press had the power to "so exert the forces of publicity that public opinion" would compel such an outcome. His editorial writers worked hard to press issues into a class-struggle mold; one of the Journal’s classic editorials portrayed:

the horse after a hard day’s work grazing in a swampy meadow. He has done his duty and is getting what he can in return. On the horse’s flank you see a leech sucking blood. The leech is the trust. The horse is the labor union.

The New York Journal ran big cartoons showing Mark Hanna, President William McKinley’s campaign manager, as a fat bully dressed in clothes filled with dollar signs, with McKinley a puppet on his lap. Hearst’s viciousness seemed unlimited; as one observer noted, Hanna was depicted as "an amalgam of all sins. He was foulness compact. . . . He sent poor sailors, forced on his ships by bestial labor masters, out to sea on the wintry lakes cold and starving, unpaid and mutinous." Meanwhile, Hearst screamed that he favored the poor; such posturing was worth millions of dollars to him. Hearst sold enough newspapers to make Louis Wiley, business manager of the Times, cry out that crusading should be considered "a commercial trade."

Day after day, Hearst’s newspapers in San Francisco, New York and then across the country, provided an artful combination of sensation and hope. On the one hand, the present was tragedy, with headlines such as "He Murdered His Friends" or "He Ran Amuck with a Hatchet." A woman already in jail for beating a man senseless with a beer bottle, stabbed her jailer with a hat pin. A maidservant poisoned her mistress’ soup. In New York, a boy shot and killed his father, who was beating his mother. Another woman told "How She Horsewhipped Husband." An eleven-year-old drank a bottle of acid because she "did not want to live."

On the other hand, the future would be much better. Some day, resources now used for "barbaric" displays of wealth would fight "distress and misery." Science (actually, pseudoscience) would help: the San Francisco Examiner reported that one professor had produced "solidified air" and another had found out that what a woman eats determines the gender of her baby.

Hearst made an idol out of circulation, but he also tried making one out of himself. He began instructing his reporters and editors to praise him at every possibility. He posed as a benefactor of the poor, sending pale children on jaunts to the beach. A reporter sent to cover one expedition, however, later wrote that she was given only one container of ice cream to be dealt out on a Coney Island trip.

When at last I placed a dab on each saucer, a little fellow in ragged knickerbockers got up and declared that the Journal was a fake and I thought there was going to be a riot. I took away the ice-cream from a deaf and dumb kid who couldn’t holler and gave it to the malcontent. Then I had to write my story beginning: ‘Thousands of children, pale-faced but happy, danced merrily down Coney Island’s beaches yesterday and were soon sporting in the sun-lit waves shouting, ‘God bless Mr. Hearst.’"

Once, when Hearst ordered all his reporters to mention his newspapers’ "comic supplements" in their stories whenever possible, one reporter filed this report from a disaster scene.

I was the first to reach the injured and dying. "God bless Mr. Hearst," a little child cried as I stooped to lave her brow. Then she smiled and died. I spread one of our comic supplements over the pale, still face.

Some Hearstian efforts were serious, not ludicrous. When Governor Goebel of Kentucky was assassinated early in 1901, the Journal printed a quatrain by reporter Ambrose Bierce: "The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast / Can not be found in all the West; / Good reason, it is speeding here / To stretch McKinley on his bier." Soon afterward the Journal editorialized that "if bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done."

When the anarchist Czolgosz assassinated President McKinley later that year, the killer was said to have been arrested with the Journal in his coat pocket. Hearst was hanged in effigy, circulation for a time dropped, and President Theodore Roosevelt said that Czolgosz had probably been led to his crime by "reckless utterances of those who, on the stump and in the public press, appeal to dark and evil spirits." But Hearst bounced back, changing the name of his New York morning edition to the American.

Hearst showed through such conduct that he was the prototypical solipsistic journalist of the twentieth century, moving around real individuals as if they were make-believe characters. Some opposed him: Congressman John A. Sullivan called Hearst the Nero of American politics for his attempts to incite class conflict; Sullivan labeled Hearst a socialist and hung his picture with red flags underneath it. For a time, Hearst was able to convince some voters to accept their role in his dreams. He used his newspaper clout to win election to Congress by a big margin, and wrote after the landslide:

We have won a splendid victory. We are allying ourselves with the workingman, the real Americans. This is just the beginning of our political actions. Our social aspirations have a greater chance than ever to be realized.

Hearst was on his way. He was the first journalistic leader to assault regularly those who stood in his path. When Hearst could not get the Democratic presidential nomination in 1904, he called Judge Alton Parker, the party’s nominee, a "living, breathing cockroach from under the sink," and labeled the party’s chairman "a plague spot in the community spreading vileness." At one time, Hearst’s New York newspaper had two thousand names on its S-List (persons to be mentioned only with scorn), and a reporter had to be assigned to read copy just to make sure mistakes of honesty were not made.

Through all this, Hearst retained the support of leading journalists of the left. Upton Sinclair declared in his book The Industrial Republic that a bright socialist future would not be far off if Hearst became president. Lincoln Steffens wrote a sympathetic profile of Hearst and explained that the publisher "was driving toward his unannounced purpose to establish some measure of democracy, with patient but ruthless force."

The movement Hearst represented was, with its newspaper base, a big-city phenomenon. The key question was whether his emphasis on oppression would spread around the country. As it turned out, it did, at least in part through the influence of national magazines such as Munsey’s, McClure’s, Cosmopolitan, Everybody’s, and The Arena, which provided an outlet for freelancing radicals during the twentieth century’s first decade. The Arena, for example, pushed its on hundred thousand readers to "agitate, educate, organize, and move forward, casting aside timidity and insisting that the Republic shall no longer lag behind in the march of progress."

The hopes of the radicals, although diverse in some aspects, tended often to parallel those of Horace Greeley two generations before. For example, Upton Sinclair, at first a believer in communalism, invested profits from his book The Jungle in a New Jersey commune, "Home Colony"; it failed, but Sinclair thought it a good try, an "industrial Republic in the making." After seeing what went into some cans of meat, Sinclair espoused another of Greeley’s favorite causes, vegetarianism, and also argued that meat-eating had no place in an agricultural system managed on principles of efficiency and nutrition.

Sinclair for a time had new causes every year, but eventually, like Greeley, he became an apologist for terrorism–in this case, that of Lenin rather than John Brown. Like Greeley, Sinclair also confused holiness and hatred, eventually declaring that Jesus had been an anarchist and agitator whose vision of violent upheaval was covered up by church institutions.

Sinclair was one of the first major journalists to explicitly adopt socialism; others moved in that direction more slowly as they abandoned youthful Christian allegiances and sought a new faith. Ray Stannard Baker, after reading Bellamy’s Looking Backward and Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, was among those who became annoyed at the idea that God, not journalists, brought salvation; as Baker wrote in his memoirs, "I was temperamentally impatient. I wanted explanations promptly. I wanted to know what I should do to help save the world."

When Baker’s father suggested other ways to save the world, the son responded, "I’m on my way up. If my strength and grit hold out I’m going to make my influence felt before I get through with it." In 1899, after two years of New York journalism, Baker wrote to his father that "The longer I am in my present work, the greater seem the responsibilities and opportunities to high grade journalism." Five years later, he was still writing that he had "a mission to perform," and felt successful: "I think we have struck the right Grail."

The most famous of the radicals, Lincoln Steffens, wrote that he began his quest as a student at the University of California during the 1880s, where professors "could not agree upon what was knowledge, nor upon what was good and what evil, nor why." To find out about good and evil, Steffens wrote that he had to become a journalist. He certainly saw evil–"graft and corruption" were everywhere–but he did not see them as coming from within.

Once, discussing the biblical Fall within the garden of Eden, Steffens said the culprit was not Adam, or Eve, or even the snake: "It was, it is, the apple." Good people were corrupted by a bad environment–and the goal of journalists, Steffens believed, was to change the environment by working to eliminate capitalism, which he saw as the twentieth-century equivalent of the apple.

Members of the media elite who learned from Pulitzer or Hearst also tended to follow them in their virulence. For example, when the United States Senate in 1906 debated the Pure Food and Drug Act, Senator Joseph W. Bailey of Texas spoke in opposition, saying:

I believe that the man who would sell to the women and children of this country articles of food calculated to impair their health is a public enemy, and ought to be sent to prison. No senator here is more earnestly in favor of legislation against adulterated food and drink as I am . . . but I insist that such legislation belongs to the states and not to the general government. When something happens not exactly in accord with public sentiment, the people rush to Congress until it will happen after a while that Congress will have so much to do that it will do nothing well.

Muckraker David Graham Phillips ridiculed that statement. He said that Bailey opposed good food and was participating in the "treason of the Senate." Within Phillips’s understanding, anyone opposing federal legislation in a good cause was corrupt and uncaring. Such blanket accusations were too much for President Theodore Roosevelt, who complained that:

the man who in a yellow newspaper or in a yellow magazine makes a ferocious attack on good men or even attacks on bad men with exaggeration or for things they have not done, is a potent enemy of those of us who are really striving in good faith to expose bad men and drive them from power.

Roosevelt let fly in a speech that accepted the need to expose wrongdoing but argued that:

the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful. The liar is no whit better than the thief, and if his mendacity takes the form of slander, he may be worse than most thieves. It puts a premium upon knavery untruthfully to attack an honest man, or even with hysterical exaggeration to assail a bad man with untruth. An epidemic of indiscriminate assault upon character does not good, but very great harm. The soul of every scoundrel is gladdened whenever an honest man is assailed, or even when a scoundrel is untruthfully assailed.

Roosevelt called the common journalistic activity of his time "muckraking," and explained that:

In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward, with the muck-rake in his hand; who was offered a celestial crown for his muck-rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.

In Pilgrim’s Progress the Man with the Muck-rake is set forth as the example of him whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of on spiritual things. Yet he also typifies the man who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing. Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck-rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck-rake, speedily becomes, not a help to society, not an incitement to good but one of the most potent forces for evil.

Hundreds of favorable responses to Roosevelt’s speech indicate that his concern about press bullying was widely shared. Protests about the media elite’s ideological agenda were common.

Socialism–that’s where these leaders of the magazines and newspapers are headed for. The Sentimentalist who looks to find there the Kingdom of Brotherly Love upon Earth, the honest man, hysterical with anger at the crimes of high finance, the brave fool spoiling for a fight the good citizen who says to himself, "that the evil is so great the whole must be swept away–" all alike are following the lead of the statesmen of the yellow press toward the ruinous experiment of straight-out socialism.

Such complaints, although addressed to a modern ideological development, had an old-fashioned ring to them. After all, Andrew Bradford, editor in Philadelphia of the American Weekly Mercury two centuries before, had opposed "that unwarrantable License which some People of much fire, but little judgment have taken of endeavouring to subvert the Fundamental Points of Religion or Morality."

A downward curve to the political prospects of William Randolph Hearst may be dated from the time of Roosevelt’s speech, although other factors contributed to the failure of the publisher’s ambitions. For a while, Hearst retained the support of journalists on the left, but as he lost elections, and as the sensationalism of his newspapers seemed a bit embarrassing, radicals edged away from him.

Hearst in turn lost his patience with them, and by the 1920s and 1930s was stoutly opposing governmental control of the economy. Perhaps because of Hearst’s "treason" to the left after 1920, he is often regarded by journalism historians as a bad guy, and Pulitzer–who left money to found a journalism school at Columbia and to hand out prizes–is given a white hat.

Although the muckrakers abandoned their one-time standard bearer, they did not drop their "revolt against capitalism," as Upton Sinclair called it. The muckraker "as forerunner of a revolution," Sinclair concluded, "will be recognized in the future as a benefactor of his race."

Those reporters who had little thought of being benefactors–they had a job to do and a paycheck to get–might scowl at such notions. And yet, with all the cynicism that journalists love to show, the streak of pride would grudgingly show itself: One reporter reminisced of how, for a time, he had been:

battling for the people, and making tyrants quail, in a truly heroic journalistic style. I was forging shafts of ripping, tearing words that would demolish the fort of the robber chiefs who were taking unlawful tribute from the public. I called the gas company ‘the Gorgon-headed monopoly,’ ‘the banded infamy,’ and ‘a greedier gorge from the public purse.’ I felt myself as heroic as those who had led the crusades of old.

Top college students who enjoyed writing began gravitating more and more toward journalism; Walter Lippmann, for example, went from Harvard to an internship with Lincoln Steffens. Steffens and his associates set the standard for "the right stuff" in leading-edge journalism much as had Horace Greeley two generations before; they trained a generation of young journalists to see not only poverty and corruption as the responsibility of capitalism, but all war as the result of capitalist desires to find "a dumping ground abroad for a surplus domestic product."

Steffens, remembered by one contemporary as "talking revolution and blood and sucking the guts out of a chocolate eclair impaled on an upright fork," ended his career writing propagandistic pieces for Lenin and then Stalin. Others, such as Ray Stannard Baker, merely found themselves attracted to the Socialist Party’s "high & unselfish ideals," with its "community spirit of service." But many became willing to adopt a Marxist perspective as long as it was given a spiritual gloss.

David Graham Phillips, whose attacks on the Senate justified Roosevelt’s famous response, compared Karl Marx to Jesus Christ, not unfavorably. "It was three hundred years before the first Jew began to triumph," Phillips wrote. "It won’t be so long before there are monuments to Marx in clean and beautiful and free cities all over the earth." Phillips anticipated the work of modern liberation theologians by writing that Christ and Marx were:

both labor leaders–labor agitators. The first proclaimed the brotherhood of man. But he regarded this world as hopeless and called on the weary and heavyladen masses to look to the next world for the righting of their wrongs. Then–eighteen centuries after–came the second Jew–and he said "No! not in the hereafter, but in the here. Here and now, my brothers. Let us make this world a heaven. Let us redeem ourselves and destroy this devil of ignorance who is holding us in this hell!"

Most elite journalists did not embrace Communism, but were content to follow Greeley’s concept of locating social problems in the environment rather than in humanity itself. One liberal journalist, Will Irwin, complained that when Americans "find any institution going wrong, we think first of individual dishonesty." Irwin’s goal was to teach readers "to attribute the unfair working of social forces to faults in the system of things."

Individuals were unimportant; the system was all; progress meant changing the system. From the 1930s on, many leading American journalists applied their talents to exactly that end.


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