- Historic Sites
March 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 2
Our journalism is both tyrannical and slavish; it succumbs to every powerful influence, and it is bold and independent only when it attacks the weak and defenseless.… Defamation is as much a habit of the newspaper press as barking is of dogs, or hissing of serpents.… the American press… claims to be a power above the law.”
Substitute media for press in the quotation above and the words might have come straight from Gen. William Westmoreland, Ariel Sharon, Jerry Falwell, Gary Hart, Dan Quayle, or any other eminent figure who has been roughed up by reporters in the past few years. But in fact, the quotations are all from Our Press Gang; or, A Complete Exposition of the Corruptions and Crimes of the American Newspapers, which bears a Philadelphia copyright date of 1859. The author, Lambert A. Wilmer, himself an ex-editor, laid about him for 394 pages of robust indictment. And he was far from the first to take the press to task—or to court—for its sins. You can navigate your way through the history of journalism using libel suits to steer by. There was a surge of them in the 1980s that has just begun to fall off, according to a recent survey that appeared in The New York Times.
The sins of the press we speak of here do not involve such weighty matters as censorship, secrecy, privacy, fair trial, accountability, and the First Amendment. We deal, rather, with a widespread popular perception that the media show too much prurient curiosity about the private lives of public men and women and too much “reckless disregard” of the reputations that news can make and break. There is some truth in the charge. News organizations are powerful. We, the public, give them the very power we resent by dint of our patronage. And we have been doing so for a long time because, among other things, they offer us entertainment we have come to rely on—even though we insist that we really want only to be enlightened. But they know better.
If there is a single “father” of the present system, it is a man named James Gordon Bennett, who correctly thought of himself as the Napoleon of our journalism. Along with his contemporary Phineas T. Barnum, he is one of the architects of our popular culture. Born in Banffshire, Scotland, in 1795, Bennett was not formed by nature to be likable, and he did not give a damn. He came to the United States penniless at age twenty-four, drifted into reporting, and in May 1835 founded the daily New York Herald on five hundred dollars—his entire fortune. Bennett was not only the owner but for a time also the entire business and editorial staff of the four-page paper, which he ran out of a single basement room in downtown Manhattan.
Bennett was romantic, arrogant, contentious, egotistical, an omnivorous reader and a lightning-like writer. His stock-in-trade was brass. When he came on the scene, most papers were supported by political parties or by small, elite audiences. But he promised that the Herald would be “equally… for the great masses of the community—the merchant, mechanic, working people… the journeyman and his employer—the clerk and his principal.” It would “care nothing for any election or any candidate from President down to a Constable.” It would live daringly—and without political subsidy.
Bennett made New Yorkers hungry for his brand of news. He provided police court reports, sports coverage, the first interviews, and the first gilt-edged murder-and-sex case to be sensationally publicized. A prostitute who called herself Ellen Jewett (her real name was Dorcas Dorrance) was murdered in the elegant bordello where she worked. Bennett himself interviewed the madam at the scene and described the furnishings to the last titillating detail.
His specialty was outrage. He attacked corrupt politicans and crooked businessmen in his editorials (though he was not scrupulous about false claims by advertisers) and almost anyone else in sight. With equal disrespect he took on rival editors (“blockheads”) and President Van Buren’s associates (“we have seen them even turn the sacred capitol itself into a common brothel”). He could not be suppressed or frightened. When, as happened several times, he was physically attacked by infuriated victims, he turned the event into comic copy at their expense. There was the time, for example, when James Watson Webb, a rival editor, hit him with a walking stick on the street in broad daylight and opened a large gash in his scalp. Freshly bandaged, Bennett rushed to his desk and wrote: “The fellow, no doubt, wanted to let out the neverfailing supply of good humor and wit, which has created such a reputation for the Herald, and appropriate the contents to supply the emptiness of his own thick skull.”
Self-promotion bubbled from him. “I have infused life, glowing eloquence, philosophy, taste, sentiment, wit, and humor into the daily newspaper… ,” he announced. When he married at forty, his lead editorial proclaimed it a historic event. “I must fulfill that awful destiny which the Almighty Father has written against my name in broad letters of light against the wall of heaven. I must give the world a pattern of happy wedded life.…”