Celebrity Journalists

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Bennett made himself, in short, the star of his own show, on which the curtain never descended. Offended morality beat against him in vain. In the spring of 1840 seven competing New York dailies launched a sustained editorial campaign against the Herald, trying, in the words of the ex-mayor Philip Hone, to “make respectable people withdraw their support from the vile sheet.…” Committees waited upon businessmen, urging them to cancel their ads. The “moral war,” as it was called, slightly dented the circulation of fifty-one thousand but ultimately fizzled. Bennett went onward, to die rich and honored in 1872, with the Herald firmly established as one of the country’s leading papers in an age of many outstanding dailies.

It should be quickly added that by then its reputation was deserved. It was no mere National Enquirer. In time it came to offer much of the best, timeliest, and most thorough reporting of hard news to be found anywhere. But the diligent Bennett had created a system in which the press and those who worked for it were not mere chroniclers but also creators of American life patterns—active players in a game of hard knocks.

In the 1830s a single journalist like Bennett could be owner, editor, and correspondent, and attract the limelight almost alone. But as newspapers grew in size, ownership began to turn corporate and anonymous, and the star role fell more often to the reporter. I was reminded of this recently by a small news item that noted that the handsome building that once housed the New York City Lunatic Asylum on Blackwells (now Roosevelt) Island, in the East River, was falling into ruins. The story noted that “Nellie BIy, a reporter for the New York World, feigned insanity and was committed to the asylum in 1887. She found abuses that led her to call it a ‘human rattrap.’”

She did indeed. And more. “Nellie Bly” was the pen name of Elizabeth Cochrane, a pioneer of journalism who broke into reporting for the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1885, when she was in her late teens. There were “lady” reporters at work at the time, but Nellie was definitely no lady. Her muckraking stories were on foul working conditions in factories, life in the slums, or poverty in Mexico, and she got them directly on the scene. In 1887 she crashed New York to wrest a job from the World ’s tough editor, Joseph Pulitzer, a man very much in the Bennett mold. More than once she used the trick of going into disguise to blow the lid off a mess. She posed not only as a lunatic but as a sweatshop worker, an arrested petty thief, a businesswoman hiring a lobbyist to bribe state legislators, and, in lighter vein, a chorus girl and ballerina.

Bennett had created a system in which newsmen were not mere chroniclers but also creators of American life patterns.

But Ely’s greatest fame came when Pulitzer involved her in a story that was more sensation than investigation. He sent her circling the globe by commercial transportation in 1889, trying to beat the record set by Jules Verne’s fictional hero Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days . Beat it she did, in seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes, and fourteen seconds, while hundreds of thousands of World readers breathlessly waited for the spunky girl’s en-route dispatches from London, Brindisi, Aden, Colombo, Singapore, and Tokyo. She was not simply telling a story. She was the story.

If few modern readers know of her work, it is because of a personal decision for which she left no explanation, but which may tell us something about the choices faced by successful women not so long ago. At the peak of her career she married a rich man forty years her senior and quit the profession. No one can say whether the motive was love, burnout, or a hunger for financial security. If it was the last, the sequel is especially sad. After a time her husband died, and business reverses ate up the money he left her. In her fifties she had to return to low-paying work on a Hearst paper before she died in 1922 in almost total obscurity.

But for a brief time in January 1890, just after she returned from her trip around the world, BIy was as much a celebrity as a correspondent. And that is precisely the point. Celebrity journalists—in print or on the tube—gain huge audiences, and audiences spell not only profits but power—power that is, to be sure, a necessary counterforce to those who abuse office, but power that also makes us wary even as we wait eagerly for the next sensation. Bennett was one of the very first in the business to be in on the secret. How his eyes would have sparkled as he considered the opportunities of television. How he would have loved playing Ted Turner, Geraldo Rivera, and Dan Rather, all in one resounding parcel. And how we would love—and hate—him in return.