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If the facts were dull, the story didn’t get printed. So reporters made up the facts. It’s only recently that newspapers have even tried to tell the truth .
October/november 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 6
In the winter of 1894-95, Theodore Dreiser was a new reporter on the New York World , and things were going badly. One assignment after another fizzled. Dispatched by the city editor to Elizabeth, New Jersey, to follow up a tale of a graveyard apparition, the gangling twenty-three-year-old returned empty-handed: the cemetery caretaker insisted that the dead man supposedly involved was not even buried there. A visit to the morgue to view the body of a beautiful girl who was mysteriously drowned produced no copy when she turned out not to be beautiful. On the few occasions Dreiser did come up with the germ of a good story, he was ordered to turn his information over to another writer. So it went for weeks.
Then one night Dreiser was sent to look into a report of a fight in a tenement. It proved to have been a totally unexceptional brawl between two neighbors who had drunk too much beer. But in desperation, Dreiser let his imagination run free. Back at the World ’s gold-domed tower on Park Row, he wrote that one neighbor was a musician who was composing a waltz on the piano at midnight when the loud snoring of the tenant next door disturbed his concentration. A piano-banging, glass-smashing uproar ensued, culminating in a riot that required a contingent of police to quell. The story ran on page one. “Rather well done,” said the city editor.
Dreiser, who had previously worked as a reporter in Chicago, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh and was not a newspaper innocent, saw that he had found at least one road to success at Joseph Pulitzer’s World . He was disinclined to follow it though and soon quit to write fiction labeled as such. Many other journalists of the period did not share his qualms about “faking,” as the invention or distortion of facts in a news story was known. It went on every day in the city room of the World —despite wall placards enjoining “Accuracy!”—and throughout much of the rest of the profession. Explaining that “faking” differed from “ordinary lying,” an article in Writer magazine in 1887 asserted that it was “an almost universal practice, and that hardly a news despatch is written which is not ‘faked’ in a greater or less degree.”
A free and easy way with the facts did not begin in the newspaper offices of Dreiser’s day. Through the early decades of the nineteenth century, American newspapers focused more on promoting causes—Tory versus Patriot, Federalist versus Republican, Whig versus Democrat—than on reporting the news. Vicious lying in support of political factions was the norm. With the founding of the New York Herald by James Gordon Bennett in 1835, however, the press began to change. Bennett hired reporters who systematically gathered news about what was happening down the street and across the ocean, initiating the development of true newspapers in contrast to the old propaganda sheets. The dominance of news over editorials became firmly established during the Civil War. Northern newpapers flooded the battlefields with correspondents, filled their front pages with war news, and reaped great circulation gains. By the last decades of the century, newspapers approached today’s norm in the sweep of their coverage of local, national, and foreign news.
But important differences remained. One, obvious from a glance at almost any newspaper published in the 1870s and 1880s, is blatant editorializing in the news columns. FRAUD AND FORGERY REPUDIATED BY THE AMERICAN PEOPLE read the headline over the page-one story in which the Republican New York Times announced the victory of James A. Garfield in the 1880 presidential election. Less apparent, and more startling, is the frequency with which what purported to be factual coverage of the news was in reality anything but that. The recent Washington Post and New York Times fabrications—perpetrated without the knowledge of the editors—would have been commonplace a hundred years ago.
There were some extenuating circumstances. Getting the facts straight is hard now, but it was harder in the nineteenth century. Clumsy communications and the difficulties of travel played havoc with the gathering of news. So confusing was the telegraphed blend of fact and rumor during the Civil War that newspapers occasionally resorted to the headline IMPORTANT—IF TRUE . The telephone is the prime tool of a modern reporter, but as late as 1892 such a leading newspaper as the Chicago Tribune had only one phone in its city room, and its usefulness was limited because most of the people the reporters needed to reach didn’t have telephones. Checking a name could entail half a day of riding about the city on streetcars.