- Historic Sites
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
Even more vexing was the scorn reporters often encountered. Well-bred people looked askance at the men and the handful of women who spent their days poking into other people’s business. Innocuous questions often drew rebuffs as “impertinent. ” Interviews, much in vogue with editors after Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune popularized the form by exploring polygamy and other aspects of Mormonism with Brigham Young in 1859, were denounced as invasions of privacy. “I cannot believe that any gentleman or lady would do such work, ” said the author of an attack on repertorial methods in the Writer in 1889.
Errors caused by obstacles placed in the way of reporters were excusable; distortions motivated by venality were not. Newspaper business offices frequently shaped news content with little attempt at subtlety. As publishers came to depend increasingly on advertising income, solicitude for the sensibilities of advertisers grew, and some editors kept in a desk drawer lists of firms to be treated respectfully. The system could also work in reverse; it was not unknown for a department store that refused to advertise to be the target of a damaging, concocted article.
More than a few editors and reporters profited directly from all this. It was assumed that financial journalists would use their positions to advance their personal fortunes. “To be a money-writer is considered to be on the direct road to wealth; and the road is seldom missed,” commented Junius Henri Browne, a reporter for the New York Tribune . Powerful interests as diverse as the Tweed Ring and the Pennsylvania Railroad kept journalists on retainers, and in the 1872 presidential campaign the Republicans paid off three hundred reporters. One evening in 1875 John McDonald, the architect of the Whiskey Ring fraud in the Grant administration, was dining at the Washington home of Orville Babcock, Grant’s scheming confidential secretary. A man came to the door. Babcock went to see his caller and, according to McDonald, presently returned with “a receipt for $500, signed by Krounce, the Washington correspondent of the New York Times .” The Times then had a reporter named Lorenzo L. Crounse. Babcock told McDonald the money was payment for an article useful to the administration.
But there were more fundamental reasons for the untrustworthiness of the press in the late nineteenth century, and they revolved around its explosive growth. Daily newspapers multiplied from fewer than four hundred in 1860 to twentytwo hundred in 1900. New York had sixteen English-language dailies in 1892, Philadelphia thirteen in 1895. The reading public more than kept pace, and circulation soared, putting a number of papers well over the hundred-thousand mark. With more newspapers pursuing ever larger stakes, the competition among rival journals was fierce.
So was the competition among reporters for employment. The number of young hopefuls trying to break into the field grew faster than the number of jobs, and job security was nonexistent except for celebrities like Richard Harding Davis and a few lesser stars. Mass firings of anonymous rank-and-filers occurred regularly at some papers—just to keep the staff on its toes, editors explained. Day-to-day existence was especially precarious for the many reporters who worked “on space.” They received no fixed salary but instead were paid only for copy the editors chose to use. At the end of the week, the space reporter pasted together his “string” of printed items and presented it to the cashier for measurement with a ruler and payment at the rate of five dollars or so a column. The temptation to embellish a story was powerful.
Phony stories of every sort made it into print. Out of the West in 1866-67 came dramatic descriptions of Indian raids and massacres that were largely the products of correspondents’ imaginations. Interviews were routinely faked when subjects were uncooperative or uninspired. “I always made it a rule, when imagining or exaggerating an interview, to make it fit,” said a turn-of-the-century reporter named William Salisbury in mitigation of this fraud. Not even sermon reports, a staple of Monday-morning editions, were immune. Ordered to attend the Sunday service at an unfashionable, out-of-the-way church, an assignment not befitting his senior status, John Finerty of the Chicago Tribune spent Saturday night in a saloon composing the abstract of a sermon. A fellow newspaperman, perhaps indulging in a bit of faking himself, later claimed that the clergyman credited with the sermon was so pleased with its eloquence that he called at the Tribune to thank its author.