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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
The pressure to invent was particularly strong in the crime, scandal, sex, disaster, and “human interest” stories that newspapers increasingly relied on to lure readers. Reporters found it hard to resist reaching for little details to round out such tales, and the Writer article on faking assured them that everybody was doing it. “The constant demand for picturesque stories is what makes ‘faking’ now-a-days so common,” said the Writer . “Descriptive details are expected from the correspondent, and he must do his best to supply the demand. ”” Reporters were cautioned not to make up “the important facts of a story” but were also told they should feel no compunction about “the supplying, by the exercise of common sense and a healthy imagination, of unimportant details, which may serve an excellent purpose in the embellishment of a despatch.”
William Salisbury was among the many who didn’t stop at one or two touches of color. Salisbury, the reporter who prided himself on the verisimilitude of his imaginary interviews, joined the Kansas City Times in 1895 at the age of nineteen. In an account of journalistic faking published in 1908, he implied that he was enthusiastic and idealistic at the outset but quickly became disillusioned by the slanting of news to obtain advertising, whereupon he turned to faking. One dull Sunday he conjured up a neat little fiction about a chance meeting and reconciliation at the Union depot of an Australian millionaire and his long-alienated son; the father, wrote Salisbury, had banished the youth for marrying the daughter of a rival in politics and gold-mining. Salisbury prudently ended the story by putting the pair on a train for San Francisco. The Times ran the story under the headline TALE OF TWO COUNTRIES . The New York Sun , which carried on its front page the slogan “If You See It in the Sun , It’s So,” reprinted the piece as A ROMANCE OF TWO LANDS .
In 1900 Salisbury entered the hotly competitive journalistic world of Chicago. He landed work as a space writer on the Tribune , and one of his first assignments was a minor streetcar accident in which three persons had been slightly injured. He collected the necessary information and was about to depart when another reporter stopped him and said, “Wait awhile—we haven’t got together on this yet. Let’s fix it up. ” So Salisbury and reporters for the five other morning papers, most of whom also were on space, adjourned to a nearby tavern. When they had finished, the number of injured stood at fifteen and the space reporters had lengthened their strings by several inches.
Later in 1900 Salisbury joined William Randolph Hearst’s new Chicago American , then being heavily promoted with parades, billboards, and gaily painted delivery wagons. He would have us believe that again he tried to be an honest reporter. Sent to cover a tugboat-sinking just offshore on Lake Michigan, he dutif ully interviewed the crew members and learned everything he could about the mishap. The story he handed in was immediately passed on to one of the American’s ace “dope-slingers,” who worked it up into a harrowing tale of the seamen risking their lives to rescue the tug’s feline mascot. “We want stories, and not merely facts,” the city editor of the American was fond of saying.
During the 1890s Salisbury’s brand of “yellow journalism” grew increasingly irresponsible and widespread. A turn-of-the-century study of newspapers in twenty-one cities showed that fully a third of them were “yellow.” The trend culminated in the circulation battle between Joseph Pulitzer’s World and William Randolph Hearst’s Journal , in which both newspapers covered the SpanishAmerican War with a fantastic amalgam of innuendo and falsehood. Edwin L. Godkin, editor of the staid New York Evening Post , called it the most “disgraceful” performance in the history of American journalism.
Hearst remained unchastened, but many other newspapermen, including Pulitzer, at last agreed that sensationalism had gone too far. Soon after the turn of the century, yellow journalism began to fade, and while the press has had its ups and downs since, never again has disregard for the truth been so rampant.
In November 1898, a few months after the end of the Spanish-American War, World executives called a meeting of the news staff in the city room. Bradford Merrill, the managing editor, acknowledged that the World had made “great mistakes” out of “an excess of zeal.” Now it was time to reverse course. “Be just as clever as you can,” said Merrill. “Be more energetic and enterprising than any other man if you can, but above all, be right.”