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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.
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.
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.”