James Gordon Bennett — Beneficent Rascal


The draping process, to borrow Patterson’s figure, began as Bennett saw the possibilities inherent in the telegraph and devoted more and more space to legitimate news from all over the country. In 1836 he had hired an eighteen-year-old boy whom he proceeded to train as his chief editor—Frederic Hudson, who in time developed a talent for organization and news presentation that contributed as much to the paper’s success as the color and force of the proprietor himself.

Henry J. Raymond, the able editor of the New York Times , once remarked to a friend, “It would be worth ny while, sir, to give a million dollars, if the Devil would come and tell me every evening, as he does Bennett, what the people of New York would like to read about next morning.” Bennett’s strength lay in an almost fiendish rapport with the man in the street. It was not enough, the Scot knew, simply to please him, or as a Hearst editor put it, to make him say “Gee Whiz!” The Herald must not only please and excite, but provoke laughter, indignation, wonderment, disgust, curiosity—anything but ennui. “An editor,” he wrote several years before launching his paper, “must always be with the people—think with them—feel with them—and he need fear nothing, he will always be right—always be strong—always popular—always free .”

Bennett followed this credo both in matters of taste (like Joseph Pulitzer after him, he was wont to remark privately that he would publish quite a different paper for himself), and even more doggedly in matters political.

“We have never been in a minority, and we never shall be,” he boasted in the early days. With two exceptions, the Herald supported the winning candidate in every presidential election in Bennett’s lifetime, backing Whigs, Democrats, and Republicans according to the direction of the wind. This principle—the only one the Herald ever acknowledged as a guidecaused as much disgust among contemporaries as Bennett’s early penchant for gossip and crime news. It was opportunism, pure and undisguised. He dismissed the inconsistencies that resulted with: “I print my paper every day.” At other times he defended the policy as consistency itself: was not the country governed by majority rule? Well, then, so was the Herald .

In the hands of a less ornery individual, such a policy must have produced a characterless, inconsequential sheet. But Bennett remained the salty iconoclast even while following what he deemed to be the popular will, hooting with Mephistophelian glee at uplifters, social conventions, rivals, and often at those he seemed to support.

Readers chuckled in spite of themselves at Massa Greeley, “the small-beer philanthropist,” or Henry J. Raymond, “the monkey editor, chattering and skipping about, and playing the very mischief among the crockery,” of the fat and famous British war correspondent, “Bull Run” Russell, “riding a foaming steed, foremost in the line of retreat.”

Were the brothers Harper, those pious Methodists, shocked during the Civil War when one issue of their illustrated paper was suppressed by the War Departnent? The picture in question was hard to make head or tail of, said the Herald , “but if it violated the Articles of War, let Mr. Secretary Stanton hang up James, John and Fletcher, all in a row. The spectacle ,vould make a capital subject for another bird’s-eye view in Harper’s Weekly for the next week after the hanging.”

Such mischievous perversity reduced strong men to raging idiots. Parton knew two young Republicans who seriously contemplated murdering Bennett—but, he noted, they went right on buying the Herald . The volume of its news, particularly during the Civil War, when Bennett and Hudson threw as many as sixteen men into a single battle and poured out more than half a million dollars for special coverage, made it required reading no matter what black thoughts the old man inspired.

Nonetheless, Bennett’s excesses seem to have had one serious drawback not mentioned by his biographers JT the historians of journalism. As Edward Dicey, the British correspondent, noted, “The result of Mr. Bennett’s social disrepute, whether deserved or not, is that respectable literary men do not like being connected with the Herald .” The Herald had volume, it displayed its news smartly, and Bennett rewarded reporters with a lavishness that was legendary; but with few exceptions they were a sorry lot. Henry Villard and George Alfred Townsend, two of its best Civil War newsmen, soon switched to more reputable sheets. Most of the rest, judging from other reporters’ private comments ("the most drunken, irresponsible crew that ever squandered a newspaper’s money,” wrote one, and another, “many of them would pick pockets”) and judging also from their work, were a barely literate set of brigands. Admiral Louis Goldsborough described one Herald man to the Navy Department as “a creature whose mere looks excite disgust and whose mind is in full sympathy with his degraded appearance”—and that is only a sample.