- Historic Sites
The American newspaper: beleaguered by television, hated both for its timidity and for its arrogance, biased, provincial, overweening—and still indispensable. A Hearst veteran tells how it got to where it is today, and where it may be headed.
October 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 6
Newspapers are scurrying to make themselves what they call “user-friendly.” Unofficially this is known as “dumbing down.” Whenever Rupert Murdoch buys a new property, one of the first things he insists on is adding a horoscope column. And who is to say he’s wrong? Twenty-five percent of American readers check their horoscopes before looking at the headlines.
Increasingly, papers are reaching out for softer news stories that may not seem so forbidding to potential readers. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In the nineteenth century newspapers were almost entirely a men’s political and sports club. They hardly covered women’s news—never call it that now—at all until department store advertising drove them to it. Life is not all agriculture quotas and prime rates.
The New York Times has been harshly criticized by some of the older debenture holders within the hard news fraternity for running sections on themes such as sports, science, and entertainment, most of which are excellent and reported up to Times standards. It does run a Sunday feature called “Styles,” which has not yet found one, but we live in hope.
An old theory holds that when a newspaper is sick of a story, the readers are just beginning to get it.
The king of soft stuff is USA Today , which slices up the news into a tray of canapes. I used to hate the paper but have come to realize it is a cleverly conceived operation that takes a particularly strong hold in areas where established newspapers are weak. USA Today is like a bus schedule for people who can’t get to the depot. It doesn’t give you much, but it tells you when the bus is leaving. For such a modern paper some of its components are refreshingly reminiscent of yellower days. In an editorial meeting the founding director, Al Neuharth, was said to have been displeased to see a picture of an attractive woman displayed near the bottom of the page. “The next time you run a picture of a nice, clean-cut All-American girl in a tight sweater,” he ordered, “get her tits above the fold.”
There is a difference between being more sensitive, which the press needs, and getting squishy soft at the center, which it does not. During a conversation over the observance of Columbus Day, my suburban edition of the Times ran an interview with a distinguished professor of European history in which the reporter asked, “Was Columbus a nice man?” When the Times starts running baby talk, we are all in trouble.
Perhaps the Times is being smart. William Safire says the public is more interested in asking what kind of guy a politician is than in trying to find out where he wants to lead us. This journalistic search for the unknowable soul has led to curious changes in political perception. In 1972 Sen. Edwin Muskie was reported to be in tears when denouncing a slander made against his wife. Crying, it was determined, meant Muskie did not have the stern stuff for high office. Now, after years of watching guests sobbing into their handkerchiefs for Sally Jesse Raphael, we suspect that a candidate who does not publicly weep may be insufficiently simpatico to be one of the people.
Sensationalism is an aged sin and not likely to go away because it is one of the things the press does best. Benjamin Day wrote in the Sun that “newspaper people thrive best on the calamities of others. Give us one of your real Moscow fires, or your Waterloo battlefields; let a Napoleon be dashing with his legions throughout the world, overturning the thrones of a thousand years and deluging the world with blood and tears; and then we of the types are in our glory.”
The ideal newspaper story is one that yokes celebrity with scandal in an action that can be simply stated but provides the possibility of endless speculation. This is why editors dream of the headline POPE ELOPES !
There are few things closer to the journalistic heart than “fall from grace” scandals. When Rev. Henry Ward Beecher was brought into court in 1874 for sexual misadventures with another man’s wife, it got the kind of saturation coverage recently accorded the public discord between Woody Alien and Mia Farrow. The Beecher story was so yeasty that last year the New York Daily News ran the details all over again as a historical piece. Now we get stories of falls from less exalted heights. Whenever Oprah Winfrey gains a pound or two, the National Enquirer lets us know about it on the front page.