- 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
The editor was so often roughed up that the Herald kept a standing headline: BENNETT THRASHED AGAIN.
The first of the new papers was the New York Sun , published on September 3, 1833. Edited by Benjamin H. Day, it was a sprightly sheet heavily larded with crime news that soon was selling eight thousand copies a day, almost double the circulation of its nearest competitor. Reporting standards on the Sun were sometimes dodgy. There had been faked stories in American journalism before, but in 1835 the Sun perpetrated a monumental hoax when it ran a series on the discovery of men on the moon who resembled bats. This foolery was accepted in pretty much the spirit as modern readers of supermarket tabloids on being told Elvis Presley is alive and well and propagating somewhere on Mars. The Sun became a significant paper after the Civil War, when Charles A. Dana took over, promising his readers “a daily photograph of the whole world’s doings in the most luminous and lively manner.”
That was a reasonable definition of a good newspaper that holds true today. Max Frankel, who recently stepped down from his post as executive editor of The New York Times , says the function of his paper is to offer “a wellwritten, well-presented summary of what is interesting as well as what is important to intelligent readers.”
The Sun twice went into journalism legend. Its city editor John Bogart is generally credited with the aphorism “When a dog bites a man, that’s not news. But when a man bites a dog, that’s news.” And the paper delivered America’s most treasured editorial in 1897, when a young girl, whose playmates had told her there was no Santa Claus, wrote and asked the Sun to tell her the truth. The Sun answered, “Virginia, your little friends are wrong.”
A year after the Sun , James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald first saw the light of a gaudy day. The Herald redefined news. It did not simply cover murder trials; it presided over them. The Robinson-Jewett case had everything a newspaper could ask for. Helen Jewett, a beautiful prostitute, was found bludgeoned to death in her bordello bedroom, and one of her socialite customers, Richard Robinson, was charged with murder. Robinson was acquitted in a decision even less creditable than the nondecision in the Menendez trial this year, but the Herald stuck with the story for more than a year, piling one ghoulish speculation on another until it became the paper of record for crime news in New York City.
Bennett was famous for vituperative editorials. After Lincoln’s first inaugural address the Herald called for a coup to oust the President. Bennett also sailed into religious controversy, with particular ferocity. Although a Roman Catholic, he was a rabid anticleric, once writing, “If we must have a Pope, let us have a Pope of our own . . . not such a decrepit, licentious, stupid Italian blockhead as the College of Cardinals at Rome condescends to give the Christian world of Europe.”
Bennett was so frequently roughed up for his fiery opinions that the Herald kept a standing headline: BENNETT THRASHED AGAIN .
The Herald was also the newspaper of giddy stunts. A writer, wearing a full suit of armor, appeared at a dress ball to report on the quality of the hostess’s diamonds. In 1869 the Herald pulled off the greatest newspaper stunt of all by sending Henry Stanley to find Dr. David Livingstone, who had disappeared somewhere in Africa but not beyond the reach of the Herald .
For all its excesses, the Herald had a core of solid journalism. It was the first American newspaper to maintain regular overseas bureaus, and its financial coverage was the best in the city. Its combination of glitz and news was so successful that Bennett’s son, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., was able to squeeze some thirty million dollars out of Herald profits to support himself in Parisian grandeur before turning the paper into a money loser.