The Press

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The quality of American newspapers turned very much for the better when Horace Greeley, who it was said put his first trust in the “unshackled mind,” established the New York Tribune in 1841. Like his competitors, Greeley covered soft news, but he was a crusader at heart and did daily battle over clean streets and pure milk for the children. Bennett had said that the American press was the “living jury” of the nation. Greeley thought it should be prosecuting attorney as well. He established the modern editorial page, whence he harangued his readers on everything from abolition to temperance. The Tribune was not always right. Its editorials on the conduct of the Civil War were often woolly-headed, but they came from a good heart.

Wilson had violated two cardinal rules: Never deviate from your prepared text, and never make a joke.

If politicians make poor editors, editors make even worse office seekers. Probably the only journalist to become a head of state was Benito Mussolini. Greeley, who had helped found the Republican party in 1854, knew what politics should be but had little idea how they worked. Few Americans ran for high office with purer motives than the eager Horace Greeley when he opposed President Grant in 1872. If Greeley thought he would get a break from his journalistic lodge brothers, he was in desperate error. Greeley campaigned for decency in government, and the press wrote funny stories about his old-fashioned white hat and his farmer’s boots. Finally Greeley said sadly, “I hardly know whether I am running for the Presidency or the penitentiary.”

He died soon afterward, leaving no estate save a tradition that it is not enough for the press to report the news. It should also care.

William Randolph Hearst, said one of his contemporaries, blew into New York City “with all the discreet secrecy of a wooden-legged burglar having a fit on a tin roof.” Hearst had enjoyed himself with the San Francisco Examiner making trouble for the Central Pacific Railroad and was fond of referring to passengers on late-arriving trains as “survivors.” Now he wanted to spread himself. In 1895 he picked up the old Morning Journal , which was known as “the chambermaid’s delight,” and set about painting the town yellow.

It is difficult to believe now that anyone other than “the Chief,” as he liked to be called, ever took the old Hearst newspapers seriously. Their reputation for fakery was a long one. The Examiner once ran a story about an impoverished orphan newsboy named McGinty who was the sole support of his two brothers. The piece was so touching that Hearst’s mother, moved to tears, sent a hundred dollars in crisp bills to the Examiner office to help the little boy with his family needs. There was, of course, no McGinty, and the editors sensibly spent Mrs. Hearst’s money at a local saloon. It was probably a better way of handling the situation than the editors of the Washington Post did in 1980, when they nominated for the Pulitzer Prize a story any experienced police reporter should have pegged as a phony. The story blew apart, and the Post returned the prize.

William Randolph Hearst, Jr., liked to recount the tale about a Journal-American reporter who wrote a terrific page-one story based on an exclusive telephone interview with an escaped convict. The story swept the competition but was slightly flawed when it turned out the felon was a deaf-mute. “Gee,” the reporter explained to his editor, “the guy never told me that.”

This story is instructive on two points. It probably is not true. It has the feel of night-shift humor about it. Also, it is generally repeated with affection. In any other business so terrible a breach would be a hanging offense. This is one reason the public believes journalists are not as serious as they should be.

In a fitting irony of history, the most famous anecdote concerning William Randolph Hearst is not true either. He whipped America into armed conflict with Spain to sell newspapers, and when the artist Frederic Remington, who had been sent to Cuba to draw war scenes, could find nothing, Hearst cabled him, saying, “You provide the pictures. I’ll provide the war.” American hawks were eager for war with Spain and did not need a newspaper circulation drive to goad them into it. Hearst was perfectly capable of sending such a cable, but he did not.