The Press

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It is easy to get caught up in the waywardness of the American press, but it must be remembered the nineteenth century also saw the birth of The New York Times . The Times was the first major newspaper that made a systematic attempt to present the news as something separate from the paper’s editorial position. It went after the grunt work of reporting complicated stories the penny press wouldn’t bother with. All journalism students know about Thomas Nast’s cartoons showing the bloody tiger of Tammany Hall, but the Times went through the municipal books and got hold of the receipts and put together the evidence that helped put Boss Tweed in jail.

 

Few journalists speak well of management, so let me do so here. The Times was blessed with the kind of owner the business rarely sees. By 1921 Adolph Ochs had owned the Times for a quarter of a century, during which time the paper had generated some $100 million in profits. Ochs contented himself with a 4 percent return. He put the rest back into the paper for better presses and better people. After all its saucy competition has withered away, the Times is still here, the most powerful, most envied, most examined newspaper in the world. It is not as good as it should be, but it is the best we have.

As old soldiers say about the Army, the Times isn’t what it used to be, but then it never was. The cult of objectivity fostered by the Times was always more of an American journalistic aspiration than a fact. Except for the Associated Press, which is forced into noncommittal coverage by the multiplicity of its clients, no newspaper has ever been truly objective. Apart from spot news such as fires at sea, there is always a reason for running a particular story. With a reason invariably comes a slant in one direction or another.

There were other bright spots. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World started as a rag not much different from the Herald but built itself into a paper of rare intellectual achievement. Like the New York Herald Tribune of later vintage, it was known as a “writer’s paper.” It was staffed by reporters who not only covered the news but set the news to music and made it sing. The World and the Herald Tribune share one other distinction. They both are dead.

By the later part of the nineteenth century newspapers had become so central to American political life they were ready to take on covering the President full-time. Technically, the difference between covering the White House and City Hall is not spacious except that it frequently requires a better reporter to cover City Hall. A review of White House reporting indicates it was neither better nor worse than press coverage in general. There was simply more of it.

Grover Cleveland had weathered the cartoon “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!” concerning an illegitimate child he may have fathered. Once in office, however, he found an insistent press particularly vexing. He married during his first term, and the press turned his honeymoon into the kind of feeding frenzy we see today. Reporters shadowed the couple to a cottage in Deer Park, Maryland, where they filed four hundred thousand words of copy not worth reading, until one editor grumbled, “The profession becomes the lowest of human callings—lower than brothel-keeping or liquorselling.”

Teddy Roosevelt handled the press with success only Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy has known since. He set up the first White House press room and smothered reporters with news, still the best way of keeping them from asking difficult questions. One reporter said Roosevelt’s press conferences were “more fun to see than a circus.” Typically, the President received reporters while sitting in a chair as he was being shaved by a barber. The exuberant Roosevelt could never remain seated for long, and when he got excited, the lather flew.

Roosevelt, who had a sense of what made a good headline any editor would envy, tried to instruct his successor, William Howard Taft, in the ways of the press. Taft, however, was a poor student. He preferred to work quietly, trusting that substantive work on dreary items such as civil service reform would win the day over breezy sensationalism. It did not. Style is easier to write about than substance.