March 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 2
Our journalism is both tyrannical and slavish; it succumbs to every powerful influence, and it is bold and independent only when it attacks the weak and defenseless.… Defamation is as much a habit of the newspaper press as barking is of dogs, or hissing of serpents.… the American press… claims to be a power above the law.”
Substitute media for press in the quotation above and the words might have come straight from Gen. William Westmoreland, Ariel Sharon, Jerry Falwell, Gary Hart, Dan Quayle, or any other eminent figure who has been roughed up by reporters in the past few years. But in fact, the quotations are all from Our Press Gang; or, A Complete Exposition of the Corruptions and Crimes of the American Newspapers, which bears a Philadelphia copyright date of 1859. The author, Lambert A. Wilmer, himself an ex-editor, laid about him for 394 pages of robust indictment. And he was far from the first to take the press to task—or to court—for its sins. You can navigate your way through the history of journalism using libel suits to steer by. There was a surge of them in the 1980s that has just begun to fall off, according to a recent survey that appeared in The New York Times.
The sins of the press we speak of here do not involve such weighty matters as censorship, secrecy, privacy, fair trial, accountability, and the First Amendment. We deal, rather, with a widespread popular perception that the media show too much prurient curiosity about the private lives of public men and women and too much “reckless disregard” of the reputations that news can make and break. There is some truth in the charge. News organizations are powerful. We, the public, give them the very power we resent by dint of our patronage. And we have been doing so for a long time because, among other things, they offer us entertainment we have come to rely on—even though we insist that we really want only to be enlightened. But they know better.
If there is a single “father” of the present system, it is a man named James Gordon Bennett, who correctly thought of himself as the Napoleon of our journalism. Along with his contemporary Phineas T. Barnum, he is one of the architects of our popular culture. Born in Banffshire, Scotland, in 1795, Bennett was not formed by nature to be likable, and he did not give a damn. He came to the United States penniless at age twenty-four, drifted into reporting, and in May 1835 founded the daily New York Herald on five hundred dollars—his entire fortune. Bennett was not only the owner but for a time also the entire business and editorial staff of the four-page paper, which he ran out of a single basement room in downtown Manhattan.
Bennett was romantic, arrogant, contentious, egotistical, an omnivorous reader and a lightning-like writer. His stock-in-trade was brass. When he came on the scene, most papers were supported by political parties or by small, elite audiences. But he promised that the Herald would be “equally… for the great masses of the community—the merchant, mechanic, working people… the journeyman and his employer—the clerk and his principal.” It would “care nothing for any election or any candidate from President down to a Constable.” It would live daringly—and without political subsidy.
Bennett made New Yorkers hungry for his brand of news. He provided police court reports, sports coverage, the first interviews, and the first gilt-edged murder-and-sex case to be sensationally publicized. A prostitute who called herself Ellen Jewett (her real name was Dorcas Dorrance) was murdered in the elegant bordello where she worked. Bennett himself interviewed the madam at the scene and described the furnishings to the last titillating detail.
His specialty was outrage. He attacked corrupt politicans and crooked businessmen in his editorials (though he was not scrupulous about false claims by advertisers) and almost anyone else in sight. With equal disrespect he took on rival editors (“blockheads”) and President Van Buren’s associates (“we have seen them even turn the sacred capitol itself into a common brothel”). He could not be suppressed or frightened. When, as happened several times, he was physically attacked by infuriated victims, he turned the event into comic copy at their expense. There was the time, for example, when James Watson Webb, a rival editor, hit him with a walking stick on the street in broad daylight and opened a large gash in his scalp. Freshly bandaged, Bennett rushed to his desk and wrote: “The fellow, no doubt, wanted to let out the neverfailing supply of good humor and wit, which has created such a reputation for the Herald, and appropriate the contents to supply the emptiness of his own thick skull.”
Self-promotion bubbled from him. “I have infused life, glowing eloquence, philosophy, taste, sentiment, wit, and humor into the daily newspaper… ,” he announced. When he married at forty, his lead editorial proclaimed it a historic event. “I must fulfill that awful destiny which the Almighty Father has written against my name in broad letters of light against the wall of heaven. I must give the world a pattern of happy wedded life.…”
Bennett made himself, in short, the star of his own show, on which the curtain never descended. Offended morality beat against him in vain. In the spring of 1840 seven competing New York dailies launched a sustained editorial campaign against the Herald, trying, in the words of the ex-mayor Philip Hone, to “make respectable people withdraw their support from the vile sheet.…” Committees waited upon businessmen, urging them to cancel their ads. The “moral war,” as it was called, slightly dented the circulation of fifty-one thousand but ultimately fizzled. Bennett went onward, to die rich and honored in 1872, with the Herald firmly established as one of the country’s leading papers in an age of many outstanding dailies.
It should be quickly added that by then its reputation was deserved. It was no mere National Enquirer. In time it came to offer much of the best, timeliest, and most thorough reporting of hard news to be found anywhere. But the diligent Bennett had created a system in which the press and those who worked for it were not mere chroniclers but also creators of American life patterns—active players in a game of hard knocks.
In the 1830s a single journalist like Bennett could be owner, editor, and correspondent, and attract the limelight almost alone. But as newspapers grew in size, ownership began to turn corporate and anonymous, and the star role fell more often to the reporter. I was reminded of this recently by a small news item that noted that the handsome building that once housed the New York City Lunatic Asylum on Blackwells (now Roosevelt) Island, in the East River, was falling into ruins. The story noted that “Nellie BIy, a reporter for the New York World, feigned insanity and was committed to the asylum in 1887. She found abuses that led her to call it a ‘human rattrap.’”
She did indeed. And more. “Nellie Bly” was the pen name of Elizabeth Cochrane, a pioneer of journalism who broke into reporting for the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1885, when she was in her late teens. There were “lady” reporters at work at the time, but Nellie was definitely no lady. Her muckraking stories were on foul working conditions in factories, life in the slums, or poverty in Mexico, and she got them directly on the scene. In 1887 she crashed New York to wrest a job from the World ’s tough editor, Joseph Pulitzer, a man very much in the Bennett mold. More than once she used the trick of going into disguise to blow the lid off a mess. She posed not only as a lunatic but as a sweatshop worker, an arrested petty thief, a businesswoman hiring a lobbyist to bribe state legislators, and, in lighter vein, a chorus girl and ballerina.
But Ely’s greatest fame came when Pulitzer involved her in a story that was more sensation than investigation. He sent her circling the globe by commercial transportation in 1889, trying to beat the record set by Jules Verne’s fictional hero Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days . Beat it she did, in seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes, and fourteen seconds, while hundreds of thousands of World readers breathlessly waited for the spunky girl’s en-route dispatches from London, Brindisi, Aden, Colombo, Singapore, and Tokyo. She was not simply telling a story. She was the story.
If few modern readers know of her work, it is because of a personal decision for which she left no explanation, but which may tell us something about the choices faced by successful women not so long ago. At the peak of her career she married a rich man forty years her senior and quit the profession. No one can say whether the motive was love, burnout, or a hunger for financial security. If it was the last, the sequel is especially sad. After a time her husband died, and business reverses ate up the money he left her. In her fifties she had to return to low-paying work on a Hearst paper before she died in 1922 in almost total obscurity.
But for a brief time in January 1890, just after she returned from her trip around the world, BIy was as much a celebrity as a correspondent. And that is precisely the point. Celebrity journalists—in print or on the tube—gain huge audiences, and audiences spell not only profits but power—power that is, to be sure, a necessary counterforce to those who abuse office, but power that also makes us wary even as we wait eagerly for the next sensation. Bennett was one of the very first in the business to be in on the secret. How his eyes would have sparkled as he considered the opportunities of television. How he would have loved playing Ted Turner, Geraldo Rivera, and Dan Rather, all in one resounding parcel. And how we would love—and hate—him in return.