A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
I remember a time when journalism was an honourable profession. I’m even old enough to remember Edward R. Murrow’s boys, albeit at the end of their careers. These were the folks (Sevareid, Cronkite et al) who came home from World War II determined to change reporting from the William Randolph Hearst school of half truths and outright lies to something better. I used to read the columnists who followed after them: Mike Royko, Buchwald and Safire. They reported what they saw, what they investigated, what they could prove, what they knew to be true. When Cronkite said it on the 6 o’clock news you could believe him. In those days, journalists were an important part of our society. They had one simple, extremely difficult job: cut through the spin and tell us the truth — and they did it, or at least tried their best. Woodward and Bernstein were the last of their line. So how the hell did we get from there to Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World? The short answer is we didn’t. Responsible journalism (as I remember it) was just a bump in the cycle; as Murrow’s boys culture died off, so did their brand of integrity and journalism.
In case you’ve been in a tunnel for the last twenty years, News of the World is a despicable British newspaper. You can read about it here. It is so sordid and tawdry that, in a land known for contemptible tabloid presses, it has no shoddy rival. In an international sleaze-off contest, the News of the World would beat The National Enquirer without breaking a sweat. And for those of you who think this is Rupert Murdoch’s doing, no, the News of the World has always been disreputable. Here’s a quote from a book written in 1950 about an incident that took place in the 1890s.
“Frederick Greenwood, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, met in his club one day Lord Riddell, who died a few years ago, and in the course of conversation Riddell said to him, `You know, I own a paper.’ `Oh, do you?’ said Greenwood, ‘what is it?’ `It’s called the News of the World—I’ll send you a copy,’ replied Riddell, and in due course did so. Next time they met Riddell said, ‘Well, Greenwood, what do you think of my paper?’ ‘I looked at it,’ replied Greenwood, ‘and then I put it in the waste-paper basket. And then I thought, “If I leave it there the cook may read it — so I burned it!’ ”(J. W. Robertson Scott, The Story of the Pall Mall Gazette (1950), 417—as cited in Wikipedia)
There is nothing good to say about the News of the World and when it announced its impending suicide nobody, except the dregs of humanity who worked there, shed a tear. Are we clear?
What we call “yellow journalism” or sensationalism has its modern roots in the mid 19th century. (Incidentally, the News of the World got its start in 1843.) Believe it or don’t, the industrial revolution actually created leisure time for whole segments of our population. Meanwhile, as we inched towards universal education, rudimentary literacy became the norm. In other words, most ordinary people could read, and after about 1850, they had the time to do it. It was the golden age of the penny dreadful and the dime novel. It was also a time when the only news available came from newspapers.
As newspaper circulations began to increase, a few enterprising young media people — including William Randolph Hearst, a guy by the name of Joseph Pulitzer and a few others — discovered an interesting phenomenon. The newly literate social class much preferred exciting stories about fires, robberies, murders and corruption to ordinary daily news. They learned that sensational stories and even more sensational headlines sold newspapers. It was a no brainer; they gave the people what they wanted. By the 1880s, sensationalism was firmly established in the print media – all it needed was a name. In the 1890s, an all-out media war in New York between Hearst and Pulitzer provided that. As the newspaper headlines got wilder and wilder, the result was the international expansion of “yellow journalism.” The other side effects were the de facto death of truth in the news and, quite possibly, a media generated conflict — the Spanish American War in 1898. Plus, the battle proved one thing that everybody already knew: the public was more interested in sordid details, true or not, than factual reporting. To be fair, not all newspapers of the time were sensationalist rags, and even the sensationalist rags covered hard news stories sometimes, but, in general, murder usually got the front page in even the most respected papers. For example, one of the biggest stories of the early 20th century was the titillating love triangle murder in 1906 of Stanford White, by jealous husband, Harry Thaw with ex-chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit coyly posing in the middle. At the time it was called The Trial of the Century. It was followed immediately by the murder trial of silent film comic Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, and the murder convictions of two anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti: both trials equally dubbed The Trial of the Century. Soon after that there was the Lindbergh kidnapping and subsequent trial of Bruno Hauptmann which satirist H. L Mencken mockingly called “the biggest story since the resurrection.” It’s pretty plain that the O.J. Simpson Trial of the Century in 1995 doesn’t hold a candle to what the media was doing decades before.
In less than 48 hours the News of the World will cease to be, thank god. Of course, its brand of journalism will still ooze out of the pages of a dozen other British tabloids. Enquiring minds will still buy millions of National Enquirers every week. Lindsay Lohan’s picture will still guarantee magazine sales and Casey Anthony will get enough ink to drown Cameron, Merkel and Sarkozy combined. The world might not have changed that much since William Randolph Hearst took over the San Francisco Examiner from his dad in 1887 but for one brief, shining moment, after World War II, there was honour in journalism. Mike Royko, clearly a man of his time, summed it up best when he wrote, “No self-respecting fish would want to be wrapped in a Murdoch paper.”