There were two moments in my father’s day that I recall with particular fondness. The first was at the breakfast table where each morning The New York Times awaited his close perusal. As he read the gray, disciplined columns, he would express his doubts about an especially rash effort by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to pull the United States out of its Great Depression and repeatedly he would voice his anxieties over Adolf Hitler’s ominous instructions to the German Army to “fulfill its duty.”
The second moment was in the evening, after dinner, when he would settle down into a comfortable chair to read the day’s last edition (it was called the Sporting Final) of the somewhat snappier New York Sun for the late news, the closing stock prices, and perhaps a review of actress Gertrude Lawrence’s most recent Broadway rendition of a sexy English lady as conceived by Noel Coward.
When war eventually came, after the German Army had “fulfilled its duty” and Japan had decided to challenge the United States, a study of The Times and The Sun sometimes became deeply personal as both newspapers began listing Washington’s “honor rolls” of the dead, the wounded, and the missing in action.
Although newsmen like William L. Shirer were delivering disturbing reports from Europe over static-impaired broadcasts, raucous radio and television with their strident voices were still years away. It was Jack Benny time rather than noisy reporters.
For my father and other members of his generation, newspapers were the orderly and measured way to monitor a turbulent century. They relied on the rational judgment of carefully selected cosmopolitan newspapers which they viewed as intelligent and reliable. The writing was conservative, the advertisements were modest, and the graphics were sober and inelaborate.
Of course it wasn’t all journalistic temperance in the first 50 years of the 20th century. Yellow journalism was in full flower and the urban tabloid press was taking the early steps toward today’s nationwide media excess of celebrity and sex. Tabloids like New York’s Daily News and Daily Mirror and columnists such as Walter Winchell had plenty of high jinks to write about.
Young women, who had won the right to vote in 1920, were raising their skirts and editorial eyebrows as they pierced the doors of Prohibition speakeasies to drink forbidden gin with the men; New York’s playboy mayor, Jimmy Walker, was always good for a jolly headline—he compared the first woman to swim the English channel, the daughter of a Manhattan butcher, to Moses crossing the Red Sea or Caesar crossing the Rubicon; and goldfish swallowing was all the rage after a Harvard University student named Lothrop Withington Jr.gulped down one of the wiggling animals as press cameras flashed, thus confirming Harvard’s preeminence among America’s educational institutions.
After Wall Street crashed in 1929 and the resulting Depression rolled on well into the 1930’s, the newspapers found relief in their most reliable pick-me-up: pretty girls. Reporters and photographers couldn’t get enough of rich debutantes dancing in the arms of college boys in white ties and tails at swanky cotillions in ritzy hotel ballrooms.Life magazine put pulchritudinous deb Brenda Duff Frazier on one of its covers to cheer up an American population grown weary of hungry children in West Virginia, and demagogue Huey Long of Louisiana inspired lively headlines as he hoodwinked the innocent by promising every American an income of $5,000 a year by breaking up the fortunes of the country’s millionaires.
But the debs would soon give way. Hollywood’s pretty faces moved into the newspapers of America as movie palaces became the dream emporiums of Main Street, U.S.A. Indeed, Hollywood was establishing its leadership role of American culture. Tough guys like Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney gave swell impersonations of the Chicago gangsters so beloved by city editors and actresses like Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Harlow were portraying with sultry authority a succession of red-hot broads who delivered such racy lines as “Men aren’t interested in a sheet of virgin-white paper. They want something with writing on it.” For the “Fourth Estate,” rich virginal debs were out.
Yet in general the country’s newspapers during the pre-World War II years reflected a nation tempered by war, the long unemployment lines of the Depression, and the desperate flight of Oklahoma’s dust bowl farmers to the orange groves of California as depicted in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath.
The nation’s gloom was the principal news in newspapers and magazines. In 1931 a writer for The Virginia Quarterly Review captured the grim picture. He reported that in New York City thousands of men gathered daily “in bread lines on the Bowery, standing for hours in the cold and rain waiting for a chance to get a ticket which would entitle them to stand in another line for more hours in hope of receiving eventually a cup of coffee and a few slices of bread and butter.”
Then into this baneful portrait of a country in distress came an inspirational leader. Franklin Roosevelt, an astonishing aristocrat from New York State’s Hudson River Valley, informed the press and the American people in his campaign for the presidency that he was offering them a “new deal” that would not forget “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” It was the message the nation longed for and it was a retort to some dreary writers and professors like John Dos Passes and Edmund Wilson who were urging the country to elect a Communist president. William Allen White, the Republican editor of The Emporia Gazette in Kansas, was so depressed by the Depression that he called the Soviet Union “the most interesting place on the planet” and liberal journalist Elmer Davis declared the profit system dead, which The Virginia Quarterly disputed by saying that under Roosevelt the banks needed to be “nursed back to confidence and taught to behave.”
When Roosevelt won, the normally restrained New York Times put an exclamation point on its front page, eight-column headline: ROOSEVELT WINNER IN LANDSLIDE! But making the “New Deal” work (the N and D were now capitalized) was not easy and the press was often critical of FDR’s controversial programs, especially the Hearst papers and their “Citizen Kane” publisher, William Randolph Hearst. Also lined up against Roosevelt and his policies was Colonel Robert R. McCormick, who had been the president’s schoolmate at the Groton prep school. The colonel owned The Washington Times-Herald and the powerful Chicago Tribune (“The World’s Greatest Newspaper,” was its slogan). The Tribune advised voters to “turn the rascals out” of Washington and Hearst ordered his editors to substitute the words “Raw Deal” for “New Deal.”
Roosevelt also counted among his press enemies Moses Annenberg, publisher of The Philadelphia Enquirer. But the president had a secret (and unscrupulous) weapon to use against Annenberg. He told his Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau: “I want Moe Annenberg for dinner.” In 1940 the publisher was convicted for income tax evasion. He spent three years in prison and was fined $9.5 million.
In McCormick’s Illinois bailiwick, a naïve University of Chicago student named Katharine Graham, who would one day become the grande dame of The Washington Post and the District of Columbia, wrote a letter to her father, publisher of the newspaper, complaining about the welcome The Post gave to Roosevelt on its front page in 1936 when it had opposed him editorially during his campaign.
Roosevelt was also not a fan of the “sacrosanct” New York Times. Although it supported the president’s reelection in 1936, it was highly critical of his “judicial reform” plan, better remembered as FDR’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court with justices who would protect his legislation from Congress. When he learned that publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger and his lawyers had devised a tax plan that would keep control of the paper in the hands of the Sulzberger and Ochs families and out of the clutches of investors who were indifferent to the paper’s independence, FDR was incensed. “It’s a dirty Jewish trick,” he told a Mississippi senator. The remark got back to Sulzberger, and he carried the insult to his grave. When Roosevelt ran for a third term in 1940, The Times supported Republican Wendell Willkie for president.
Still, the press and other enemies of Roosevelt were no match for the president. A tour of New England, for example, was not a campaign trip “but a triumphal procession,” wrote James MacGregor Burns in his biography of FDR.The people loved him. Men and women cried out, “He saved my home,” “He gave me a job.” “Even hard-bitten reporters were incredulous over the wild enthusiasm of the crowds,” said Burns. Speaking in Madison Square Garden in New York City, Roosevelt told a packed audience that his enemies “are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.” The crowd gave him an ovation.
Like Winston Churchill and even Adolf Hitler, Roosevelt knew the key to popular political victory: the people adore a great orator. In Roosevelt’s case, also a leader who could touch them personally, a man they could revere. On March 12, 1933, at the end of his first week as president, FDR did something that would have a profound impact on journalism: he made direct contact with the people in the first of 30 “fireside chats” on the new medium of radio. He had successfully hurdled over the press as his warm, aristocratic voice enfolded millions of Americans in their homes. He spoke “in simple terms without giving the impression of talking down to his listeners,” said Burns. “The speech was a brilliant success.” And so was Roosevelt, with or without the support of the press.
Roosevelt’s skillful use of radio was a significant development in the political world’s relationship with the press. But an event of even greater import had occurred ten years earlier. In 1923 in Hastings, England, a Scotsman named John Logie Baird took a cardboard disc invented in 1894 by a German named Paul Nipkow and transmitted a very blurred picture of a cross and a human hand over a few feet. It was history’s first television transmission. In 25 years, after the end of World War II, Baird’s device was on its way to perfection and soon became the omnipresent contrivance in homes throughout America. By 1950 afternoon-evening newspapers (including The New York Sun) would begin collapsing nationwide as Americans turned to their TV sets for night-time news and amusement.
The morning newspapers had to scramble to stay alive. Those which survived by good management and editorial creativity seemed to prosper despite circulation pressures. But even morning newspapers with distinguished pedigrees such as The New York Herald Tribune died when their publishers and editors failed to anticipate the appetites of the post-World War II generations.
Americans adored television, and the A.M. press quickly succumbed by printing free and full TV schedules and making celebrities of newscasters. But they have had to jump through further hoops. The video generations demanded—and continue to want—lots of wild graphics, lots of color, lots of sex, and lots of articles on how to have fun, how to keep healthy, and how to make money. And if newspapers don’t provide what they seek, well there’s always round-the-clock television, round-the-clock radio, and round-the-clock computers.
As Americans (and the world) took John Baird’s device as a gift from the gods, journalists saw the new medium as a way to open up the world to a new age of enlightenment. But it did not take long for TV executives to realize that its growing audience would not cotton to Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra or T.S. Eliot’s verse plays. Quiz shows, soap operas, and sitcoms were what the public desired. As for news, quick 30-second reports delivered by new ambrosial faces were the norm.
Edward R. Murrow, whose austere radio reports from London had alerted Americans to the horror of the Nazi blitz in 1940, was one of the first to transfer to television, although he did so somewhat reluctantly. His See It Now and CBS Reports set the standard for excellence in TV journalism. His most memorable broadcast was on March 9, 1954, when his See It Now exposed Senator Joseph McCarthy as a fraud for his indiscriminate and false charges against Americans the senator had accused of being Communists.
Murrow and his like-minded colleagues were not to last. TV executives dislike controversy and they eventually pulled the curtain down. Perhaps it was lack of courage, or the revenue returns were not high enough, or the public was bored. Murrow criticized the medium’s “decadence, escapism, and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live.” So See It Now was killed and CBS Reports was replaced by a show about a talking horse.
Still, television’s bigwigs could not ignore the real world. And why should they when there was lots of excitement and colorful characters in the news? John F. Kennedy and his attractive wife made Washington a glamourous place for the TV audience; Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement provided plenty of action scenes; the Vietnam War and the later Persian Gulf War offered armchair viewers the excitement and terror of battle in the comfort of their own living rooms; Richard Nixon was the perfect villain for people who distrusted all politicians; Ronald Reagan showed that a Hollywood actor with a mastery of television could become president of the United States; and Bill and Hillary Clinton proved that spinning, which Washington Post journalist Ben Bradlee called “a nice uptown way of saying lying,” was the way to justify one’s immorality and win the hearts of the American people.
As television hurdled toward the end of the 20th century, the newspapers were groping with their continuing problem of survival and image. Surveys and polls conducted in recent years indicate that journalists were, and are, viewed by the public on an honesty level with second-hand car salesmen eager to sell lemons to the innocent, lawyers more interested in winning big fees than in justice, and doctors eager to cover up the deadly errors of their colleagues. Wrestler Jesse Ventura, who is also the governor of Minnesota, not long ago brought down the house at a Reform Party convention when he said of the press: “Do not trust them. They are not into reporting the news anymore, they are into creating news.”
In Salamanca, New York, a judge was quoted by The Associated Press regarding his refusal to release the transcript of a hearing in a murder case. Said the judge: “The norm in this day and age seems to be the news media circling like vultures, each hoping to be the first to feast on the gory details.”
Washington Post political columnist David S. Broder complained that an important bill passed overwhelmingly by the Congress got scant attention in the press. The reason: “It is conflict, not compromise that makes news . . . . The media bias for verbal slugging over legislative virtuosity is one of the main reasons, I believe, Congress is held in such low esteem.”
When Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin retired from his government job to return to the private sector, he lamented the role of the press in Washington. He said: “If you give a serious speech about trade, you don’t get coverage. But if you call someone a scoundrel, you get some highly effective coverage.”
And who is doing that coverage? More and more it is television’s carefully selected, highly paid, and charismatic news talkers with their hidden writers and producers. Do they have the moral capacity to do a proper job? Or are they merely reflecting the used car, legal, medical, and White House spinners? Joseph Pulitzer, whose prizessometimes go to the undeserving, once asserted that “a cynical, mercenary demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself.” Perhaps that has already occurred.
The executive editor of The New York Times, Joseph Lelyveld, has stated that “the environment in which we publish the paper has changed radically. The so-called information age in which we now live can be anarchic. People feel assaulted by information much of the time. News has become a little like fast food—not very nourishing.”
If anything, the news assault will become more menacing and more complicated in the 21st century. The invention of television had a dramatic impact on journalism, but a second invention is destined to cause an even greater shock. This was the Cold War creation of the Internet, a concept devised by the U.S.military and think tank wizards fearful that the Soviet Union might bomb and cripple the country’s entire defense system. It did not take long for this network of computers to expand nationwide, and with the end of the Cold War the system was traveling via telephone lines, fiber-optic cable, and other means.
By 1992, three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U. S. government yielded the Internet to the commercial world as Oxford-trained physicist Tim Berners-Lee figured out how to transmit graphics, pictures, and sound to anybody who could afford a computer—from university libraries to newspaper newsrooms to the high school kid down the block to sleazy porn polluters. Suddenly a new river of gold had opened up and newspapers and other media outlets jumped into the rush for riches, in many cases out of fear of the unknown and possible extinction. Only the inventor of the Internet’s World Wide Web, Berners-Lee, has been left out of the gold rush. He does not seem to mind. He’s more interested in protecting the system’s integrity at his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology rather than amassing a fortune with Bill Gates in Seattle.
Not so the media conglomerates. Turn on the computer and a news junkie can find Web sites with all the news that’s fit to view. They range from usatoday.com to the .com of The Marion County Record of Kansas. There’s also cnn.com, abcnews.com, nytimes.com, washingtonpost.com, latimes.com, Colonel McCormick’s Chicago Tribune.com, and the Web site of The Iowa Falls Times-Citizen with a local printing press circulation of 4,000 and a .com circulation potential in the millions.
In essence, what is developing is a huge media war to rival the storied newspaper wars of yore. The New York Times boasts that in 1998 its “ink and paper” advertising reached $1 billion in a newspaper with a daily circulation of more than a million (1,650,000 on Sundays). Of late, however, it has been touting its nytimes.com Web site with its “well over 7.1 million fully registered users . . . which allows for the creation of content with highly targeted information and selling mechanisms.”
Last November The Washington Post, which has a daily circulation of 763,000 (more than a million on Sundays), announced with great fanfare that it and NBC News, which is owned by General Electric, will share their news reports on their Web sites. The newspaper sweetened the deal by throwing in the reports of its magazine, Newsweek, as well. The Post also told book lovers around the country that they could no longer subscribe separately to its Sunday book review section because such an arrangement was no longer “viable.” It did note that the book section was still available on the newspaper’s Web site, provided of course that one has a computer in place of an old-fashioned mail box.
Two months later The Times matched the Post deal by announcing that it and ABC News, which is owned by the Walt Disney Company, had agreed to share news coverage, with the newspaper providing reports and perhaps its reporters to ABC’s evening “newsmagazine” and its morning news show. In addition, political reports would be delivered to each other’s Web sites.
Which means that The Washington Post and The New York Times can now compete for readers in cities and villages throughout North America as well as in Oslo, Tokyo, and Cairo. And if American journalism is not sufficient, there’s always the Web sites of the international press, such as The Times of London or England’s Financial Times. Says a senior editor of FT.com: “We envisage it becoming a global business portal.”
All this Internet and increased television competition makes for a high state of tension in the nation’s newsrooms. This stress was heightened by last January’s announcement that the nouveau riche Internet bigwig America Online and the media conglomerate Time Warner were merging in a $165 billion deal which, among other things, would deliver “information” through a variety of outlets. Which left champions of autonomous newspapers—not many still exist—wondering if journalistic independence would survive the first decade of the new century.
“We are in a business that is being transformed by a communications revolution that is altering our basic sense of time and space,” N.Y.Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. told his reporters and editors in 1999 in his annual State of the Times speech. “I suspect we will look back at what we [have] accomplished [in years past] . . .and remember it as being easy.”
As the 21st century begins its first decade, the average man and woman must decide how he or she will digest all the information that is being tossed their way. Will the individual switch on the computer in the morning at breakfast time for a favorite “newspaper” Web site or choose instead a television news broadcast or even demand that the vintage but reliable paper product be waiting outside the front door? Media giants such as Time Warner and Gannett with its USA Today newspaper don’t know the answer to that question at this “moment” in history. Even The Iowa Falls Times-Citizen doesn’t have a dependable reply.
I for one shall miss the warm feel of the printing press newspaper if it’s ever supplanted by the Internet or the television tube. Its thin-skinned journalists can’t stand criticism, although they have no hesitation in castigating others. With the Internet I can establish my own Web site and reprove editors and reporters at will rather than having my letters to the editor rejected or reduced to an insignificant one paragraph. That’s returning power to the people! And I thank Tim Berners-Lee for that power.
Still, I can’t summon the means to uncover a Watergate scandal or contact the person who can hand me the Pentagon Papers or fight town hall when my taxes go up unreasonably. The press fights wrongs devised by officials or even illegal schemes sadly concocted within a People that Alexander Hamilton called “a great Beast.” It’s all there in black and white and sometimes in color in the same disciplined columns where my father discovered the horrors unleashed by Adolf Hitler. Perhaps the executives who will inevitably control the competitive Web sites and the television channels will allow the Edward R. Murrows of the future to report it as they see it. But I have my doubts.