A Closer Look: Three Golden Ages of Journalism?

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A Closer Look: Three Golden Ages of Journalism?

by Paul Steiger ProPublica, Feb. 7, 2014, 1 p.m.

This morning, ProPublica founder and executive chairman Paul Steiger received the William Allen White Foundation National Citation from the University of Kansas’s White School of Journalism and Mass Communications in Lawrence. Here are his remarks.

I’m honored to be here in Lawrence for the second time in 48 years. In the summer of 1966, having spent nearly all my life within 75 miles of New York City, I was driving across our great country on my way to California. In the late afternoon, one of those explosive thunderstorms you Kansans are familiar with poured rain in such sheets as to force me to pull over for 15 or 30 minutes till it passed. Then came one of those gorgeous, sun-dappled, cool and peaceful evenings that I suspect you also know well. A half century later I still remember it.

In the intervening years I confess to having thought about this place for two things: your great basketball teams, and your great journalists. It has been my privilege to work with some of those journalists: Jerry Seib and Barbara Rosewicz. Kevin Helliker. Danforth Austin. Steve Frasier. To name a few.  And then of course there is William Allen White, whose name adorns this great school and the citation that I am overwhelmed to receive today.

No, I didn’t work with him, although some of my 20-something colleagues at ProPublica think I go back that far. He died when I was two, in 1944. But like many journalists, I’ve long known of and admired Mr. White, and why not?  Multiple Pulitzer winner. The voice of Middle America who lived here all his life yet made time to travel east and write pathbreaking pieces for the cutting-edge, New York-based national magazine, McClure’s.  Mr. White without question was one of the leaders of a great revolution in journalism, which parallels in some ways the revolution taking place today.

In fact, in her latest marvelous book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin applies that gleaming, golden label to the early decades of Mr. White’s era. [See her ProPublica podcast on the subject here.]

It was certainly a golden age. Whether it was the golden age is something we could argue about. Indeed, some Internet writers and publishers have taken to contending recently that our current era is the best ever for American journalism — this only a brief time after others  took to declaring that the loss of billions of dollars of advertising revenue and tens of thousands of jobs at metro newspapers was driving us into a journalistic wasteland.

That leads me to what I’d like to talk with you about today. My interest isn’t so much to determine what was the golden age of journalism, although I have a candidate, which I will make a case for in a moment.

My real interest, sitting where we do in a period of incredibly rapid change, is what should wewant in a new golden age? I confess to having more questions than answers, so I look forward to hearing from you in the comment period.

Let’s start by taking a close look at the period that Doris Goodwin, with her historian’s perspective, describes as American journalism’s finest hour.  It began, she tells us, in the 1880s and 1890s, a time in some ways like our own, with major changes in the economy involving first rapid growth and industrialization, and then, in 1893, a crash that produced huge unemployment and hardship. Through it all, there was a major surge in inequality.

The urban poor lived in squalid tenements. Factory workers endured crushingly low wages, six-day work weeks, dangerous conditions on the job, and the ability of owners to fire them at will. The giant trusts and the all-powerful railroads manipulated freight rates and other prices to squeeze growers and small entrepreneurs, in the end driving many into bankruptcy and seizing their businesses or lands.

Meanwhile, the rich lived in mansions with servants and took their children on grand tours of Europe. America, the land of the citizen farmer, the industrious  merchant, and the emancipated slave, increasingly took on notions of class. A brilliant and gregarious student at Harvard, New York mansion-dweller Teddy Roosevelt worried that some of the classmates he thought to befriend might be from families of insufficient standing.

At the same time, Roosevelt had a passion for public service and a liking for journalists. Unlike many political and business leaders, then and now, he didn’t fear being criticized or misquoted by reporters. Rather, he boldly assumed he could make common cause with them. So when the assassination of William McKinley in 1901 made the 42-year-old Roosevelt our nation’s youngest president, he had already built a network of reporters and writers to whom he gave extraordinary access, whose advice he sought and sometimes followed, and who often helped explain his positions favorably to the public.

A key to TR’s journalistic network was a group of extraordinary writers assembled by a once penniless Irish immigrant, S.S. McClure, to work on the magazine he called, simply, McClure’s. 

Then as now, technology aided change.  The newly perfected process of photoengraving was both cheaper and faster than traditional woodcuts, and Sam McClure made good use of it.

He also used his powerful talent as an editor to inspire the great writers he had collected. In particular, he sent them on missions to dig deep into the secrets of the powerful, and to reveal them in enthralling narratives. The approach was rare in American journalism. It caught on soon with the public — who made McClure’s a financial success — and with competitors, who sought to imitate the approach.

All came together in the January 1903 McClure’s, a truly extraordinary issue containing three powerful exposes: Lincoln Steffens on the corrupt mayor of Minneapolis, Ray Stannard Baker on misbehavior in the nascent labor movement,  and the first installment of what is justly revered as one of the greatest feats of investigative reporting ever, Ida Tarbell’s mammoth inquisition into rapacious business practices by John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Trust.

It took eight long years, but Tarbell’s chapter-and-verse reporting served as a guide for a federal government lawsuit to break up the trust. The suit finally broke through Rockefeller’s legions of lawyers and political supporters to win at the Supreme Court.

By that time, however, the magazine had collapsed, in part because of McClure’s moods and unpredictable rages at the staff, and his insistence that the poetry editor publish submissions by a young woman with whom he had had an affair.

The public was also tiring of the expose form. Some of McClure’s competitors were not so scrupulous about their reporting and relied on bombastic rhetoric and name calling when the facts were insufficiently at hand. In 1906, that great friend of journalists, President Roosevelt, diluted his support by giving a speech, first off the record at the annual Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, and then in public, a month later. 

Roosevelt used the image of the muckraker to describe writers who focused only on the negative. While he expressed backing for those who carefully documented what they wrote, his assault on what he termed “sensational, lurid and untruthful” articles overwhelmed the positive words, Goodwin concluded. TR’s view took hold, and an era of broad public support for expose journalism came to an end.

The terms muckraking and muckraker, of course, were actually embraced, not shunned, by the McClure’s writers and are used today as terms of approbation by investigative reporters.  At ProPublica we label “Muckreads” a section of our website in which we highlight interesting investigative reporting by journalists other than our own. Even so, for much of the first half of the 20th Century, this kind of work faded from prominence. Its practitioners had made a strong record and established reporting and writing models that influenced how journalists work today. But I can think of at least one period in which the accomplishments of journalists surpassed these.

The period that I would anoint as the golden era in American journalism was from the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s. It had three separate major strands: the Civil Rights struggle over integration of schools and public facilities in the South; the Vietnam War; and Watergate.

Once again, there was interaction with technology. In this period, the ability to take television outdoors and get footage on the air rose progressively, and in all three cases — Civil Rights, Vietnam, and Watergate — TV combined with print to multiply the power of each form of reporting.

In addition, during this period there was a much greater role for aggressive spot-news reporting of dramatic and sometimes violent events, often at considerable personal risk to reporters and photographers. It brought home to the public appalling behavior by people in authority, including sheriffs in the American South and soldiers in Vietnam.

The trigger for major print and TV coverage of the Civil Rights movement was the unanimous 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation, reversing the “separate but equal” decision of 58 years earlier, and generating  outrage among many white Southerners. Then, rather than go forward with plans to implement the ruling, Arkansas Governor OrvalFaubus in September 1957 suddenly ordered out National Guard troops to block the planned entrance of nine black students into the city’s all-white Central High School.

A month later, President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the Guard troops, who swiftly enforced the enrollment of the black children. This set off a decade of struggle all across the South between segregationist whites and determined blacks, who  demanded their rights not only to integrated schooling but also to vote and to use the same bus seats, restaurants and lunch counters, restrooms, and other public facilities as whites did.

In little more than a decade, they won most of their objectives, by a combination of their own efforts and by the actions of a horde of journalists, some from the black press but many Southern-born-and-raised whites who rejected the white-supremacist views of their parents and cousins.

The Race Beat, a 2006 book by two journalist sons of the South, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, is a fine guide to this history and many of the brave and colorful characters who lived it. Among them, besides Roberts himself, were Claude Sitton of the New York Times, Karl Fleming of Newsweek, Haynes Johnson of the Washington Star, and three Pulitzer Prize winners at the Atlanta Journal & Constitution — Gene Patterson, Ralph McGill and Jack Nelson.

On the television side were John Chancellor and Richard Valeriani at NBC, Dan Rather and Nelson Benton at CBS, and many others.  Their network status didn’t spare them. Valeriani had his head bashed in by an Alabama state trooper; a nearby cameraman watching blood spurt from his head couldn’t believe he’d survive. Rather had a shotgun poked into his ribs.A soundman pressed a pistol against the man’s head and persuade him to pull back the shotgun.

The print reporting conveyed what smoke or tear gas or the lack of equipment in the right place prevented the cameras from catching; cameras pointed in the right position captured action that neither reporters nor cameraman could spot. And then, at times,  there was the perfect — and perfectly horrific — moment.

March 7, 1965. Bloody Sunday. Some 500 demonstrators start to cross the Edmund Pettusbridge near Selma, Alabama. They are opposed by an equal number of riot-equipped state troopers plus a sheriff’s posse, some on them on horseback. The police commander orders the marchers to disperse. The lead marchers kneel to pray. The police charge, running over and through the marchers, hammering them with clubs, chasing the ones who run and hammering them some more. And all this in full view of the cameras of all three networks, which air the footage Sunday evening. ABC interrupts the prime time showing of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” the Oscar-winning film about German war crimes, to air detailed coverage of the beatings.

All across America, the public is aroused and outraged. President Lyndon Johnson asks both houses of Congress to approve a massive civil rights bill, one considered a long shot a few days earlier. They can’t wait to vote.

The coverage of the Vietnam War wasn’t as comprehensively and consistently a success as that of the Civil Rights struggle in the South, but television and print media took on significant new challenges and for the most part met them. 

The war was increasingly controversial as the manpower and expenditure demands grew. The public wanted more information faster, and they wanted it to be more definitive. Were we winning or losing? Did it make any difference?  Both print and TV reporters recognized that they were sometimes being spun by government briefers, and they became appropriately more skeptical.

In some cases the skepticism was overblown, most notably in the coverage of the Tet offensive early in 1968. North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces briefly captured some cities and other strategically important places, but they were quickly retaken, and the casualty cost to enemy forces was high. The reporting that treated Tet as a major defeat for the Americans was probably wrong. Whether better coverage would have changed the outcome of the war or of the 1968 election, I cannot say.

In any case, success returned by 1971, with the Pentagon Papers case. The New York Times and the Washington Post reconfirmed the right of the press to publish most national security-related information without prior restraint.

And the coverage of the Watergate break-in, dominated by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, was an even greater success. President Richard Nixon was shown unequivocally to have abused his office for personal political gain and ultimately was forced to resign.

This brings us back to where we started, which is the following question: What changes can we reasonably look for in the current state of American journalism for it to qualify as a new Golden Age, one that matches or even exceeds the two eras I’ve been talking about?

What seems clear to me is that we are not there yet.

Some people, to be sure, think we are already there.

Henry Blodget of Business Insider last summer famously said “Journalism has entered a Golden Age.” And then he helpfully posted backup for his case, and quite a few people agreed with him. His argument basically is that the combination of the web, social media, and the smart hand-held makes it possible for anyone with the talent to just start producing journalism. He says that while some newspapers have closed or contracted, others are “hanging in there” and more native digital news platforms are starting and growing. I encourage you to read his entire argument. I agree with some of it but not all.

On the plus side, I too am thrilled with what the new digital tools can do, in capturing data, drawing knowledge it, and in displaying and distributing that knowledge.  I’m also delighted that the barriers to entry have shrunk so dramatically. Instead of spending millions on a printing press, you need only spend a few thousand on a laptop and a website and, boom, you’re a publisher.

But creating millions of lone-wolf, single-person bloggers doesn’t get us to a golden age. It can give us cat photos that make us giggle, news scoops involving an original fact or two, a trenchant analysis of finance or politics or sculpture, video of Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift nuzzling their latest boyfriends, or possibly some movie and book reviews worth trusting. All nice to have but not game-changing.

If you’re going to reliably produce journalism that improves the world, maybe you don’t need a village, but you need some collaborators. You need lots of reporters. You need editors, data journalists, a lawyer.

If it sounds like I’m trying to restore the primacy of the print newspaper, I’m not. That train has left the station. Instead, it’s time that we embrace the dominance of the web, not just say “Digital First,” but mean it. News platforms are rising frequently on the Internet; some, like BuzzFeed, are amassing huge traffic and edging toward profitability. If I were the young journalists and journalism students here, that’s the kind of team I’d want to join.

Finally, unless you have a hefty trust fund, like the billion-dollar one the Guardian just got, you need to find a way to get paid. In the brief time I’ve been able to spend with you here, I’ve seen a lot of talent, a lot of energy, a lot of determination.

Whatever enterprise you lend those talents to, don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask how you’re going to get paid. It’s no great mystery. The sources have to be advertising, subscription fees, donations, or some combination of them.

Woodward and Bernstein got paid. So did Sy Hersh. And Dan Rather and Richard Valeriani. Ida Tarbell got paid. Sam McClure got paid. And so did William Allen White. They all made a difference. It is your time. I look forward to seeing what you do.

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