Who won the Great Press War of 1897? Hearst or Ochs?

Media criticism.
Aug. 30 2006 6:22 PM

The Great Press War of 1897

The New York Times' Adolph Ochs won. Or did he?

The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms by W. Joseph Campbell

Press scholar W. Joseph Campbell recently voyaged to the late 19th century and has returned with a brilliant new book that pegs 1897 as the exceptional year in which "the contours and ethos of American journalism began to take shape."

Campbell's cross-century road trip, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, rarely leaves New York City, where three schools of journalism captained by three men in their 30s were battling for supremacy. In one corner stood Adolph Ochs, who preached an impartial, just-the-facts-ma'am approach to newspapering, and who in 1897 was enjoying his first year as the proprietor of the New York Times.

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In the second corner was press lord William Randolph Hearst, who practiced the "journalism of action" that "gets things done" at his crusading New York Journal, where he had become publisher in 1895. He spent wildly on new technology, covered sporting events aggressively, and defined his paper by its activism in public affairs. Others slagged Hearst's style as "yellow journalism."

In the last corner was Lincoln Steffens. Appointed city editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser in late 1897, he advocated literary journalism, an anti-journalistic model and reaction against the growing commercialism of the news. He preferred hiring young college graduates over professional journalists and urged them to report the story behind the story.

The journalistic upheavals documented in The Year That Defined American Journalism speak across the centuries because our media atmosphere is equally volatile, what with the emergence of the Web, the proliferation of cable TV news and opinion, the decline of newspapers, and the rancorous debate over standards. All this would be grist for a book that sought to define 1997 as another defining fin de siècle year for journalism.

Unlike many media critics and scholars, Campbell finds as much to admire in the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst as he does to censure. Hearst's Journal "injected itself as a prominent actor in solving crime, extending charity, and thwarting suspected abuses of municipal government," he writes. Hearst gave bylines to reporters, hired talented female journalists—unlike the Times of the day—and paid his stars very well. He also inflated social issues beyond their true importance with relentless coverage designed to concentrate public opinion on his side. Campbell can't resist comparing Hearst's yellow Journal to the yellowish ways of the New York Times under Executive Editor Howell Raines, who tried to shame the Augusta National Golf Club into accepting rich women as members with the paper's news overkill in 2002.

To be sure, Hearst's Journal ran oddball Sunday features speculating about the sun spinning out a new planet, advocated war with Spain, "was known to err badly in its daily reporting," and was inclined not to acknowledge its errors. When Campbell cites a press observer from the time writing that Hearst could create the best English-language newspaper if he were to "cut his newspaper in two, publish the real, vital news in one part, and the sensations, rot, and nonsense in the other," you can't help but think how much you could improve CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC by ripping Lou Dobbs, Bill O'Reilly, Rita Cosby, and other sensation-seeking ratings whores from their lineups.

Back in 1897, critics decried the "decay" of American journalism—sound familiar? Politicians sought ways to undermine the pugnacious press. Reacting to the provocations of Hearst's Journal, the New York Senate passed a bill prohibiting publication of caricatures without first obtaining the permission of the target. The measure died, as did a law introduced to the U.S. Congress requiring newspapers to reveal the names of the writers of editorials. Advancing technology was changing the look and feel of newspapers: In 1897, the New York Tribune published the first halftone photograph in a mass-circulation newspaper; color presses were being deployed; newer models of typewriters—some as portable as today's laptops—were coming into vogue in newsrooms.

The 1897 paradigm clash took place as newspapers reached their greatest historical popularity: 2.61 newspaper copies circulated within the average urban dwelling in 1900 compared with 0.72 copies in 2000. (Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and Hearst's Journal cost 1 cent, which is about 22 cents in today's money. To escape a potential circulation scandal, Ochs dropped the price of his money-losing Times from its premium price of 3 cents to 1 cent in 1898.) The household penetration of newspapers was probably even higher in the nation's largest cities like New York. There were 2,226 daily newspapers publishing at the end of the century compared with 1,457 today. New York was home to 58 dailies, some of them in foreign languages. The Yiddish Forverts, today's Forward,conveniently debuted in 1897.

The newspaper of 1897 was the sole purveyor of news until the advent of newsreels in the 1910s (Hearst was a pioneer, by the way) and radio in the 1920s. Its comics, fiction, and features made it the home-entertainment center. Ample advertisements made it the shopping bazaar and wish book, too, both of which explain why so many homes consumed more than one daily each day. The competition for readers in New York was intensified, writes Campbell, by the decline of the previously dominant newspapers—Pulitzer's World, Charles A. Dana's New York Sun, James Gordon Bennett Jr.'s New York Herald, and Whitelaw Reid's New York Tribune. Even so, Pulitzer sensed enough of the crisis to order his business manager to recruit a spy within Hearst's Journal to find the source of the paper's ideas and identify what dissatisfied talent might be willing to leave Hearst and join him.

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