The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, May 02, 2004

The Golden Age of American Journalism

Umpteen years ago, I remember there was a TV history series co-hosted by the legendarily loquacious wartime BBC correspondent Wynford Vaughan-Thomas under the arty-farty title When Was Wales?

Reading all the garment-rending stuff about Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley and the sorry state of American journalism today, I'm moved to ask a similar question. The supposition that it is so bad now rather implies it was a whole lot better at some earlier time: and when was that, exactly?

My knowledge of the history of American journalism is, shall we say, pointilliste. But I am hard put to identify an era in which the Fourth Estate's product was not, on the average, pretty putrid:

The 20th century opened with the Spanish-American War - generated in no small measure by William Randolph Hearst. A certain amount of muckraking goes in the era's credit column; but it was generally a dirty business [1].

The next way-station I have is the 1920 Brass Check of Upton Sinclair - whose observations, parti pris (but aren't we all?), on the state of American journalism in general, and the Associated Press in particular, are unflattering [2].

Skipping ahead to 1931, I have Drew Pearson's Washington Merry-Go-Round [3]. Whilst allowing that there were conscientious reporters willing and able to track down what he calls dangerous stories, Pearson [4] is scathing about the generality of Washington correspondents:
More accurately representative of the American press to-day is the flabby indifference, the provincial and petty ignorance, the smug sycophancy and the disgusting timidity of the majority of the correspondents and especially of the "trained seal" group. They are the true reflections of their masters, and as a result they go further professionally, financially, and socially than their more conscientious and honorable colleagues.

Amongst those criticised is the New York Times veteran bureau chief Richard Oulahan, apparently ever willing to shill for the White House (plus ├ža change...).

Again, the account of a single individual: perhaps he traduces a fine body of men (and one or two women) for reasons unknown to me. Or perhaps not.

Moving right along, we get to the press' performance in dealing with Joseph McCarthy [5]: surely, with exceptions, what American journalism covered itself with doesn't look much like glory. We've now largely left the flamboyant Hearst-Pulitzer-McCormick era behind, and are basking in the comforting illusion of objective journalism.

Which also failed to question the escalation of the war in Vietnam in a way that could impact on the process [6].

Then there was Watergate - yay, Uncle Bob! - followed a few years later in the same Washington Post by Janet Cooke and her fictitious Jimmy's World. And, all the while, objective journalism easing the task of spinmeisters in government, business, all over...

My hypothesis, therefore, is that, since there never was much to shout about in the general quality of American journalism, bewailing the current state of the profession implies a comparison with a pre-existing state which is wholly illusory.

Cui bono? Journalists wanting to reassert control and displace management consultants and bean-counters, perhaps. (Nothing like a dose of old time religion!) A desire in troubled times for the blankie of a Golden Age to cling to as an ideal? I'm not sure...

  1. HL Mencken's description of the newspaper-fed cycle of machine and goo-goo municipal government I mentioned on March 16.

  2. One or two elements discussed here: track back from January 10 piece.

  3. Mentioned on April 11 and April 21 2003.

  4. Then, from memory, Washington correspondent of the Baltimore Sun.

  5. Last mentioned on April 30.

  6. A failure I discussed on November 14 2003. At some stage, I ought to look at Hallin's Uncensored War again in the light of the education I've been receiving recently on the arcana of journalistic practice!

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