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Journalism 100 Years Ago Versus Today

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Whether a reporter now or 100 years ago, this writer thinks he would fit journalist Pete Hamill’s description of what a journalist must be: someone willing to explore what is in the back of the cave.

Hamill writes, in an introduction to Shaking the Foundations: 200 Years of Investigative Journalism:

The reporter is the member of the tribe who is sent to the back of the cave to find out what’s there. The report must be accurate. If there’s a rabbit hiding in the darkness it cannot be transformed into a dragon.

Bad reporting, after all, could deprive people of shelter and warmth and survival on an arctic night.

But if there is, in fact, a dragon lurking in dark it can’t be described as a rabbit. The survival of the tribe could depend upon that person with the torch.

In certain basic ways, the modern investigative reporter is only a refinement of that primitive model. The tools of the trade are extraordinary: The astonishing flood of documents on the Internet, the speed of other forms of communication, local and international, and, perhaps most important, the existence of a tradition.

Let us now look at how the life of this paper’s author — a white, male journalist — would be different had he lived about 100 years ago.

Perhaps this writer would have been a muckraker or a reporter telling the truth. In many ways it was harder during that period to get the truth printed in a newspaper, particularly at some of the newspapers practicing yellow journalism.

In The Compact History of the American Newspaper author John Tebbel wrote about how William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer covered the Spanish American War:

Even though its resources were considerably less, the World was not without its distinguished coverage. Pulitzer sent Stephen Crane, whose Red Badge of Courage had appeared in 1895, as a correspondent, and Crane, who had been living from hand to mouth doing pieces for the Tribune and the Herald, responded by filing some of the war’s best stories. They were not tales of battles, but of soldiers and soldiering – the kind of reporting Ernie Pyle was to do in the Second World War. Crane, did, however, cover the fight at Guantanamo Bay in June 1898, when the first American causalities were recorded, and his detailed, informative story appeared on the World’s front page. He was cited later for his bravery under fire.

This is the kind of good journalism everyone thinks we need more of right? Well, no. Just as some don’t like reporting that is too honest or too frank today — and this writer can talk on that from personal experience — such was the case back then too with Crane:

“Later, he made the mistake of describing too accurately the behavior of New York’s Seventy-first Regiment in the charge up San Juan Hill, which brought down the patriotic wrath of Hearst, who charged that Pulitzer was slandering the heroism of New York’s only sons. Crane came home soon afterward, broken in health; he had only two years to live.”

Being a white male

As a white male I would have had advantages over the women and minorities of the times, both in terms of pay and work conditions. While things today are closer to even between the genders and race there is still progress to be made.

So this writer would be competing mostly with white men.

To look at what it would be like to be a white male reporter in the early 1900’s, this writer put himself in the shoes of H.L. Mencken, a newspaper star during that period. Mencken wasn’t perfect, as he demonstrated with his ethical lapses such as when he got too involved in the Scopes trial while acting as if he could still be an objective reporter.

Mencken’s first reporting job was with the Baltimore Herald. “Though only eighteen he clearly had the potential to become one of the Herald’s few good men, and his diligence was rewarded. After a month or so of unpaid labor, he was given an expense account and on July 2 he went to work as a staff reporter for the Herald at a salary of eight dollars a week, a dollar more than he was getting at Aug. Mencken & Bro,” his father’s business.

Eight dollars a week! Today many people make that much per hour. However, Mencken later got a promotion so we have to remember that he is getting paid more than the average reporter, many of whom he described as drunk and asleep much of the time.

“Early in 1900 another paper offered him a job and the Herald responded by giving him a raise, to ten dollars a week. Successive job offers kept his salary growing by increments – to eighteen dollars by the beginning of 1901.”

Similarities

But in some areas there is not much difference between 2006 and 1906. Take, for example, the relationship between the news media and the government.

The investigative journalism in recent years that finds dirt and scandals in politicians’ lives does not sound too different from the muckrakers or the critical remarks of someone like Mencken. Put another way, there is a contentious, at times adversarial, relationship between the government and the news media.

An anecdote about Mencken brought to mind the flap when Vice President Dick Cheney cussed out a reporter and not only didn’t apologize the next day but said it felt good to say what was on his mind. That does not sound too different from when President Franklin Roosevelt spoke at the Gridiron Club in December 1934.

Roosevelt got back at all of Mencken’s written assaults on him by reading a speech that was nothing but excerpts from acerbic remarks Mencken had made over the years about reporters and editors. And this is, mind you, at a dinner consisting mainly of reporters and editors and politicians.

But while the relationship between the fourth estate and the president remains amicable at times, combative at others, 100 years ago and now, the actual technology used by the reporters has changed enormously during that century.

Differences

Reporters of today use cell phones, laptop computers, pagers, and faxes. That is in major contrast to the conditions under which H.L. Mencken worked, which were described this way:

“Even by comparison with the old-fashioned newsrooms immortalized by Hollywood, the Herald’s fifth-floor city room would strike a modern-day visitor as primitive. It contained two telephones, no teletypes and few typewriters — much of the paper’s copy was still written by hand — though each desk had its own spittoon, a modern convenience of which Mencken made regular use, then and later.”

There is another significant difference between then and now for investigative reporters, says Hamill:

In my experience, most of today’s investigative reporters have vague politics. In that sense, they don’t resemble the great generation of muckrakers at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who were men and women with an idealistic, mainly socialistic vision of the America that would emerge from their labors. Today’s investigators have an almost permanent skepticism about human virtue, political or otherwise.

Another major change has been who owns the actual newspapers.

In The New Media Monopoly, author Ben Bagdikan writes that five companies today own most of the newspapers, magazines, book publishers, movie studios, and radio and television stations in the United States.

At the start of the 20th century, by comparison, most newspapers had at least five competing newspapers of various ideologies.

Truth

While serving as a watchdog for the public, reporters also sought to find the truth, or at least as close an account of it, as was possible. Obviously, truth is relative and subjective with the “truth” as spoken by Mencken — especially in his later years when he made regrettable remarks about Hitler and the Jews — being quite different from the “truth” reported by the muckrakers.

In some ways, I think the muckrakers came closer to the mark because while they may have at times gotten too close to the situation — as they went from reporting the news to becoming part of the news when working in factories or living in mental asylums — they were able to report clearly and accurately what was happening.

This is what good investigative journalists of today also must do.

But truth can also get you in trouble, both 100 years ago and today. Take lawsuits, for example. While newspapers have more legal rights than 100 years ago, especially as it pertains to public figures, there are also more lawsuits than 100 years ago.

Conclusion

Life for a white male journalist sounds more difficult 100 years ago than today, but that probably has much more to do with all of the changes occurring in all professions — increased use of telephones, cars, better health care, etc.

Then, as now, newspapers sometimes had credibility problems as they sensationalized some stories. Today, we have tabloids and the Drudge Report compared to the newspapers printing yellow journalism 100 years ago.

Wages were less but so were products. But the thought of hand-writing articles and not having easy access to phones makes this writer shudder.

Overall, this writer prefers life in the 21st century. And the writer will just pass on having my own spittoon, but thanks for asking.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • http://www.tresbleu.blogspot.com Sister Ray

    Interesting article. I admire Mencken’s writing very much. He wouldn’t last a day in the politically correct newsrooms of today.

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    I thought they still used typewriters. Consider me enlightened!

  • Bliffle

    You COULD get a computer built into the base of an old Underwood, then you’d be able to loosen your tie, push your snap brim fedora back on your head, light up a Lucky Strike, growl at the copyboy out of the corner of your mouth, and start hammering out the prose! Just like a REAL reporter!

  • Scott Butki

    Yeah, that’s what I’ll do!

  • http://www.clatch.blogspot.com A.L. Harper

    I like the finished article here Scott.

  • Scott Butki

    Thanks, A.L.