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Books: 'The Year That Defined American Journalism'

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W. Joseph Campbell
Author/Associate Professor, American University School of Communication
Thursday, July 20, 2006; 11:00 AM

W. Joseph Campbell, an associate professor at American University's School of Communication, was online Thursday, July 20, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his book, "The Year that Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms."

At a time when journalism is being transformed by the proliferation of media outlets, online journalism and new technology, Campbell goes back over a century to a year he says was a critical time of transition for the profession. The ethical standards that are now commonly accepted were in flux in 1897, with competition between media giants such as William Randolph Hearst, Adolph Ochs and Lincoln Steffens. The New York Journal 's rescue of a political prisoner in Cuba highlighted the tension between activist and impartial journalism. Campbell believes that much of the anxiety expressed over the state of contemporary journalism should be placed in the wider perspective of the turmoil 1897 and the betterment that came from change and competition.

Campbell is also author of "Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies" and has been at American University since 1997. Prior to teaching, he was a working journalist for 20 years.

The transcript follows.

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W. Joseph Campbell: Greetings, and thank you for this opportunity to chat about "The Year That Defined American Journalism."

The book tells the story of a remarkable and decisive year in American journalism -- 1897. Journalists then were wrestling desperately with the character and future of the profession, much as they are today. It was an uncertain yet invigorating time, a time when fresh approaches to newsgathering were developed, a time when the contours of modern American journalism were defined. So the book has a good deal of contemporary relevance.

Eighteen ninety-seven was also quite a notable year: It was when American journalism's most famous editorial -- "Is There A Santa Claus?" -- was published; when the term "yellow journalism" first appeared in print, when the New York Times placed its now-famous motto, "All the News That's Fit to Print," on its front page, and when William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal organized a jailbreak in Cuba -- a most extraordinary episode in activist journalism.

It was a crowded, energetic and fascinating time. So with those introductory comments, I'm delighted to field your questions about the book, about journalism then and now, or any related topic.

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Shrewsbury, England: The summary of Dr. Campbell's book states that his work investigates "The standards that are now commonly accepted were in flux in 1897." I'm curious to know if Dr. Campbell feels today's standards in journalism have evolved or regressed since 1897?

Does Dr Campbell believe journalism today even has standards, or does his profession operate under vague guidelines that are driven by artistic license and protected under free speech? What happened to a passion for "just the facts?"

Those who report the news are shifting from professional journalists to professional entertainers (Katie Couric, Soledad O'Brien, Anderson Cooper, Rush Limbaugh....). Is this seen as progress over the past 100 years?

To get the facts right, the SEC imposed the Sarbanes-Oxley law on public companies to guide their practices in financial reporting. The law is clear and concise, with little wiggle room for interpretation. Non-compliance is dealt with harshly. Isn't it time for journalism to abide by a similarly clear and concise set of ethical standards?

Cheers.

W. Joseph Campbell: Thanks for your questions.

The standards of American journalism certainly have evolved over the past 100 or so years -- and evolved for the better. There's no tolerance today for making up stuff, plagiarizing, fabricating quotes, and the like.

A telling example of how far American journalism has come, ethically, can be seen in the case of "jailbreaking journalism" in 1897. This was when Hearst's "New York Journal" organized the jailbreak in Havana of a Cuban political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros. Hearst sent a "Journal" reporter named Karl Decker to Cuba to break her out. With the quiet help of a clandestine smuggling network in Havana and of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba, Decker succeeded.

Cisneros (who was 19 at the time and had been jailed without trial for 15 months) was smuggled aboard a passenger steamer for New York, where she received a tumultuous welcome. She was similarly welcomed in Washington, D.C., and even received by the president, William McKinley.

Many, many U.S. newspapers congratulated Hearst, Decker and the "Journal" for their audacity and gallantry in freeing Cisneros, who had been accused (but never tried) for conspiring to kill a senior Spanish military officer. The Spanish then were trying, unsuccessfully, to put down a rebellion in Cuba, a rebellion that gave rise in 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

Anyway, nothing quite like the Cisneros jailbreak has happened since in American journalism. But that kind of journalistic conduct, were it to happen these days, would be roundly condemned as unethical, illegal and amoral. So in an ethical context, the most dramatic moment in American journalism in 1897 offers a benchmark about how journalism has changed and evolved -- and in this case, definitely for the better.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: How politicized was the media in 1897? Was newspaper coverage (not editorials) more biased, in your opinion, then? If so, how well did the public understand that papers were slanted to one opinion and another?

W. Joseph Campbell: Thanks for a great question.

The American press was very politicized in the late 19th century. And it's interesting -- like today, the press in 1897 was often assailed for what one critic called a "lamentable lack of fairness in everything that touches upon political opinion." Sounds familiar, doesn't it? The news media these days often are criticized for their "lamentable lack of fairness" in political coverage.

People pretty clearly knew what they were buying, in terms of political orientation, in newspapers in 1897. And the press then was typically open about its political leaning. Some newspapers (including Hearst's "Journal") even tried to take credit for the outcomes of elections in the late 19th century. But quite often, election results did not correspond to the editorial positions of most newspapers, particularly in New York City. No major newspaper, save Hearst's "Journal," supported the winning candidate in New York's 1897 mayoral election, for example. And that outcome prompted a good deal of commentary -- and worry -- about the declining power of the press.

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Fairfax, Va.: With the great benefit of historical perspective have you been able to draw any conclusions on the state of the press and media in this country? While it does not appear that the press and media today can be charged with making things up from whole cloth like happened at times in the period you describe in the book, but are we slipping into greater and greater "pure speculation" than researched and edited journalism?

W. Joseph Campbell: Great questions.

Essentially, I believe that American journalists are more professional than ever these days; they are better educated and more steeped in ethics (if not the history) of their field.

But I do believe there's more open speculation in the news media today than in the late 19th century. That may reflect two factors: One, a more analytical aspect of the news media, especially newspapers; and two, it may reflect a wider conversation about public events, when people just inevitably speculate about what's going to happen.

The blogosphere -- and I'm a fan of the blogosphere -- certainly has contributed to the speculative component you refer to. I find myself often drawn to blogs that contain speculative or interpretative posts, as long as they seem well-grounded and authoritative.

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New York, N.Y.: In New York, there used to be several foreign language newspapers. These papers, of course, represented the general attitudes and views of their readers. Do you see these papers as part of "yellow journalism," or were they more essentially defending cultural views of their readers?

W. Joseph Campbell: The ethic press in New York was really quite lively and diverse and numerous in the late 19th century. They often helped newly arrived immigrants to find their way in American society, helping them fit in.

So, no, the ethnic press was not part of the "yellow press" that emerged in New York and elsewhere in the country in mid- and late 1890s. I would be remiss if I failed to note that the famous "Jewish Forward" of New York was founded in 1897.

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Kensington, Md.: As a journalism educator myself, I am interested in the development of the profession because of the current "crisis" (as some people call it). Many, including Bill Kovach, formerly of the NYT, and Len Downie of The Washington Post, lament what they see as the decline of journalism. But I'd like to hear about your perspective that journalism as we know it, or knew it, has long been in flux.

W. Joseph Campbell: I think there's altogether too much angst and hand-wringing in American journalism today.

Some of the critiques of the contemporary news media are strikingly similar to those of the late 19th century. One of my favorite characterizations of the press in 1897 appeared in a journal called "The Dial." "The Dial" carried a dire commentary lamenting the "decay" of American journalism, and said it was an "undeniable fact that most of the newspapers published in our large cities are so devoid of principle that they constitute a perpetual menace to every genuine interest of our civilization."

That sort of over-the-top critique would not be alien at all today. I wouldn't be surprised to run across such an assessment.

Then and now, critics and commentators often overlook the fact that journalism is and has been a dynamic field, capable of absorbing new influences and new demands. What we're seeing in the field today is quite reminiscent of the upheaval that swept American journalism in 1897.

My book makes this point in its closing passages. It says:

"As we have seen, American journalism faced the riptide of profound change in the late nineteenth century, and emerged the stronger for it. ... To read the lessons of 1897, therefore, is to take encouragement. The angst and despair so commonplace in journalism today are quite likely misplaced. The story of 1897 suggests as much."

Thanks for a terrific question.

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No Spin Zone: Was the media as liberal, treasonous, and over all anti-America back than as it is now?

W. Joseph Campbell: Thanks, "No Spin."

It's interesting: American newspaper editors back then routinely exchanged insults, brickbats, and other such hostile comments in print. That's how the term "yellow journalism" was coined: A New York newspaper editor was looking for a way to disparage the aggressive, searching journalism of Hearst and Pulitzer. And after experimenting with "nude journalism," he landed on "yellow journalism." The term was indirectly inspired by a comic character, the "Yellow Kid," who appeared in Hearst and Pulitzer's newspapers.

The heated exchange recently between the "Wall Street Journal" and the "New York Times" over the "Times'" national-security disclosure offered a hint of the insults that were routinely exchanged by American newspapers in the late 19th century.

By the way, "media" is plural.

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Rockville, Md.: In terms of journalism in general, what are your thoughts on Fox News, The Washington Times, or for that matter any other source of "journalistic media" that tries to pander to a particular audience?

W. Joseph Campbell: Generally, the more voices/options/alternatives, the better.

I'm glad they're part of the media landscape.

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Pa.: How did Yellow Journalism affect Journalism in the year 1897?

W. Joseph Campbell: Interesting question.

"Yellow journalism" is often dismissed as merely the sensational treatment of the news. It's much more than that.

In 1897, the leading practitioner of "yellow journalism" was William Randolph Hearst, owner of the "New York Journal" and also of the "San Francisco Chronicle."

In 1897, Hearst developed a model for American journalism that he called "the journalism of action." He argued that newspapers had an obligation to inject themselves, conspicuously and vigorously, in righting the wrongs of public life and in filling the void of government inaction. It was an activist-oriented vision for the future of the field.

At the same time, Adolph Ochs was just getting going at the "New York Times." He abhorred Hearst's "yellow journalism" and the "journalism of action." Ochs pursued another model, one that emphasized a more detached, authoritative, impartial treatment of the news. And that, essentially, is the model that prevailed and the one that still nominally defines mainstream American journalism: Journalists are not to take an active part in the news they report and they are to report the news impartially.

Let me add that this 1897 clash of models, or "paradigms," had a third component: This one was a literary approach to newsgathering, pursued by Lincoln Steffens who in 1897 became city editor of the old "New York Commercial Advertiser." Steffens later gained fame as America's best-known "muckraking" journalist. At the "Commercial Advertiser," he rid his city staff of most veteran newspapermen and began recruiting college-educated writers who had little or no experience in journalism. Steffens sent them out to hone their talents by writing stories about the joys, hardships and serendipity of life in New York City. Steffens told his father that he and his staff were "doing some things that were never done in journalism before."

It was a kind of anti-journalistic model to newsgathering. And it was part of a three-sided "clash of paradigms" that is central to understanding why 1897 was such an exceptional time in American journalism.

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Rockville, Md.: So Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Anne Coulter etc. are good for journalism?

W. Joseph Campbell: If you don't like them, don't watch them or buy their books. But the media landscape is undeniably richer because they are there.

I've lived and worked in sub-Saharan Africa, and worked in Poland under martial law, and I've seen how depressing and tedious and dubious a state-restricted media landscape can be.

The more diversity of views, the better. That's another reason I count the blogosphere as an important contribution to the media landscape.

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San Antonio, Texas: Did the Ochs clan marry into the Sulzberger family? What time frame? How did this affect the destiny of the New York Times? Does it the story fall within the pages of your book?

W. Joseph Campbell: Your question tests my memory a bit, because the Ochs-Sulzberger marriage was in the early 20th century. Adolph Ochs' only daughter married a Sulzberger, I believe.

In this regard, I'd like to recommend a very well-researched book about the Ochs-Sulzberger family called "The Trust." It was written several years ago by Susan Tifft and Alex Jones, and it was a valuable source in my research, especially about Adolph Ochs and his early years at the "New York Times." Ochs in 1897 was in his first full year as the "Times'" proprietor.

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Washington, D.C.: You've discussed how active journalists were in the build-up to the Spanish-American war, both journalistically and in the Cisernos case physically. How has journalism's role in war changed over the past century? Can the media play a similar/larger role in conflict mitigation today?

W. Joseph Campbell: The Cisneros story -- the case of "jailbreaking journalism" in 1897 that I mentioned earlier -- had a rather unexpected ending, in that it was seldom recalled when the United States went to war with Spain in 1898.

Some historians have identified the Cisneros case as a telling example of how Hearst's "Journal" manipulated and whipped up public opinion to the extent that war with Spain over Cuba was inevitable.

But that's a myth.

In reality, the Cisneros story was completely out of the papers within a month. Even the "Journal" scarcely mentioned Cisneros when war began in April 1898.

So it's really quite unfair -- and inexact -- to blame Hearst and the "yellow press" for fomenting, or bringing on, the Spanish-American War. As I say, it's a myth. And a particularly tenacious myth, too.

Then or now, the news media are just not powerful enough to bring about, or forestall, a war. Too often we mistakenly equate the ubiquitous presence of the news media with power.

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Oakton, Va.: Professor Campbell, do you foresee a deterioration of the quality of journalism and the media as its quantity and variety increases. While increased democratization of the media certainly leads to more viewpoints cant it lead to a deterioration in accuracy and quality. A prime example of this phenomenon is apparent in the research site Wikipedia, where increased user involvement has led to decreased accuracy and reliability.

W. Joseph Campbell: I really don't.

The news media are far more inclined these days to recognize and acknowledge their mistakes. Such was hardly the case in the late 1890s.

I think the more voices there are, the more likely lapses are going to be identified. Consider the blogosphere's successes in this sense in recent years: The cases of Trent Lott, Eason Jordan, Dan Rather, among others can all be attributed to attention brought by bloggers.

You know, I hardly consider Wikipedia to be a "research site." I urge my students not to cite Wikipedia in their research papers.

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Kensington, Md.: Whalt is the process or methodology you use to ascertain or debunk myths?

W. Joseph Campbell: Thanks for an interesting question.

Debunking myths usually relies on assessing the evidence, an even-handed assessment of the weight of the evidence.

The process typically begins with what can be called a "sniff test." That is, if an anecdote or quote doesn't seem right, then it may well be a myth waiting to be debunked.

One example: William Randolph Hearst once purportedly said, in an exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington: "You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war."

That quote always seemed to be simply too neat and tidy, too precise -- and too improbable.

In researching that famous vow for an earlier book ("Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies"), I determined it was quite improbable that Hearst ever made such a comment. It's another myth, and perhaps the best-known myth in American journalism.

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W. Joseph Campbell: Thanks very much for your questions today. It was a pleasure.

While online, you're welcome to visit this site about "The Year That Defined American Journalism."

Thanks again, and my thanks to washingtonpost.com for being the host for our discussion.

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