Modern Historical Perspective on the News Industry

In a beautifully written long-read post on The Guardian, veteran newspaper editor (and reporter) Alan Rusbridger wrote about trust in the media, looking back over his long career that started in the 1970s.

For 20 years I edited a newspaper in the throes of this tumultuous revolution. The paper I took over in 1995 was composed of words printed on newsprint involving technologies that had changed little since Victorian times. It was, in many ways, a vertically arranged world. We – the organs of information – owned printing presses and, with them, the exclusive power to hand down the news we had gathered. The readers handed up the money – and so did advertisers, who had few other ways of reaching our audience. But today advertisers can often reach consumers much more effectively through other channels. People are much more reluctant to part with money for news. And, however you measure it, there is widespread scepticism, confusion and mistrust about mainstream journalism.

The stories he tells of how the newspaper industry worked, and changed with modern technology, says much about who we are as well as where we’ve been. I thoroughly enjoyed his description of learning to work the police beat early in his career with a seasoned journalist.

More important to me was Fulton Gillespie, the chief reporter, known as Jock – a growling, silver-haired Glaswegian with dark glasses and the stub of a cigar permanently lodged between bearded lips.

Jock saw it as his duty to school us in hard knocks. We would begin the day with the calls – a round trip to the police, ambulance and fire services. As we set off in the office Mini, he would deliver one of a small repertoire of homilies about our craft. “If you write for dukes, only dukes will understand, but if you write for the dustman, both will understand. Keep it short, keep it simple, write it in language you would use if you were telling your mum or dad.”

He explained that police work involved keeping one foot on the pavement and one in the gutter. You got their respect by kicking them in the balls at regular intervals, because, in the long run, they needed us more than we needed them. That, he emphasised, was a good rule applicable to all those in authority. It had been hammered into him by the old hacks on the Falkirk Herald, and it would always be true. He repeated this often in case I had failed to grasp it: they needed us more than we needed them. We owned the printing presses; they didn’t. End of.

This is the media I grew up with, the school of hard knocks knocking back, gritty street reporting mixed with saucy community gossip and school and sports news, a time when our local newspapers were the records of our lives and our neighborhoods.

Genealogists spend much of their time learning about history as well as learning from history, and newspapers are a part of our deep research in family history.

Many of us grew up with the newspaper mythology story (mixed with truth) from the movie, Citizen Kane. You’ve heard stories of William Randolph Hearst and his newspaper empire built on yellow journalism, described in Wikipedia as:

…newspapers that present little or no legitimate well-researched news while instead using eye-catching headlines for increased sales. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism.

In other words, yesteryear’s fake news. Or better described as today’s tabloid journalism.

Hearst sensationalized the 1898 Spanish American War, causing it to escalate with his false or at least exaggerated reports. Yet, according to some Cuban historians, Hearst is considered a hero for liberating Cuba from Spain.

Hearst wasn’t alone when it came to yellow journalism and sensationalism. Joseph Pulitzer of the Pulizter Prize fame was notorious for his sensationalized news stories, often referred to as the “father of tabloid news.” Governments, businesses, and newspapers in general have long had bias, influencing voters, opinions, wars, and governments, for good and for evil, all to sell a paper. Not all, but enough to make us question their integrity when accused of falsehoods.

It’s not just newspapers but photographs and the stories they tell, or don’t tell, as they mislead the viewer. Photopreneur featured a list of the most infamous staged photos including the famous photograph by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, Eddie Adams, of Colonel Ngyen Ngoc Loan shooting a Viet Cong prisoner in the head. It became a rallying cry for the end of the Vietnam war and defeating such a brutal government. The event captured was real, but the fact not publicized was how the executed man had been found guilty of murdering another officer’s entire family. The execution was to take place indoors, but the Colonel wanted to make this a lesson to others, so he ordered it moved outside so the light would be better for the news photographers, thus staging the execution. Propaganda twisted it into another story.

Another iconic image from the Vietnam war was the Napalm Girl in Vietnam, photographed by Nick Ut, a Vietnamese news reporter, used around the globe as a symbol for the American incursion and destruction of a society and culture. What wasn’t well known is that the girl was fleeing not from American forces but Vietnamese air forces dropping napalm on the village, killing many of the girl’s family and setting her clothes on fire. She stripped them off as she and others ran for safety. She suffered burns over almost 50% of her body. She spent much of her life being used as propaganda by the Vietnamese government until she emigrated to Canada where she still lives to tell the real story.

Even today the term “clickbait” is considered a form of sensationalism, modern yellow journalism if you will, as it lures the web user to click through to something that may look like a news story but is really an ad, fake story, or boring story jazzed up to attract attention and earn income based upon clickthroughs. Clickbait titles use tabloid terms such as shocking, amazing, you’ll never believe, and other attention-getting terms punctuated with exclamation points.

These are just a few of the many examples of sloppy, unprofessional, and sleazy journalism deeds. Does this history combined with frequent claims today of “fake news” justify labeling all journalists charlatans?

No.

Two things we’ve learned from studying history is that we learn from our mistakes and these things happen in cycles because, to use Alan Rusbridger’s comment about the police, “You got their respect by kicking them in the balls at regular intervals, because, in the long run, they needed us more than we needed them.”

When newspapers and journalists get out of control, the backlash is a good kick to straighten up and remember who and what they represent and whom they serve. Pulitzer’s sensationalist work during his lifetime is now dedicated to higher standards to ensure recognition for those who rise above the fray, an attempt to reverse the cycle.

We’ve needed their kicks as well. The Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) annually honors outstanding journalism and reporting with their Edward R. Murrow Awards, named after the respected journalist who stood tall and resisted his own censure to stop the witch hunt of McCarthyism, another dark time in our history where the news media kept us from the abyss. He stands as an example of how the news media rose above a bean-counter call for sensationalism at a time when conspiracies ruled, and people thought there was a Russian conspirator under every rock, celebrity, and politician, stopped by a reporter calling for respect for human dignity and freedom of choice and speech.

The lifetime of work by Woodward and Bernstein from Watergate to the present shows us how true investigative journalism combined with a supportive editorial and corporate staff can work for the betterment of society. In spite of a culture of praise and trust for US politicians, their work exposed the corruption in the presidency and election process, and a nation was changed. Yet, it feels like we’re cycling back again in that direction.

The US Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), an independent journalism organization working alongside other noteworthy and trusted news agencies, has a long history of award-winning news investigations, reports, and documentaries uncovering fraud in consumer products, consumer product testing, Medicare billing, wiretapping, data mining, false imprisonments, myths of clean coal and responsible nuclear policies, and other police, FBI, and government abuse and corruptions. Their work has changed laws and made laws.

With tremendous foresight, the Scott Trust was created to secure and fund The Guardian to ensure remains dedicated to “safeguard the journalistic freedom and liberal values of the Guardian free from commercial or political interference” since 1936, with reinvestment “in journalism rather than to benefit an owner or shareholders.”

In 1997, The Guardian revealed investigations into affairs and abuse of power by Tory Ministers (MPs), winning Newspaper of the Year Award for two years in a row for their continued news coverage. It won again in 2011 for its partnership with WikiLeaks and the leaked US embassy cables, and was honored again with its coverage of the Panama Papers. Their reporters broke the news about leading media companies tapping the phones of celebrities and politicians in England illegally, believed to be fake news for a few years before the truth came out. Today, their thoughtful and intuitive respect for healthy debate, criticism, bravery, and honesty is a bright light in these darker days.

If anything, recent attacks on the journalism and news industry helped it reflect upon its policies for truth in advertising and reporting. NPR, POLITICO, and others are working overtime to maintain and defend their fairly unbiased reports on current events, including being honest with their roles in the the history of fake news with Politico’s “How ‘Fake News’ Was Born at the 1968 DNC and BBC News’ “The (almost) complete history of ‘fake news.’ Even the stalwart Smithsonian jumped in with The Age-Old Problem of “Fake News.”

Throughout history, as long as governments and money control the actions of the media, we get what is paid for. The US First Amendment is a conditional guarantee of free speech, not a promise of truth in speech or publishing. There is a fine legal line between freedom of speech, hate speech, and censorship.

To honor the 100th anniversary of The Guardian, an essay by Guardian editor J.C. Scott titled “A Hundred Years” is now considered a “blueprint for independent journalism” as the Guardian nears its 200th anniversary.

In all living things there must be a certain unity, a principle of vitality and growth. It is so with a newspaper, and the more complete and clear this unity the more vigorous and fruitful the growth. I ask myself what the paper stood for when first I knew it, what it has stood for since and stands for now. A newspaper has two sides to it. It is a business, like any other, and has to pay in the material sense in order to live. But it is much more than a business; it is an institution; it reflects and it influences the life of a whole community; it may affect even wider destinies. It is, in its way, an instrument of government. It plays on the minds and consciences of men. It may educate, stimulate, assist, or it may do the opposite. It has, therefore, a moral as well as a material existence, and its character and influence are in the main determined by the balance of these two forces. It may make profit or power its first object, or it may conceive itself as fulfilling a higher and more exacting function.

Tackling the issues of financial stability and the transparency of truth in the news, he continued:

A newspaper is of necessity something of a monopoly, and its first duty is to shun the temptations of monopoly. Its primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free, but facts are sacred. “Propaganda”, so called, by this means is hateful. The voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard. Comment also is justly subject to a self-imposed restraint. It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair. This is an ideal. Achievement in such matters is hardly given to man. Perhaps none of us can attain to it in the desirable measure. We can but try, ask pardon for shortcomings, and there leave the matter.

He ends with a powerful statement that sets the model for journalistic integrity:

One of the virtues, perhaps almost the chief virtue, of a newspaper is its independence. Whatever its position or character, at least it should have a soul of its own.

For us historically-minded spirits who’ve spent years digging through old newspapers reading sensationalized article titles, snake-oil salesmen pitches, over-blown obituaries, and gossip columns, this history and debate is fascinating today. If you can’t tell the truth, accuse the media of lying. Still, it’s nothing new. We’ve seen it come and go.But some of us would like to see it become old sooner rather than laterer.

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