American journalism was in turmoil. Reporters were losing jobs by the score, victims of cost-cutting moves at big-city news organizations. Critics condemned the temptations of "yellow journalism" and the "lamentable lack of fairness" in political coverage. One commentator even accused big-city newspapers of being "so devoid of principle that they constitute a perpetual menace to every genuine interest of our civilization."
It all sounds rather familiar, doesn't it? But those characterizations date not to last week, last month, or even last year. They date more than 100 years, to 1897—a year that in many ways marked the dawning of contemporary American journalism. The upheaval that swept American journalism during that long-ago year can offer a measure of reassuring context for journalists considering the profound changes now sweeping their field.
So what was it that made 1897 such a decisive time? There are many reasons.
It was the year when Adolph Ochs placed "All the News That's Fit to Print," on the front page of his New York Times—a motto has that has become both cliché and inspiration in American journalism. It was the year when the old New York Sun published its famous "Is There A Santa Claus?" editorial which long ago became a classic. It was the year when the sneering term, "yellow journalism," first appeared in print, as a rebuke to the flamboyant techniques of William Randolph Hearst and his New York Journal. And it was the year when Guglielmo Marconi established his Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company Ltd., a crucial step toward what we now know as broadcast journalism.
But 1897 was more than a year of intriguing and memorable developments. What makes the year especially relevant was the turmoil that journalists confronted then. Then, as now, American journalism was roiled by new technologies, new pressures, new realities. Big-city journalism was changing dramatically. To the keen regret of many editors, it was becoming a decidedly big business. Lincoln Steffens, who gained fame in the early 20th century as America's leading muckraking journalist, wrote in 1897: "The magnitude of the financial operations of the newspaper is turning journalism upside down."
The character and future of mainstream journalism were much in play in 1897. Fading rapidly then was the model of "personal journalism," in which the editor and his experience, insights, and intellect infused the newspaper with distinctive character and voice. (A variant of "personal journalism" did reemerge in the second half of the 20th century with the rise of prominent network news anchors, such as Walter Cronkite. They likewise infused their newscasts with distinctive voice and character. But as measured by audience share, that network version of "personal journalism" has been in pronounced decline over the past 20 years or so.) In the pre-television context of the 1890s, the intimacy of "personal journalism" fell away as newspapers became highly corporatized structures sustained increasingly by revenues from advertising.
While disquieting and disruptive, the upheaval in American journalism in 1897 also inspired bursts of creativity. The forces that were "turning journalism upside down" gave rise to a momentous clash of rival paradigms, or models, that helped define the field in the 20th century and beyond.
The most vivid and energetic model developed then was the "journalism of action," pursued by Hearst and the New York Journal. Hearst maintained that journalists had a duty—an obligation, even—to inject themselves conspicuously in efforts to right the wrongs of public life, and thus fill the void of government inattention and incompetence.
The "journalism of action" was meant to be enterprising, participatory, and even heroic at times. Its most dramatic manifestation came in 1897 in the case of "jail-breaking journalism," when Hearst sent a Washington-based reporter named Karl Decker to Havana to rescue Evangelina Cisernos, a 19-year-old political prisoner. She had been in jail in Havana for more than a year on charges of conspiring with the Cuban rebels fighting Spanish colonial rule—a rebellion that led in 1898 to the Spanish-American War.
With help from shadowy accomplices who included U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba, Decker pulled off the jailbreak 109 years ago this month. Cisernos was freed from her cell, hidden in Havana for a couple of days and then smuggled aboard a passenger steamer bound for New York. Hearst organized a thunderous outdoor public reception for the young woman, attracting New York's largest crowd since the end of the Civil War. Cisernos and her rescuer even had a brief audience with President William McKinley at the White House.
For audacity and international lawlessness, the Cisneros jailbreak was and remains an episode unrivaled in American journalism. Hearst's Journal called the remarkable exploit "epochal" and a "supreme achievement of the journalism of action."
The antithesis of the "journalism of action" also was emerging in 1897. This was a counter-activist, impartial news-gathering model advocated and pursued by Ochs, who in 1897 was in his first full year as publisher of the New York Times. His emphasis was on the even-handed yet thoughtful treatment of news, a sentiment that found character and expression in the newspaper's lofty commitment to "All the News That's Fit to Print."
The emergence of models such as those of Hearst and Ochs made 1897 a defining year in American journalism. Ultimately, the Times' model of detachment and impartiality prevailed as the guiding paradigm in mainstream print and broadcast journalism.
The Times model proved best able to absorb and accommodate the pressures reshaping American journalism at the dawn of the 20th century. Even today, it is not difficult to find evidence of just how important the model of journalistic detachment remains. The recently revised CBS News Standards, for example, speak to the venerated place that professional detachment and impartiality in newsgathering occupy in contemporary American journalism.
But in an era of digitization, expanding news choices, and declining audiences for mainstream news media, the Times model is under challenge. It may well be that a fresh model or platform will emerge to define the field in the 21st century. Perhaps broadcast and print journalism really will converge one day in an exclusively online environment. Or perhaps mainstream American journalism will return to its deeper, late 18th century roots of undisguised partisanship and come to resemble the news media of Western Europe—journalism with a decided point of view.
An argument can be made that American journalism has been drifting that way since the mid-1990s. Fox News Channel just marked the 10th anniversary of its right-of-center, "fair and balanced" approach. It has been 10 years since Bernard Goldberg published his best-selling polemic, Biased, which accused CBS of delivering the news from a left-of-center point of view. More recently, the New York Times' Supreme Court reporter, Linda Greenhouse, publicly condemned the Bush Administration for having "turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other places around the world." It was an astonishing, hyperbolic, and much-discussed declaration by a supposedly impartial reporter—and certainly evidence of the appeal of point-of-view journalism.
The broader and more important point here is not to predict which new model of journalistic practice may come to define newsgathering in the 21st century, but to insist that the field is dynamic, vigorous, and innovative—as it was in the time of Ochs and Hearst and Steffens. Journalism then went through the riptides of powerful, agonizing, and uncertain change—and emerged the better for it. And it can do so again in the digital century. That lesson from 1897 is both compelling and reassuring. So the angst and despair in which contemporary journalists seem so quick to indulge may well prove to be misplaced.