Dismantling the romantic fantasy of journalism and welcoming a frank future of sponsored research

Archeologists believe they’ve found the first example of journalism on cuneiform clay tablets produced in ancient Mesopotamia that they say date back nearly 5,000 years…

Actually, no they didn’t.

There is nothing approximating journalism found in Ancient Mesopotamia, or Ancient Egypt, or Ancient Rome, or even Elizabethan England.

What these civilizations did have – and note this list carefully because it will become important later – were monuments to the greatness of their leaders, accounts of heroic triumphs over evil enemies, myths that explain why things are the way they are (and can’t be any other way), laws, proclamations of the latest whims of the leaders, and directions on where and how to pay taxes.

Unlike, astronomy, medicine, engineering, religion, and prostitution, and disreputable professions like law and finance, all of which trace their origins back to the distant mists of time, the idea of “journalists” and “journalism” is a very recent development.

How recent?

There’ve always been writers, but no one thought to teach journalism in school until Robert E. Lee (yes, that Robert E. Lee) started what appears to be the first academic training on the subject at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, in the years right after the Civil War.

Of course, there were newspapers in America and the world before this. Surely there are examples of excellence in journalism in them. Actually, not really.

What we refer to as newspapers played a role in the American Revolution, but scratch the idea of news organizations. No such thing existed back then.

What there were was printers and their goal was to keep their presses busy. To optimize their revenue they had their hands in everything: handbills, books, pamphlets, official documents, business forms, with newspapers being just a part of the mix..

They were print shop owners first and foremost and the mostly weekly newspapers they printed were largely made up of items of interest to business people: ships arriving, ships departing, and auctions with a leavening of proclamations from officials, new political appointments and transcripts of sermons, spiced up with reports of fires, accidents, and much delayed narratives about wars and other action in England and Europe.

There are two important things to keep in mind about early American newspapers: they were machine-made yes, but the machines were cranked by hand and the quality of their content was, to put it as charitably as possible, uneven.

But what about Ben Franklin and his Pennsylvania Gazette? Surely that great man was an exception to the rule.

Actually not.

Here’s how one scholar of the history of American newspapers, Elizabeth Christine Cook, describes what customers got when they bought Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette:  “(a) chance medley of stale items that passed for news.”

Franklin wasn’t entirely a slacker. “…his advertisements of books show his very great interest in popularizing secular literature.”

But there was no tradition of people reading the Pennsylvania Gazette or the New England Courant in their pajamas on a Sunday morning.

Newspapers didn’t start to become the specialized enterprise that we think of today until printing was mechanized. Though there were important milestones before it, the Bullock Press, invented by William Bullock in 1865 was the first press to be fed by a continuous roll of paper as newspapers today are.

This breakthrough in technology took newspaper printing from a few dozen pages an hour in the hand-cranked days to first 12,000 and then 30,000 pages an hour.

Note the date: 1865.

Around the same time as this breakthrough in printing technology, the telegraph had matured to the point it could and did relay battlefield news straight from the front in real time, universal postal delivery was instituted, and most important, urban populations – the market for Newspaper 2.0 – began to form in real numbers.

Once the new technology lit the fuse, it was a matter of just a few decades before  the newspaper evolved into the world’s first mass medium.

Remember there was no Internet, television, music players or radio to compete with newspaper for attention. There weren’t even movies and you couldn’t break the monotony by making a phone call. There were theatrical productions, parades and pageants, but these were occasional events held at fixed times. There was no such thing as information or entertainment on demand – until the industrial strength newspaper came along.

Newspapers were “IT” and the business was lucrative and soon become hyper-competitive.

One part of the game was to lower the price of the newspaper to rockbottom to maximize circulation. In 1895, William Randolph Hearst knocked the price of his New York Journal down to a penny, the smallest unit of currency available, in a direct attack on Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, the leader at the time.

The other part of the game was to entertain and titillate. Aggressive sports coverage, celebrity columnists, comics and sensational stories fit the bill.

Frank Luther Mott who won the 1939 Pulitzer Price for A History of American Magazines described the content of the newspapers from this era thusly:

  • 1. Scare headlines in huge print, often of minor news
  • 2. Lavish use of pictures, or imaginary drawings
  • 3. Use of faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudoscience, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts
  • 4. Emphasis on full-color Sunday supplements, usually with comic strips
  • 5. Dramatic sympathy with the “underdog” against the system

Besides the fact that this sounds an awful like like TV news today, where in this listing of the characteristics of turn-of-the-last-century newspapers is there any mention of journalism?

There isn’t because there wasn’t any.

There was no ideal of journalism or journalists.  There were just people who wrote stories and produced pictures and editors who figured out how best to lay the paper out with the crystal clear imperative to sell as many newspapers as possible every day every way possible.

OK then, when did the ideal of journalism raise its dainty head and finally take things to a higher level in the news business?

In Part Two, we’ll try to find when (and if) that ever really happened.

– Ken McCarthy

P.S. Part Two is ready…

Journalism became a “noble” profession after World War II.

“Objectivity” became the ideal and newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post trumpeted their success in providing objective reporting to the masses.

In fact, the post World War II craze for “objective journalism” was a carefully manufactured fantasy inspired by a generation of news media executives who cut their mass communications teeth working in the psychological warfare operations of the US military.

There never was – and never can be – such a thing as “objective” reporting. Even physics strains to take the subjective out of its inquiries and recognizes the problem is doing so.

Posing as being objective is merely one of many mass persuasion devices (propaganda) that was found to be effective during World War II and was adopted by the news media industry when the war was over.

Details about this history here: Why post World War II news reporting in the US was so squirrely

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