by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
February 14, 2002
JOURNALISTIC HIGH JINKS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Whenever my local paper, The Brattleboro Reformer, prints something that angers its readers, they always fire off letters to the editor certain to contain two things, the word "sensationalism," and the phrase, "you're just trying to sell more papers." But it's a red herring to say that newspapers choose news items with an eye to selling more papers. Mostly, they print news to fill up the white space between the advertisements. And while newspapers don't seek usually sensationalism, when it comes, they greet it with open arms -- as do their readers.
But what people call sensationalism today barely holds a candle to what was sensational say, 80 years ago.
Recently, my husband started reading to me from two 1940s books, "Such Interesting People" and "More Interesting People," written by a Chicago newspaperman named Robert J. Casey.
Casey tells great stories about how newspapering was done in Chicago in the first third of the last century, where, in pursuit of a story, anything went. His tales make the news gathering that goes on today in papers as large as The New York Times and as small as the Reformer look tame by comparison. In the old days, when almost every town had several competing newspapers, newspaper people were out-and-out scoundrels.
Once, according to Casey, Harold McCormick, a Chicago farm machinery magnate and husband of a Rockefeller, fell in love with a younger woman. To restore some youth to his aging glands, he underwent a secret operation. Naturally, the Chicago Examiner, now defunct, wanted to confirm this sensational story. So it sent a reporter to McCormick's doctor's house in the middle of the night. The paper knew quite well that the doctor wouldn't talk, but they had also sent a reporter up the telephone pole outside the doctor's house. This guy tapped into the doctor's line, so when he called his esteemed patient to warn him, as the paper knew he would, the story was confirmed.
But the tale doesn't end here. To confound its rival, the ChicagoTribune, the Examiner printed a few hundred copies of an edition without the story. They distributed it only around the offices of the Tribune.
"They were left long enough for the Tribune editors to look at them, make sure that they hadn't been scooped on any matter of importance,and shut up shop," Casey writes. "After that the trucks were sent out topick them up, and the real edition with McCormick's quest for the fountainof youth all over the first page was sent into the street."
This story makes the Miami Herald reporters who hid in the bushes in order to catch Gary Hart committing adultery look like children.
Or take the time that the whole country was focused on the tragedy of the kidnapped Lindbergh baby. No one was talking -- not the police, not the government, not the Lindberghs. But one editor at William Randolph Hearst's now-defunct Chicago Evening American had a bright idea. He simply picked up a phone and called the Lindbergh house.
Lindbergh himself happened to answer the ring, and in no time at all, he was telling everything, including the fact that there had been a ransom note -- the biggest scoop in the country. He was still talking as the first Extras ran off the presses. The paper was in the middle of a press run of a million copies when a supervisor for the Hearst papers called up the boss and told him about the big story.
"Kill all Lindbergh story except that furnished by wire services," wired back Hearst. It seems he had promised some senator friend of his that his newspapers wouldn't write anything that might impede the recovery of the child until the news had "become common property through other sources."
This made the American's staff writhe -- there's nothing harder on a journalist than having a hot story that they can't tell.
Meanwhile, other Chicago papers had begun reporting the American's story in order to save face. So when the American withdrew its story, and its circulation department went around Chicago picking up every copy of the paper that they could, the other papers had to follow.
"Presently," Casey wrote, "there wasn't an afternoon paper left onsale in Chicago and a bewildered populace wondered what it was all about."
In the old days, bookies roamed newsrooms looking to collect onbets. Reporters spent their time drinking and smoking -- in the office as well as in local bars. Court reporters organized themselves into combines -- the reporter from one paper was delegated to cover the courts, while the others sat in the press room and played cards. This scene is familiar from the movie "The Front Page," which was written by two Chicago newspapermen, Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur. In that one, if I remember right, a reporter hid an escaped convict from the police in order to get his story first. Try that today!
In his 1996 book "I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me," long-time newspaperman Jimmy Breslin wrote that compared to the old days, today's journalism is bloodless and boring. Today, he said, reporters are family men who work out in gyms at lunchtime and go straight home after work. That may be good for their children and marriages, but it's not good for newspapers.
"Since words for a newspaper come from nervous energy and not propriety," Breslin said, "the readers get robbed and the news reporters never live... . The bars are gone, the drinkers gone. There remains the smartest, healthiest news people in the history of the business. And they are so boring that they kill the business right in front of you. A central reason why newspaper circulation is dropping so alarmingly is that reporters have all the excitement of a Formica table."
So think about the good old days before you accuse your local paper of "sensationalism" and "trying to sell more newspapers."
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes aboutculture, politics, economics and travel.