W. Joseph Campbell

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‘Strategy for peace’ and blocking the schoolhouse door: Recalling a crowded week in June 1963

In Anniversaries, Newspapers, Photographs, Quotes, Television, Year studies on June 6, 2013 at 5:56 am

Monday marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s “strategy for peace” commencement address at American University, a speech delivered at the height of the Cold War in which he called for a rapprochement with the Soviet Union.

JFK_AU_speech

Kennedy, June 10, 1963

The speech often is ranked among the finest of its kind.

Speaking to about 10,000 people out-of-doors on a 90-degree day in Washington, D.C., Kennedy announced that talks would soon begin in Moscow on a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. He also said the United States would suspend atmospheric testing as long as other nuclear powers did the same.

Fifty years on, the speech is still recalled for such passages as: “[W]e must labor on— not towards a strategy of annihilation but towards a strategy of peace.”

And:

“Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.”

Those sentiments represented something of a modest departure from the rhetoric common at the time. Kennedy spoke at American University less than eight months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the United States and Soviet Union to the brink of a nuclear exchange.

The speech was not without significance: The talks Kennedy announced on June 10, 1963, led fairly quickly to a limited test-ban treaty with the Soviets and British.

Interestingly, Kennedy’s address was in short order crowded off the front pages. His “strategy for peace” remarks hardly dominated the news that week.

Indeed, few weeks arguably have been as packed with such a variety of major and memorable news events as June 9-15, 1963.

Kennedy’s commencement speech received prominent treatment for a day or two in U.S. newspapers. Then it was overtaken by some of the most dramatic moments of the Civil Rights era — among them, Governor George Wallace’s stand at the schoolhouse door, symbolically blocking the desegregation of the University of Alabama.

It has been said that the “drama of the nation’s division over desegregation came sharply into focus” that day, June 11, 1963.

In the face of the governor’s defiance, Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard. After reading a bitter statement denouncing the “unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama,” Wallace stepped aside. Two black students were allowed to register for classes.

NYT-front_11June1963_full

New York Times front, June 11, 1963

Kennedy referred to the confrontation in Alabama in a radio and television speech that night in which he proposed that Congress pass civil rights legislation to end discrimination in voting, enhance educational opportunities, and ensure access to restaurants, hotels, and other public places.

The resulting legislation became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Also on June 11, 1963,  an Associated Press correspondent in South Vietnam, Malcolm Browne, took one of the iconic images of the long war in Southeast Asia — that of a Buddhist monk who had set himself afire in downtown Saigon, to protest the government’s religious oppression.

“It was clearly theater staged by the Buddhists to achieve a certain political end,” Browne later said. “At the same time, there was a human element to it that was just horrifying, because the sequence of pictures showed the initial shock of the flames touching his face, and so forth. He never cried out or screamed ….”

The following day, Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers was shot to death outside his home in Mississippi. Byron De La Beckwith was tried three times for Evers’ killing, most recently in 1994 when he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The other two trials ended in hung juries.

Evers, an Army veteran who had fought in World War II, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The space race, as it was known, seldom was far from the news in 1963. At the close of the crowded week, the Soviets were preparing to launch Vostok 6. On board was Valentina Tereshkova, destined to become the first woman in space.

The flight lifted off on June 16, 1963, and lasted nearly 71 hours. Tereshkova’s 49 Earth orbits more than doubled the most compiled to that point by any American astronaut.

And 20 years would pass before the first American woman flew in space. She was Sally Ride, a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1983.

The crowded week 50 years ago was a microcosm of the Cold War era, what with nuclear arms, civil rights, Southeast Asia, and the U.S.-Soviet space race all prominently in the news.

Even so, why does it much matter to look back on that week in June?

Doing so offer some useful and interesting perspective, given that we tend to think we live in such busy and momentous times.

Taking a look back also reveals how unsettled the country seemed to be in 1963, given the violence and the confrontations in the South, the Cold War rivalry with the Soviets, the strife in Vietnam.

So looking back to the crowded week in June tells us the 1960s were churning well before the climatic and tumultuous year of 1968.

One wouldn’t immediately have recognized this in mid-June 1963, but dominance was shifting in the news media, flowing from newspapers  to television.

Confirmation of this transition came in late November 1963 with wall-to-wall television coverage of the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath. “Even television’s critics had to admit that the medium had been transformed into an even more powerful force,” media historian David Davies wrote in a book of the postwar decline of American newspapers.

Nineteen sixty-three was pivotal for the news media.

WJC

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A ‘Cronkite Moment’ in the war on terror? There never was a ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television, Year studies on April 27, 2013 at 12:56 pm

When Walter Cronkite of CBS News called the Vietnam War a stalemate in 1968, he supposedly set a standard of courage that some journalists yearn desperately to find in contemporary practice.

Did he inspire a 'Brokaw Moment'?

Did he inspire a ‘Brokaw Moment’?

The latest example of such nostalgic longing appeared yesterday, in a column praising Tom Brokaw’s remarks during Sunday’s Meet the Press program about the terrorist bombings at this month’s Boston Marathon.

The surviving of the two suspected bombers reportedly has said the attack was motivated by U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

To David Sirota, that signals retributive blowback in America’s war on terror. And in a column posted at the In These Times site (also posted at Salon.com), Sirota lavished praise on Brokaw for having said on Meet the Press:

“But we’ve got to look at the roots of all of this. Because it exists across the whole [Asian] subcontinent and the Islamic world around the world. And I think we also have to examine the use of drones that the United States is involved in. And there are a lot of civilians who are innocently killed in a drone attack in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq.

“And I can tell you, having spent a lot of time over there, young people will come up to me on the streets and say, ‘We love America. But if you harm one hair on the head of my sister, I will fight you forever.’ And there is this enormous rage against what they see in that part of the world as a presumptuousness of the United States.”

While not particularly pithy or eloquent, such sentiments qualify Brokaw as “a Walter Cronkite of his age,” Sirota wrote in his column, adding that Brokaw’s “declaration recalls Cronkite’s seminal moment 45 years ago.

“Back in 1968,” Sirota went on, “opponents of the Vietnam War were being marginalized in much the same way critics of today’s wars now are. But when such a revered voice as Cronkite took to television to declare the conflict an unwinnable ‘stalemate,’ he helped create a tipping point whereby Americans began to reconsider their assumptions.

“In similarly making such an assumption-challenging statement, Brokaw has followed in Cronkite’s heroic footsteps,” Sirota declared. His commentary carried the headline, “A Cronkite Moment for the War on Terror.”

Whether media historians one day will refer to the “Brokaw Moment” in the war on terror is questionable: I doubt whether Brokaw’s remarks on Meet the Press will prove very memorable.

But what most interests Media Myth Alert is embellishing the so-called “Cronkite Moment” as a kind of lofty and inspiring standard of journalistic conduct, as a singular moment of memorable courage.

It wasn’t.

Now, there is no doubt that Walter Cronkite declared that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam. He said so on February 27, 1968, in a special report that aired on CBS television.

But over time, the effects of Cronkite’s “stalemate” observation have been inflated out of proportion to the decidedly modest impact it had in 1968. Sirota’s column is emblematic of that tendency to inflate.

After all, it was scarcely original or provocative to describe the Vietnam War as a “stalemate” in early 1968. In his well-regarded study of that year, Mark Kurlansky wrote that Cronkite’s view was “hardly a radical position” at the time.

News organizations such as the New York Times had invoked “stalemate” as early as the summer of 1967 in reporting and commenting about Vietnam.

Indeed, a front-page new analysis about the war, published in the Times in August 1967,  carried the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

The evidence is scant, moreover, that Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” comment “helped create a tipping point” in U.S. public opinion about the war.

The “tipping point” had been reached months before.

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, opinion polling had detected shifts in views about the war long before Cronkite’s program. In a very real sense, Cronkite followed rather than precipitated deepening popular doubts about the wisdom of the war.

For example, a Gallup Poll conducted in early October 1967 – 4½ months before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” observation — reported that 47 percent of respondents, a plurality, said it was a mistake to have sent U.S. troops to fight in Vietnam. A little more that two years earlier, Gallup had reported that only 24 percent of respondents felt that way.

Journalists detected other evidence in late 1967 of a shift in views about the war. Don Oberdorfer, then a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, wrote in December 1967 that the previous five or six months had been “a time of switching, when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

Opponents of the war hardly “were being marginalized” in early 1968. They were increasingly outspoken, and prominent.

As for Cronkite, he pooh-poohed for years the notion his “mired in stalemate” observation was of much consequence.

In his 1997 memoir, Cronkite said his “stalemate” assessment was for President Lyndon Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.” Cronkite repeated the analogy in the years immediately afterward, saying on a CNN program in 1999:

“I think our broadcast simply was another straw on the back of a crippled camel.”

The presumed power of the “Cronkite Moment” lies in the immediate and visceral effects Cronkite’s “stalemate” comment supposedly had on Johnson.

It often has been said that Johnson watched the Cronkite program at the White House and, upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” remark, turned to an aide or aides and said something along these lines:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Johnson: Not in front of a TV

Johnson: Not in front of a television set

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Johnson wasn’t at the White House when the Cronkite program aired. He wasn’t in front of a television set, either.

Johnson was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

About the time Cronkite was uttering his “mired in stalemate” opinion, Johnson wasn’t bemoaning the loss of Cronkite. He was making light of Connally’s age.

“Today, you are 51, John,” the president said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds
for linking to this post.

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‘News of World’ closure breaks link to 19th century yellow journalism

In 1897, Debunking, Year studies on July 10, 2011 at 12:04 am

The abrupt closure of Britain’s largest Sunday tabloid, Rupert Murdoch’s raunchy, scandal-ridden News of the World, breaks a link to the yellow journalism that flared in urban America at the end of the 19th century.

Jail-breaking journalism

I’m not referring to the News of the World’s tabloid flamboyance, which certainly evoked the typographic boldness of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, a broadsheet that was the leading exemplar of American yellow journalism.

The link went deeper than appearances.

The News of the World was an heir to Hearst’s activist-oriented, participatory journalism — a self-engaging, self-promoting style of newspapering unheard of these days in the United States.

As I note in my book The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Hearst’s Journal at the end of the 19th century sought to set a standard for the American press, insisting, I write, “that newspapers were obliged to inject themselves, conspicuously and vigorously, in righting the wrongs of public life, and in filling the void of government inaction and incompetence.”

The year 1897 brought memorable evidence of Hearst’s style of activist journalism.

In the summer that year, Hearst deployed a phalanx of Journal reporters to solve the grisly case of headless torso murder in New York.

Later that year, a reporter for the Journal broke from jail in Havana a 19-year-old political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros. The Journal – and more than a few other U.S. newspapers — celebrated the breathtaking breach of international law.

For the Journal, the Cisneros jailbreak (see image, above) was “epochal” and represented the “supreme achievement” of its paradigm of activist journalism.

It acknowledged that freeing Cisneros had violated Spanish law and flouted international convention — and the Journal seemed delighted to have done so, saying:

“The Journal is quite aware of the rank illegality of its action. It knows very well that the whole proceeding is lawlessly out of tune with the prosaic and commercial nineteenth century. We shall not be surprised at international complications, nor at solemn and rebuking assurances that the age of knight errantry is dead. To that it can be answered that if innocent maidens are still imprisoned by tyrants, the knight errant is yet needed.”

That sort of willingness to wink at illegality was demonstrated by the News of the World well before it became swept up in a cellphone-voicemail hacking scandal that brought about its demise.

Final edition

The News of the World, which published its final issue today, had been for years one of the world’s most controversial titles, due in part to its activist-oriented undercover operations, ostensibly undertaken to bring drug dealers, fugitive financiers, and other criminals to justice.

As I noted in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the targets of the News of the World often were “small-time celebrities and wayward sports figures dabbling in modest quantities of illegal drugs. The undercover methods were criticized as entrapment and dismissed as ‘a kind of investigative reporting without much investigating.’”

I also described a notorious case in 1999, in which reporters for News of the World “posed as wealthy Arabs and enticed a British earl to buy cocaine and share the drug with them. A detailed report about the peer’s conduct — he was depicted as drunkenly snorting cocaine with a £5 note — soon after was splashed across News of the World. He was arrested and convicted of selling drugs.

“But the presiding judge declined to send the peer to jail, citing the subterfuge of the News of the World. If not for the journalists’ sting, the judge observed, the crimes likely would not have been committed.”

Such outlandishness hinted at the tabloid’s more recent and more egregious misconduct of breaking into the cellular phone voicemail of hundreds of people, including members of Britain’s royal family and perhaps victims of the terror attack on London’s subway system July 2005.

Phone-hacking, of course, wasn’t an element in the repertoire of the yellow press of Hearst or of his mean-spirited rival, Joseph Pulitzer. Nor did they did bring on the war with Spain in 1898, as is often alleged.

But on occasion they turned to deception, misrepresentation, and self-motivated activism in pursuit of their lusty brand of big-time journalism.

WJC

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Keller no keeper of the flame on famous NYT motto

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, New York Times, Newspapers, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on February 11, 2011 at 8:56 am

Keller

Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, made clear the other day he doesn’t fully understand the derivation and significance of his newspaper’s famous, 114-year-old motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

And he didn’t seem particularly comfortable with the slogan coined (most likely) by Adolph Ochs, who in 1896 acquired the then-beleaguered Times and eventually led the newspaper to preeminence in American journalism.

Ochs, commemorated

Sure, the motto’s smug and overweening, elliptical and easily parodied. But it is the most recognizable motto in American journalism, and it evokes a time now passed when slogans helped define and distinguish U.S. newspapers.

In an appearance not long ago at the National Press Club in Washington, Keller was asked about “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which took a permanent place of prominence on the newspaper’s front page on February 10, 1897.

Keller rather sniffed at it, saying the motto “harkens back to a day when the aim of the newspaper was to be comprehensive.”

According to a transcript of his remarks, Keller said that nowadays the Times is “going to tell you maybe only a little bit, but a little bit about everything.

“And I think that slogan describes an aspiration, or a mindset. Now we tend to be more selective, and try to give you more depth, to tell you the stories that are not obvious.”

Actually, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” was framed a riposte to activist-oritented yellow journalism that flared in New York City in the closing years of the 19th century.

Ochs clearly meant the slogan to be a rebuke to the flamboyant ways of the  New York Journal of William Randolph Hearst and the New York World of Joseph Pulitzer. Their newspapers were the leading exemplars of the yellow press in fin-de-siècle urban America.

As I wrote in my 2006 book, a year study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the motto was, and remains, a daily rejection of flamboyant, self-promoting journalism.

And as the Times pointed out in 1935 in its obituary about Ochs, the motto “has been much criticized, but the criticisms deal usually with the phraseology rather than with its practical interpretation, and the phraseology was simply an emphatic announcement that The Times was not and would not be what the nineties called a yellow newspaper.”

I further noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism that the Times, at its 50th anniversary in 1901, “referred to ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print’ as its ‘covenant.’ One-hundred years later, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal aptly identified the motto as the ‘leitmotif not merely for the Times, but also, by a process of osmosis and emulation, for most other general-interest papers in the country, as well as for much of the broadcast media.’”

So, no, the motto wasn’t an assertion of intent to be comprehensive — although the Times surely carried a lot of news in the late 1890s. Thirty or more articles, many of them a paragraph or two in length, usually found places on its front page back then.

Ochs’ slogan was more than a daily slap at yellow journalism.

It also represents “a daily and lasting reminder of the Times’ triumph in a momentous … clash of paradigms that took shape in 1897—a clash that helped define the modern contours of American journalism,” as I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism.

That clash pitted three rival, incompatible models for the future of American journalism.

“As suggested by its slogan,” I wrote, “the Times offered a detached, impartial, fact-based model that embraced the innovative technologies emergent in the late nineteenth century but eschewed extravagance, prurience, and flamboyance in presenting the news.

“Extravagance, prurience, and flamboyance were features typically associated with yellow journalism, a robust genre which, despite its controversial and self-indulgent ways, seemed to be irresistibly popular in 1897. The leading exemplar of yellow journalism was … Hearst’s New York Journal, which in 1897 claimed to have developed a new kind of journalism, a paradigm infused by a self-activating ethos that sidestepped the inertia of government to ‘get things done.’

“The Journal called its model the ‘journalism of action’ or the ‘journalism that acts,’ and declared it represented ‘the final state in the evolution of the modern newspaper.’

“The third rival paradigm,” I wrote, “was more modest and idiosyncratic than those of the Times and Journal. If improbable, it was nonetheless an imaginative response to the trends of commercialization in journalism. The paradigm was an anti-journalistic literary model devised and promoted by J. Lincoln Steffens, who in late 1897 became city editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser, then New York’s oldest newspaper.”

That model, Steffens said, was predicated on the notion “that anything that interested any of us would interest our readers and, therefore, would be news if reported interestingly.”

The Times ultimately prevailed in the three-sided rivalry that emerged in 1897, and “All the News That’s Fit to Print” lives on as a reminder of the outcome of that momentous clash of paradigms.

WJC

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NYTimes practices ‘yellow journalism’? How so?

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on January 14, 2011 at 8:03 am

The “Best of the Web” roundup yesterday accused the New York Times of practicing “yellow journalism” for suggesting that conservative activists and politicians bore collective responsibility for last weekend’s murderous rampage in Arizona.

Best of the Web,” an online compilation prepared by the Wall Street Journal, assailed the Times for having “seized upon a horrific crime to demonize its political opponents,” for having “instigated” an uproar “with its yellow journalism.”

The Times certainly deserves criticism for hasty and politically charged commentary about the violence in Arizona that killed six people and left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords severely wounded.

But to accuse the Times of “yellow journalism“?

Well, that’s absurd.

For starters, the “Best of the Web” item didn’t explain what it meant by “yellow journalism.”

The term is convenient but imprecise; it’s often invoked (though not entirely accurately) as a shorthand for the sensational treatment of the news.

More broadly, as I noted in my 2001 book Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, “yellow journalism” is an amorphous epithet that has been applied to all sorts of journalistic misconduct. It’s a term favored by letter-writers to newspapers who denounce bias, distortion, and other presumed misdeeds in journalism.

“Yellow journalism” also finds expression in international contexts, often emerging, for example, as a complaint about press performance in India.

Wardman: Coined 'yellow journalism'

This impressively dexterous term emerged in early 1897. That was when a New York newspaper editor named Ervin Wardman coined “yellow journalism” to disparage the flamboyant newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.

Hearst claimed to practice “new journalism” but came to embrace Wardman’s term. In so doing, Hearst’s flagship New York Journal was typically immodest, likening itself to the sun–”the sun which is to this earth what the Journal is American journalism.”

Yellow journalism” became a recognizable, even bold genre in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As I wrote in Yellow Journalism, the genre in its most developed and intense form was characterized by these features:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading reporters.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention eagerly to the paper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

And as I noted in Yellow Journalism, the genre as practiced more than a century ago “certainly could not be called predictable, boring, or uninspired”—complaints of the sort that often are raised about contemporary American newspapers.

Interestingly, the New York Times established itself as the antithesis of yellow journalism of the late 1890s. It often condemned the excesses of the genre, especially those of Hearst’s Journal.

Under the ownership of Adolph Ochs, who acquired the newspaper in 1896, the Times nominally sought to position itself as a staid, impartial, fact-based model of journalism that eschewed extravagance and flamboyance in presenting the news.

And as I wrote in my 2006 book–a year-study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms–the Times under Ochs lacked the resources of Hearst’s Journal and seldom competed in expensive and far-flung newsgathering ventures. (Hearst spent lavishly to gather the news; in 1897, he paid Richard Harding Davis the contemporary equivalent of $50,000 to report from Cuba for a month on the uprising against Spanish colonial rule.)

The Times instead sought to position itself as the sober, moral counterweight to the Journal, and periodically challenged the wisdom and ethics of that newspaper’s forays into activist journalismsuch as the case of jailbreaking journalism in 1897. That was when a reporter for the Journal organized the escape of a 19-year-old Cuban political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros.

“Yellow journalism” has a long, varied, but not distinguished pedigree. It is to be sure a handy and supple pejorative.

But when invoked in criticism, definitional vagueness doesn’t cut it. “Yellow journalism” ought to be used with precision.

WJC

Recent and related:

Many thanks to Jim Romenesko for linking to the post.

n its most developed and intense form, yellow journalism was characterized by:

· the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.

· a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.

· the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.

· bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page.[i] Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.

· a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading reporters (such as James Creelman, who wrote for the Journal and the World).

· a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention eagerly to the paper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

As defined above and as practiced a century ago, yellow journalism certainly could not be called predictable, boring, or uninspired—complaints of the sort that were not infrequently raised about U.S. newspapers at the turn of the twenty-first century


[i]. See, among many other examples, “Remington and Davis Tell of Spanish Cruelty,” New York Journal (2 February 1897): 1. The front page was almost entirely devoted to a sketch by Frederic Remington to illustrate a dispatch by Richard Harding Davis about a Cuban rebel’s execution by Spanish firing squad.

Gotham’s exceptional New Year’s Eve: 1897

In 1897, New York Sun, Newspapers, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on December 31, 2010 at 7:05 am

W.R. Hearst

Publisher William Randolph Hearst was at the peak of his most innovative period 113 years ago, when he organized a New Year’s Eve bash for Gotham in 1897.

The year then closing had been a stunning one for Hearst and his flagship newspaper, the New York Journal.

He had introduced in 1897 a hearty brand of activist journalism: The “journalism of action,” the Journal called it. And it meant that newspapers had an obligation to inject themselves routinely and conspicuously into public life, to address the ills that government would not or could not confront.

Rivals scoffed and sneered; “yellow journalism” they called it.

But the stunning character of Hearst’s “journalism of action” had been demonstrated in October 1897 with the rescue of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner jailed by Spanish authorities in Havana for months without charges.

The Cisneros rescue, as I wrote in my 2006 book–a year study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms–was the “greatest escape narrative” in U.S. media history, “an episode unique in American journalism.”

In late summer 1897, as Cuba’s guerrilla war against Spanish colonial rule ground on, Hearst sent a reporter named Karl Decker to Cuba, ostensibly as the Journal correspondent in Havana.

Rescuing Evangelina

But Decker was under orders to organize the rescue of Evangelina Cisneros. With the quiet help of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba, and the vital support of a clandestine smuggling network in Havana, Decker succeeded in breaking her out of jail and getting her aboard a steamer to New York.

The “greatest journalistic coup of this age,” the Journal crowed, never reluctant to indulge in self-promotion. The “journalism of action” never seemed more robust, or more proud of itself, I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism.

Rivaling the Cisneros jailbreak as the crowning achievement of the “journalism of action” was the 1897 New Year’s Eve bash that Hearst threw for New York City.

It was an exceptional occasion, marking as it did the consolidation of the boroughs of New York and the birth of the modern mega-city.

As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, New York officials “had planned no special event to celebrate the political consolidation of the five boroughs… William Strong, the city’s outgoing mayor and a foe of consolidation, suggested that a mock funeral would be more appropriate than a celebration. Hearst would have none of that.”

Hearst stepped forward to organize what the Journal called a “great carnival,” a celebration replete with “volcanoes of fireworks and floods of pulse-quickening music,” all centered around City Hall Park, near what then was Newspaper Row.

Weather conditions were awful that night in lower Manhattan. Drizzling rain turned to ice and snow during the waning hours of 1897. The weather was so poor that the Journal announced in the afternoon that festivities would be postponed. An hour or two later, it reversed itself and the celebration was back on.

Perhaps 100,000 merry-makers braved the inclement conditions to watch the parade of floats that snaked its way down Broadway to City Hall.

As midnight struck in New York, the mayor of San Francisco (as Hearst had arranged), pressed a button sending an electric current across country to lower Manhattan. The electric charge sent a small white object climbing the flagpole at City Hall.

Reaching the top of the staff, the object unfurled and revealed itself to be the flag of New York City. And with that, one news account said, “bedlam broke loose.”

Fireworks burst over lower Manhattan, sending up what one reporter called “showers of blazing stars,” and a National Guard battery began firing a salute of 100 guns.

Just as the Journal had promised, the celebration was the “luminous starting point from which the history of the expanded New York will be dated.”

Even such bitter rivals as the New York Sun complimented the Journal for having organized and underwritten the celebration, which cost at least the contemporary equivalent of $500,000.

“It was such a display of fireworks and enthusiasm as perhaps had never been seen before in the State of New York, certainly not in the vicinity of New York city,” the Sun declared, adding:

“The show that the New York Journal provided was all that that paper claimed it would be.”

It was an exceptional New Year’s Eve in Gotham–and, as I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, it also was “a tremendous opportunity for the Journal to indulge in a celebration of its activist ethos.”

WJC

Recent and related:

Virginia’s descendants: ‘Ambassadors of Christmas spirit’

In 1897, Debunking, New York Sun, Newspapers, Year studies on December 26, 2010 at 9:11 am

The New York Times carried a fine article Christmas Day about how descendants of Virginia O’Hanlon “have quietly become ambassadors of the Christmas spirit,” offering ties to the girl who long ago inspired American journalism’s best-known editorial.

Young Virginia O'Hanlon (Courtesy Jim Temple)

Virginia’s letter to the old New York Sun in 1897 gave rise to the essay, “Is There A Santa Claus?” No other editorial has been as often recalled or reprinted as that tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit.

Her letter implored: “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

The editorial written in reply declares in its most memorable and familiar passage:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”

The Times article yesterday wasn’t much overstating matters in observing that Virginia, who died in 1971, “has become as much a symbol of Christmas as Ebenezer Scrooge or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

The heart of the article described how Virginia’s descendants “have quietly become ambassadors of the Christmas spirit, crossing the country to appear at events honoring her, and reading the letter and the response to children in schools and to their own children at home. … Come December, their names and faces turn up in newspapers and on television programs around the world, as well as in the company newsletters of their various workplaces.”

I became acquainted with the hospitality of some of Virginia’s descendants while researching my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, and know first-hand how helpful and accommodating they can be.

They are by no means pushy or mercenary in keeping alive the memory of Virginia O’Hanlon.

Jim Temple, Virginia’s only grandson, is perhaps the family’s point person in responding to requests for information.

In 2005, Temple welcomed me to his home in upstate New York where he and I reviewed the contents of a large cardboard box in which he kept newspaper clippings, photographs, and other totems about Virginia.

He was generous with his time, recollections, and artifacts.

My visit allowed me to unravel a small but persistent mystery about “Is There A Santa Claus?” That was why a Christmastime editorial had been published in late summer.

The essay (which the Sun in 1906 revealed had been written by a veteran and childless journalist named Francis P. Church) appeared on September 21, 1897, in the third of three columns of editorials.

In Temple’s box of memorabilia was clipping of a Connecticut newspaper article that had been published in December 1959. The article–a key to resolving the question of the editorial’s odd timing–described Virginia O’Hanlon’s talk to a high school audience in Fall River, Connecticut.

She was quoted as having said:

“After writing to the Sun, I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

As I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism, Virginia’s letter, after arriving at the Sun, probably was overlooked or misplaced for an extended period. “That there was such a gap seems certain, given both O’Hanlon’s recollections about having waited for a reply and the accounts that say Church wrote the famous editorial in ‘a short time,’” I pointed out.

What reconciles the two accounts—O’Hanlon’s extended wait and Church’s quickly written response—is that the Sun had misplaced the little girl’s letter.

That means Virginia wrote her letter to the Sun well before September 1897.

The 1959 newspaper article also quoted Virginia as saying:

“My birthday was in July and, as a child, I just existed from July to December, wondering what Santa Claus would bring me. I think I was a brat.”

Thus, as I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, the most plausible explanation for the editorial’s odd timing “lies in the excited speculation of a little girl who, after celebrating her birthday in mid-summer, began to wonder about the gifts she would receive at Christmas.”

The “excited speculation” gave rise to Virginia’s letter to the Sun.

WJC

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What became of Virginia O’Hanlon?

In 1897, New York Sun, New York Times, Newspapers, Year studies on December 25, 2010 at 8:13 am

Virginia

Virginia O’Hanlon was 8-years-old when she gained a measure of fame that would last her lifetime.

Shortly after her birthday in July 1897, young Virginia wrote to the New York Sun, posing the timeless question: “Is there a Santa Claus?

It took several weeks, but her innocent letter gave rise to the most famous editorial in American journalism. The Sun answered Virginia’s query on September 21, 1897, in an essay destined to become a classic.

The essay was assigned an inconspicuous place in the Sun, appearing in the third of three columns of editorials beneath the headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?

Its most memorable passage sought to reassure Virginia–and, as it turned out, generations of youngsters since then.

“Yes, Virginia,” it declared, “there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

The editorial closed with further reassurance:

“No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

As I note in my 2006 book, a year-study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Virginia O’Hanlon as an adult embraced the recognition and modest fame that came with her part in inspiring “Is There A Santa Claus?” (She once said in jest that she was “anonymous from January to November.”)

The editorial, she told an interviewer in 1959, when she was 67, “gave me a special place in life I didn’t deserve. It also made me try to live up to the philosophy of the editorial and to try to make glad the heart of childhood.”

She occasionally read the editorial at Christmas programs, as she did in 1933 and 1937 at Hunter College, her alma mater. Virginia earned a bachelor’s degree there in 1910 and a master’s degree two years later at Columbia University.

She was a teacher in the New York City schools, and became a principal at a school for handicapped children after earning a doctorate from Fordham University in 1935.

At her retirement in 1959, the New York Times observed that Virginia was “one of those rare persons whose given name alone has instant meaning for millions.”

In December 1960, Virginia went on the Perry Como Show and said she had lived “a wonderfully full life.” She told Como in a brief interview that her letter to the Sun had been “answered for me thousands of times.”

She was married for a time to Edward Douglas by whom she had a daughter, Laura Temple. For two years in the 1930s, Temple worked in the advertising office of the Sun.

“They all knew who I was,” she was quoted years as saying about the Sun staff. “And we all had the same feeling about the editorial that my mother had—that it was a classic.”

Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas was 81 when she died at a nursing home in upstate New York.

Her death in May 1971 was reported on the front page of the New York Times beneath the headline:

Virginia O’Hanlon, Santa’s friend, dies.”

Virginia's gravesite (Photo by George Vollmuth, 2009)

She was buried in North Chatham, New York.

At the approach of Christmas in recent years, the North Chatham Historical Society has conducted a reading at Virginia’s gravesite of the letter that brought her fame and of the editorial that it inspired.

WJC

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Recalling Mark Twain and the ‘calamity of calamities’

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Reviews, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on December 21, 2010 at 10:18 am

The first volume of Autobiography of Mark Twain–published 100 years after his death–has been a best-seller for the University of California Press, the publisher that brought out my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

The Twain volume has received largely favorable reviews, although the New York Times did say, in a critique the other day by the insufferable Garrison Keillor, that “there’s precious little frankness and freedom here and plenty of proof that Mark Twain, in the hands of academics, can be just as tedious as anybody else when he is under the burden of his own reputation.”

A more generous review, posted online yesterday by the North County Times in California, caught my eye–mostly for its reference to Twain (Samuel Clemens) and yellow journalism. The review quoted this passage from Twain’s autobiography:

“I was converted to a no-party independence by the wisdom of a rabid Republican. This was a man who was afterward a United States Senator, and upon whose character rests no blemish that I know of, except that he was the father of the William R. Hearst of to-day, and therefore grandfather of Yellow Journalism–that calamity of calamities.”

The reference was to George Hearst, an adventurer-miner who struck it rich in the silver fields of the 19th century American West. After securing his fortune, George Hearst became a U.S. senator from California, serving from 1886-1891.

Twain’s reference to “a rabid Republican” is puzzling, though, because George Hearst was a committed Democrat, as was his son, William Randolph Hearst.

More interesting was Twain’s characterization of yellow journalism as “that calamity of calamities.”

It’s an amusing line, but it ignores the generosity young Hearst extended to Twain in 1897, when the writer was down on his luck in London.

Hearst by then was running the provocative and activist-oriented New York Journal — the newspaper that helped give rise in 1897 to the sneer, “yellow journalism.”

The Journal preferred the term “journalism of action” and asserted that a newspaper had an obligation to inject itself routinely and conspicuously into civic life, to address the ills that government wouldn’t or couldn’t.

As I wrote in my 2006 year-study, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Hearst arranged for Twain, then 51, to report for the Journal on Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee in June 1897.

Lining up Twain to cover the Jubilee was emblematic of Hearst’s willingness to spend money lavishly to recruit big-name talent, if only for spot assignments.

In Twain, though, Hearst must have been disappointed.

As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism:

“Twain’s reporting about Victoria’s jubilee seemed half-hearted and hardly inspired. The spectacle was easily the most regal international story of 1897, and came at a time when the British empire at or near its height. But Twain found the celebration overwhelming—’a spectacle for the kodak [camera], not the pen,’” as he wrote in a dispatch published June 23, 1897.

Twain’s dispatch to the Journal included this odd observation:

“I was not dreaming of so stunning a show. All the nations seemed to be filing by. They all seemed to be represented. It was a sort of allegorical suggestion of the Last Day, and some who live to see that day will probably recall this one if they are not too much disturbed in mind at the time.”

Twain’s association with the Journal in 1897 did give rise to one of his most memorable lines–and allowed the newspaper to puncture rumors about the writer’s health.

In early June 1897, the New York Herald reported that Twain was “grievously ill and possibly dying. Worse still, we are told that his brilliant intellect is shattered and that he is sorely in need of money.”

The Journal promptly exposed the Herald report as erroneous, and published Twain famous, if often-misquoted, denial:

“The report of my death was an exaggeration,” Twain said.

He lived until 1910.

WJC

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‘Yes, Virginia,’ on CBS: No classic

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, New York Sun, Newspapers, Year studies on December 18, 2010 at 7:44 am

I wrote a year ago about the charmless CBS animated Christmas special, Yes, Virginia, a show based on Virginia O’Hanlon’s famous letter to the New York Sun in 1897 that prompted American journalism’s best-known editorial.

The show aired again last night; watching it was headache-inducing.

It utterly lacks the serendipity, anticipation, disappointment, and surprise that characterized the real back story to Virginia’s 1897 letter.

Her appeal to the Sun — “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”–gave rise to an editorial published beneath the headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

The editorial’s most memorable and most-quoted passage declared:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

As I noted last year at Media Myth Alert, CBS took great liberties with the back story in offering up a tedious half-hour show that was neither accurate nor entertaining. It’s a distortion of a charming story.

Francis P. Church

The animated Virginia is waddling, round-headed, and unaccountably obsessed with the existence of Santa Claus. Francis P. Church, the retiring journalist who wrote the famous editorial, is depicted–no, misrepresented–as scowling, dismissive, and hard-hearted.

Neither character is convincing. Neither is realistic.

The animated Church is identified as the editor of the Sun, which is shown as a tabloid newspaper. Church was not the editor; he was an editorial writer. And the Sun was no tabloid.

The CBS show also had Virginia writing her letter, and the Sun publishing its reply, in December, as Christmas approached.

In fact, the letter was written in the summer of 1897, and the Sun published the editorial on September 21, 1897 — obscurely, in the third of three columns on editorials on an inside page (and not in big, sensation-stirring headlines across the front page, as the CBS show had it).

As I discuss in my 2006 book–a year-study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms–Virginia O’Hanlon said that she addressed her letter to the Sun’s question-and-answer column, and waited impatiently for the newspaper to publish a response.

She recalled that the Sun did not promptly take up her inquiry. Far from being obsessed, little Virginia stopped thinking about it after a while.

“After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in Connecticut many years later, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

At the Sun, Virginia’s letter probably was overlooked, or misplaced, for an extended period.

That there was such a gap seems certain, given O’Hanlon’s recollections about waiting and waiting for a reply, and the accounts that say Church wrote the editorial in “a short time” or “hastily, in the course of the day’s work.”

Virginia O'Hanlon

What reconciles the two accounts—O’Hanlon’s prolonged wait and Church’s quickly written response—is that the Sun for a time had misplaced the letter that inspired a classic editorial, one that would recall the newspaper long after it folded in 1950.

The real back story to Virginia’s letter is far richer than the cheerless, vapid fare that CBS offered up.

Unlike the 1897 editorial, the wretched animated show is destined to be no classic.

WJC

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