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Contentions

The Times Joins the Six-Penny Press

An addendum, if I may, to Peter’s excellent dissection of the New York Times editorial page and Jonathan’s equally excellent dissection of the Times’s journalistically astonishing story on the IRS this morning and, especially, its even more astonishing headline. It should be noted that the Times has, apparently, decided to jettison 180 years of newspaper history and revert to the journalism of the six-penny press that flourished in this country in the early days of the Republic.

To see what I mean, just compare the Times’s egregiously and unabashedly slanted story on this hot-button political issue to today’s story in the Washington Post, which is hardly a wholly-owned subsidiary of the far right. The latter’s headline is, “IRS targeted groups critical of government, documents from agency show.” The Post’s editorial opinion can be summed up in one word, finding the IRS action, “appalling.”

In the early days, newspapers were all unabashedly partisan and, usually, funded by the political parties whose causes they espoused. They were little more than editorial pages surrounded by a few pages of highly tendentious news. That is what the Times has become, at least with regard to domestic political news. Even the Times’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, writes regarding the IRS story, “Many on the right . . . do not think they can get a fair shake from The Times. This coverage won’t do anything to dispel that belief.”

But the six-penny press disappeared beginning in 1835, when a grumpy, disheveled, (and extremely cross-eyed) journalist named James Gordon Bennett founded the New York Herald and changed journalism forever. Although he was a Democrat, his paper was not. Instead of telling his readers what he thought they ought to know, he told them what he thought they wanted to know: the news of the world that was beyond their immediate ken. And he told it straight, keeping his opinions to the editorial page.

His journalistic innovations were almost endless. He was the first to print, in a general circulation newspaper, a weather report, stock tables, sports news, society gossip, and crimes (the bloodier the better, to be sure). His was the first out-of-town newspaper to have correspondents in Washington, making him the founder of the Washington press corps. He was the first to have correspondents in foreign capitals. He even coined the word leak in its journalistic sense.

The Herald was an immediate success and would have the largest circulation of any American newspaper for much of the 19th century. Later newspapers such as the New York Tribune (founded in 1841) and the New York Times (1851) necessarily modeled themselves after the Herald.

And the Times used that model to become, unquestionably, the greatest newsgathering organization in the world, with the Pulitzer Prizes to prove it. In many ways it still is. But not, these days, when it comes to any story touching on American politics. With politics, like the old six-penny press before the revolution in journalism wrought by Bennett and the Herald, it now is merely a conveyor of the party line, a preacher to the choir, its political content not to be trusted by honest men.

That is an American tragedy.



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