150 Years Of The Atlantic September 2007

Media

This is the 18th in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary.
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For the full text of these articles, visit www.theatlantic.com/ideastour.

Journalism and Journalists
July 1874

by F. B. Sandborn

Approximately a decade after the Civil War, the journalist and author F. B. Sanborn defended newspaper writing against its detractors and expressed high hopes for journalism’s future.

Journalism in America is something, has been nothing, and aspires to be everything. There are no limits, in the ambitions of enterprising editors, to the future power of the American newspaper. It is not only to make and unmake presidents and parties, institutions and reputations; but it must regulate the minutest details of our daily lives, and be school-master, preacher, lawgiver, judge, jury, executioner, and policeman in one grand combination …

It is common to laugh at newspaper English, and the knowledge that is derived only from the newspapers. But … there is no better English than we find in the newspaper … Writers are apt to think they must distinguish themselves by an uncommon style: hence elaborate stiffness and quaint brilliance … It is because a journalist thinks more of his matter than of his manner, and seeks to make himself understood rather than admired, that he writes so well … The careful reader of a few good newspapers can learn more in a year than most scholars do in their great libraries.

Vol. 34, No. 201, pp. 55–66


Newspaper Morals
March 1914

by Henry L. Mencken

During an era characterized by muckraking and sensationalism, the social critic H. L. Mencken decried the tendency of popular newspapers to appeal to the unsophisticated instincts of the masses.

Any reflective newspaper man … knows very well that a definite limit is set, not only upon the people’s capacity for grasping intellectual concepts, but also upon their capacity for grasping moral concepts …

In brief, he knows that it is hard for the plain people to think about a thing, but easy for them to feel

One of the principal marks of an educated man … is the fact that he does not take his opinions from newspapers—not, at any rate, from the militant, crusading newspapers. On the contrary, his attitude toward them is almost always one of frank cynicism, with indifference as its mildest form and contempt as its commonest. He knows that they are constantly falling into false reasoning about the things within his personal knowledge,—that is, with the narrow circle of his special education,—and so he assumes that they make the same, or even worse errors about other things, whether intellectual or moral. This assumption, it may be said at once, is quite justified by the facts.

Vol. 113, No. 3, pp. 289–297

Newspaper Morals: A Reply
June 1914

by Ralph Pulitzer

Three months later, Ralph Pulitzer, who had recently inherited the editorship of the New York World from his father, struck back against Mencken, dismissing his criticisms as unfair and classist.

Mr. Mencken … ‘assume[s] here, as an axiom too obvious to be argued, that the chief appeal of a newspaper … is not at all to the educated and reflective minority of citizens, but to the ignorant and unreflective majority.’ On the contrary, it is very far from being ‘too obvious to be argued.’ A great many persons of guaranteed education are sadly destitute of any reflectiveness whatsoever, while an appalling number of ‘the ignorant’ have the effrontery to be able to reflect very efficiently …

Granted that in the heat of battle [the press] fails to handle the cold conceptions of austere philosophers with proper scientific etiquette. Granted that it makes blunders in technical statements … Granted that it mixes its science and its sentiment in a manner to shock the gentlemen of disembodied intellects. Granted that the press has many more such intellectual peccadilloes on its conscience.

But if the press does these things honestly, it does them morally, and does not need to excuse them.

Vol. 113, No. 6, pp. 773–778

 

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