This is the 18th in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary.

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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

The Job of the Washington Correspondent
January 1960
by Walter Lippmann

In 1960, the columnist and philosopher Walter Lippmann emphasized the magnitude of the task with which those reporting from Washington are entrusted.

In a democracy like ours, it is an awful responsibility to undertake the processing of the raw news so as to make it intelligible and to reveal its significance. It is such a great responsibility, it lends itself so easily to all manner of shenanigans that, when I can bear to think about it, I console myself with the thought that we are only the first generation of newspapermen who have been assigned the job of informing a mass audience about a world that is in a period of such … unprecedented change …

Last summer, while walking in the woods … I found myself daydreaming about how I would … justify the business of being opinionated and of airing opinions regularly several times a week.

“Is it not absurd,” I heard the critic saying, “that anyone should think he knows enough to write so much about so many things? You write about foreign policy. Do you see the cables which pour into the State Department every day from all parts of the world? Do you attend the staff meetings? … ”

In my daydream … I turn upon him and with suitable eloquence declaim an apology for the existence of the Washington correspondent.

“If the country is to be governed with the consent of the governed, then the governed must arrive at opinions about what their governors want them to consent to. How do they do this?

“They do it by hearing on the radio and reading in the newspapers what the corps of correspondents tell them is going on in Washington, and in the country at large, and in the world. Here, we correspondents perform an essential service … We make it our business to find out what is going on under the surface and beyond the horizon, to infer, to deduce, to imagine, and to guess what is going on inside, what this meant yesterday, and what it could mean tomorrow.

“In this we do what every sovereign citizen is supposed to do but has not the time or the interest to do for himself. This is our job. It is no mean calling. We have a right to be proud of it and to be glad that it is our work.”

Vol. 205, No. 1, pp. 47–49

The Power and the Profits
January 1976
by David Halberstam

In a comprehensive article on changes in the media, the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter David Halberstam commented on the outsize power—and consequent drawbacks—of television as a journalistic medium.

Journalism at its best is a highly personal art, and radio encouraged individualism. The technology of radio was not complicated or expensive; if a correspondent had a story, he simply went on the air …

Television required so much contrivance. It was a team art, involving producers, cameramen, sound men, levels and levels of technicians, all of whom might distort the effect of the individual journalist …

Politically, television was simply too powerful a force, too fast, too immediate, with too large an audience, for the kind of easy journalistic freedom that radio and print reporters had enjoyed … It was as if an unwritten law of American journalism had evolved, stating that the greater the institutional platform, and the more power it has to influence public opinion, the more carefully it must be used and the less it must wander from the accepted norms of American society. It is better to be a little wrong and a little late on a major sensitive story than it is to be too right too far ahead of the rest of the country.

Vol. 237, No. 1, pp. 33–71

Why Americans Hate the Media
February 1996
by James Fallows

In a media landscape increasingly characterized by combative political talk shows and shallow reportage, The Atlantic’s Washington editor, James Fallows, lamented that many journalists were not taking their profession seriously.

When ordinary citizens have a chance to pose questions to political leaders, they rarely ask about the game of politics. They want to know how the reality of politics will affect them—through taxes, programs, scholarship funds, wars. Journalists … ask questions that only their fellow political professionals care about. And they often do so—as at the typical White House news conference—with a discourtesy and rancor that represent the public’s views much less than they reflect the modern journalist’s belief that being independent boils down to acting hostile …

They are interested mainly in pure politics and can be coerced into examining the substance of an issue only as a last resort. The subtle but sure result is a stream of daily messages that the real meaning of public life is the struggle of Bob Dole against Newt Gingrich against Bill Clinton, rather than our collective efforts to solve collective problems …

Even if practiced perfectly, journalism will leave some resentment and bruised feelings in its wake. The justification that journalists can offer for the harm they inevitably inflict is to show, through their actions, their understanding that what they do matters and that it should be done with care.

Vol. 277, No. 2, pp. 45–64