THE DRUM: H. L. Mencken, among the most influential writers of the early 20th century, opined that any journalist worth his salt knew that his job was “to please the crowd, to give a good show; and the way they set about giving that good show was by first selecting a deserving victim, and then putting him magnificently to the torture”. The smart journalist knows, said the “sage of Baltimore”, that “it is hard for the plain people to think about a thing, but easy for them to feel“.
Silas Bent, who fell into (as he put it) reporting in New York in the 1920s, described how he intercepted a telegram from an errant wife he was pursuing for a story, opened it, took it back to his editor who pretended shock – then ordered him to follow up the information contained in it. The New York newspaper game in which he played had been, to a large extent, formed by the crude, populist, sexy and very successful papers of the Scots immigrant James Gordon Bennett from the 1840s to the 1870s; a quarter of a century on, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst “fought for supremacy”, Bent wrote “through fakery and thrills”.
It was a time, and a moral atmosphere, in which you expected policemen and politicians to be on the take, women to be the prey of the sensation seekers and truth to be wholly negotiable – though with it, there was a kind of raucous, fitful egalitarianism, a suspicion of wealth, power and social position, a love of tearing down the mighty (so long as the mighty proprietor was never in your sites). That changed. American journalism grew up in the 30s and after the war. The corruption which yellow journalism spread so liberally in its wake began to be less acceptable, and then to be punished. New York became famed, not for the yellow papers, but for the “good, grey” New York Times. Tabloids were marginalised: the National Enquirer, outside of New York (which kept and still keeps something of a tabloid culture, with the Daily News and the New York Post) was the echo of it, though it was as interested in space invaders as adulterers.
The British tabloids kept the tradition alive. Britain had also created a yellow press culture in the 1840s – with the News of the World, like Bennett’s papers, aimed at a newly-literate lower middle and working class, much interested in court cases involving “women of the night” and “houses of ill repute”, feeding their readers what were, by today’s snappy standards, long, long stories of depravity and vice. Rupert Murdoch clearly loved that world. His – and other – tabloids remained fixed in a turn-of-the-century attitudes, the personnel changing, the scandals the same. MORE
RELATED: Responding to allegations from several Washington lawmakers, the FBI has opened an investigation into whether Rupert Murdoch‘s News Corp. attempted to hack into the telephones of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the families of those who died. According to federal law enforcement sources, the decision by the FBI’s field office in New York to launch the criminal probe came after several members of Congress raised concerns in letters to FBI headquarters, questioning whether reporters for the media empire may have tried to compromise Sept. 11 victims just as they reportedly hacked into the phones of numerous individuals in England. MORE