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22. Lo! The Poor Newspaper (1890)

22. Lo! The Poor Newspaper (1890)

Before we step back into the future, I wanted to show you two different perspectives on the newspaper, given in 1890 at the Commonwealth Club. The first is from John Brooks Leavitt, an outspoken attorney, author and reformer who crusaded against municipal corruption in the city of New York.

“If Mr. Leavitt’s study of the press and is methods is to be measured by the amount of invective he heaped upon it, he might well be awarded a diploma as its grand censor. To crystallize his sixty or seventy minutes of speaking into a few words, he seemed to regard the newspaper press as a horrible octopus which was reaching out its arms and threatening to topple over the foundation stones of civilization and liberty.”

He charged the press with being unscrupulous, ever ready to publish scandalous or defamatory matter provided that money, influence, or personal spite supported it. Nobody could go to bed at night with a surety of awakening in the morning with his reputation intact and unsullied, according to Mr. Leavitt.

It’s difficult to tell from this vantage point how correct Mr. Leavitt was. What he pointed out was entirely true, the late 1800s was fraught with newspaper editors fighting for circulation, and often the first casualty of that fight was scruples. John was an adamant reformer and what he saw was a system that was rotting from the inside, but by focusing so completely on the flaws he missed what journalist, publisher and diplomat Walter H. Page saw,

Walter H Page said: ‘The power of the press is an evolutionary power, transforming the world by daily carrying light into dark places. It is as yet an untamed force, but it is a force for good. In itself it is raising the standard of humanity, and this elevation will demand a higher class of newspaper work which will be supplied. It is a force too great for you, gentlemen, to mold and turn in your little legal vices.’

We can learn a lot from these perspectives, as they mirror the battle we see today between old and new media. For many traditional journalists, bloggers and other new media types are just as unscrupulous as Mr. Leavitt believed the newspapers were over 100 years ago. Sure, there are plenty of so-called “journalists” that are little more than mouth-boxes for unsubstantiated rumor, but it would be incorrect for anyone to ignore the evolutionary power of the new mediums we have at our disposal and worse it would be very narrow sighted of journalists to ignore the history of their own profession.

To see a modern version of this argument, let’s look at two perspectives – below we have Dennis Kneale, lambasting a blogger on air for being “short on facts,” above we have blogger/journalist Tom Foremski speaking about his trade.


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