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21. Scandal! (1892)

21. Scandal! (1892)

“False history gets made all day, any day, the truth of the new is never on the news.” -Adrienne Rich

I can’t help but think that this 1892 article was written as a love letter to Hearst and Pulitzer. In it, this New York Times reporter draws a distinction between public commentary (as was the case with the Cherry sisters) and libelous scandal mongering.

“The private lives of public or of private persons are not the proper province of the public prints. If people cannot keep their private affairs out of the courts, or prevent themselves from engaging in public broils, they must expect to be talked about in print, and they have no grievance unless they are talked about untruthfully.”

But a newspaper which undertakes to extend its circulation by scandal mongering assumes the risks of that enterprise, whether they be personal assaults on the editor or libel suits. If it be so unfortunate as to be beguiled into publishing lies, which it did not know to be such, upon which it could not help knowing that it should not publish anything at all, it must take the consequences, and whether the consequence come in the form of assault and battery, or of 1000 [pound] verdicts, there will be many dry eyes in respectable circles.

More interesting still, this reporter believes that assault is a cost of doing business if you choose to build that business on lies and libel. Interesting historical footnote, as was the case in previous segments from this period, it is the editor that is said to hold final responsibility for what goes into the paper. I have to wonder how true that sentiment is today.

Even though the reporter in this piece doesn’t approve of this brand of journalism, he is not so naive as to think it will go away. This paragraph is as good a predictor for the rise of tabloid journalism as any I’ve seen,

…There is no use in denying that a very great number of persons take delight in reading scandal, as they take delight in hearing it, and they do not much care if it afterwards turns out to be false, provided it be ‘spicy’ enough to give them a temporary excitement. Doubtless there will continue to be a market for newspapers which are simply or mainly chronicles of scandal. They will continue to prosper, and the only drawback to their prosperity will be that nobody will respect them or pay them any attention to what they may say on serious topics . . . This tendency is likely to result in a sharper differentiation of newspapers than has been effected before, between those that are scandal mongers and those that aim to be chroniclers and instructive commentators upon legitimate and public news of the day.

Once again we are at the point where just about anyone can be a publisher and every few weeks questions are raised about who to trust for information, I wonder how close this reporter was to the truth? There is plenty of half-truth and scandal mongering in modern media and while it will continue to prosper, his second premise, that we would draw a sharp differentiation between scandal mongers and credible sources feels wrong. We tend to trust our biases, whatever those might be and we tend to trust the people who parrot those biases. One person’s fact is another person’s fiction and with so much of our news being driven by personalities it’s hard to tell the difference. More importantly, many consumers of media don’t really want to.

Today’s clip shows the fine line reporters walk between getting the story and pushing someone too far. In this clip Allen Stanford, who is being accused of fraud by the SEC is seen talking to a reporter, threatening to punch him in the face if he doesn’t relent.

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