There used to be a lot more government interference with the media than there is today.
William Marcy Tweed, the notorious nineteenth century "Boss" of New York politics, gave cash gifts of $200 every Christmas to City Hall reporters; they, in turn, gave him year-round gifts of favorable coverage.
Early in the next century, President Theodore Roosevelt got so upset with a report in the New York Sun that he wrote a letter to the editor, demanding the reassignment of the man who wrote it. The editor complied.
There used to be a lot more big business interference with the media than there is today.
When Franklin Roosevelt won re-election to the presidency for the second time in 1940, The Wall Street Journal, appalled by Roosevelt’s meddling in the affairs of corporate America, did not even mention the election results until page six.
There used to be a lot more interference by sports figures with the media than there is today.
"At big events, like a championship fight" writes David Remnick in King of the World, his biography of Muhammad Ali, "publicists and promoters sometimes offered a selection of prostitutes: no charge for the columnists, discounts for reporters."
There used to be a lot more partisan politicking in the media than there is today.
"God Almighty ordered this event," said the Dallas Herald when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. And in the opinion of the Chattanooga Daily Rebel, "Abe has gone to answer before the bar of God for the innocent blood which he has permitted to be shed."
There used to be a lot less accuracy in the media than there is today.
As a reporter for the Virginia City [Nevada] Enterprise, Mark Twain once told "in gory detail how a deranged speculator armed with ax, knife, and club had murdered his wife and children." It never happened. Neither did a battle in the Sino-Japanese war chronicled by an equally imaginative H.L. Mencken. And in Theodore Dreiser’s early days as a drama critic, he reviewed the opening night performance of a play he had not seen. Because of bad weather, opening night was cancelled. The review ran anyhow.
There used to be a lot less speed in the media than there is today.
"In Jefferson’s day," writes Stephen Ambrose in Undaunted Courage, "it took six weeks to move information from the Mississippi River to Washington, DC." And the Battle of New Orleans was fought in the War of 1812 after the war had ended, but before news of the truce could reach the affected parties.
There used to be a lot more timidity in the media than there is today.
Up until the Hoover administration, it was standard procedure for reporters never to quote a president of the United States directly.
There used to be a lot more deviousness in the media than there is today.
One day, shortly after his solo flight across the Atlantic and his return from Paris to the United States, Charles Lindbergh and his wife were sailing on a friend’s yacht, the Mouette. But desperate for privacy, they kept themselves out of sight, belowdecks. A newspaper reporter, desperate for an interview, hired a craft of his own, and, says Scott Berg in his biography of the aviator, "persisted in circling the Mouette, hoping the chop of his boat would make the Lindberghs seasick enough to come topside." It did not.
There even used to be a lot of show biz in the media in times past.
As a child, W.C. Fields got a job selling newspapers on a street corner. Then he folded the papers in a variety of odd and interesting shapes and juggled them for the delight of people passing by. He became the top salesman on his block.
So those of you who are so unhappy with the media these days — you conservatives who think the press is too liberal, you liberals who think it’s too conservative, you gentlemen who think it’s too ungentlemanly, you geniuses who think it caters too much to the least common denominator, and, yes, the panelists and host of Fox News Watch who spend so much time criticizing the practice of journalism these days — relax! Things used to be worse. They are not so bad today. They might even be getting better. Enjoy your favorite paper and watch your favorite newscast . . .
And have a Happy New Year!
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .