Chris Daly: “Professionalizing the News in Peace and War, 1900-1920”

“Professionalizing the News in Peace and War” chronicles the rise of professionalism through the early twentieth century and into modern journalism’s first major test: World War I. Christopher Daly begins the sixth chapter of his engaging telling with the introduction of journalism’s move toward a true career discipline. By the late 1800s, prominent members of the field were considering the future of their newly developed artform and how it should develop in the professional sphere. While most agreed that a good journalist was born with many of the qualities she needed to be successful, including “imagination, initiative, impulses, enthusiasm, and a sense of humor and irony,” it was also decided that much could be taught—including “clear, concise English prose, law, ethics, research skills, history, economics, statistics, modern languages, and science—and improved in a classroom setting guided by experts. The University of Missouri was the first to institute a formal journalism school in 1908 that included specialized classes taught both by professors of other disciplines and former editors of existing newspapers, as well as a student run newspaper for hands-on learning. Columbia University quickly followed, thanks to a $2 million gift from Joseph Pulitzer (only to be accessed after his death). Its world-renowned school, housed in its own building, and the famous Pulitzer prize were both born in 1912, paving the way for 109 additional schools to come.

This new sense of professionalism permeated the field not only through the opening of formal journalism schools, but with the institution of academic journals, organized associations, and mutually agreed upon codes of conduct. While journalism could never approach the strict regulations and licensing processes of other respected disciplines like law or medicine because of its inherent position outside of institutional landscapes of America, these associations and coalitions allowed members of to adopt values and procedures across the board. As Daly explains, “Every attempt to reorganize American journalism along the lines of law and medicine, with their legal enforcement of admission and standards, has run aground on the same fundamental fact: the First Amendment forbids any government role in running the news business.” Yet, other measures taken during this crucial time period would face powerful opposition during the years to come.

Daly’s account of journalism’s role in the Great War aptly explores the many challenges imposed by powerful political and military forces of the time. Similar to the war’s progression itself, tensions began mild and subtle, but soon grew as America’s involvement became more overt and the press’ commitment to the truth became more threatening. Former allied partners like William Randolph Hearst and Woodrow Wilson came into direct conflict with each other when Hearst abandoned his pro-war sentiments of the earlier Spanish-American War era and put his entire influence behind an isolationist agenda. Smaller papers published by ethnic and political minorities were also severely censored, targeted, and often destroyed by new laws and stricter rulings imposed by governmental forces displeased by the content that was being published. This dark time in journalistic history represents some of the most extreme governmental control—and violation of First Amendment rights—in United States history. As Daly noted, it would not be until the Vietnam Era and the countercultural movement of the 60s that the press felt “powerful and independent enough to challenge the national government directly.”

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