Chapters 7 through 10 of Christopher Daly’s Covering America cover forty-three years of journalistic history that include the nation’s worst depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, and a president’s assassination. Accompanying these historical monuments are the simultaneous rises of nationally circulated magazines, radio technology, photojournalism, media stars, and television. As the United States develops as a country, the field of journalism continues to adapt as well, as new technologies and economic forces emerge.
At the beginning of the 1920s, national newspaper empires and “big-city-dailies” continue to thrive. Cities were growing and the appetite for news was ravenous. By and large, newspapers were owned by individuals, or small groups of powerful (and often related) men. The Hearsts, Chandlers, McCormicks, McClatchys, Knights, and so on enjoyed relative freedom and great success on the business side, and skewed the content of their respective publications to advance personal agendas and ideologies. However, the growing popularity of magazines proved to suggest formidable competition to the dominant newspapers of America’s cities. Up until the early Twenties, magazines had catered to entirely different audiences than major papers; generally geared toward specific groups, publications aimed their content toward scientists, abolitionists, women, and so forth. In accordance with Alexis de Tocqueville, “magazines played an important role in social movements, and their editors often helped create or strengthen communities or associations of readers who would otherwise never have found one another on the sprawling continent” (Daly, Ch. 7). Such entities therefore served a different purpose from newspapers, who catered to the masses and focused on the general happenings around the country. Yet, advertisers were keenly aware of the distinct advantages of magazines—namely their national reach—and sustained the genre through close collaboration.
This enthusiasm on behalf of advertisers, combined with the growing mass consumerism of America, provided the perfect laboratory in which young entrepreneurs were able to experiment. Two Yale graduates by the names of Henry Robinson Luce (known as “Harry) and Brit Hadden, longtime competitors and close friends, were able to fund their revolutionary idea of a magazine that “summarized news from around the country and the world, wrought each item into a concise, polished story with some history and context, [and] added coverage of the arts and culture,” all at the price of only fifteen-cents, through their prestigious Ivy-League connections (Daly, Ch. 7). Though it was risky, the two men were able to publish the first edition of Time in 1923. After a few initial bumps, the magazine’s popularity began to grow and soon enough, America could not get enough of its concise, unmistakable “Timespeak” prose that delivered the world’s events in only a few short pages. While it was initially pitched to investors as completely neutral, with no editorial, Time quickly became a platform for the unabashed conservative, Christian, pro-American voice of Harry Luce.
In addition to Time, another magazine entered the national stage as well, though it catered to an entirely different crowd. The New Yorker, which still holds its venerated place in the literary world today, was first published in 1925. A product of Harold Ross’ vision to cater to the sophisticated intellectuals of the nation, the new magazine was “unapologetically urban and determined not to pander to popular taste” (Daly, Ch. 7). Instead of briefly repackaging current events into pithy and digestible quips like Time, The New Yorker incorporated multiple forms of writing, journalism, and even cartoons, and delved into subjects that ranged from arts and culture to foreign affairs and in-depth profiles. Its witty tone and ability to engage with “serious amateurs…with no credentials other than their own ability to observe, think, and write” is what set it far apart from nearly all other publications of the time (Daly, Ch. 7).
It was during this period of time that radio began to emerge in the public sphere, presenting yet another threat to the previously unchallenged newspapers. What began as relatively unknown developments to telegraph technology soon blossomed into a new medium quickly embraced by everyone from military officials to free-thinking students. However, problems soon emerged in terms of regulation, economic implications, and overcrowding. The federal government became increasingly involved during the mid-1920s until the Radio Act of 1927 birthed the Federal Communications Commission, which now had the power to grant licenses for access to radio bandwidths, as well as regulate content. Large broadcasting companies including AT&T and NBC were formed, and began to capitalize on the seemingly unlimited advertising potential provided by a medium that could reach millions. To “fill the air time in between their toll-paying customers,” companies “ventured into the new business of programming,” and radio newscasts emerged, marking another monumental chapter in the history of journalism (Daly, Ch. 7).
During the years leading up to World War II, the United States experienced the worst financial crisis in its history and became increasingly aware of Europe’s threatening turmoil. The news media’s involvement in such matters produced arguably the first stars of media who were not nationally known based on their business successes. Daly credits the growth of syndication to the stardom of Walter Winchell, Walter Lippmann, Dorothy Thompson, and Ernie Pyle, and the rise of radio to Edward R. Murrow. Through these advances, such voices were able to reach millions upon millions and influence the way America viewed the world’s events. As the first gossip columnist, “king of the gutter” Walter Winchell took advantage of both syndicated columns and radio to inform the world not only of juicy gossip and unparallelled scoops, but to shed light on more serious issues of politics and foreign affairs. Walter Lippmann, whom Daly argues “may have been the most influential American of the twentieth century never to have held elective office,” used his intellect and voice to reflect on current affairs and the state of democracy, sometimes drawing discouraging and controversial conclusions (Daly, Ch. 8). Dorothy Thompson, a pioneer for women writers everywhere, gained fame and respect through her coverage of political and international affairs. Her syndicated column reached millions of readers and, as Time remarked, “She is read, believed and quoted by millions of women who used to get their political opinions from their husbands, who got them from Walter Lippmann” (Daly, Ch. 8). Ernie Pyle charted the nation in an entirely different way—travelling from town to town, portraying individual Americans in honest and genuinely interesting ways. Through his syndicated column, Pyle gained the affection of the nation and eventually landed himself in a correspondent position, covering the war in his beloved, signature style. And finally Edward R. Murrow, one of journalism’s most beloved figures, began his career as radio surged, and evolved into one of the most eminent foreign correspondents both before and during the war.
Edward R. Murrow, Walter Lippmann, Walter Winchell, Ernie Pyle, and Dorothy Thompson
As the United States’ inevitable involvement in World War II became a reality, the news media joined the efforts in step with the rest of the country: “Those who did not put on a uniform could still do their part: they would use their typewriters, notebooks, microphones, and cameras not only to record the great struggle but also to do whatever they could to tip the balance in favor of the United States” (Daly, Ch. 9). Thousands of correspondents and reporters traveled overseas to record the proceedings of the fight against the Axis, and utilized not only traditional newspapers, but the increasingly common trend of syndication, as well as radio technologies to spread their messages. In spite of material shortages, publications and their advertisers never ceased in their efforts to deliver content and ads to their large audiences. Like the Wilson administration during World War I, the Roosevelt administration implemented various forms of censorship during the war. However, both the press and the government generally worked together in the interest of the United States’ success. Although departments like the Office of War Information produced large amounts of propaganda, and reporters were subject to self-imposed censorship, the most problematic shortcoming of the press was that “they did not tell Americans soon enough about the true nature of the situations in Germany, Japan, Russia, China and a dozen other key places,” according to Daly.
Upon the war’s end in 1945, the press, like the nation in general, was able to return to normalcy. In terms of the news media, normalcy has always meant advancement, progress, and the pursuit of profit. While technological development was placed on hold during the years of conflict, television now had the opportunity to emerge as a means of delivering news—and emerge it did. Since radio’s rise had taken care of many of the logistical issues of broadcasting, television skipped over the “wild childhood” that its predecessor experienced. Rather, the transition was relatively smooth (in spite of misgivings from some of the most prominent journalists, including Edward R. Murrow), and by the end of the 1950s, 90% of households owned a television set. Television’s growth coincided with the Cold War, as well as the emergence of Senator Joseph McCarthy. This new platform of news and its figures was challenged by the witch-hunt scare tactics of McCarthyism, and ultimately resulted in the historic special broadcast by Murrow in 1954. Through a collection of news clippings (made possible only by the recent visual technologies) of McCarthy himself and brief commentary, Murrow successfully proved the insanity of the Wisconsin senator’s endeavors. However, the inevitable linkage between content and advertising profits proved to be the gradual downfall for Murrow, as a result of his decision to take on McCarthy. While the broadcast was well received and effectively destroyed McCarthy’s already-shaky reputation, Murrow was slowly edged out of his prime by former friends who had become preoccupied with financial success over loyalty.