Objectivity's Prophet: Adolph S. Ochs and the New York Times, 1896-1935

Article excerpt

Historians of American journalism have shown considerable interest in the ideal of objectivity. Although scholars disagree on the precise meaning of it and the timing of its rise, the standard historiographical assumption is that objectivity emerged as a dominant professional ethic at some point between the 1890s and the 1920s. This article argues against the notion of objectivity as a guiding ideal that dictated institutional norms in this era. Instead, this study contends that objectivity was a contemporaneous legitimation of journalistic practices, a set of ideal interests used to camouflage or even further the press' material interests: increased revenue, advertising, and circulation as well as protection from legal sanctions. Such practice did not inhere tacitly within the machinery of journalism-it was conscious, deliberate, and explicit.

Beginning in the latter half of the nineteenth century, American journalism experienced a revolution. Once an integral component of political party machinery, the newspaper increasingly staked out independence from partisan allegiances and claimed a new role as an impartial medium of information. ' Advertisers replaced parties as die main sources of newspaper revenue, and content expanded from a political emphasis to a varied smorgasbord of sport, fashion, culture, and gossip.2 Whereas papers were minor operations before the Civil War with sometimes only one employee, they expanded into massive bureaucracies that actively gathered news and delivered it to hundreds of thousands of readers.3 Lastly, journalists of the late-nineteenth and earlytwentieth centuries developed a corporate identity as members of a profession, characterized by an increasingly articulate vision of an occupational ethic: objectivity.4

The ideal of objectivity has sparked considerable interest among journalism historians. Although scholars disagree on the precise meaning of it and the timing of its rise, the standard historiographical assumption is that objectivity emerged as a dominant professional ethic at some point between the 1890s and 1920s. Drawing on recently released materials from the internal archives of the New York Times, this article argues against the notion of objectivity as a guiding ideal that dictated institutional norms in this era. Instead, this study contends that objectivity was a contemporaneous legitimation of journalistic practices, a set of ideal interests used to camouflage or even further the press' material interests: increased profit, advertising, and circulation as well as protection from legal sanctions.5 Such practice did not inhere tacitly within the machinery of journalism - it was conscious, deliberate, and explicit.

Any study of objectivity that seeks to situate its findings in a historiographical context must parse through the divergent definitions of the term employed by journalism historians. The lack of uniformity has caused debates on semantics to masquerade as substantive disagreements. Michael Schudson defined objectivity in 1 978 as "the belief that one can and should separate facts from values."6 Twenty years later, David Mindich conceded that "it's difficult to discuss an ethic that is defined by its practitioners' lack of perspective, bias, and even action." Nevertheless, he posited that objectivity consisted of five components: detachment, nonpartisanship, the inverted pyramid, naive empiricism (i.e., "reliance on 'facts'"), and balance.7 Meanwhile, in 2002 Richard Kaplan conceived of naive empiricism as a predecessor to, rather than component of, objectivity: the former sees "facts and events" as "merely waiting to be uncovered and harvested by the working reporter" whereas the latter envisions the journalist as "a technical functionary who knows how to weigh competing versions of events in order to achieve a balanced news report."8 Finally, Stephen Ward acknowledged in 2004 that "traditional objectivity . . . never received a precise definition and never developed into a detailed, explicit theory. …