Academic journal article Journalism History

"A Strange Absence of News": The Titanic, the Times, Checkbook Journalism, and the Inquiry into the Public's Right to Know

Academic journal article Journalism History

"A Strange Absence of News": The Titanic, the Times, Checkbook Journalism, and the Inquiry into the Public's Right to Know

Article excerpt

A rumour dire doth hurtle thro' the Town-

Whisper sinister that doth raise the hair!

That when the vast "Titanic" did go down

The facts that there transpir'd were not laid bare.

-John Armstrong Chaloner, "The Secret of the 'Titanic'"1

Not long after the sinking of the Titanic on April 14, 1912, in which more than two-thirds of the 2,223 people aboard lost their lives, The New York Times described the disaster as "the most important 'news event,' probably in the history of modern journalism."2 Yes, agreed Editor and Publisher, the major trade journal for the newspaper industry. As the rescue ship Carpathia approached New York, "Probably never before have so many newspaper men been engaged in handling a news story." The newspapers combined to hire the Strand Hotel, just opposite the pier at the foot of West Fourteenth Street where the Carpathia was planning to dock. Each newspaper made offices out of separate rooms at the hotel with extra phones installed to quickly call in stories to the rewrite men in the newsroom. Editor & Publisher made special note of The New York Times's effort. "In the short time between the reception of the harrowing news of the Titanic's fate and the arrival of the rescue ship the Times conceived, perfected and set in motion a masterly organization for getting the first-hand news."3

In fact, many papers responded with a fervor to match the magnitude of the story, but none more so than the Times, which- between April 15 and April 28, 1912-published one hundred pages of narratives, descriptions, commentary, photos, and schematics related to the wreck.4 Following much planning and logistical organization under the leadership of legendary managing editor Carr Van Anda, on the day the Carpathia arrived in New York with its survivors, the Times staff gathered, wrote, set in type, and printed thirteen pages of text and photos in less than four hours.5 That enterprise also included the purchase of two exclusive stories based on interviews with the surviving Titanic wireless operator, Harold Bride, and the operator aboard the Carpathia, Harold Cottam, that had been facilitated by both men's boss, Guglielmo Marconi.6

According to the newspaper trade journal The Fourth Estate, those two stories among the many the Times published after the Carpathias arrival were ranked "as the two most thrilling reports published that day."7 Indeed, The Fourth Estate and other newspaper trade journals both in the U.S. and abroad praised the paper's coverage.8 And months later when Van Anda visited London and stopped by Lord Northcliffe's London Daily Mail, an editor opened a desk drawer and took out a copy of The New York Times of April 19, 1912, and said: "We keep these as an example to our staff as the last word in newspaper work."9 Still, despite the praise and admiration for a job well done, the Times became the target of charges it colluded in suppressing news for profit. Those accusations about what one writer called a "strange absence of news to the relatives and friends on both continents in spite of the perfection of wireless telegraphy"10 also targeted the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, the owners and operators of the Titanic, the Carpathia's wireless operator, and the Titanic's surviving operator.11

But those critics had to have known _ that paying for news was not an uncommon practice of the time.12 Indeed, George Grantham Bain, a pioneering newspaper photographer, observed in 1895 that it was "hard to resist the temptation to purchase a good piece of news."13 One prominent example of just such a purchase occurred just three years before the Titanic disaster when Jack Binns, the Marconi wireless operator aboard the White Star liner Republic, sold his story to the press as - an exclusive upon his return after he wired for help and saved hundreds of lives following a collision with a cargo ship off the coast of Nantucket on January 23, 1909. Binns recalled that after he was rescued at sea and heading back to the United States, various newspapers sent him wireless messages seeking his story. …

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