Magazine article USA TODAY

The Most Illustrious Journalist No One Ever Heard Of

Magazine article USA TODAY

The Most Illustrious Journalist No One Ever Heard Of

Article excerpt

Henry Jarvis Raymond, the founder and first editor of The New York Times, was "the prophet and progenitor of the best of modern journalism." Yet, more than a century after his death, Raymond is largely unknown and even ignored by the newspaper he created.

Henry Jarvis Raymond founded The New York Times in 1851 and was the paper's editor for its first 18 years. His renown as a singularly honorable, innovative, visionary, principled editor should have been more durable and widespread. Instead, he essentially was a displaced person.

In an era when editors were judged by their devotion to a political party, passionate advocacy of a cause, slanderous attacks on foes and competitors, and the dynamic impact of their incendiary words, Raymond applied principles of impartiality, objectivity, and restraint to his fledgling newspaper, and so set the tone for today's Times.

At a time of bitter, undeviating partisan politics and stringent party discipline, Raymond refused to hew consistently to the ideology and programs of any single political organization. Doubtless, it is partly because of this unorthodoxy and stiff-backed independence that the entrepreneurial editor, who also was a prominent Whig politician in a critical period of American history, has been slighted, in fact almost totally overlooked, by historians and largely is unknown to contemporary journalists.

In 1896, 27 years after Raymond's death at age 49, the then-struggling Times, deprived of its founder's active, incisive leadership, was sold to a bold, but nearly broke Tennessee publisher, Adolph S. Ochs, whose heirs today mn what has become, almost by consensus, the world's foremost newspaper and most reliable chronicle of each day's events.

In 1996, Ochs' family celebrated the centennial of his superb acquisition, trumpeting his wisdom, acumen, and prowess in rescuing and rebuilding The Times, and stamping on it his lasting imprint. This was expressed in a dramatic four-page advertisement in The Times of March 25, 1996, and others that followed:

"In August, 1896, a young newspaper publisher named Adolph S. Ochs purchased a foundering newspaper called The New York Times. Beset by competition from a penny press so fiercely competitive and sensationalistic that the term `yellow journalism' was coined to define the spectacle, The Times of 1896 was near bankruptcy.

"Ochs had a revolutionary idea to save The Times. He would create a newspaper of good taste and high integrity that would strive every day to be fair, accurate, impartial, and thorough. At the time, few thought he would succeed.

"With determination and imagination, Ochs shaped The Times into a newspaper whose standards of excellence are now bedrock .... "

The Times didn't start with Adolph Ochs, though. In their revisionist account, the present-day owners vanquish with a sweep of the hand and literally ignore those formative years between 1851, when The Times was born, and 1896, when Ochs assumed control. They disregard the singular role of Raymond as molder and shaper of the newspaper and as prophet and progenitor of the best of modern-day journalism.

Nearly three decades after Raymond's death, Ochs promised, in memorable prose, "to give the news impartially without fear or favor, regardless of any party, sect, or interest involved." Yet, this admirable, eloquent pledge simply was a restatement of Raymond's vision of a great newspaper. Raymond set a pattern of exemplary journalism that The Times reflects today and to which it adheres scrupulously.

Several years after he launched The Times in 1851--and four decades before Ochs acquired the paper--Raymond led his fledgling journal to overtake in a brief span such raucous, well-established, "fiercely competitive" publishers as Horace Greeley, Col. James Watson Webb, and Benjamin Day. Raymond in those early years succinctly stated his philosophy of responsible journalism, which was diametrically opposed to theirs: "Get all the news; never indulge in personalities; treat all men civilly; put all your strength into your work, and remember that a daily newspaper should be an accurate reflection of the world as it is. …

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