Murder Trials and Media Sensationalism: The Press Frenzy of a Century Ago Echoes in the Coverage of Trials Today

By Oney, Steve | Nieman Reports, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Murder Trials and Media Sensationalism: The Press Frenzy of a Century Ago Echoes in the Coverage of Trials Today


Oney, Steve, Nieman Reports


For all the media frenzy swirling around the trial of Scott Peterson for the murder of his wife, Laci--or, for that matter, all the coverage accorded the O.J. Simpson case a decade ago--the prototypic American convergence of journalistic excess and legal tragedy occurred in the early years of the 20th century, and it was played out not on television or radio but in the medium of print. That this case, involving the 1913 murder of a 13-year-old Atlanta factory worker named Mary Phagan and the subsequent lynching of her convicted killer, a Cornell-educated Northern Jew named Leo M. Frank, would point the way to much that has followed seems, in retrospect, not so surprising.

For one thing, an Atlanta Constitution reporter accompanied the officers who responded to the 3 a.m. call that the girl had been found brutally slain in the basement of the National Pencil Company, of which Frank was the superintendent. By dawn, the Constitution had an "Extra" on the streets. For another, an Atlanta Journal reporter--none other than the young Harold W. Ross, who in a few years would found The New Yorker--was hot on the competition's trail. Though the Constitution got the scoop, the Journal--thanks to Ross's light-fingeredness around newsworthy documents--got possession of one of two enigmatic notes discovered by the victim's body and immediately splashed it atop its front page.

Ultimately, though, it was a third party that ratcheted up the action. On the morning Mary Phagan was found murdered, William Randolph Hearst had been the owner and publisher of The Atlanta Georgian--with a circulation of 38,000, the weakest of the city's three dailies--for just over a year. During that time, he'd staffed the paper with hardened veterans of his New York and Chicago operations. According to Herbert Asbury--one of the most talented of these imports and the future author of such roguish books as "The Gangs of New York"--Hearst's journalistic storm troopers had been sitting around Atlanta bored out of their minds, waiting for something to happen. Word that a virginal child laborer had been found slain in a childlabor factory thrilled them. "We played the case harder than any Hearst paper had ever played such a case anywhere," Asbury would later write.

The Georgian's coverage of the Phagan murder employed almost every armament in Hearst's arsenal. Stripped down the center of the paper's first front page devoted to the story was a photo of Mary Phagan's body snapped at the morgue. A banner head line emblazoned over the masthead offered a "$500 Reward" for exclusive information leading to the perpetrator's arrest and conviction. Despite the fact that the weather was dry, a feature story quoted the victim's grandfather demanding vengeance while standing in a torrential downpour. ("It wasn't raining, but it might have been," the reporter who wrote the article confessed years later.)

The most shocking aspect of the Georgian's performance involved the number of Extras it published. Nearly every hour, a new edition--each topped with crimson streamers--rolled off the presses and was in the hands of newsboys. Little wonder that Herbert Asbury would subsequently recall: "Our paper was, in modern parlance, a wow. It burst upon Atlanta like a bomb and upon the Constitution and the Journal like the crack of doom."

A Competitive Spiral of Sensationalism

As the investigation into the Phagan murder progressed, the Constitution and the Journal attempted to emulate the Georgian. "Frank Tried to Flirt with Murdered Girl, Says Boy Chum," declared the Constitution in a front-page headline. "Was Factory Used as Secret Rendezvous?" asked the Journal. Yet despite such efforts, the Hearst paper owned the story--much to Leo Frank's misfortune. On the morning the superintendent was arrested, the Georgian ran a Page One banner that over a large picture of Frank unequivocally proclaimed: "Police Have The Strangler." A greater lapse in journalistic practice would be hard to imagine. …

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