What Walter Saw: Walter Lippmann, the New York World, and Scientific Advocacy as an Alternative to the News-Opinion Dichotomy

By Seyb, Ronald P. | Journalism History, July 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

What Walter Saw: Walter Lippmann, the New York World, and Scientific Advocacy as an Alternative to the News-Opinion Dichotomy


Seyb, Ronald P., Journalism History


The New York World of the 1920s is remembered by many journalists as a "newspapermans newspaper, brilliantly written, tautly edited, politically and commercially independent, effervescent, irreverent, combative, liberal."1 While The Worlds stature and influence during this decade can be, as James Boylan observes, overstated by its most enthusiastic supporters, the efforts of, in particular, its executive editor, Herbert Bayard Swope, and its most influential editorialist, Walter Lippmann, to scrape away the residue of the papers sensationalist past in order to provide its readers with a more sober and literary brand of crusading journalism made reading The World a daily ritual for many of New York's liberal elite.2 But only seven years after it had reached its peak circulation in 1924, The New York World was dead, the victim in part of some of the same shortsighted business practices that it had decried in its pages.

The sale of The New York World in 1931 to the Scripps-Howard chain prompted Lippmann to confide to former Secretary of War Newton Baker, for whom Lippmann had served as an assistant in 1917, that he was happy that the paper could "die a clean death" rather than become "another instrument of power" for the press mogul William Randolph Hearst or the financier Bernard Baruch.3 The Worlds death was, however, more protracted and messy than Lippmann suggested. The paper had been in a slide since at least 1925, when the Pulitzer family had raised the price of the weekday edition from two to three cents in an ill-conceived attempt to goad its chief competitors, The New York Times and The New York Herald Tribune, to join it in resetting the market. When these two papers failed to match The Worlds price increase, the paper, according to Swope, "alienated from 75,000 to 100,000 readers."4 By the end of 1926, the paper's circulation had dropped from its peak of404,000 daily readers before the price increase to 285,000 daily readers, and Swope was convinced that even a return to the two-cent price would not lure back these lost readers. The best course instead was, according to Swope, to try to make a virtue out of the paper's higher price by framing it as "a tribute to [The Worlds] identity and uniqueness."5

The Worlds problems, however, were not limited to a price increase. As a member of The Worlds editorial board observed in 1925, the "ideas of liberalism in vogue on The World . . . were playing hell with the interest of the paper."6 The price increase merely encouraged readers who were already drifting away from The Worlds crusading liberalism to hasten their departure from the paper's subscription lists. Because "the reading of a specific paper is a habit soon forgotten if a sense of injury or resentment is provoked," Swope maintained that it would "be difficult to regain even 25,000" of the readers who had fled to The Times or The Herald TribuneJ The paper hence needed to construct a strategy for re-imagining itself that could appease those who had persevered through the price increase but were becoming increasingly skeptical of The Worlds political slant.

In a series of discussions, most of which occurred between 1925 and 1927, The Worlds editors sought to discern a way to navigate between the Scylla of its crusading past and the Charybdis of an emerging present whose outlines were still obscure. That The World failed to find this passage is evinced by Lippmanns claim that the paper had ultimately expired because it had "tried to be all things to all men ... as yellow as Hearst, as accurate as the Times, and as intellectual as the old Evening Post."* The Worlds editors' failure to develop a coherent response to their dilemma is understandable given the uncertainty they confronted. As Ira Katznelson observes in Fear Itself. The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, "when deep uncertainty looms, the ability to choose is transformed."9 The Worlds editors were thrust into a context of what Katznelson calls "unmeasurable uncertainty,"10 in which "decision making had to proceed under conditions that made it uncommonly difficult to assign probabilities to what might lie ahead based on past experience. …

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