My obsession for the past month has been The Reporter, the liberal “fortnightly of facts and ideas” published by Max Ascoli between 1949 and 1968. Not many historians take much of an interest in it (with the exception of a Dutch American studies scholar named Elke Van Cassel, whose very serious Ph.D. works just blows mine away) and I likely would not have known of it at all, except that I had to do a research paper on *something* for a history class and Ascoli’s archives happen to be at BU.
Ascoli was a harsh critic of what passed for journalism in his day — you know, that day, the heyday, the Golden Age of Journalism. Reading over his response to both the uncontextualized and shallow reporting of the McCarthy era and the sometimes immature expectations of American readers at that time, it seems the conceptual problems in American journalism have not changed all that much over the last 60 years. He published a critique of The New York Times, already then the preeminent American newspaper, written by Dwight Macdonald (an article about whom appeared in The Times three years ago).
Macdonald’s complaints concerned everything from the layout of the front page to the way arguably useless information was routinely presented in stories (e.g. “that the court adjourned at 12:35 p.m.; that the prisoners shook hands with the lawyers (instead of slugging them, as is the usual custom); and that it was a long trial (you’re telling us)”). The essence of what he said, though, is that the Times failed to discriminate. It printed what it wanted, when it wanted, because it could, without being challenged. He likened the organization to a rock that “has just kept rolling along, gathering lots of moss” and a dinosaur, “an unwieldy bulk of matter directed by inadequate consciousness.” The reader and the news organization suffered because The Times failed to prioritize important stories or to say no to inane trend stories. Macdonald listed “the fox that was captured in a Bronx housing project, the electrocuted cat that blacked out Price, Utah, and, of course, any and all items talking about fish” as the fetishes of Times reporters and editors around February 1950, when the Macdonald piece was printed. I suspect Macdonald would not be impressed by the Times’s coverage of Bo Obama or Twitter.
Ascoli himself turned the Times’s motto on its head in his editorial that ran in the same issue: “The classic formula of the New York Times, ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print,’ ought to be re-examined — particularly the ‘all’ and the ‘fit’ — for it results in rushing too much news straight to the printing plant. The London Economist said recently that the American press suffers from too much paper; actually, it suffers from too much news, verbose, often-meaningless news, promiscuously thrown at the reader.”
What Ascoli and Macdonald would say now, now that the Times “happens” far more often than once a day and paper has nothing to do with the limits to its content, I can only imagine. They — both tough, strong-willed editors — bemoaned the lack of responsible editing going on at the nation’s news organizations in 1950. With everyone who has a computer now able to be a reporter and a one-man news organization, it begets the question: where are the editors?
(Picture taken by phone camera in the library where I read The Reporter, since I can’t check it out and it doesn’t exist online.)