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The seven most famous words in American journalism

In 1897, New York Times on February 9, 2010 at 8:10 am

I’ve written that 1897 was a decisive year in American journalism.

The evocative sneer “yellow journalism” first appeared in print in 1897.

What became the best-known, most-reprinted editorial in American journalism, the New York Sun‘s “Is There A Santa Claus?,” was published in 1897.

William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal developed its bold and interventionist model of “journalism of action” in 1897.

And the seven most famous words in American journalism, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” took a permanent place on the front page of the New York Times in 1897.

The motto appeared without comment, notice, or fanfare in the upper-left corner, the left “ear,” of the Times front page 113 years ago tomorrow — February 10, 1897.

The smug and tidy slogan has occupied the spot ever since. As  I noted in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the motto represents “an enduring statement of guiding principle of what has long been recognized as the best newspaper in America.”

I also noted that the Times motto has been endlessly parodied and analyzed. Even admirers of the newspaper have acknowledged it’s a bit “overweening” and “elliptical.”

The motto has evoked lofty claims over the years. The Times in 1901, at the fiftieth anniversary of its founding, referred to “All the News That’s Fit to Print” as its “covenant.”

An historian of the Times, Elmer Davis, said the motto had served as “a war cry.”

In 2001, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal described the motto as the “leitmotif not merely for the Times, but also, by a process of osmosis and emulation, for most other general-interest papers in the country, as well as for much of the broadcast media.”

It was also, I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, “a pithy summation of the Times’ … vision for American journalism,” a model of detachment in newsgathering “that stood in apposition to the extravagance and self-promotion” of Hearst’s “journalism of action.”

Indeed, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” is a timeless rebuke to the practices of Hearst and, to an extent, of Joseph Pulitzer — aggressive and flamboyant techniques that critics scorned as “yellow journalism.”

Interestingly, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” was at first a feature of a marketing campaign by the Times which, in August 1896, had been acquired in bankruptcy court by Adolph S. Ochs, a newspaperman from Tennessee. “All The News That’s Fit to Print” appeared in advertisements in the trade journal Fourth Estate in mid-October 1896. By month’s end, the phrase had taken a modest place in a corner of the Times’ editorial page.

The seven most famous words in American journalism made their debut in early October 1896, in a row of red lights arrayed across a huge advertising sign above Manhattan’s Madison Square. The illuminated sign was on the north wall of the old Cumberland Hotel building at Broadway and 22d Street.

Ochs, who turned 39 in 1897, had a bit of a flair for self-promotion, as the illuminated sign at Madison Square suggested. Securing the space “was nothing less than a coup” for the newcomer to New York journalism, I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism.

“The sign’s bright, multi-colored lights could be seen for many blocks away. Nowhere in the country, or in Europe, the Times immodestly crowed, was there ‘so large and perfect a display.'”

It was illuminated by four rows of lights. White lights of the top and bottom rows spelled, “New-York Times” and “Have You Seen It?” A row of blue, white, and green lights spelled out “Sunday Magazine Supplement.” The red lights, which formed the second row of illumination, announced:

“All the News That’s Fit to Print.”


in mid-October 1896 and by month’s end had taken a place in the upper-left corner of the newspaper’s editorial page.

‘Most famous words in American journalism’? Probably not

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Media myths, New York Sun on December 15, 2009 at 10:16 am

In a blog post today, Followthemedia.com says the “Yes, Virginia” passage in the  1897 editorial “Is There A Santa Claus?” are “the most famous words in American journalism.”

And it takes Macy’s to task for its Christmas season “Believe” campaign, a sappy promotion that capitalizes on the editorial and its inspiration, Viriginia O’Hanlon. She was the 8-year-old girl whose letter to the New York Sun asking about the exisitence of Santa Claus prompted the famous editorial.

Followthemedia.com says:

“We know this a is a tough retail year but Is nothing sacred – last week Macy’s, the giant US department store chain, enticed women named Virginia into its stores by offering $10 gift certificate as part of its ‘Believe’ campaign based on the most famous words in US journalism, ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.'”

It adds:

“The company hasn’t said how many certificates it gave out, but it estimated there are more than 500,000 Virginias in the US, and it did try to expand the base by saying first, middle or last names would all be ok. And it really was all in a good cause – to bring people into the store to deliver letters to Santa Claus and for each letter delivered the store donated $1 to the Make-A-Wish charity.

“Of course it would never  enter the minds of store executives that once having enticed people into the store they might linger somewhat and actually do some shopping there? Ah, we just have to stop being so cynical at this time of good cheer!”

Cynicism aside, followthemedia.com raises an interesting point about “the most famous words in American journalism.” Are those words really, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus?”

I’m not so sure.

The “Yes, Virginia,” passage is invoked so often, and in so many contexts, that no longer is it readily associated with American journalism. “Yes, Virginia,” long ago became unmoored from its original context, the third of three columns of editorials in the New York Sun on September 21, 1897.

Media-driven myths have propelled other phrases into what is arguably greater renown in American journalism.

Getting It Wrong: Forthcoming 2010

The quote attributed to William Randolph Hearst — “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war” — may even be more famous than “Yes, Virgina?” As I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, the Hearst quote is almost certainly is apocryphal. But it lives on as a comment too rich and too delicious not to be true.

The same goes for the comment often attributed to President Lyndon Johnson, after watching a CBS News special in late February 1968 in which anchorman Walter Cronkite declared the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was mired in stalemate.

Johnson, supposedly, had the sudden revelation that the war was now hopeless and turned to an aide and said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Or words to that effect. Words that may be more famous and more directly tied to journalism than “Yes, Virginia.”

But the Cronkite-Johnson anecdote is exaggerated, too, as Getting It Wrong discusses. Johnson did not see the program when it aired. And in the days and weeks immediately following the Cronkite program, Johnson continued hawkish calls for national sacrifice to win the war in Vietnam.

Even Cronkite, for many years, said he didn’t believe his comments had much effect on Johnson. Late in his life, though, Cronkite came to embrace the supposed power of the program on Vietnam.

He told Esquire magazine in 2006: “To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

But it didn’t, really.


Virginia (of ‘Yes, Virginia’) tells of her famous letter, 97 years ago

In 1897, Anniversaries, New York Sun, Newspapers on December 23, 2011 at 4:55 am

Young Virginia O'Hanlon

In a newspaper database of the Library of Congress, I found a long-overlooked interview conducted 97 years ago with Virginia O’Hanlon, who as an 8-year-old in 1897 wrote the letter that prompted the most famous newspaper editorial in American journalism.

O’Hanlon said in the interview on Christmas Eve 1914 that she had sent her letter despite her father’s admonition:

“A newspaper has no time to waste on a little girl.”

The editorial that became a classic was published in the old New York Sun, in response to Virginia’s imploring: “Please tell me the truth. Is there a Santa Claus?”

The Sun in its timeless reply reassured young Virginia as well as generations of children who have read the editorial, which memorably declares:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

The editorial’s closing passages were similarly reassuring in saying:

“No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

In the interview with the Sun 97 years ago, Virginia O’Hanlon discussed her motivation in writing to the newspaper and her proud reaction when the essay was published — comments that offer revealing insight about the back story to the famous editorial.

“I think that I have never been so happy in my life as when the Sun told me that there was a Santa Claus and that he would live forever,” she said in the interview.

Virginia O’Hanlon was then 25-years-old and had been married 18 months to Edwin Malcolm Douglas. Her only child, Laura Virginia Douglas, was nine months old.

O’Hanlon said in the 1914 interview that she decided to write to the Sun in part because of its importance in her family’s household.

She said her father, Philip, “was always talking about the Sun and how you could always find what you wanted in the Sun, and how mother, who loved whist, wrote letters to the whist editor.”

O’Hanlon recalled telling her father: “I am going to write to the Sun and ask it to tell me the truth, the honest to goodness truth, about Santa Claus,” whose existence her schoolmates had scoffed at.

She added: “If the Sun says there isn’t any [Santa Claus] I’ll believe it; if it tells me Santa Claus is real I’ll make those girls at school sorry they ever teased me.

“Father laughed,” she recalled, quoting him as saying:

“The Sun is too busy writing about Presidents and Governors and important people, Virgina. … A newspaper has no time to waste on a little girl. Write if you want to, but don’t be disappointed if you never hear from your letter.”

“Well,” Virginia said, “I sat down and wrote a short letter, trying to say just what was in my heart. Day after day I looked for a letter in reply. I never for a minute thought the Sun would print a long editorial mentioning me by name and using my whole letter.

“Father teased me now and then,” she said, “but I kept hoping and finally” her letter was answered, in an essay published September 21, 1897, in the third of three columns of editorials.

(O’Hanlon indicated on another occasion that she wrote her letter shortly after her eighth birthday in July 1897. “My birthday was in July and, as a child, I just existed from July to December, wondering what Santa Claus would bring me,” she told an audience of Connecticut high school students in 1959. “I think I was a brat.”)

Word that the newspaper had published an editorial to answer her letter prompted Philip O’Hanlon to rush from their home on West 95th Street in Manhattan to buy a stack of that day’s Sun.

“Father hustled out and came back loaded down like a pack mule,” she said. “He scattered them all over town, I think, he was so proud.

“And me? It spoiled me for a while until I was big enough to understand that I, Virginia O’Hanlon, didn’t count for much in the editorial but that the important thing was the beautiful thoughts expressed by Mr. Church and the charming English in which he put his philosophy.”

She was referring to Francis P. Church, a veteran journalist who wrote the essay in the course of a day’s work, without an inkling it would become a classic.

His authorship was revealed by the Sun shortly after his death in April 1906.

The Sun’s editorial, O’Hanlon said in the interview, “was a wonderful thing in my life, and I mean it to be a wonderful thing in my baby’s. As soon as she masters her A B C’s, it will be the first thing she will read.”

The comment anticipated the commitment of her descendants who, over the years, have embraced the obligations associated with the much-remembered and often-reprinted editorial.

O’Hanlon’s grandchildren, notably, have become what the New York Times last year described as “ambassadors of the Christmas spirit, crossing the country to appear at events honoring her, and reading the letter and the response to children in schools and to their own children at home.”

Virginia O’Hanlon was 81 when she died in 1971. The Times reported her death on its front page.

But by then, though, the Sun had ceased to exist as an independent publication. It was merged with another New York newspaper, the World-Telegram, in January 1950.


Recent and related:

Keller no keeper of the flame on famous NYT motto

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, New York Times, Newspapers, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on February 11, 2011 at 8:56 am


Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, made clear the other day he doesn’t fully understand the derivation and significance of his newspaper’s famous, 114-year-old motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

And he didn’t seem particularly comfortable with the slogan coined (most likely) by Adolph Ochs, who in 1896 acquired the then-beleaguered Times and eventually led the newspaper to preeminence in American journalism.

Ochs, commemorated

Sure, the motto’s smug and overweening, elliptical and easily parodied. But it is the most recognizable motto in American journalism, and it evokes a time now passed when slogans helped define and distinguish U.S. newspapers.

In an appearance not long ago at the National Press Club in Washington, Keller was asked about “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which took a permanent place of prominence on the newspaper’s front page on February 10, 1897.

Keller rather sniffed at it, saying the motto “harkens back to a day when the aim of the newspaper was to be comprehensive.”

According to a transcript of his remarks, Keller said that nowadays the Times is “going to tell you maybe only a little bit, but a little bit about everything.

“And I think that slogan describes an aspiration, or a mindset. Now we tend to be more selective, and try to give you more depth, to tell you the stories that are not obvious.”

Actually, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” was framed a riposte to activist-oritented yellow journalism that flared in New York City in the closing years of the 19th century.

Ochs clearly meant the slogan to be a rebuke to the flamboyant ways of the  New York Journal of William Randolph Hearst and the New York World of Joseph Pulitzer. Their newspapers were the leading exemplars of the yellow press in fin-de-siècle urban America.

As I wrote in my 2006 book, a year study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the motto was, and remains, a daily rejection of flamboyant, self-promoting journalism.

And as the Times pointed out in 1935 in its obituary about Ochs, the motto “has been much criticized, but the criticisms deal usually with the phraseology rather than with its practical interpretation, and the phraseology was simply an emphatic announcement that The Times was not and would not be what the nineties called a yellow newspaper.”

I further noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism that the Times, at its 50th anniversary in 1901, “referred to ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print’ as its ‘covenant.’ One-hundred years later, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal aptly identified the motto as the ‘leitmotif not merely for the Times, but also, by a process of osmosis and emulation, for most other general-interest papers in the country, as well as for much of the broadcast media.'”

So, no, the motto wasn’t an assertion of intent to be comprehensive — although the Times surely carried a lot of news in the late 1890s. Thirty or more articles, many of them a paragraph or two in length, usually found places on its front page back then.

Ochs’ slogan was more than a daily slap at yellow journalism.

It also represents “a daily and lasting reminder of the Times’ triumph in a momentous … clash of paradigms that took shape in 1897—a clash that helped define the modern contours of American journalism,” as I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism.

That clash pitted three rival, incompatible models for the future of American journalism.

“As suggested by its slogan,” I wrote, “the Times offered a detached, impartial, fact-based model that embraced the innovative technologies emergent in the late nineteenth century but eschewed extravagance, prurience, and flamboyance in presenting the news.

“Extravagance, prurience, and flamboyance were features typically associated with yellow journalism, a robust genre which, despite its controversial and self-indulgent ways, seemed to be irresistibly popular in 1897. The leading exemplar of yellow journalism was … Hearst’s New York Journal, which in 1897 claimed to have developed a new kind of journalism, a paradigm infused by a self-activating ethos that sidestepped the inertia of government to ‘get things done.’

“The Journal called its model the ‘journalism of action’ or the ‘journalism that acts,’ and declared it represented ‘the final state in the evolution of the modern newspaper.’

“The third rival paradigm,” I wrote, “was more modest and idiosyncratic than those of the Times and Journal. If improbable, it was nonetheless an imaginative response to the trends of commercialization in journalism. The paradigm was an anti-journalistic literary model devised and promoted by J. Lincoln Steffens, who in late 1897 became city editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser, then New York’s oldest newspaper.”

That model, Steffens said, was predicated on the notion “that anything that interested any of us would interest our readers and, therefore, would be news if reported interestingly.”

The Times ultimately prevailed in the three-sided rivalry that emerged in 1897, and “All the News That’s Fit to Print” lives on as a reminder of the outcome of that momentous clash of paradigms.


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The ‘Cronkite Moment’: That famous, dubious turn of phrase

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on January 8, 2010 at 6:57 pm

I blogged not long ago about what may be the most famous words in American journalism, offering a couple of media myths as examples.

One was the enduring anecdote about William Randolph Hearst’s supposed vow to “furnish the war” with Spain. That one’s been retold many, many since it first appeared in print in 1901.

It is arguably American journalism’s most tenacious myth. Those words attributed to Hearst surely are some of the most famous in journalism. Even though it’s quite unlikely he ever made such a vow.

Another example I cited was the so-called “Cronkite Moment,” the occasion in 1968 when the views of CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite were supposedly so powerful and persuasive they swiftly altered U.S. policy in Vietnam.

That anecdote centers around Cronkite’s special program on the Vietnam War, a show that aired February 27, 1968. Near the end of the program, Cronkite declared the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate” and suggested negotiations with the communist North Vietnamese to end the conflict.

At the White House, President Lyndon Johnson supposedly watched the Cronkite program and snapped off the television set when he heard the anchorman’s dire assessment, telling an aide, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Or something to that effect.

The point is that Cronkite was such a trusted figure that his views could sway the opinions of countless thousands of Americans. With Cronkite gone wobbly on Vietnam, the Johnson White House supposedly reeled. At the end of March 1968, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

The “Cronkite Moment” made yet another appearance the other day in a blog of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The blog comment, posted by an editorial writer for the newspaper, stated:

“One of the standard views of why America turned on the Vietnam War focuses on CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite’s increasingly obvious pessimism about President Lyndon Johnson’s statements about and management of the war. LBJ reportedly told an aide, ‘That’s it. If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.'”

As I’ve noted several time at Media Myth Alert, and as I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program on Vietnam when it aired. The president that night was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday of a political ally, Governor John Connally.

When Cronkite was intoning his downbeat assessment of the war, Johnson was offering light-hearted banter about Connally’s age, saying:

“Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority. Throughout the years we have worked long and hard—and I might say late—trying to maintain it, too.”

Earlier that day, Johnson delivered a rousing speech in Dallas, invoking Churchillian language at one point.

“There will be blood, sweat and tears shed,” he said, adding:  “I do not believe that America will ever buckle” in pursuit of its objectives in Vietnam.

Even if the president had seen the Cronkite program, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine how his mood could swing so abruptly, from vigorously defending the war effort to throwing up his hands in despair.

But if the “Cronkite Moment” is to be believed, that’s what happened: A swift, dramatic and decisive change of heart that occurred within hours of the hawkish speech in Dallas.

Not likely.

Even so, the frequency with which the quote attributed to Johnson is invoked certainly has made it among the most famous, if most dubious, turns of phrase in American journalism.

As I also write in Getting It Wrong, “Seldom, if ever, do the news media exert truly decisive influences in decisions to go to war or to seek negotiated peace. Such decisions typically are driven by forces and factors well beyond the news media’s ability to shape, alter, or significantly influence.

“So it was in Vietnam, where the war ground on for years after the ‘Cronkite moment.’”


NYCity new mayor gushes over Bernstein, Woodward and their putative contributions to Watergate

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 8, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Bill de Blasio, New York’s recently inaugurated mayor, fairly gushed at a news conference yesterday about Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, and their putative roles in unraveling the Watergate scandal, saying the duo exerted a major influence on his life.

De Blasio credited Bernstein and Woodward, the Washington Post’s lead reporters on the scandal, for having “framed and, you know, created” conditions that gave rise to the Senate select committee’s hearings on Watergate during the summer of 1973. Those hearings are regarded as crucial in deepening public understanding about Watergate.


de Blasio

“I always say I’m a child of the Watergate summer,” de Blasio declared at the news conference. “And I had an extraordinary experience a year or two ago when I first met Carl Bernstein who’s, I think, one of the people … who had the biggest impact on my life, with Bob Woodward. Because for any of us who were deeply affected by that moment in history, those two individuals framed and, you know, created that moment so much and so deeply.”

The mayor’s soliloquy was prompted by a reporter’s question about whether de Blasio ever considered becoming a journalist. “I did, for a bit,” the mayor said, “never overly coherently.”

What most interests Media Myth Alert, though, was the mayor’s rubbing shoulders with the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — the trope that Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting was decisive to the scandal’s outcome.

It wasn’t.

Indeed, it’s highly questionable whether Bernstein and Woodward much contributed to — let alone “framed” or “created” — conditions that gave rise to the 1973 Watergate hearings. By then, there were many other, more powerful and subpoena-wielding forces at work seeking to unravel the unfolding scandal.

As I write in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the contributions of Bernstein and Woodward to Watergate’s outcome — to the resignation in 1974 of President Richard Nixon — were minimal and certainly not decisive.

It’s instructive to note the decisive elements of the scandal that Bernstein and Woodward did not disclose.

They did not, for example, break the news about hush payments to the burglars who committed the signal crime of Watergate — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

Nor did Bernstein and Woodward disclose that Nixon secretly made audiorecordings of most of his private conversations at the Oval Office. The White House tapes were pivotal to Watergate’s denouement, revealing that Nixon conspired to obstruct the FBI’s investigation of the break-in.

The existence of the tapes was revealed by the Senate Watergate committee in July 1973, in the midst of the “Watergate summer,” which de Blasio recalled yesterday as “one of the most riveting things that’s happened in the history of the republic.”

The hearings, the mayor said, represented “an affirmation of democracy. It was an affirmation of what good elected leaders can do, even if the face of tremendous odds. It certainly was an affirmation of the role of the media in our society.”

To the last claim — probably not.

De Blasio was not asked at the news conference to elaborate on his extravagant remarks about Bernstein, Woodward, and Watergate, remarks that all but embraced the myth of the heroic journalist.

Not to mention the “golden age” fallacy.


More from Media Myth Alert:

‘Yes, Virginia’: History does trump TV animation

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths on December 9, 2011 at 11:28 am

CBS is to air tonight its vapid Christmas season special, “Yes Virginia,” which is based on the old New York Sun’s timeless editorial reply to an 8-year-old girl, who in 1897 inquired about the existence of Santa Claus.

The charmless, animated CBS program takes great liberties with the real back story to the “Yes, Virginia” editorial, which was published in the Sun on September 21, 1897, in the third of three columns on editorials.

The Sun’s editorial was a response to young Virginia O’Hanlon who shortly after her 8th birthday in July 1897 wrote to the newspaper, imploring:

“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

Francis P. Church

The Sun’s reply, written by a retiring editorial writer named Francis P. Church, said in part:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

In the CBS interpretation, Virginia is waddling, round-headed, and strangely obsessed with the existence of Santa Claus.

Church, the editorial’s author, is depicted as scowling, abrupt, hard-hearted.

Neither portrayal is convincing, neither is realistic.

Church is cast as the editor of the Sun, which is shown as a tabloid newspaper. Church wasn’t editor; he was an editorial writer. And the Sun of 1897 was no tabloid.

What’s more, the CBS show had Virginia writing her letter, and the Sun publishing its reply, in December, as Christmas approached.

Not so.

As I discussed in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Virginia wrote the letter in the summer of 1897. The Sun published its editorial-reply on page 6 of its issue of September 21, 1897.

What became the famous essay in American journalism was, in its first appearance, inconspicuous and obscure: It certainly was not introduced with large headlines on the front page, as the CBS show has it.

Its headline posted a timeless question:

“Is There A Santa Claus?”

The editorial was no instant sensation. It was not an immediate hit. And the Sun did not reprint the editorial every year at Christmastime, as is commonly believed.

Indeed, it took years for the newspaper to embrace “Is There A Santa Claus?”

As I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism, it wasn’t until the mid-1920s when the Sun began routinely publishing the essay in its editorial columns at Christmastime.

What helped kept the editorial alive were the newspaper’s readers.

They found it memorable. They found joy, solace, and inspiration in the passages of “Is There A Santa Claus?”

In untold numbers over the years, readers asked the Sun to reprint the essay.

A letter-writer told the newspaper in 1926 that the editorial offered “fine relief from the commercialism and unsentimental greed” of the Christmas season.

In 1940, a writer to the Sun likened the essay to “a ray of hope on the path to human understanding in our troubled times.”

The CBS program hints at none of that. It offers no indication that the editorial’s fame rests at least in part on generations of readers who, collectively, proved to be far more perceptive than editors of the Sun in identifying the essay’s significance and enduring appeal.

If anything, the tedious CBS show demonstrates anew that history’s back story is often far richer, and far more interesting, than TV fare.

There’s of course little surprise in that observation. As Richard Bernstein wrote in 1989 in a terrific essay about movies and history:

“There are, after all, times when the facts speak far more dramatically than any fictionalized account of them ever could.”


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When we err, we correct: Still waiting, Bill Keller

In Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on March 27, 2011 at 7:06 am


Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, offers a smug and  sanctimonious commentary today, asserting that the newspaper strives “to be impartial” and corrects its errors “as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

Whether the Times is impartial open to serious debate. What interests Media Myth Alert is Keller’s claim that the Times strives for promptness in correcting errors — even to the point of seeming a bit absurd in doing so.

Keller wrote that “when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible. Connoisseurs of penitence find The Times a bottomless source of amusement. (An actual correction: ‘An article in The Times Magazine last Sunday about Ivana Trump and her spending habits misstated the number of bras she buys. It is two dozen black, two dozen beige and two dozen white, not two thousand of each.’)”

But the policy of publishing a prompt and forthright correction certainly hasn’t been followed in the matter of a correction the Times flubbed two months ago — a lapse that I brought to the attention of the newspaper and its public editor, or ombudsman.

Granted, correcting a correction can be complicated and muddy.

But still: If the policy is to “correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible,” then there’s no reason for the newspaper not to have addressed by now a correction that it so clearly flubbed.

Joseph Welch

The correction in question was published January 23, 2011; in it, the Times sought to set straight its mistake in a “Week in Review” article of the week before, which referred to the dramatic exchange at during a Senate hearing in 1954, in which the lawyer Joseph N. Welch skewered Senator Joseph McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch-hunt by declaring:

“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

The Times sought to set straight the context and circumstances of Welch’s memorable remarks, which came during the so-called Army-McCarthy hearings. The Times stated in its correction:

“Senator McCarthy was serving on the committee investigating suspected Communist infiltration of the Army; he was not at the hearings to testify.”

Which was incorrect on two counts, as I pointed out.

McCarthy wasn’t serving on that Senate panel (which in fact was a subcommittee — a temporary subcommittee of the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations). And McCarthy was at the hearing to testify.

As I wrote in calling attention to the flubbed correction:

“Had the Times consulted its back issues, it would have found that not long after Welch’s pointed questions about McCarthy’s ‘sense of decency,’ the senator was sworn in as a witness.”

According to hearing excerpts the Times published at the time, McCarthy said upon being sworn in:

“Well, I’ve got a good hog-calling voice, Mr. Chairman. I think I can speak loudly enough so that the mikes will pick it up.”

To date, the Times has not corrected its flubbed correction.

So why does it matter? After all, 1954 was a long time ago.

It matters because the Army-McCarthy hearings were an important moment in Cold War America. A newspaper as important — and self-important — as the Times should be expected to get straight the details about a memorable and dramatic occasion.

It also matters because of Keller’s smug assurance that the Times corrects its errors “as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

Surely, if the Times deigns it important to set the record straight about Ivana Trump’s bras, it ought to fix its flawed correction about the Army-McCarthy hearings.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

Recent and related:

What became of Virginia O’Hanlon?

In 1897, New York Sun, New York Times, Newspapers, Year studies on December 25, 2010 at 8:13 am


Virginia O’Hanlon was 8-years-old when she gained a measure of fame that would last her lifetime.

Shortly after her birthday in July 1897, young Virginia wrote to the New York Sun, posing the timeless question: “Is there a Santa Claus?

It took several weeks, but her innocent letter gave rise to the most famous editorial in American journalism. The Sun answered Virginia’s query on September 21, 1897, in an essay destined to become a classic.

The essay was assigned an inconspicuous place in the Sun, appearing in the third of three columns of editorials beneath the headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?

Its most memorable passage sought to reassure Virginia–and, as it turned out, generations of youngsters since then.

“Yes, Virginia,” it declared, “there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

The editorial closed with further reassurance:

“No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

As I note in my 2006 book, a year-study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Virginia O’Hanlon as an adult embraced the recognition and modest fame that came with her part in inspiring “Is There A Santa Claus?” (She once said in jest that she was “anonymous from January to November.”)

The editorial, she told an interviewer in 1959, when she was 67, “gave me a special place in life I didn’t deserve. It also made me try to live up to the philosophy of the editorial and to try to make glad the heart of childhood.”

She occasionally read the editorial at Christmas programs, as she did in 1933 and 1937 at Hunter College, her alma mater. Virginia earned a bachelor’s degree there in 1910 and a master’s degree two years later at Columbia University.

She was a teacher in the New York City schools, and became a principal at a school for handicapped children after earning a doctorate from Fordham University in 1935.

At her retirement in 1959, the New York Times observed that Virginia was “one of those rare persons whose given name alone has instant meaning for millions.”

In December 1960, Virginia went on the Perry Como Show and said she had lived “a wonderfully full life.” She told Como in a brief interview that her letter to the Sun had been “answered for me thousands of times.”

She was married for a time to Edward Douglas by whom she had a daughter, Laura Temple. For two years in the 1930s, Temple worked in the advertising office of the Sun.

“They all knew who I was,” she was quoted years as saying about the Sun staff. “And we all had the same feeling about the editorial that my mother had—that it was a classic.”

Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas was 81 when she died at a nursing home in upstate New York.

Her death in May 1971 was reported on the front page of the New York Times beneath the headline:

Virginia O’Hanlon, Santa’s friend, dies.”

Virginia's gravesite (Photo by George Vollmuth, 2009)

She was buried in North Chatham, New York.

At the approach of Christmas in recent years, the North Chatham Historical Society has conducted a reading at Virginia’s gravesite of the letter that brought her fame and of the editorial that it inspired.


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At Christmas: The remarkable trajectory of an 1897 editorial

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, New York Sun, Newspapers on December 24, 2010 at 7:52 am

WJC and pal: Merry Christmas

Christmas Eve is a fine occasion to consider how an obscure essay published more than 120 years ago in a combative New York City newspaper became the most memorable editorial in American journalism.

The editorial is the timeless tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit, “Is There A Santa Claus?

Its trajectory from obscurity is remarkable.

The essay appeared in the New York Sun, in response to a letter from 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, who implored:

“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

The Sun in reply was reassuring.

“Yes, Virginia,” the editorial declared, “there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

The editorial was published not at Christmas but in September 1897, in the third of three columns of editorials in the Sun–a newspaper that relished the rough and tumble of late 19th century American journalism.

As I noted in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the Sun in its editorials in the late 19th century “was more inclined to vituperation and personal attack than to evoke the eloquence and lyricism” that distinguished “Is There A Santa Claus?”

Indeed, the trade journal Fourth Estate observed in 1897 that the Sun was never happy unless it was on the attack. Given such tendencies, I wrote, “the delicate charm of ‘Is There A Santa Claus?’ was decidedly out of place” in the columns of the Sun.

Moreover, the Sun was slow–reluctant, even–to embrace the editorial, usually rebuffing readers’ requests to reprint “Is There A Santa Claus?”

After its initial appearance on September 21, 1897, the essay was not published again in the Sun until December 1902.  The newspaper did so then with a trace of annoyance, declaring:

“Since its original publication, the Sun has refrained from reprinting the article on Santa Claus which appeared several years ago, but this year requests for its reproduction have been so numerous that we yield.

“Scrap books,” the Sun added in a gratuitous swipe, “seem to be wearing out.”

Over the years, though, readers persisted in their requests, asking the Sun every year at Christmastime to reprint “Is There A Santa Claus?”

And as I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, the newspaper ultimately gave in, “tacitly acknowledging that editors are not always as perceptive as their readers in identifying journalism of significance and lasting value.”

In 1924, the newspaper’s then-owner, Frank Munsey, ordered “Is There A Santa Claus?” to appear as the lead editorial on Christmas Eve. In the years that followed, until the newspaper folded in 1950, “Is There A Santa Claus?” was the lead editorial in the Sun on December 23 or 24.

It remains a favorite, 113 years on.

Reasons for the editorial’s enduring popularity are several. Among them are:

  • The editorial is a cheering, reaffirming story, one without villains or sinister elements.
  • It represents a connection to distant time: It is reassuring, somehow, to know that what was appealing in 1897 remains appealing today.
  • It offers a reminder to adults about Christmases past, and the time when they, too, were believers.
  • It has been a way for generations of parents to address the skepticism of their children about Santa Claus. They can point to the editorial and its timeless answer to an inevitable question–and not have to fib much about Santa’s existence.

Interestingly, the essay was written by a veteran and childless journalist named Francis P. Church whose authorship wasn’t widely known until soon after his death in April 1906.

The Sun revealed that Church had written the editorial in what was an eloquent, posthumous tribute.

“At this time,” the newspaper said, “with the sense of personal loss strong upon us, we know of no better or briefer way to make the friends of the Sun feel that they too have lost a friend than to violate custom by indicating him as the author of the beautiful … editorial article affirming the existence of Santa Claus, in reply to the question of a little girl.”


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