W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Year studies’

Check out The 1995 blog

In Anniversaries, Year studies on July 2, 2014 at 6:00 am

Readers of Media Myth Alert are invited to visit the just-launched 1995 blog, which will be directing attention to the important moments of 1995, and helping to promote my forthcoming book about that decisive year.

1995bookcoverThe book is 1995: The Year the Future Began and will be published later this year by the University of California Press. (The book may be pre-ordered through Amazon.com, the retailing giant that began selling books online in July 1995, as well as Barnes & Noble)

The respective chapters of 1995 are:

  • “The Year of the Internet,” which considers the emergence of the Internet and World Wide Web into mainstream consciousness
  • “Terror in the heartland,” which discusses the Oklahoma City bombing and its consequences
  • “O.J., DNA, and the ‘Trial of the Century,” which takes up the sensational, months-long double-murder trial of O.J. Simpson
  • “Peace at Dayton and the ‘hubris bubble,’” which revisits the U.S.-brokered peace talks that ended the vicious war in Bosnia, and
  • “Clinton meets Lewinsky,” which addresses the origins and effects of the sex-and-lies scandal that led to the impeachment in 1998 of President Bill Clinton.

These events and moments were, as I write in 1995, “profound in their respective ways and, taken together, they define a watershed year at the cusp of the millennium. Nineteen ninety-five in many ways effectively marked the close of the one century, and the start of another.”

I also write about 1995:

“It is striking how a sense of the improbable often flavored the year and characterized its watershed moments. Oklahoma City was an utterly improbable setting for an attack of domestic terrorism of unprecedented dimension. Dayton, Ohio, was an improbable venue for weeks of multiparty negotiations that concluded by ending the faraway war in Bosnia. The private study and secluded hallway off the Oval Office at the White House were the improbable hiding places for Clinton’s dalliance” with a 22-year-old intern named Monica Lewinsky.

“The improbable,” I add, “was a constant of the year.”

1995 is my sixth book. I have also written Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, an award-winning work that the University of California Press brought out in 2010.

I also have written The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms (2006); The Spanish-American War: American Wars and the Media in Primary Documents (2005); Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies (2001), and The Emergent Independent Press in Benin and Cote d’Ivoire: From Voice of the State to Advocate of Democracy (1998).


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‘Strategy for peace’ and blocking the schoolhouse door: Recalling a crowded week in June 1963

In Anniversaries, Newspapers, Photographs, Quotes, Television, Year studies on June 6, 2013 at 5:56 am

Monday marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s “strategy for peace” commencement address at American University, a speech delivered at the height of the Cold War in which he called for a rapprochement with the Soviet Union.


Kennedy, June 10, 1963

The speech often is ranked among the finest of its kind.

Speaking to about 10,000 people out-of-doors on a 90-degree day in Washington, D.C., Kennedy announced that talks would soon begin in Moscow on a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. He also said the United States would suspend atmospheric testing as long as other nuclear powers did the same.

Fifty years on, the speech is still recalled for such passages as: “[W]e must labor on— not towards a strategy of annihilation but towards a strategy of peace.”


“Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.”

Those sentiments represented something of a modest departure from the rhetoric common at the time. Kennedy spoke at American University less than eight months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the United States and Soviet Union to the brink of a nuclear exchange.

The speech was not without significance: The talks Kennedy announced on June 10, 1963, led fairly quickly to a limited test-ban treaty with the Soviets and British.

Interestingly, Kennedy’s address was in short order crowded off the front pages. His “strategy for peace” remarks hardly dominated the news that week.

Indeed, few weeks arguably have been as packed with such a variety of major and memorable news events as June 9-15, 1963.

Kennedy’s commencement speech received prominent treatment for a day or two in U.S. newspapers. Then it was overtaken by some of the most dramatic moments of the Civil Rights era — among them, Governor George Wallace’s stand at the schoolhouse door, symbolically blocking the desegregation of the University of Alabama.

It has been said that the “drama of the nation’s division over desegregation came sharply into focus” that day, June 11, 1963.

In the face of the governor’s defiance, Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard. After reading a bitter statement denouncing the “unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama,” Wallace stepped aside. Two black students were allowed to register for classes.


New York Times front, June 11, 1963

Kennedy referred to the confrontation in Alabama in a radio and television speech that night in which he proposed that Congress pass civil rights legislation to end discrimination in voting, enhance educational opportunities, and ensure access to restaurants, hotels, and other public places.

The resulting legislation became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Also on June 11, 1963,  an Associated Press correspondent in South Vietnam, Malcolm Browne, took one of the iconic images of the long war in Southeast Asia — that of a Buddhist monk who had set himself afire in downtown Saigon, to protest the government’s religious oppression.

“It was clearly theater staged by the Buddhists to achieve a certain political end,” Browne later said. “At the same time, there was a human element to it that was just horrifying, because the sequence of pictures showed the initial shock of the flames touching his face, and so forth. He never cried out or screamed ….”

The following day, Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers was shot to death outside his home in Mississippi. Byron De La Beckwith was tried three times for Evers’ killing, most recently in 1994 when he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The other two trials ended in hung juries.

Evers, an Army veteran who had fought in World War II, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The space race, as it was known, seldom was far from the news in 1963. At the close of the crowded week, the Soviets were preparing to launch Vostok 6. On board was Valentina Tereshkova, destined to become the first woman in space.

The flight lifted off on June 16, 1963, and lasted nearly 71 hours. Tereshkova’s 49 Earth orbits more than doubled the most compiled to that point by any American astronaut.

And 20 years would pass before the first American woman flew in space. She was Sally Ride, a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1983.

The crowded week 50 years ago was a microcosm of the Cold War era, what with nuclear arms, civil rights, Southeast Asia, and the U.S.-Soviet space race all prominently in the news.

Even so, why does it much matter to look back on that week in June?

Doing so offer some useful and interesting perspective, given that we tend to think we live in such busy and momentous times.

Taking a look back also reveals how unsettled the country seemed to be in 1963, given the violence and the confrontations in the South, the Cold War rivalry with the Soviets, the strife in Vietnam.

So looking back to the crowded week in June tells us the 1960s were churning well before the climatic and tumultuous year of 1968.

One wouldn’t immediately have recognized this in mid-June 1963, but dominance was shifting in the news media, flowing from newspapers  to television.

Confirmation of this transition came in late November 1963 with wall-to-wall television coverage of the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath. “Even television’s critics had to admit that the medium had been transformed into an even more powerful force,” media historian David Davies wrote in a book of the postwar decline of American newspapers.

Nineteen sixty-three was pivotal for the news media.


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‘News of World’ closure breaks link to 19th century yellow journalism

In 1897, Debunking, Year studies on July 10, 2011 at 12:04 am

The abrupt closure of Britain’s largest Sunday tabloid, Rupert Murdoch’s raunchy, scandal-ridden News of the World, breaks a link to the yellow journalism that flared in urban America at the end of the 19th century.

Jail-breaking journalism

I’m not referring to the News of the World’s tabloid flamboyance, which certainly evoked the typographic boldness of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, a broadsheet that was the leading exemplar of American yellow journalism.

The link went deeper than appearances.

The News of the World was an heir to Hearst’s activist-oriented, participatory journalism — a self-engaging, self-promoting style of newspapering unheard of these days in the United States.

As I note in my book The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Hearst’s Journal at the end of the 19th century sought to set a standard for the American press, insisting, I write, “that newspapers were obliged to inject themselves, conspicuously and vigorously, in righting the wrongs of public life, and in filling the void of government inaction and incompetence.”

The year 1897 brought memorable evidence of Hearst’s style of activist journalism.

In the summer that year, Hearst deployed a phalanx of Journal reporters to solve the grisly case of headless torso murder in New York.

Later that year, a reporter for the Journal broke from jail in Havana a 19-year-old political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros. The Journal — and more than a few other U.S. newspapers — celebrated the breathtaking breach of international law.

For the Journal, the Cisneros jailbreak (see image, above) was “epochal” and represented the “supreme achievement” of its paradigm of activist journalism.

It acknowledged that freeing Cisneros had violated Spanish law and flouted international convention — and the Journal seemed delighted to have done so, saying:

“The Journal is quite aware of the rank illegality of its action. It knows very well that the whole proceeding is lawlessly out of tune with the prosaic and commercial nineteenth century. We shall not be surprised at international complications, nor at solemn and rebuking assurances that the age of knight errantry is dead. To that it can be answered that if innocent maidens are still imprisoned by tyrants, the knight errant is yet needed.”

That sort of willingness to wink at illegality was demonstrated by the News of the World well before it became swept up in a cellphone-voicemail hacking scandal that brought about its demise.

Final edition

The News of the World, which published its final issue today, had been for years one of the world’s most controversial titles, due in part to its activist-oriented undercover operations, ostensibly undertaken to bring drug dealers, fugitive financiers, and other criminals to justice.

As I noted in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the targets of the News of the World often were “small-time celebrities and wayward sports figures dabbling in modest quantities of illegal drugs. The undercover methods were criticized as entrapment and dismissed as ‘a kind of investigative reporting without much investigating.'”

I also described a notorious case in 1999, in which reporters for News of the World “posed as wealthy Arabs and enticed a British earl to buy cocaine and share the drug with them. A detailed report about the peer’s conduct — he was depicted as drunkenly snorting cocaine with a £5 note — soon after was splashed across News of the World. He was arrested and convicted of selling drugs.

“But the presiding judge declined to send the peer to jail, citing the subterfuge of the News of the World. If not for the journalists’ sting, the judge observed, the crimes likely would not have been committed.”

Such outlandishness hinted at the tabloid’s more recent and more egregious misconduct of breaking into the cellular phone voicemail of hundreds of people, including members of Britain’s royal family and perhaps victims of the terror attack on London’s subway system July 2005.

Phone-hacking, of course, wasn’t an element in the repertoire of the yellow press of Hearst or of his mean-spirited rival, Joseph Pulitzer. Nor did they did bring on the war with Spain in 1898, as is often alleged.

But on occasion they turned to deception, misrepresentation, and self-motivated activism in pursuit of their lusty brand of big-time journalism.


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114 years on the front page

In 1897, Anniversaries, New York Times, Newspapers, Yellow Journalism on February 9, 2011 at 7:37 am

Tomorrow makes 114 years on the front page for the best-known slogan in American journalism.

114 years on the front

The slogan, of course, is “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which first appeared February 10, 1897, in the upper left corner (the left ear) of the front page New York Times.

I’ve called them the most famous seven words in American journalism and they have been endlessly parodied and analyzed since 1897. Even admirers of the Times have conceded that “All the News That’s Fit to Print” is “overweening” and even “elliptical.”

As I discussed in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the motto has given rise to some lofty claims over the years. In 1901, at the 50th anniversary of its founding, the Times referred to “All the News That’s Fit to Print” as its “covenant.”

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.”

Adolph Ochs began using the slogan soon after acquiring control of the then-beleaguered Times in August 1896. At first, Ochs made use of “All the News That’s Fit to Print” as an advertising and marketing device.

The slogan’s debut came in early October 1896, spelled out in a row of red lights on an advertising sign the Times had rented at New York’s Madison Square.

Four months later, without fanfare or explanation, the slogan appeared in the “left ear” of the front page. It has appeared in that place of prominence ever since.

In touting “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” Ochs clearly sought to distance the Times from the yellow press of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Their flamboyant newspapers dominated New York City’s media landscape in the late 1890s.

Ochs was nothing if not aggressive in promoting the Times and in seeking to position the newspaper as a sober counterweight to the activism and excesses of the yellow press.

To that end, he launched in late October 1896 a contest inviting readers to propose “a phrase more expressive of the Times’ policy” than “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which by then had taken a modest place in a corner of the Times’ editorial page.

The Times promised to pay $100 to the person who proposed in ten words or fewer a slogan deemed better than “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

The motto contest, cheesy though it may seem today, stirred a fair amount of attention–and reader interaction–in 1896.

Among the thousands of entries sent to the Times were such clunky suggestions as “All the News Worth Telling,” “All the News That Decent People Want,” and “The Fit News That’s Clean and True.”

Among the others:

“Full of meat, clean and neat.”

“Instructive to all, offensive to none.”

“The people’s voice, good the choice.”

“Aseptic journalism up to date.”

“Yours neatly, sweetly, and completely.”

As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism: “Before the contest ended, the Times altered the stakes by making clear it would not abandon ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print.’

“The Times,” I wrote, “justified this change of heart by saying no phrase entered in the contest was more apt and expressive than ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print.’ The $100 prize would be awarded, to the person adjudged to have submitted the best entry. But the motto would not be changed.”

But the entries kept rolling in. Other suggestions included:

“Bright as a star and there you are.”

“All the news to instruct and amuse.”

“Pure in purpose, diligent in service.”

“You do not want what the New-York Times does not print.”

“All that’s new, true, and clever.”

Another entry was inspired by rival titles in fin-de-siècle New York:

“Out heralds The Herald, informs The World, extinguishes The Sun.” (That suggestion is evocative of the slogan of New York Newsday, a tabloid that ceased publication in 1995 after 10 years:  “On top of the News, ahead of the Times.”)

As the motto contest neared its close in early November 1896, the Times noted that that some people had “sent in diagrams and even pictures.

“While these exhibit both skill and thought,” the newspaper said, “they cannot be accepted, because they are not wanted.”

A committee of Times staffers winnowed the entries to 150 semi-finalists, which were submitted to Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century magazine. Gilder selected these as finalists:

  • Always decent; never dull.
  • The news of the day; not the rubbish.
  • A decent newspaper for decent people.
  • All the world’s news, but not a school for scandal.

As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, Gilder noted “that terms of the contest had changed from the original intent of selecting a slogan that ‘more aptly express the distinguishing characteristics of the New-York Times’ to the more theoretical task of determining which entry ‘would come nearest to it in aptness.’”

That entry, Gilder determined, had been submitted by D.M. Redfield of New Haven, Connecticut. Redfield’s suggestion:

“All the world’s news, but not a school for scandal.”

Catchy, that.


Many thanks to Jim Romenesko for linking to this post

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Gotham’s exceptional New Year’s Eve: 1897

In 1897, New York Sun, Newspapers, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on December 31, 2010 at 7:05 am

W.R. Hearst

Publisher William Randolph Hearst was at the peak of his most innovative period 113 years ago, when he organized a New Year’s Eve bash for Gotham in 1897.

The year then closing had been a stunning one for Hearst and his flagship newspaper, the New York Journal.

He had introduced in 1897 a hearty brand of activist journalism: The “journalism of action,” the Journal called it. And it meant that newspapers had an obligation to inject themselves routinely and conspicuously into public life, to address the ills that government would not or could not confront.

Rivals scoffed and sneered; “yellow journalism” they called it.

But the stunning character of Hearst’s “journalism of action” had been demonstrated in October 1897 with the rescue of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner jailed by Spanish authorities in Havana for months without charges.

The Cisneros rescue, as I wrote in my 2006 book–a year study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms–was the “greatest escape narrative” in U.S. media history, “an episode unique in American journalism.”

In late summer 1897, as Cuba’s guerrilla war against Spanish colonial rule ground on, Hearst sent a reporter named Karl Decker to Cuba, ostensibly as the Journal correspondent in Havana.

Rescuing Evangelina

But Decker was under orders to organize the rescue of Evangelina Cisneros. With the quiet help of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba, and the vital support of a clandestine smuggling network in Havana, Decker succeeded in breaking her out of jail and getting her aboard a steamer to New York.

The “greatest journalistic coup of this age,” the Journal crowed, never reluctant to indulge in self-promotion. The “journalism of action” never seemed more robust, or more proud of itself, I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism.

Rivaling the Cisneros jailbreak as the crowning achievement of the “journalism of action” was the 1897 New Year’s Eve bash that Hearst threw for New York City.

It was an exceptional occasion, marking as it did the consolidation of the boroughs of New York and the birth of the modern mega-city.

As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, New York officials “had planned no special event to celebrate the political consolidation of the five boroughs… William Strong, the city’s outgoing mayor and a foe of consolidation, suggested that a mock funeral would be more appropriate than a celebration. Hearst would have none of that.”

Hearst stepped forward to organize what the Journal called a “great carnival,” a celebration replete with “volcanoes of fireworks and floods of pulse-quickening music,” all centered around City Hall Park, near what then was Newspaper Row.

Weather conditions were awful that night in lower Manhattan. Drizzling rain turned to ice and snow during the waning hours of 1897. The weather was so poor that the Journal announced in the afternoon that festivities would be postponed. An hour or two later, it reversed itself and the celebration was back on.

Perhaps 100,000 merry-makers braved the inclement conditions to watch the parade of floats that snaked its way down Broadway to City Hall.

As midnight struck in New York, the mayor of San Francisco (as Hearst had arranged), pressed a button sending an electric current across country to lower Manhattan. The electric charge sent a small white object climbing the flagpole at City Hall.

Reaching the top of the staff, the object unfurled and revealed itself to be the flag of New York City. And with that, one news account said, “bedlam broke loose.”

Fireworks burst over lower Manhattan, sending up what one reporter called “showers of blazing stars,” and a National Guard battery began firing a salute of 100 guns.

Just as the Journal had promised, the celebration was the “luminous starting point from which the history of the expanded New York will be dated.”

Even such bitter rivals as the New York Sun complimented the Journal for having organized and underwritten the celebration, which cost at least the contemporary equivalent of $500,000.

“It was such a display of fireworks and enthusiasm as perhaps had never been seen before in the State of New York, certainly not in the vicinity of New York city,” the Sun declared, adding:

“The show that the New York Journal provided was all that that paper claimed it would be.”

It was an exceptional New Year’s Eve in Gotham–and, as I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, it also was “a tremendous opportunity for the Journal to indulge in a celebration of its activist ethos.”


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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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Recalling Mark Twain and the ‘calamity of calamities’

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Reviews, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on December 21, 2010 at 10:18 am

The first volume of Autobiography of Mark Twain–published 100 years after his death–has been a best-seller for the University of California Press, the publisher that brought out my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

The Twain volume has received largely favorable reviews, although the New York Times did say, in a critique the other day by the insufferable Garrison Keillor, that “there’s precious little frankness and freedom here and plenty of proof that Mark Twain, in the hands of academics, can be just as tedious as anybody else when he is under the burden of his own reputation.”

A more generous review, posted online yesterday by the North County Times in California, caught my eye–mostly for its reference to Twain (Samuel Clemens) and yellow journalism. The review quoted this passage from Twain’s autobiography:

“I was converted to a no-party independence by the wisdom of a rabid Republican. This was a man who was afterward a United States Senator, and upon whose character rests no blemish that I know of, except that he was the father of the William R. Hearst of to-day, and therefore grandfather of Yellow Journalism–that calamity of calamities.”

The reference was to George Hearst, an adventurer-miner who struck it rich in the silver fields of the 19th century American West. After securing his fortune, George Hearst became a U.S. senator from California, serving from 1886-1891.

Twain’s reference to “a rabid Republican” is puzzling, though, because George Hearst was a committed Democrat, as was his son, William Randolph Hearst.

More interesting was Twain’s characterization of yellow journalism as “that calamity of calamities.”

It’s an amusing line, but it ignores the generosity young Hearst extended to Twain in 1897, when the writer was down on his luck in London.

Hearst by then was running the provocative and activist-oriented New York Journal — the newspaper that helped give rise in 1897 to the sneer, “yellow journalism.”

The Journal preferred the term “journalism of action” and asserted that a newspaper had an obligation to inject itself routinely and conspicuously into civic life, to address the ills that government wouldn’t or couldn’t.

As I wrote in my 2006 year-study, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Hearst arranged for Twain, then 51, to report for the Journal on Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee in June 1897.

Lining up Twain to cover the Jubilee was emblematic of Hearst’s willingness to spend money lavishly to recruit big-name talent, if only for spot assignments.

In Twain, though, Hearst must have been disappointed.

As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism:

“Twain’s reporting about Victoria’s jubilee seemed half-hearted and hardly inspired. The spectacle was easily the most regal international story of 1897, and came at a time when the British empire at or near its height. But Twain found the celebration overwhelming—’a spectacle for the kodak [camera], not the pen,’” as he wrote in a dispatch published June 23, 1897.

Twain’s dispatch to the Journal included this odd observation:

“I was not dreaming of so stunning a show. All the nations seemed to be filing by. They all seemed to be represented. It was a sort of allegorical suggestion of the Last Day, and some who live to see that day will probably recall this one if they are not too much disturbed in mind at the time.”

Twain’s association with the Journal in 1897 did give rise to one of his most memorable lines–and allowed the newspaper to puncture rumors about the writer’s health.

In early June 1897, the New York Herald reported that Twain was “grievously ill and possibly dying. Worse still, we are told that his brilliant intellect is shattered and that he is sorely in need of money.”

The Journal promptly exposed the Herald report as erroneous, and published Twain famous, if often-misquoted, denial:

“The report of my death was an exaggeration,” Twain said.

He lived until 1910.


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‘Yes, Virginia,’ on CBS: No classic

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, New York Sun, Newspapers, Year studies on December 18, 2010 at 7:44 am

I wrote a year ago about the charmless CBS animated Christmas special, Yes, Virginia, a show based on Virginia O’Hanlon’s famous letter to the New York Sun in 1897 that prompted American journalism’s best-known editorial.

The show aired again last night; watching it was headache-inducing.

It utterly lacks the serendipity, anticipation, disappointment, and surprise that characterized the real back story to Virginia’s 1897 letter.

Her appeal to the Sun — “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”–gave rise to an editorial published beneath the headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

The editorial’s most memorable and most-quoted passage declared:

“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.”

As I noted last year at Media Myth Alert, CBS took great liberties with the back story in offering up a tedious half-hour show that was neither accurate nor entertaining. It’s a distortion of a charming story.

Francis P. Church

The animated Virginia is waddling, round-headed, and unaccountably obsessed with the existence of Santa Claus. Francis P. Church, the retiring journalist who wrote the famous editorial, is depicted–no, misrepresented–as scowling, dismissive, and hard-hearted.

Neither character is convincing. Neither is realistic.

The animated Church is identified as the editor of the Sun, which is shown as a tabloid newspaper. Church was not the editor; he was an editorial writer. And the Sun was no tabloid.

The CBS show also had Virginia writing her letter, and the Sun publishing its reply, in December, as Christmas approached.

In fact, the letter was written in the summer of 1897, and the Sun published the editorial on September 21, 1897 — obscurely, in the third of three columns on editorials on an inside page (and not in big, sensation-stirring headlines across the front page, as the CBS show had it).

As I discuss in my 2006 book–a year-study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms–Virginia O’Hanlon said that she addressed her letter to the Sun’s question-and-answer column, and waited impatiently for the newspaper to publish a response.

She recalled that the Sun did not promptly take up her inquiry. Far from being obsessed, little Virginia stopped thinking about it after a while.

“After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in Connecticut many years later, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

At the Sun, Virginia’s letter probably was overlooked, or misplaced, for an extended period.

That there was such a gap seems certain, given O’Hanlon’s recollections about waiting and waiting for a reply, and the accounts that say Church wrote the editorial in “a short time” or “hastily, in the course of the day’s work.”

Virginia O'Hanlon

What reconciles the two accounts—O’Hanlon’s prolonged wait and Church’s quickly written response—is that the Sun for a time had misplaced the letter that inspired a classic editorial, one that would recall the newspaper long after it folded in 1950.

The real back story to Virginia’s letter is far richer than the cheerless, vapid fare that CBS offered up.

Unlike the 1897 editorial, the wretched animated show is destined to be no classic.


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As inevitable as ‘Yes, Virginia,’ at the holidays

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Sun, New York Times, Newspapers, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on December 15, 2010 at 8:59 am

The approach of the year-end holidays brings inevitable reference to American  journalism’s most famous editorial, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

Virginia O'Hanlon

The lyrical and timeless tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit was first published in 1897 in the old New York Sun, in response to the inquiry of an 8-year-old girl, Virginia O’Hanlon.

“Please tell me the truth,” she implored, “is there a Santa Claus?”

The Sun in reply was reassuring:

“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.”

Almost as inevitable as the editorial’s reappearance this time of year are sightings of myths and misconceptions associated with “Is There A Santa Claus?”

Today, for example, an online reference site for journalists, Followthemedia.com, says in an essay that “Is There a Santa Claus?” was published on the front page of the Sun, on September 21, 1897.

The date is correct. But the famous editorial was given obscure placement in its debut. As I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms:

“‘Is There a Santa Claus?’ appeared inconspicuously in the third of three columns of editorials in the New York Sun on 21 September 1987. It was subordinate to seven other commentaries that day, on such matters as ‘British Ships in American Waters,’ the ambiguities in Connecticut’s election law, and the features of the chainless bicycle anticipated in 1898.”

“Is There A Santa Claus” appeared on page six, the editorial page of the Sun.

Interestingly, the oddly timed editorial about Santa Claus–appearing as it did more than three months before Christmas–prompted no comment from the many newspaper rivals to the Sun.

That’s somewhat curious because the New York City press of the late 19th century was prone–indeed, eager–to comment on, and disparage, the content of their rivals.  That’s how the enduring sneer “yellow journalism” was coined, in early 1897.

In its headline today, Followthemedia suggests the editorial’s most-quoted passage — “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” — are the words most famous in American journalism.


But a stronger case can be made for  the New York Times logo, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which in 1897 took a permanent place in the upper left corner of the newspaper’s front page, a spot known in journalism as the “left ear.”

As I noted in a blog post nearly a year ago: “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.”

I also suggested then that the famous vow attributed to William Randolph Hearst–“You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war“–may be more famous in journalism than “Yes, Virginia.”

The Hearstian vow, as I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, is almost certainly apocryphal. But like many media-driven myths, it lives on as an anecdote too delicious not to be true.

What is striking and perhaps exceptional about “Is There A Santa Claus?” is its timeless appeal–how generations of readers have found solace, joy, and inspiration in its passages.

A letter-writer to the Sun in 1914 said, for example: “Though I am getting old,” the editorial’s “thoughts and expressions fill my heart with overflowing joy.”

In 1926, a letter-writer told the Sun that “Is There A Santa Claus?” offered “fine relief from the commercialism and unsentimental greed” of the Christmas season.

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


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