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On Politics and the Dailies

New daily newspapers have hit the streets of New York, and in an old-fashioned way. Until the advent of free commuter dailies, the time-tested methods of the newsboy had seemingly been forgotten. The hawkers that now greet us with copies of Metro and amNew York mean that once again we can get our news on the fly, without ducking into a deli, stopping at a newsstand, or otherwise interrupting our rush to catch a train or a bus to work. We needn’t even fumble for change. Indeed, the number of unfolded Metros and amNewYorks one sees on a morning subway suggests these papers are onto something.

But does this mean new life in the newspaper market?

Not if one contrasts the present with another period in New York City history, when the so-called penny papers of the 1830s used newsboys for the first time to sell papers. Stationing themselves on street corners, ferry docks, and steamer landings, these original newsboys were cultural icons of the antebellum urban landscape. The newspapers they sold democratized the consumption of news and injected a vivid kind of politics into the culture of the press. That no such drama seems to portend upon the advent of the new free dailies is yet another sign of the growing influence of “the market” in contemporary American life. 

Early historians of American journalism credit sensationalism for the transformation that the penny press wrought. But more recent studies have stressed that these papers used politics to appeal to readers too. Especially in the early years of the new form, the need to make habitual readers out of shopkeepers, mechanics, journeymen, and laborers—many of whom had been mobilized by the Workingmen’s Movement of the late 1820s and early 1830s and then by the radical “loco-foco” wing of the Democratic Party in New York—forced a populist tone onto the pages of the new cheap press.

James Gordon Bennett, for example, brought a demagogic swagger to his paper, the Herald. He constantly berated Wall Street speculators and any other real or imagined conspiracy of power—except, true to the Jacksonian Democratic sensibility that grounded his outlook, that of slavery.

Backed by local Whigs, Horace Greeley’s Tribune entered the cheap daily market in 1841, six years after Bennett’s Herald. The aim was to enter a “respectable” voice into the market and in the process to educate the masses on the merits of Whig policies. Greeley didn’t necessarily live up to this. And the Tribune’s circulation, while healthy, never achieved the Herald’s numbers.

As Greeley saw it, his job was to take moral stands, and he could pen a polemic as well as—if not better than—Bennett. When Democratic president James Polk signaled the intent to go to war in Mexico in 1846, Greeley stood boldly in opposition. The authorization of war for Greeley meant a new reading of the commandments: “Thou shalt steal” from the Mexicans, “hate them, burn their houses, ravage their fields, and fire red-hot cannon balls into towns swarming with their wives and children.”

The papers were political fiefdoms; they were, in other words, both vehicles for a point of view and stokers of ambition in the men who ran them. This made newspapering personal: editors were held to account, not only in print but in the street, for the political positions they took.

James Watson Webb, editor of the Courier and Enquirer, cowhided Bennett twice in 1836, each time after Bennett had suggested in the Herald that Webb had been bribed by the U.S. Bank, the symbol of monopoly power in the rhetoric of Jacksonian Democrats.

After endorsing an antislavery candidate for House Speaker in 1856, Greeley was smacked in the face on the streets of D.C. by Albert Rust of Arkansas, who broke a cane over his arm for good measure.

Three days after the bombardment of Ft. Sumter launched the Civil War, a patriotic crowd gathered outside the Herald building on Park Row debating whether or not to trash the presses inside as payback for Bennett’s support of the South. Bennett appeased the crowd with a quick display of an American flag.

During the Draft Riots of 1863, a quite different kind of crowd laid siege to the Tribune offices, ransacking and setting fire to parts of it because of Greeley’s support of Lincoln. In Printing House Square during those hot and horrible July nights, a chant rang out:

We’ll hang old Greeley from a sour apple tree,
And send him straight to hell!

By the time the riots were over, sandbags and Gatling guns appeared on the roof of the Tribune building. Ditto on top of Henry Raymond’s pro-Lincoln New York Daily Times. Such was the degree to which these newspapers embodied the political battles of an era.

In addition to pushing the “sensationalist” model to new extremes, Pulitzer’s New York World and Hearst’s New York Journal fell over each other in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to appeal politically to working-class readers. With a reforming sensibility born from his newspaper experience in St. Louis, Pulitzer published a platform upon buying the World in 1883 to let readers know where his paper stood. It called for taxes on luxuries, large incomes, monopolies, and other “privileged corporations,” as well as punishment for vote buying and the coercion of employees at election time.

Plugging for Democrat Grover Cleveland in the election of 1884, Pulitzer OK’d a rare cartoon on the front page of the World. Headlined the “Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings,” it portrayed Cleveland’s opponent James G. Blaine surrounded by fancily attired capitalists like Jay Gould, William H. Vanderbilt, Cyrus Field, and Russell Sage. A destitute family begged for help off to one side. Is this bunch in “sympathy with labor?” asked the World. “Shall Jay Gould run this country? Shall he own the President?”

When Hearst bought the Journal in 1895, the goal was not simply to grow a newspaper empire. The newspaper, as Hearst’s most recent biographer, David Nasaw, has demonstrated, was used to promote the publisher as a leader of the radical-populist wing of the Democratic Party. To both ends, the Journal loudly supported unionization, public ownership of utilities and transit systems, and investment in public schools on the national, state, and city level.

The temperature rose with the Journal’s coverage of the McKinley campaign of 1900. Cartoons were again the lever for more sustained and vituperative commentary; the “Trusts” were represented as fat, bald men with dollar-sign slippers. Mark Hanna, the financial muscle behind the campaign, was their nursemaid; McKinley and his running mate, Theodore Roosevelt, obsequious little boys.

In 1904 the full arsenal of populist imagery of class struggle was also put to work in support of Hearst’s ambitions, including anti-Semitic harangues of financiers like August Belmont and Adolph Ochs, publisher of the Republican New York Times.

A century later, the landscape is much different. The content of amNewYork, as publisher Russel Pergament told the New York Times, is unburdened by a point of view and conducive to a quick read. Indeed, but for the one or two fairly substantive staff-reported (and usually local) daily news stories, both amNewYork and Metro are a pretty slick combination of a quick-cut TV and radio style (the promotional cue of 1010 WINS—“You give us twenty-two minutes, we’ll give you the world”—comes to mind) and the celebrity schlock of Entertainment Weekly and People magazines.

The difference between the penny-press era and the present hinges on the question of who publishers need, and therefore imagine, as their audience. In the 19th century, the working classes were on the rise in the city as a political constituency and as a consumer market. This made them irresistible to pioneers in the mass newspaper business, like Bennett, and to established publishers looking for a foothold in the New York market, like Pulitzer and Hearst.

Advertisers—consumer-goods manufacturers and retailers, for the most part—sought the basic exposure provided by the circulation of papers like the Herald and the Sun, and later, the World and the Journal. Strange as it might seem to today’s media critics, the rush of advertising revenue actually freed the press to be political, or perhaps better: to exploit class politics as a means of building mass circulation.

The target audience of today’s freebie is not the mass of New Yorkers, or even a class of New Yorkers, but a specific subset of the urban population. Freebies like amNewYork and Metro are hunting down an elusive but highly desirable advertising target: the young, no matter the race or ethnicity, who are presumed to have culture and style on the mind more than politics.

Street hawkers are positioned throughout the city in places where this particular consumer is likely to be found. And not incidentally, the paid-for New York dailies, following national trends, have also been moving in on this same set of readers. In March, the New York Times Co. bought 49% of Metro’s Boston edition, and this past month, the Times launched a midweek version of the Sunday “Styles” section dedicated to fashion, fitness, beauty, and not least, shopping.

James Gordon Bennett and Joseph Pulitzer needed advertising to turn a profit too. But back then advertisers weren’t so discriminating. The consumer marketplace was nothing like the hypersegmented field of consumer desire that has spawned the 21st-century marketer’s holy grail: the hip, college-educated 26-year-old, settling into a lifestyle. Nor, of course, did 19th-century advertisers have radio, TV, glossy magazines, and the Internet to turn to in search of better returns on their investment.

Today we have these things, and we also have a newspaper culture with plenty of style and with very little content to challenge the inequalities that remain embedded in our political-economic system.

Murdoch’s New York Post comes closest to a partisan mass-circulation daily. And it is often assumed that the Post caters to the city’s working class. But the Post’s media kit touts the increasing number of its readers aged 25 to 54 and earning $75K or more a year. The Daily News probably has the most working-class readers of all the papers in New York. But this has not translated into a vigorous promotion of class politics—the persistence of columnist Juan Gonzalez notwithstanding.

Across the board, it is more and more the consumer in us—not the worker, not the citizen—that publishers want to cultivate, a trend that bodes well for the deep-pocketed conservative capitalists of the Murdochian sort. That newspapers are desperately trying to compete with other media forms that more effectively satisfy advertiser demand has much to do with this. So, too, however, does the irrelevance of class—as way of understanding power and a means of political identification—in present American life.


Richard Wells


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2005

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