Marvelous Mini-biographies of Journalists  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   March 1998

Marvelous Mini-biographies of Journalists   

American Journalists:
Getting the Story

By Donald A. Ritchie
Oxford University Press

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     



American Journalists:
Getting the Story
By Donald A. Ritchie
Oxford University Press
336 pages; $35

You remember, of course, that Lincoln Steffens was a pioneering muckraker, but do you know what he did after that? Stung by Theodore Roosevelt's charge that muckrakers were so keen on dirt that they never appreciated the sunshine, Steffens wrote a book called "Upbuilders," "inspiring profiles," as Donald Ritchie puts it, "of business and civic leaders who were joining forces to build a better world."

Negativity and idealism, it seems, have wrestled for control of journalists' souls forever. That is one of many lessons that pop out of "American Journalists."

Ritchie, a U.S. Senate associate historian, summarizes his premise in one sentence: " Who reports the news..makes a difference."

So he presents mini-biographies of 57 journalists spanning the period 1700 to the present, from John Peter Zenger to Rupert Murdoch. His standards: fame, impact and how well each represents their era.

A marvelous book results. Ritchie's writing is clear and direct; he has a wonderful eye for the stray detail that fixes someone's character; and he balances both an ingenuous reverence for newspeople and an unsparing candor about their imperfections. Enhanced by thoughtfully chosen excerpts, photos, illustrations and bibliographies, the book is journalism history with a human heartbeat.

Ritchie's 57 choices (augmented by 80 other journalists he mentions in summary chapters) are eclectic. The celebrities and superstars appear, of course: Horace Greeley, William Randolph Hearst, Ida Tarbell, Frederick Douglass, Margaret Bourke-White, Walter Lippmann, Woodward and Bernstein. But Ritchie chooses many lesser-known, but important, figures as well: Elias Boudinot, founder in 1828 of the Cherokee Phoenix; Lawrence Gobright, the AP's ace Civil War reporter; Jane Grey Swisshelm, whose reporting on Daniel Webster's personal life may have kept him from the presidency; and Abraham Cahan, who ran the Jewish Daily Forward for almost half a century.

Naturally, the creation of the top-57 list invites debate. So I'll quibble. Why does Ritchie profile Cokie Roberts but not Eugene Roberts? Bernard Shaw but not Ted Turner? Why no mention of Mike Wallace and the "60 Minutes" crew? How can Col. Robert McCokmick and Adolph Ochs win only one paragraph apiece? And the name Sulzberger does not even make the index!

Nonetheless, what most engaged me about the book were the larger impressions it stimulated about the practice of journalism and the character of journalists. Lincoln Steffens' ambivalence about muckraking, for example, reflects what looks like an ongoing cycle, in which journalists alternate between alienating and then placating their audiences. Periods of remorse follow spasms of sensation-seeking. Like semi-happy married couples, journalists and audiences spend a lot of time irritating one another and then trying to make up.

I also was struck by the endurance of the journalistic personality. Journalists do tend to be driven, their backgrounds and passions imbuing them with evangelical fervor.

Sometimes the desire to save the world seems almost literal. James Gordon Bennett left a seminary to take up writing. Elijah Lovejoy became an antislavery editor after a religious conversion. And Henry Luce was actually the son of missionaries.

They crave influence. The Chicago Defender's Ethel Payne declared, "I saw myself as an advocate... I fought all of my life to bring about change."

Often loners or outsiders, commonly deprived as children, they congregate between mellowness and obstinacy. Nellie Bly, famed for her outrage over social injustice, was one of 15 children raised by a divorced mother. Al Neuharth, forger of a giant news conglomerate, began delivering papers when his mother couldn't afford to buy him a bike. Rejected by the New York Sun for a job, James Gordon Bennett launched the New York Herald with $500, a cellar office, and a desk made of a plank and two barrels.

Their intrepidness never ceases. Before Peter Arnett, there was Richard Harding Davis, a dashing romantic who "rarely missed a conflict around the globe." Before Neuharth's USA Today, there was Kate Field's Washington, a turn-of-the-century national newspaper mingling philosophy, art and politics.

And before Katharine Graham inherited the Washington Post, there was Margaret Green Draper who, when her husband died in 1774, took over the Massachusetts Gazette, a Loyalist paper engulfed in controversy.

"American Journalists" is admiring but not gushy. Ritchie notes the "boosterism" of country editor William Allen White, the slurs of H.L. Mencken, the tendency of pundit James Reston to go "easy on the establishment."

Like those they cover, newspeople have their blemishes. But, as "American Journalists" makes quite clear, they sure are interesting to have around.

###