Tag Archives: Covering America

Review of “Covering America” in Journalism History

I am posting this review of my book in the scholarly journal Journalism History here, because the journal charges a lot for access.

Journalism History 

Vol 13 (4), Winter 2013, p254-255

CA cover final 2Daly, Christopher B.

Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism.

Amherst and Boston: UMass Press, 2012. 535 pp. $49.95.


Many a teacher of journalism history has heard students complain about how dull or inaccessible they find any one of several available media history textbooks. And many a journalism instructor has agreed with his or her students’ complaints about de-contextualized dates and names of publishers and their historically significant newspapers strung through those tomes. Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism addresses these complaints. In Covering America, Christopher Daly has wrapped the story of American journalism from the colonial period through the digital age into a carefully researched, beautifully written, and memorable account of how news reporting mostly has grown as well as improved during the span of three centuries as innovators have exploited new technologies, constitutional protections, government subsidies, cultural trends, and business formulae to maintain their financial independence and journalistic standards while serving their readers and audiences ever more efficiently.

            Daly, an associate professor of journalism at Boston University with twenty years of experience covering New England for the Washington Post and writing for the Associated Press, concentrates in Covering America on newspaper, television, and digital news with only occasional references to early twentieth-century magazines and rare mentions of public relations and advertising. His focus is the changing and expanding definition of news over time. Daly admits that in Covering America, unlike Frank Luther Mott’s or Edwin Emery’s geographically broader approaches to journalism history, he emphasizes journalism originating in New York— although Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Chicago receive some attention when media in these cities contribute to the overall narrative. This exclusion of examples of western and southern journalism, however, contributes in two ways to the success of Covering America. It greatly reduces the clutter and detail that overwhelms so many students, and it allows Daly to hold the social, political, economic, and technological context constant as he explains the challenges and opportunities printers, for example, faced at roughly the same time and place. Rather than grasping at data, the reader finds the overall historical patterns of journalism more apparent and memorable.

            In describing his history as narrative, Daly accurately describes his method of organizing this book, which is apparent from the opening paragraph of his introduction through his final chapter on “Going Digital.” Covering America, not unlike other journalism history texts, begins with Benjamin Franklin, but does so with a narrative lead one might expect from a short story or magazine feature:

             On an early spring night in 1722, a young man hurried along the narrow streets of Boston, trying not to be seen. He was not a spy or a thief. He only wanted to be a writer. Just sixteen years old, Ben Franklin was hoping to get his writing published for the first time, and he had chosen a risky, roundabout route to do so.

 Daly then notes that young Franklin was “skulking” around the shop of the New England Courant, owned by his brother James, in order to slip a manuscript under the door for his older brother to discover and, he hoped, to print. In this description of Franklin’s actions, Daly finds several defining characteristics of American journalism still at work today: printing was a private business, journalism was open to the young with raw talent, and the pleasure of publication drives journalists into the field.

            In the first chapter on the “Foundations of the American Press, 1704-1763,” after explaining the organization of the print shop, its products, and its method of production, Daly returns to Franklin as an example of printers during this period of six decades before the American Revolution, devoting eleven of the chapter’s twenty pages to detailing his biography, readings, head for business, popular writings, and principles of journalism in his “Apology for Printers.” Within this chapter, Daly also describes the John Peter Zenger trial and acquittal for seditious libel, noting that Franklin helped Zenger obtain his attorney. Franklin receives briefer mentions in several more chapters, reminding readers the interconnections always present as journalism is transformed over time. This pattern of focusing on one or two individuals as representative of journalists from particular periods is a device of narrative compression that Daly uses in each of the chapters in Covering America. As Daly develops an overarching narrative to describe 300 years in the development of American journalism, he inserts short narratives of innovative journalists and publishers who exemplify traits of the period being described. This is how readers receive substantial information about Benjamin Day, James Gordon Bennett, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Thomas Paine, Horace Greeley, Joseph Pulitzer, Ida B. Wells, William Randolph Hearst, Adolph Ochs, Henry Luce, Harold Ross, David Sarnoff, William Paley, Walter Winchell, Walter Lippmann, Dorothy Thompson, Edward R. Murrow, Ernie Pyle, John Hersey, A.J. Leibling, David Halberstam, Truman Capote, Gloria Steinem, Katherine Graham, Ted Turner, Al Neuharth, and other journalistic innovators who so comfortably populate Daly’s story of the news.

             Covering America would vastly improve the student experience of an often unappreciated journalism history course, particularly at the undergraduate and master’s levels. Journalism students will leave a class after reading Daly’s book with a clear understanding of the methods and values of the field they will soon enter. They will also gain some confidence that journalism will continue even if paper and ink disappear.

 Joseph Bernt, Ohio University

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Review of “Covering America” by J&MC Quarterly

I am posting this enthusiastic review in the scholarly journal Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly because the journal charges a lot for access.

Book Review:

CA cover final 2Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism

Reviewed by Giovanna Dell’Orto (University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA)


This engrossing, wide-ranging history of American journalism from

the colonial era to the present makes a tremendous contribution to

mass communication education by being that rarest kind of

textbook—one that reads like literature instead of CliffsNotes.

Covering all the bases, from the Zenger trial to the Huffington Post,

and with excursions into much lesser known histories across news

media, Covering America makes perfect and enjoyable mandatory

reading for undergraduate and graduate classes in journalism history.

Christopher Daly, an associate professor at Boston University’s

Journalism Department, approaches this monumental historical

survey with the reportorial flair appropriate for a former Associated

Press and Washington Post journalist, which sets it apart from more

pedagogical classics like Emery, Emery, and Roberts’s The Press

and America. Literally from the first line, Daly grabs the reader with

striking, cinematic details that make the past come alive. Page 1

opens with a teenage Benjamin Franklin skulking along the dark

streets of eighteenth-century Boston, trying to put one over his

brother in order to start his writing career—and the readers are

hooked, be they scholars who have been teaching colonial journalism

for years, like this reviewer, or freshmen who might have never heard

of Franklin.

Similarly intimate visual vignettes are peppered throughout the next

nearly five hundred pages, including an iconic Ed Murrow “sitting on a

bench in a White House hallway, chain-smoking Camel cigarettes” as

FDR decides how to react to just-received news of Pearl Harbor. At

the other end of the press–government relationship spectrum, we are

treated to the image of President Nixon dancing at the White House

wedding of his daughter at the very same moment when “the

typesetters and pressmen at the [New York] Times started printing”

the Pentagon Papers stories.

Most helpful for classroom use, in all these cases and across the

volume, Daly assumes no prior historical knowledge on the readers’

part, and retells the basics of U.S. history through the eyes of the

journalists and media owners who put its first draft in front of the

American people. Most chapters even conclude with short summaries

of how their main characters—from Franklin to David Halberstam—

ended up, much like the end titles in documentaries, so that no gaps

are left in a remarkably comprehensive story.

Some journalism historians might object that this volume skates very

close to the “Great Men” tradition. The narrative focus is unabashedly

on the major figures that made journalism what it is (and yes, for the

vast majority of the three hundred years covered it was mostly white

men). As Daly puts it repeatedly, social, political, economic, and

technological developments influenced the shape of journalism, but

for the major shifts to happen, “somebody had to do something.”

Since this book’s main audience is not the specialist, focusing on the

adventures of those various “somebodies” at the expense of scholarly

interpretative controversy seems an effective trade-off for terrific

storytelling that gets the major points across memorably.

In addition, the book does make two fundamental conceptual

arguments that give it depth and a unifying thread. Daly argues that

journalism has been central to the history of the country. From the

early Republic Party press all the way to today’s blogs (which, as

Daly notes, are not that different), the media history narrated in the

volume shows how journalism helped shape American life.

Sometimes, it has done so with nefarious effects, but also with a

“long tradition of service to humanity.” That service, however, has

recurrently been imperiled by the practice of journalism as a


The most heartfelt, compelling question raised is the strange bed

fellowship of journalism and money. At the end of chapter 12, which

focuses on the Pentagon Papers and Watergate and is perhaps the

book’s best, Daly reflects on what he feels was the “apotheosis” of

the raison d’être for independent, aggressive journalism: “Build a big

enough audience so that you can make enough money to tell anyone

to go to hell. The risk of such an attitude is sounding arrogant, but

without it there is no real journalism.” But money, as the book shows,

is not always a journalist’s friend—not when it has meant

acquiescence to governmental or corporate interests, not when it is

intended to fatten shareholders’ wallets instead of newsgathering

operations, and not when it is made by pandering to the evil twin of

mass interest, the enduring prurient passion for celebrity scandals

and gore.

For an overview book, the level of detail is astounding, especially

since it does not detract from the narrative flow. With illuminating

forays into law, technology, and policy making, readers are

introduced to pamphleteers, editors, reporters, columnists, and

broadcasters, from Thomas Paine to Matt Drudge by way of Horace

Greeley, Ida B. Wells, Adolph Ochs, Harry Luce, and less obvious

figures, such as Harold Ross and Walter Winchell. From the smelly

printing equipment in colonial shops to the Supreme Court justices’

opinions and the account behind the iconic napalm-burned

Vietnamese girl photograph, there are no major stories left untold.

Striking quotes straight from the media—the Liberator’s opening

editorial, Ernie Pyle’s Captain Waskow’s tribute, Earl Caldwell’s

report of the King assassination—enrich the atmospheric narrative.

Until, that is, the digital era: The one major criticism of this volume is

that its treatment of what Daly calls the last major period of journalism

history, the digital revolution from the mid-1990s onward, is

unsatisfactorily perfunctory. The entire digital era gets a twenty-page

chapter that does not even mention such critical developments as the

rise of fake news shows or shattering scandals such as the Jayson

Blair affair, which is hinted at in the conclusion.

Writing what amounts to a history of the present is certainly difficult,

but the end of the book feels abrupt, and the first decade of the

twenty-first century deserves the same lively, in-depth study as the

other eras so masterfully narrated. Despite that shortcoming, this

volume is a top-choice main history textbook and reference work for

journalism educators, researchers, and students at all levels.

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Notice of “Covering America”

By Christopher B. Daly 

A shout-out to Rutgers historian David Greenberg. In a book review in the current issue of the Journal of American History, Greenberg more or less dissected a new book called News for All the People. Then, unexpectedly, he swerved into a nice mention of my book:

Historians of journalism seeking a new synthesis will be better served by Christopher B. Daly’s Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism (2012), which does not emphasize racial oppression quite as much yet does debunk cherished myths of American journalism history while presenting a coherent narrative account.


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Literary criticism: a reader writes

By Christopher B. Daly

Recently, a reader posted a largely critical “customer review” of my book Covering America, on the book’s Amazon page. The writer of the criticism, Ralph Poore, is, of course, entitled to his opinion and the free expression thereof. At the same time, I have my right to engage his criticism and explain my views.

First, let me thank Mr. Poore for reading my book and for reading it quite carefully, to judge by the granularity of his comments.

Here’s his review and one of my reactions:

If you like East Coast, elitist views of journalism, then Christopher Daly’s Covering America is the book for you.

Daly focuses mainly on journalism east of the Hudson River. He makes occasional visits to news media along the Potomac River, but he frankly doesn’t find much of value beyond those two regions. He covers a lot of the familiar territory found in other journalism histories by profiling one or more journalists of their time.

Missing is the westward trek of newspapers and editors in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Missing, too, are many publications that have played important roles in the history of journalism and of the country.

To be fair, any book that purports to cover a topic across 320 years of history has to leave something out, else no one would be able to lift it. And Daly makes it clear that his book is a narrative “about the broad scope of journalism in America… [and] not an encyclopedia” (p. 6).
Fair enough.

As I wrote in the preface, my approach was not encyclopedic. My stated criterion for inclusion in my book was innovation — especially in one or more of the following dimensions:

–the economics of news,

–the technology of news gathering and dissemination

–the philosophy of news

–the sociology of the newsroom or the audience

–the politics of the power balance between journalism and other institutions.

As it happened, most of that innovation took place on the East Coast, particularly in New York City. I did not cause that, and I don’t apologize for it. That said, my book does at least mention papers outside the Northeast: the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to name a few, as well as the Atlanta-based CNN.

Here’s the rest of his review. I am not going to reply point-by-point, but I would encourage any readers of this blog who have also read my book to jump in and share your views.

But what Daly leaves out is a lot, and it is often important. For example, in looking at press coverage during the Civil War, Daly’s examination stops at the Mason-Dixon Line. Of the Southern press he says only, “Across the South, many newspapers simply collapsed” (p. 110). The major Southern newspapers didn’t collapse, and never mind that Southern correspondents, including a few women, wrote some of the best war coverage by any reporter North or South.

As Daly’s narrative moves closer in time to the present, its sins of omission and commission, as well as its elitism (and frankly snarky comments about conservatives), become more pronounced. I primarily would like to deal with several examples from the mid-20th to 21st centuries to make my point.

East Coast elitists have an almost cult-like attachment to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal programs. It comes as no surprise then that the journalists who Daly profiles in the 1940s for his “broad scope of journalism in America” never raise any questions about the efficacy of New Deal programs.

FDR’s policies cost billions of dollars often with no real benefit to the nation and in some cases caused real harm to real people, including my parents and grandparents. In FDR’s second term, unemployment lines were long and getting longer. Joblessness got worse after almost every New Deal program started.

Instead of an explanation of why journalists let this state of affairs slide, Daly gives us a portrait of gossip columnist and radio host Walter Winchell supporting Roosevelt: “At a time when most American newspapers were published by businessmen who supported the Republican Party and hated Roosevelt, Winchell…was one of the few prominent voices raised in support of fighting fascism” (p. 220).

Republicans, businessmen and Nazis vs. Winchell and Roosevelt. Really? Either this is sloppy writing or a deliberate attempt to associate the GOP with anti-democratic forces. The effect is the same in either case.

Skip ahead to the 1980-1999 period when Daly takes on conservatives directly. He writes: “Conservatives railed against a media system they said favored big government, welfare, immigrants, and alternative lifestyles while denigrating family, country, and God” (396-397).

Daly dismisses these concerns with a sheer nonsensical statement: “In part, many conservative critics were misreading the media–finding an ideological intention where journalists were actually asserting their professional values. Often, critics on the Right interpreted the journalistic ideals of independence and skepticism as political commitments to antiauthoritarianism or partisan liberalism” (397).

It is hard to see how Daly can reconcile conservatives as believing the media both favored “big government” and “antiauthoritarianism.” Those are polar opposites. And it had become clear to almost any observer west of the Hudson River that by this time period elite journalists had merged their ideological and professional values.

Finally, there is the issue of blatantly distorting the facts when it comes to Fox News. Daly cites a 2003 study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland that purports that Fox News viewers were more misinformed about the Iraqi war (p. 419-420). PIPA claims “those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe….” and then goes on to list a series of supposedly false statements.

Neither PIPA nor Daly cites a single supposedly wrong or misleading fact reported by Fox News.

The Wall Street Journal has examined the clear flaws in PIPA’s methods. The so-called false statements are actually just prejudiced questions about people’s opinions. The opinions just don’t reflect the beliefs of media elites and liberals.

WSJ points to more objective and fact-based surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press which ranked Fox News viewers as among the most informed. At the bottom of Pew’s list were regular consumers of CBS News, Access Hollywood and the National Enquirer.

All of this was known or should have been known by Daly while he was writing his book. For some reason he chose to ignore it.

Meanwhile, you will look in vain in Covering America for even a brief mention of high-profile cases of deliberate misinformation on the part of the East Coast, elite media. For example, you will NOT find Daly criticizing those media for:

Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer Prize winning Moscow Bureau Chief of The New York Times (1922-36) who lauded Stalin and denied widespread famine and mass starvation in the Ukraine.

Janet Cooke (1980), who fabricated a story about a child drug addict for the Washington Post and won a Pulitzer Prize.

ABC’s 20/20 (1978), CBS’s 60 Minutes (1980) and NBC’s Dateline (1993) all ran stories that fabricated safety problems with cars and trucks.

Christopher Newton, an Associated Press reporter who in at least 40 stories (2000- 2002) quoted sources who did not exist.

Jayson Blair (2003), whose fabricated stories in the New York Times brought down Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd.

CBS’s 60 Minutes host Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes 60 Minutes who used forged documents (2004) about President George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard less than two months before the presidential election.

And Daly worries about Fox News viewers being misinformed? Really?

The flaws in Covering America are unfortunate. Daly was a reporter for the Associated Press and the Washington Post before he began teaching at Boston University. He knows how to tell a good story.

There is much in Daly’s narrative that is solid and even insightful at times. But to get at the good stuff, the careful reader has to constantly act as an investigative reporter, questioning assumptions and checking facts. It is a lot of work.

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A(nother) review of “Covering America”

Shameless commerce division: Here’s a review I just came across.

[FYI, I use a “Google alert” to tell me about new mentions on the Web of the phrase “Covering America.” Turns out, they miss a lot of stuff. If you are using a google alert for something important, don’t assume that it’s catching everything. Do an active search once in a while.]

Here goes:

Information & Culture: A Journal of History

Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism

By Christopher B. Daly.

[Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. 546 pp. $49.95.]

From the earliest days of European colonization of North America, the settlers were by

and large literate and able to afford reading materials. That was the backdrop for the

birth of the press in what eventually became the United States. Historian and one-time

reporter, Christopher B. Daly provides a narrative history of journalism, of its major

figures, institutions, and industry from 1704 to the early 2000s. He devotes much of his

narrative to the lives of individual publishers, such as printer Benjamin Franklin,

publisher James Gordon Bennett, and editor William Randolph Hearst, describing the

organizations they built, the publications they produced, and the effects they had on the

profession of journalism. The book is organized in two parts, the first covering events

from 1704 to the 1920s, the second where he focuses on the media from the 1920s to

the present. The first was all about print publications, from broadsides to newspapers

and magazines, while the second in addition included radio, television, and most

recently, the Internet.

While narrating the evolution of the press into the profession of journalism, he pays

considerable attention to their business organizations: how they made money and who

bought their products, because the vast majority of the work done by this sector of the

American economy was conducted by private enterprises. As with other industries,

media evolved in response to changes in the American economy, political attitudes,

desires of their customers (readers), and events in the life of the nation. Technologies

came that also altered the events of this industry, from the introduction of the telegraph

in the nineteenth century to the arrival of the Internet in the twentieth.

Daly argues that the history of journalism went through five cycles. The first (1704-

1832) involved a highly politicized and partisan press, while the second (1832-1900)

saw the commercialization of a national news industry with large newspapers, a national

readership, and the development of specialized workforces, such as full-time reporters.

The third era (1900-1974) witnessed the professionalization of news gathering and

reporting, both of which occurred during a time when electronic media came into its

own. The fourth period (1965-1995) Daly characterizes as the time when media

businesses conglomerated, with newspapers and radio and television becoming parts of

much larger enterprises, often run by executives with little or no background in

journalism. The fifth era (since 1995) introduces the period of the PC and the Internet.

Most readers familiar with the history of American newspapers, magazines, and

journalism will find no surprises in this synthetic well-written history up through World

War II. The chapters covering the next six decades, however, are some of the best in this

book, providing a history of journalism through the Cold War, the Vietnam period, and

recent national developments, most notably the arrival of the Internet. It is these later

chapters that provides much new material, and offers a synthesis of developments on

the part of the media, but that also contributes an analysis on the expanding role of

citizens in using their content. Consistent across all periods is his attention to

technological innovations, the economics of the media industry, the culture of the

profession, the political environment in which they operated, and finally on the work

values of the profession. He includes discussions about the African-American press and

the role of women in each period, beginning after the Age of Jackson and extending to

the present. In the process, he demonstrates that these communities initially had an

alternative, yet parallel, development alongside mainstream journalism that during the

twentieth century increasingly became more intertwined with the activities and

institutions of American journalism. This was particularly the case with African American

journalism. However, he barely discusses Hispanic journalism of the late twentieth

century, possibly because it may not yet have developed sufficiently to warrant attention

in such a broad treatment of American journalism.

This is a useful, very up-to-date one volume narrative summary of the story. It is not a

book based on archival research; rather, Daly relies extensively on secondary literature,

which he documents in notes and in a bibliography. For students of the history of

information, this is a welcome addition to the literature on who supplied many types of

publications to the American public and how they functioned. It is a practical volume for

both students of American history and for participants in American media, such as

journalists, editors and publishers. In the vernacular of today’s media, it is also “a good


James W. Cortada, IBM Institute for Business Value

Information & Culture


Published by University of Texas Press

Website © The University of Texas at Austin

School of Information

The University of Texas at Austin


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Rave review for “Covering America”

By Christopher B. Daly 

My book Covering America drew an insanely enthusiastic review in the Providence Journal on Sunday. The timing reminds me: IMHO, this book would make a great holiday gift for anyone who cares about American journalism, American history, American politics, the tech revolution in news, Jefferson/Lincoln/FDR, WWI/WWI/Vietnam, and a whole bunch of other stuff.

Have I left anyone out?

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New review of “Covering America”

This recently appeared in the Midwest Book Review:

The Journalism Shelf

Covering America
Christopher B. Daly
University of Massachusetts Press
PO Box 429
Amherst, MA 01004
9781558499119 $49.95 http://www.umass.edu/umpress

Award-winning author Christopher B. Daly, a veteran journalist as well as an instructor of history and journalism at Boston University, presents Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism. Covering America lives up to its title with an exhaustively researched, scholarly, and in-depth chronicle of the art and craft of journalism in America, from 1705 to the present day. Chapters discuss the foundations of the American Press including Ben Franklin and his contemporaries, the rise of newspapers; how journalism covered slavery and the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II, and other monumental historical events; the twentieth century rise of major media conglomerates; and much more. “Whether for-profit or not, the institutions that engage in mass communication have been almost entirely in private hands, separate form the government… From a small-scale shop to a factory-sized corporation to a global conglomerate, the news business as a business has kept pace with broader trends. That process has in turn created a recurring set of crises in which the values of journalism have come into conflict with the values of business.” A handful of vintage black-and-white photographs illustrate this meticulous, methodical, and absolutely invaluable contribution to history and journalism shelves, worthy of the highest recommendation especially for public and college library collections.

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“Covering America” reviewed

By Chris Daly

Delighted to see this review just out from Publisher’s Weekly.

Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism.
Christopher B. Daly. Univ. of Massachusetts, $49.95 (544 p) ISBN 978-1-55849-911-9

In this scholarly yet readable volume, Daly (Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World), a professor of history and journalism at Boston University, presents a surprisingly spirited and detailed account of American journalism and the many ways in which the press has impacted the trajectory of American history, and vice versa. Beginning in the early 1700s with the institution of a postal service and continuing through the advent of the Internet and its implications for the “dinosaurs” of big media, the book is full of colorful portraits of American media icons such as Benjamin Franklin and late New York Times reporter David Halberstam. Any history book runs the risk of being bland, but Daly peppers the text with amusing anecdotes and intriguing facts (e.g., the idea for the first journalism courses, offered at Washington & Lee University, came from defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee). Daly divides the major time periods in American journalism into five categories: politicization (1704-1832), commercialization (1833-1900), professionalization (1900-1974), conglomeration (1965-1995), and digitization (1995-present). These divisions make the narrative easy to follow for both students of journalism and casual enthusiasts. In addition to the interesting stories, Daly makes many cogent arguments about what the press has meant to the country’s shared history and identity. Illus.

Reviewed on: 04/09/2012
If you’ve read it, please leave a comment of your own. If you haven’t, get off-line, pick it up, and read!


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Shameless promotion

By Chris Daly

Just back from a talk I gave at the Columbia Journalism School on Tuesday. The dean, Nick Lemann, is an old friend who graciously hosted a discussion of my new book, Covering America

The video should be shown on C-Span’s Book TV in a few days. (I will post the link when it’s definite.)

Here’s proof that I was there, standing in front of Joseph Pulitzer himself.

Photo by Anne Fishel

Photo by Anne Fishel

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A St. Patrick’s Day tribute (part 2)

By Chris Daly 

One of the greatest Irish-Americans in the history of U.S. journalism is one who is not often remembered today: S.S. McClure.

After making money in the syndication business, McClure sent on to found one of the most important magazines in American history, the eponymous McClure’s Magazine. More than any other magazine, his was at the heart of the Muckraking movement at the start of the 20th Century. He hired or published Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, and other pioneers of investigative journalism. The January 1903 issue of McClure’s Magazine was one of the greatest single issues ever published. 

Here is an excerpt from my new book (on sale now!), called Covering America, which is a narrative history of 300+ years in journalism.



As a coherent national movement, muckraking can be traced to the year 1902. The setting was a monthly magazine called McClure’s, which had been founded by S. S. McClure, an Irish-born journalist, in 1893 in New York City. Sam McClure was a pioneer in a new kind of publication then sweeping the country. Although magazines had been published in America for more than a century, they generally steered clear of journalism and focused instead on literature, fiction, ladies’ fashion, or housekeeping hints. Traditional magazines like the Atlantic Monthly, Scribner’s, or Harper’s were also typically quite expensive in price and conservative in outlook. But starting in the 1880s, a new kind of magazine appeared. Thanks to dramatic drops in the cost of paper, magazines could now be priced to reach middle- and working-class audiences. And thanks to the halftone engraving process, they could print extensive displays of photographs. It is also important to note that, unlike even the biggest daily newspapers, which were rarely distributed far beyond their home base, these magazines circulated around the country. The emergence of cheap, well-illustrated monthly magazines created the possibility, for the first time, of a mass national audience focused on news and public affairs. Until the advent of radio networks in the 1920s, such magazines were the only truly national outlet for journalism.

Still, it took some initiative to capitalize on this new possibility and to turn it in a politically progressive direction. That was precisely where Sam McClure, after making a fortune in syndication, led the way. One of McClure’s first hires for his magazine was a young woman named Ida Tarbell, who spent most of the 1890s working on lengthy serialized biographical sketches—first of Napoleon, then of Lincoln. Two other key additions were a contributing editor, veteran Chicago reporter Ray Stannard Baker, and a managing editor, Lincoln Steffens, hired in 1900. In January 1903, McClure’s Magazine assembled an issue that has been called the most famous in American magazine history. It contained three articles that became recognized as classics of modern muckraking: part three of Tarbell’s history of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil trust, Steffens’s exposé of municipal corruption in Minneapolis, and an article by Baker on a brutal coal-mining strike in Pennsylvania—all accompanied by an editorial written by McClure that attempted to frame the entire issue as one that raised serious questions about American society. “Capitalists, workingmen, politicians, citizens—all breaking the law, or letting it be broken. Who is left to uphold it?” he asked. “There is no one left; none but all of us.”

Tarbell’s nineteen-part series on Standard Oil became a sensation and set the standard for the techniques of exposé. Tarbell, who had grown up in the oil fields of western Pennsylvania, where Rockefeller built his business, was a scrupulous researcher, and she relied heavily on official government documents and court records to build the case against him. Rockefeller’s companies had been sued and investigated for many years, and there was an extensive paper record dispersed across dozens of courthouses and state agencies, but no one had committed the time and expense (McClure sank an astonishing $50,000 into the project) to pull it all together in a dramatic narrative for a national audience. Tarbell’s account was quickly published in book form, and two years later, the administration of Theodore Roosevelt filed a federal antitrust suit against Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. For McClure’s Magazine, the impact was also great. From a circulation of about 370,000 in 1900, the magazine shot past half a million after it began running exposés.

Soon, others joined in. Journalists began looking into child labor, race relations, lynching, prostitution, and an array of other social ills. . .


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