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America’s Best Newspaper Writing – The Classics

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The classics of journalism are the stories that set the bar for the journalism we have today. Beginning in the late 19th century, journalism started change. People started writing exposes, advocating for changes and “muckraking.” The best journalists of this era were extremely ahead of their time. They had a passion for their craft and knew how to take their time on stories. Most of these reporters directly involved themselves in their stories. They went undercover, they marched with troops in a war, they formed connections with people. Reporters like Ernie Pyle became beloved reporter. Pyle marched with the American troops in World War II (and was eventually killed in Japan) and wrote about the small details that made the war real. He formed a connection with the soldiers around him and was able to provide heart-wrenching stories filled with details about the lives of the soldiers. Many writers of this time focused on the corruption of giant corporations and politicians. Dorothy Thompson was one of the many writers who believed that journalists  had a role to “nurture citizens in critical literacy, and keep them free, empowered and protected from the forces of tyranny and corruption.” Other writers like Richard Wright, Marvel Cooke and Gene Patterson advocated for racial changes. They encouraged people to reject racism and accept blacks into society. However, these weren’t the only great muckrakers, advocates, and investigative journalists.

One of my personal favorites was Nellie Bly, also known as Elizabeth “Pink” Cochran. She started as a journalist in Pittsburgh but then moved to New York City for more action. She wanted to work for Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper The World, so he gave her a challenge to see if she was capable. She would have to go undercover as mentally insane and be admitted to Blackwell Island asylum for an investigative story. She took on the challenge and spent 10 days in the horrible conditions and wrote an amazing story about it. She became famous for her “stunt journalism,” which included a challenge to make it around the world in less than 80 days (which she succeeded in).

Another classic investigative journalist was Ida Tarbell, who wrote an 18 part expose on Standard Oil Company. She exposed John Rockefeller and his company for their corruption. She was part of S.S. McClure’s trio of investigative journalists for McClure’s magazine.

Ray Stannard Baker, also part of McClure’s trio did an expose series on corruption in the railroad industry.  He suggested that the nations privately owned public-service sector was employing promoters, high pressure tactics, and the press to make corrupt business practices acceptable to the public via the media. The railroads were using the media to influence public opinion.

A famous war journalist was Richard Harding Davis. He was involved in the yellow journalism movement and the war in Cuba. One of his most famous stories had the headline “Davis and Remington Tell of Spanish Cruelty” and gives a detailed description of the execution of a Cuban freedom fighter.  Davis describes everything from the march in to the man’s head snapping back “as he fell motionless to the ground.”

A good example of a class advocacy journalist is Ida B. Wells. She fought against racism by exposing the horrible treatment of blacks. She wrote an article entitled “The Truth about Lynching” which filled the entire first page of the largest African-American newspaper in the 1890s. In her article he says “Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning.” This article was also published in pamphlet form and distributed to the masses.


Written by juliasayers

April 14, 2011 at 8:23 pm

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