Intelligencer is a blog featuring teaching and research essays as well as news about the organization and its members.
To submit member news or suggest a blog topic, contact Intelligencer editor Melony Shemberger.
PDFs of the Intelligencer in its previous newsletter form can be found at the Intelligencer archive. Visit the News page for press releases on the organization's activities.
Editor’s Note: University of North Texas professor James E. Mueller presented his paper, “‘A True Insight into a Cavalryman’s Life’: George Armstrong Custer as Literary Journalist,” at the recent International Association of Literary Journalism Studies conference held in Canada. The Intelligencer asked Dr. Mueller to tell us more about how and why he started researching this topic, and why this research is important and interesting for himself and our field.
By James E. Mueller, University of North Texas
Once considered an American hero, George Armstrong Custer’s name can’t even be used to sell frozen custard.
This past summer Sonic made the mistake of using the Civil War cavalryman and Indian fighter to hawk a new dessert. A commercial promoting the frozen custard featured some slightly funny banter between its usual pair of comedic actors, one of whom had dressed up as Custer and thought the general’s real name was Custard. The actor was dressed in Custer’s Civil War uniform—the one he wore for four years in the fight to preserve the Union and end slavery. No matter. Custer’s subsequent service on the frontier during America’s postwar Westward expansion has become the symbol for all the wrongs done to Native Americans, and he must be banished from polite society as anything other than a bad example. Sonic is based in Oklahoma, which has a large Native American population, and protests were swift and effective. Sonic pulled the ad and apologized two days after it started running.
Custer, of course, had his faults, and the treatment of Native Americans by the federal government was often cruel and dishonorable. But historical figures should be more than one-dimensional caricatures for modern Americans to use as emotional punching bags. We live in a highly divisive age where more and more people seem to look at their fellow citizens as either villains or heroes rather than as human beings who have a mix of good and bad in their character. This attitude has spilled into history, and we’re in danger of losing a balanced view of the story of the country.
Finding balance in the story of Custer’s life is one of the main reasons I’m writing a biography of him. It might seem an odd choice for a journalism historian, but one of the reasons that Custer was so famous in his time was his success as a writer and a self-promoter. Custer had a side career as a journalist and was his own press agent, cultivating journalists and giving them great copy. My presentation on Custer’s writing to the International Association of Literary Journalism Studies is one part of that biography, which is tentatively titled Custer’s Ambitious Honor: A Life of Service and a Lust for Fame. The book is the natural culmination of research I’ve been pursuing for almost 25 years.
So much of research is prompted by a combination of luck, opportunity and necessity. When I started the Ph.D. program at the University of Texas, I discovered Custer’s headquarters during his Reconstruction service had been in a building that is now part of the UT campus. UT has a wonderful collection of historical Texas newspapers. I needed a paper for my Southern history class. I cranked the microfilm to find out how newspapers in a Rebel state had covered the death of a Yankee hero at the Little Bighorn, especially a hero who had enforced Reconstruction in 1865 and 1866. Texas papers, almost exclusively Democrat, supported the Democrat Custer, saying he was a gallant soldier defeated because of the perfidy of the Republican President U.S. Grant, who had denied him the troops he needed.
I presented the paper at AJHA, where I received encouragement to pursue the topic. I did, writing enough papers and articles to lead to a book, Shooting Arrows and Slinging Mud: Custer, the Press, and the Little Bighorn. The book won a couple of awards, including finalist for best nonfiction book from the Western Writers of America. While writing Shooting Arrows, I naturally had to do a lot of research on Custer the man. I found that in contrast to the received history that he was a born soldier, he had first wanted to be a teacher and had continued that interest and a variety of others throughout his brief 36-year life. In fact, his first professional job had been as a teacher in a one-room school house in Ohio, and he entered West Point with the idea that he would pursue a career in education after a few years in the Army. Custer was also passionate about politics, and he considered running for Congress immediately after the end of the Civil War. He accompanied President Andrew Johnson on a campaign trip in 1866, and continued to associate with politicians and political journalists for the rest of his life, sometimes to the detriment of his military career. He loved the theater, and his best friend was the famous actor Lawrence Barrett. Custer himself engaged in amateur theatrics at his various military posts, and at the time of his death had signed to go on a speaking tour with the same agency that hosted Mark Twain. Of interest to journalism history—Custer was a writer, authoring a bestseller about his experiences on the frontier called My Life on the Plains, as well as numerous magazine and newspaper articles.
The theme that unites the various aspects of Custer’s life is a passion for artistic creative endeavors, whether performing, teaching or writing. The skills required for each profession were useful for all of the others, and his military career, too. For example, teaching requires a theatrical presence in the classroom as well as the creativity and writing skills of crafting lessons. Teaching was also an important skill for Custer’s military career as he had to spend a significant time training recruits during the Civil War and in the frontier Army. On the other hand, the artistic side of his nature—his artistic ego—sometimes got in the way of his military career. His need for attention and recognition caused him to ignore or disobey the orders of his superiors in the Army and the civil government. In his personal attitude toward government, Custer was raised as a fierce Jacksonian Democrat who believed in the greatness of America. He served his country with distinction, yet his artistic ego was constantly battling with his sense of duty. He wrote for newspapers and magazines even when it might have been more prudent to focus on his military career.
What kind of a writer was Custer? I think he was a literary journalist, and that’s why I presented my preliminary ideas to the conference. Many of his biographers are critical of Custer’s style, claiming it was written in the wordy Victorian manner that is difficult for modern readers to enjoy. Frederick Van de Water, who wrote the debunking biography Glory-Hunter, said Custer “never met an adjective he didn’t like.” Louise Barnett wrote a much more favorable biography called Touched by Fire, yet claimed Custer’s writing was too formal, like military reports.(1)
However, after reading all of Custer’s Civil War reports, I think his military writing was decidedly informal at times, appearing to be composed by someone who was striving to be a writer. Custer’s official reports often featured a dramatic flair in what was, after all, supposed to be a government record with all the excitement that term conveys. Custer described an attack as a mix of blue uniforms contrasting with a “mass of glittering sabers” that was “one of the most inspiring as well as imposing scenes of martial grandeur ever witnessed upon a battle-field.”(2) A sergeant who was killed was “the bravest of the brave,” an officer was wounded when a bullet “carried away the end of his thumb,” and the Rebels when defeated turned into “a panic-stricken, uncontrollable mob” in which “entire companies threw down their arms, and they appeared glad when summoned to surrender.”(3)
It’s no surprise the Custer agreed to write for newspapers and magazines when editors asked him for accounts of his activities on the Plains. He also regularly wrote hunting stories for the sporting magazine Turf, Field and Farm under the pen name “Nomad.” But his most famous work was a series of articles for Galaxy magazine—a sort of Atlantic Monthly of its day—that was turned into a book called My Life on the Plains, or Personal Experiences with Indians. The 7th Cavalry’s Captain Frederick Benteen famously called Custer’s book “My Life on the Plains,”(4) and Colonel William B. Hazen, who Custer had criticized in the book, privately published a rejoinder pamphlet called “Some Corrections of ‘My Life on the Plains.’”(5) But no less a personage than William T. Sherman, general of the army, wrote Custer that he and everyone in his family had read the book with “deep interest.” Sherman told Custer that “your articles on the Plains are by far the best I have ever read.” Sherman noted that he had received “hard knocks” from writing his own Civil War memoir but encouraged Custer to write one because it would be a valuable contribution to history.(6) Custer was at work on that memoir when he was killed at the Little Bighorn.
For the literary journalism presentation I re-read closely My Life of the Plains, looking for how it fit literary journalism standards. Custer’s writing was similar to the sketch journalism of Mark Twain, which is considered one of the precursors of literary journalism.(7) Custer’s work includes many humorous vignettes, and in contrast to his current reputation as an egotistical maniac, he sometimes made himself the butt of the joke. In an episode often quoted in Custer biographies, Custer left his column to hunt. He got caught up in the chase and pursued a buffalo until he was out of sight of the column and the bugler he had brought along. When Custer had run it down and was about the kill it with his pistol, the buffalo turned to gore his horse. The horse veered sharply. Custer instinctively grabbed for the reins with his gun hand. He accidentally shot his horse in the head, killing it instantly. Custer was thrown over his horse’s head, and as he was flying through the air he wondered what the buffalo would do to him when he landed. It merely snorted and sauntered off, leaving Custer alive but alone in enemy territory with no horse and no idea where his troops were. He started walking in what he thought was the right direction, and fortunately for him ran into his command instead of enemy warriors. The tale was funny and dramatic, yet not designed to frame Custer as a hero.
Custer’s intense involvement in the stories he told is a hallmark of literary journalism--immersion. Of course, as a cavalry officer Custer had little choice but to be immersed in Indian warfare, but his descriptions were so vivid that they brought the reader with him on the frontier. In one chapter, Custer described his terror when approaching an Indian village at night. The Army wanted to negotiate with the tribe, so he and few of his men left the main command and dismounted when they found the village. As they walked toward the tepees, they called out but got no answer other than the barking of camp dogs. Custer freely confessed that only pride kept him from turning around and running back to his horse. It turned out that the Indians had abandoned the village out of fear of the cavalry, but it was an anecdote that captured the uncertainty of Plains warfare.
Although the book was largely a war story—an account of Custer’s participation in a couple of campaigns in 1867-68—he also wrote in great detail about geography, animals, Native culture and the interplay of all three as they contributed to the way people lived on the frontier. This “thick description” is another key element of literary journalism. Instead of merely writing that the Indians used smoke signals, Custer described what type of wood they used and how they held the blanket over the fire to create just the right sort of smoke. He explained the importance of ponies to the Plains Indians and why their speed and endurance made them superior to the Army’s horses. The ponies, he wrote, could survive on cotton wood bark when there was no grass. Indians would cut the wood into four-foot strips and toss them to the horses, who would hold them down with their hooves and gnaw them like a dog would a bone.
Custer used a variety of other literary journalism techniques like scene-by-scene construction, dialogue and a focus on ordinary people to enliven his narrative. It’s not necessary to go into all of those examples here other than to conclude that Custer developed his own distinct voice while writing his Plains stories. He created an authorial character who had the interests of a scientist in observing his world, was passionate about his military duty and yet was able to laugh at himself and his mistakes. He wrote from a distinct point of the view—that of the ordinary cavalryman. (The title of the presentation comes from Custer’s own description of his book.) He was frustrated at the government’s mad policy of simultaneously feeding and arming the tribes yet demanding the Army fight them when they used those arms on civilians. He also railed against newspaper editorials that claimed the Army wanted war. No one who ever had to go to war, particularly the guerrilla style of warfare on the Plains, would seek a war, Custer wrote. The collected stories in My Life on the Plains struck a note with his contemporaries, who he was able to take to the frontier with him through the power of his writing.
What can journalism historians take from this research? It suggests that when studying literary journalists, historians should not focus solely on full-time reporters. Soldier-journalists such as Custer produced a lot of copy in the 19th century, and we are seeing a rebirth of that in today’s military with soldier-bloggers like Colby Buzzell, who took us to the front lines in Iraq with a “milblog” that led to his book My War: Killing Time in Iraq.
As for my own research, Custer’s writing career will be an important part of an effort to tell the story of his life and how it contributed to the national story. In Custer’s own time, his death was the subject of jokes within weeks of the Little Bighorn, as I related in a chapter on humor in Shooting Arrows and Slinging Mud. One newspaper even called his death “Sioux-icide.” Some blamed Custer for the defeat, others wrote that his attack was what most officers would have done under the same circumstances. But the consensus was that despite the outcome of the battle, he died in the service of his country. Americans in 1876 seemed to have a more balanced view toward their heroes than we do today. I hope this research can make a contribution in that direction.
(1) Frederic F. Van De Water, Glory-Hunter: A Life of General Custer (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1988) 227; Louis Barnett, Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 365.
(2) John M. Carroll, Custer in the Civil War: His Unfinished Memoirs (San Rafael, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1977), 35.
(3) Ibid., 46.
(4) Robert M. Utley, Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), 54.
(5) Ibid., 125.
(6) (Marguerithe Merington, ed., The Custer Story: The Life and Letters of General George A. Custer and His Wife Elizabeth (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1994), 244.
(7) Norman Sims, True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2008), 44-45.
James E. Mueller, Ph.D., is Professor and Interim Associate Dean, Mayborn School of Journalism, University of North Texas.
By David Vergobbi with Ross Collins, Debra Van Tuyll, Patrick Cox.
At this time of political and societal upheaval, I’m reminded of a chapter I wrote a few years ago. So I ask you to consider two scholars named Alex separated by 174 years.
As he traveled around the United States in the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat with liberal leanings, observed how ideas and aspirations diffused among America’s social and economic groups. He believed identifying the methods of diffusion would explain what political and economic aims each group would pursue, what institutions they would establish and operate, and with what success. He paid little attention to government separation of powers and much attention to which social groups might sustain a democratic outlook. In his considerations, Tocqueville became one of the first observers to recognize the press as a powerful force for promoting and sustaining democracy.
“[The press’s] influence in America is immense. It causes political life to circulate through all parts of that vast territory,” he wrote in 1835’s Democracy in America. “Its eye is constantly open to detect the secret springs of political designs and to summon the leaders of all parties in turn to the bar of public opinion.” Tocqueville argued that the press “rallies the interests of the community round certain principles and draws up the creed of every party; for it affords a means of intercourse between those who hear and address each other without ever coming into immediate contact.”
As he reviewed the state of American news media in 2009, our second Alex, Alex S. Jones, an American journalist with democratic concerns now at Harvard, also observed how ideas and aspirations diffused among America’s different social and economic groups. Jones did pay attention to government separation of powers, and he reinforced a long-held belief in the United States that the news media exist as the public’s check and balance on its political system by diffusing “accountability news.”
“Traditional journalists have long believed that this form of fact-based accountability news is the essential food supply of democracy and that without enough of this healthy nourishment, democracy will weaken, sicken, or even fail,” he wrote in Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy (2009). “[T]his core of reported news has been the starting place for a raucous national conversation about who we are as a people and a country.”
The similarity of Tocqueville and Jones’s comments — separated by nearly two centuries — reveals how deeply the perception of the press as democratic catalyst is embedded in American political thought. J. Herbert Altschull called it “The Democratic Assumption.” “Indeed,” Altschull wrote in Agents of Power (1984), “we can say with a large measure of certainty that one of the primary assumptions held by the American citizen is that democracy thrives in part because of the information disseminated by the news media.” Altschull himself italicized his words to drive home their significance. This assumption considers the news media “indispensable to the survival of democracy.” Political scientist Timothy E. Cook showed us in Governing with the News (1998) that even politicians accepted the Democratic Assumption to the point of planning their campaign and governance strategies based on voter media consumption.
And, yet, today “politicians and opinion-leaders, led by the president of the United States himself, have seriously questioned the need for the press,” reports AJHA 2nd Vice-President Ross Collins. “They show skepticism of a presumption that, after more than two centuries, professional journalists ought to continue to play a central role in American democracy. Debates over the credibility and basic veracity of legacy journalism have spilled down from the politicians’ rhetoric and into day-to-day rumblings around the country at most levels, and in most venues — social media to television commentary. People in general are questioning journalism, perhaps more than they have ever before.”
“Or perhaps not more than ever before,” Collins continues. “Because the one aspect to this central discussion of journalism in democracy that is usually missing is the historical perspective.”
Agreed, argues AJHA Board Member Debra Van Tuyll.
“Given that most Americans have scant knowledge of their own history, much less global history, historical context is vital to providing full, fair, and accurate coverage that gives readers/viewers/listeners/surfers what they need — and have a right — to know,” says Van Tuyll. Plus, “given that history is susceptible to being used and manipulated in the service of those who neither understand it nor value it, historians have an ethical obligation to speak out to correct the record when it is presented in a way that cherry-picks facts, exaggerates, indulges in flag-waving, or offers half-truths and obfuscation.”
Such an ethical obligation directly serves our organizational principles, as well, says AJHA veteran Patrick Cox.
“AJHA members can provide a valuable public service during these fractious times by providing historical perspectives on present events to a much broader audience than our membership and our respective educational institutions — for media professionals, educators at all levels, business and nonprofit organizations, and the public,” explains Cox. “Many AJHA members are doing this at the local, regional and national level. [AJHA can] establish and maintain an easy-to-use online resource for identifying and contacting AJHA member historians who can provide their insight and expertise.”
Establishing such an online resource is exactly the focus of this year’s President’s Panel at AJHA’s national convention in Little Rock titled “Journalism History News Service: A series of historical perspectives on contemporary journalism.”
Ross, Debbie, Pat and I will propose a series of member-produced public essays, editorials, and podcasts on historical topics that could illuminate today’s divisive news media discussions. These essays would appear on the association’s website, on social media, as live online chats, and as articles circulated widely to the legacy press. The service would also offer an online resource of Distinguished Media History Leaders — historians available to speak, collaborate, consult and provide historical context on issues involving press freedom, civil rights, and other relevant issues of the day. The goal is to proliferate a national understanding of and need for our two Alex’s “fact-based accountability news” and to revitalize a Democratic Assumption that the news media are indeed “indispensable to the survival of democracy.”
Join us. Provide your input. And together let’s build an effective AJHA service.
By Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez
Seventeen researchers – professors, graduate students and one librarian – participated in the inaugural oral history training institute at the University of Texas at Austin campus.
The researchers came from Maine, New Jersey, Idaho, California, Ohio, Vermont, Tennessee, Alabama, and of course, Texas – and their research interests were as varied as their provenance. Two were from Maine, one a chemistry professor, the other a Spanish professor, hoping to learn enough to begin an oral history project in Chile on health practices. Another was from Idaho, who had applied (and later won) a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities on Latino artists in her state. Two were AJHA professors, George Daniels (University of Alabama) and Melita Garza (Texas Christian University), who wanted to learn more about oral history interviewing techniques and how they differed from journalism practices. Both of are active in the Trailblazers of Diversity in Journalism and Mass Communication Oral History Project (http://bit.ly/2vXQMgJ), a program of the AEJMC.
I organized the institute – recognizing a need to train academics to do oral history. I’ve been doing oral history since 1999 when I founded what is now the Voces Oral History Project. I’ve been teaching oral history and incorporating it into books since then. (I also head of the Trailblazers Oral History committee.) I recruited Todd Moye, a history professor at the University of North Texas, and the former director of the Tuskeegee Airmen Oral History Project. Todd and I served as lead instructors.
Our applicants were required to write a statement of purpose, telling us what they wanted to learn. To the degree we could, we incorporated that into our curriculum.
Archivist Lisa Cruces, of the University of Houston, took the institute because she has worked with the end product: the actual recordings from oral history interviews. And she wanted to learn more about the process at the front end.
George Daniels immediately applied what he learned at the institute to his own research: “Since the weeklong summer experience, I have prepared two abstracts of my research and submitted to conferences, one of which was accepted for presentation.”
Daniels will use his new understanding in “developing a community-based partnership that will utilize the oral historical method to preserve the history of a local middle school that is closing in 2018.
“Take a semester-long graduate seminar and roll it into five days-- That's what the summer Institute is,” Daniels said.
And Melita Garza later said the institute added “new dimensions of skills, understanding, and excitement” to her oral history work.
“The institute offers a top-flight curriculum and the chance to work with amazing scholars from around the country,” Garza said in an email. “You will be inspired.”
The dates for this summer’s institute will be announced in October; with the applications process opening in early December. Cost will be $750, including a light breakfast and lunch. Access to inexpensive dorm housing is available. Further information will be available at: vocessummerinstitute.org. Questions may be directed to: email@example.com.
In a year in which the term “fake news” has become part of the vernacular, an article exploring late 19th and early 20th Century America’s obsession with “news fakes” proved the best of a strong field of articles in American Journalism.
Justin Clark, an assistant professor of History at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, was named the winner of American Journalism’s annual Best Article Award for “Confronting the ‘Seeker of Newspaper Notoriety’: Pathological Lying, the Public and the Press, 1890-1920.”
“As I am so regularly impressed by the scholarship in American Journalism, I was happy that the article was accepted for publication—and thrilled when I learned it had won the journal's annual Best Article prize,” Clark said. “The article was accepted in the spring, and by autumn, fake news had become a national preoccupation. I can’t say that I saw that coming. Still, it's a reminder that, however much it has evolved since the late 19th century, professional journalism is as susceptible to crisis as any other modern institution. I am grateful for the recognition.”
Clark will receive a plaque and a $250 prize from American Journalism, a peer-reviewed quarterly and the official publication of the American Journalism Historians Association. "Justin's article was not only original and rigorous, but the editorial board believed it made a real contribution to the scholarship of media history," Ford Risley, editor of American Journalism, said. "I agree wholeheartedly."
Quality research about the relationship between journalism and the Social Gospel recently netted Pepperdine University’s Christina Littlefield American Journalism’s 2017 Rising Scholar Award.
Littlefield’s project, “Promulgating the Kingdom: Social Gospel Muckrakers,” addresses 19th century Christian and secular social reformers' use of the press to agitate for change. “It's impossible to describe my reaction in mere words,” Littlefield said. “I had applied for some three years in a row, so to actually win it came as a delightful shock, followed by a huge sense of joy and validation that the leaders at AJHA saw the value and uniqueness of my work. I am delighted they saw the worth of researching the religious muckrakers who worked alongside the secular muckrakers.”
Littlefield will be recognized with a $2,000 award at the AJHA National Convention, which will occur in Little Rock Oct. 12-14. The Rising Scholar Award winner is chosen annually by the editors of American Journalism, a peer-reviewed quarterly and the official publication of the American Journalism Historians Association. The award is designed for scholars who show promise in extending their research agendas.
“The proposal was original, detailed, beautifully written, and addressed a relatively unexplored area of journalism history,” said Vanessa Murphree, associate editor of American Journalism and an associate professor at The University of Southern Mississippi. “Her work fills a void in journalism and Christian history as it seeks to illuminate the presence of social gospel muckrakers and their relationship and alignment with other muckrakers.”
With all due credit to Graham, Barth and countless others, the first person to introduce me to “journalism is the first rough draft of history” was my long-time adviser, mentor and friend Dr. Ross Collins.
As a young adult, I was intent on pursuing a career in journalism and media. I wanted to report, write and enter a profession that I saw as adventurous. I did not, at the time, reflect too much on the scope of the discipline beyond education and professionalization.
As an undergraduate and graduate student in the mass communication program at North Dakota State University, Dr. Collins quickly relieved me of my narrow goals. In his discussions on media history, Dr. Collins made visible the quantum entanglements of events, past, present and future, and opened my eyes to the larger world of academic study.
I took time off between my master’s degree and Ph.D., working full time as a journalism professor and student media director at the University of Jamestown. I returned to my studies at NDSU, again having the timeless knowledge of Dr. Collins’ support. I also found another mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Crawford, to expand my base of support and field knowledge.
Together Drs. Collins and Crawford have helped shape who I am as a scholar and student of history. Under Dr. Collins, historical research was central to my thesis on The Village Voice’s role in community building, and to my ongoing project on Native American newspapers’ roles in community building. Under Dr. Crawford, historical research is central to my professional passion--the relationship between the student press and the First Amendment.
Prior to 1988, few questioned the negotiated autonomy the student press received from the First Amendment, seemingly cemented in the 1969 Supreme Court’s Tinker decision. Then, after the Court’s misguided Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision, the new status quo of unmitigated censorship authority quickly replaced any institutional or cultural memory of a time when student journalists were afforded a measure of protected freedom to express themselves in student publications. Now, only 30 years later, a free student press is mostly viewed as a gift to be given, not a right to be exercised.
In 2013, my students at the University of Jamestown and I turned a class project into what has become the national grassroots legislative campaign to protect student journalistic expression. New Voices U.S.A. (www.newvoicesus.com) has resulted in six states adopting new legislative protections for student journalists since 2015. I have been so fortunate to work with so many passionate influential people on this endeavor.
My contribution to New Voices was informed and enhanced by my mentors and their investment in me. They provided me the tools to look outside of the present and to identify the events in time that are connected to the way things are now. In joining the American Journalism Historians Association, I have discovered a family of scholars who share that historical appreciation for journalism and media. The research journal, Community Discussions, and support network have all been so valuable. And, as a life-long North Dakotan, I have especially enjoyed the recent work Teri Finneman has done on preserving the voices of important journalists in our state through multimedia and film.
Now that I am a faculty member at Henderson State University, just a short drive from Little Rock, I look forward to finally participating in my first AJHA conference. I am also honored to be moderating a panel with fellow graduate students on another past time, international journalism. The panel, “Thinking internationally: Research opportunities connecting media history in the U.S. and abroad,” is at 11:20 a.m., Thursday, Oct. 12.
The mentorship that I received from journalism and media historians helped me understand that “journalism is the first rough draft of history.” But that mentorship also concretely shaped my history.
Steven Listopad is Lecturer/Student Media Adviser at Henderson State University, Oslo Program Director for ieiMedia, and a New Voices Advocate for New Voices U.S.A.
Editor’s Note: University of Maine professor Josh Roiland presented his paper, “Hidden in Plain Style: The Anti-Bomb Politics of John Hersey’s Hiroshima,” at the recent International Association of Literary Journalism Studies conference held in Canada. The Intelligencer asked Dr. Roiland to tell us more about how and why he started researching this topic, and why this research is important and interesting for himself and our field.
By Josh Roiland, University of Maine
The lasting image from my first reading of John Hersey’s classic Hiroshima is his description of the Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto reaching down to help a blast victim. Tanimoto grabs the woman “by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glovelike pieces.” The verb slipped. The adjective glovelike. Together they created an aqueous revulsion that still attends each reading.
Hiroshima was part of Tom Connery’s “Literary Journalism in America” graduate course at the University of Saint Thomas. It was my first semester in the English master’s program, and I remember being repulsed, if not exactly moved, by the story. I was more interested in the fact that Hersey traveled back to Japan 40 years after the piece first ran in The New Yorker, to report on the fates of the six survivors he profiled in 1946.
When I read the story again, several years later, it was in preparation for teaching my own version of “Literary Journalism in America.” This time I was struck by the story’s clinical and antiseptic feel. Yes, the gory details still stood out, but the text was, in many ways, boring. Hersey overwhelmed readers with precise measurements, exact times, and arcane details. Trapped within this barrage of facts, the characters seemed not so much heroic as fated. I wondered and worried how I was going to teach this landmark work or journalism. As far as pedagogy goes, standing in front of students pleading Isn’t this horrific? wasn’t much of a plan.
That question, however, was canny. It led to two more questions that subsequently animated my teaching and, eventually, my research on the text.
Why is it terrible?
How does it work?
I’ve taught Hiroshima eight times. The first five as part of the SAGES writing program at Case Western Reserve University, then twice more as a visiting professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and finally once as an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Maine. In each class, we spent the first of our four days cataloging reactions to the text and the passages that produced them. Students are always shocked, disgusted, and riveted. They’re awed by the enormity of the catastrophe. They’re sickened by the graphic descriptions. They’re captivated by the stories of resilience. Each time I would ask them why they were so moved, and each time they exclaimed: “The story!”
The unanimity and repetition of that answer increasingly left me unsatisfied. I understood being stirred by the ghastly content of Hersey’s text, but what about Hiroshima’s form? The story, they would often say, speaks for itself. This answer both made sense and was completely unsatisfying. Hersey’s narrative is so plainly drawn and utterly compelling that it feels as though it always existed just that way. But, of course, it didn’t. No story ever speaks for itself. In class I would push back: all stories—including Hiroshima—are constructions, and our job is to figure out how it is constructed, then determine the effect of that particular composition. In time, that became my job outside of the classroom as well.
On the second day of class discussion, I start to push back. I ask: Does the text express a point of view? Does Hersey offer his thoughts, either explicitly or implicitly, on the usage of the bomb? I introduce secondary articles for historical and theoretical context. We discuss Hugh Kenner’s “The Politics of Plain Style” and an excerpt from Phyllis Frus’s The Politics and Poetics of Journalistic Narrative. Students are moved by Kenner’s refutation that “a man who doesn’t make his language ornate cannot be deceiving us.” Maybe there’s something more going on here, they think. They are less persuaded (and, in fact, often annoyed) by Frus’s theoryspeak when she adduces that due to a nonfiction writer’s lack of reflexivity, a reader’s “response is reduced to a narrow emotional range, and we do not experience the subjectivity of another, for the text (with its repetition of universal truths and reified, historical facts) confirms the naturalized view we already hold, the world we recognize as ‘actual.’” What?, they ask. The first couple times I taught that text I joined the students in their puzzlement, but every semester when I explained Frus’s argument I found myself more and more persuaded.
In addition to those two works of literary theory, we read three works of historiography: an 11-page excerpt from Ben Yagoda’s About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made that offers both a brief biography and a behind-the-scenes exploration of Hersey’s reporting and writing process; the corresponding chapter from Norman Sims’s seminal True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism; and Kathy Roberts Forde’s award-winning article, “Profit and Public Interest: A Publication History of John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima.’” Forde, a friend and mentor, chronicles in meticulous and captivating detail how “[n]o other publication in the American twentieth century was so widely circulated, republished, discussed, and venerated.”
After a while, all these passages and the articles that contained them, looked like puzzle pieces.
Forde’s article, however, was the kicker. It spurred me to put the puzzle together: “Hiroshima”’s recognition was immediate and its reach, vast. Aided by a press release announcing its publication and advanced reviews, when The New Yorker hit newsstands on August 29, 1946, the magazine sold its entire 300,000 non-subscription run in an hour. ABC radio staged a somber four-night reading of the text for a national audience. Alfred A. Knopf almost instantaneously published the article in book form. The Book-of-the-Month club selected Hersey’s story and sent a free copy to its more than half-a-million subscribers.
The question that frustrated me over and over was: Why?
As I later wrote:
“Hiroshima” was released less than five years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which killed 2,386 Americans. Upon entering World War II, the United States forcibly relocated and incarcerated more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans living along the Pacific Coast. The last internment camp, at Tule Lake, California did not close until March 21, 1946. A virulent anti-Japanese sentiment still coursed through American culture after the war ended. So then, how did a story rooted in empathy for the Japanese cause publishers to, as Forde put it, “largely disregard commercial imperatives to provide as many Americans as possible with vital information and a forum for debate about the unsettling moral, political, and social realities of atomic warfare and the new atomic age.”
The more I taught the text, the more I thought I figured out that very basic question.
The answer, I believed, was that Hersey’s lack of reporting transparency, absence of rhetorical reflexivity, and plain compositional style made his rendering of such a distasteful moral act palatable for large numbers of American readers.
I was writing my dissertation while I taught most these classes. Moved by the work of James Carey, Barbie Zelizer, and Michael Schudson, I wanted to figure out the democratic significance of literary journalism in America. Hiroshima was not part of my study, but my scholarship informed my teaching, which, in turn, informed later scholarship. When I floated my ideas in the classroom, however, students were not swayed. In fact, some were offended. Hersey’s story was so meaningful to them that to suggest an alternative understanding was to impugn on their critical sensibilities.
At the end of every semester, I ask students to rate all our primary texts on a scale of 0-10 based on how much they “liked” each piece. It’s a fun exercise that also offers me some unscientific data about what and how I’m teaching. In each of the eight semesters that I’ve taught “Literary Journalism in America,” Hiroshima’s average rating came in above 8.5, which always made it one of the three highest-rated stories out of the more than 35 that we read in class. The text’s popularity mirrored the honor bestowed by esteemed journalists and NYU professors who, in 1999, named the story the most important work of journalism of the twentieth century.
The push back from the students proved to be good practice for when I eventually presented the paper at a conference.
After a half-dozen courses, I felt I had my argument pretty-well mapped out. I had a hypothesis, some convincing examples, and an explanatory theoretical framework. These elements were enough to run several successful classes and prod students to consider Hiroshima in new and uncomfortable ways. But they were not enough for an article. So I spent last summer researching and re-reading. I went through the text page-by-page and created thematic taxonomies, then populated those categories with extensive examples. The puzzle grew larger and larger. And then I assembled it.
If research papers have nut grafs, this would be mine:
Hersey establishes his authority through an unrelenting presentation of precise times and measurements. He employs an unadorned style of writing that garners readers’ trust by abandoning rhetorical flourishes. He pulls readers along through a looping, nonlinear narrative with constant temporal transitions that seemingly link the stories together. Hersey further enhances the narrative by hiding his reporting via conventional attribution. A result of taking the marks off his reporting is a presentation of characters that appear representative of Hiroshima’s victims, when, in fact, they display religious and occupational characteristics familiar to most western audiences. Hersey uses a limited-omniscient point of view for much of the story, which removes direct agency from the events and replaces it with a more dramatic emphasis on fate. He plays down the political and militaristic context rendering the events in a cultural vacuum. Finally, there are several key moments in “Hiroshima” where Hersey betrays his plain style by deploying figurative language that directly editorializes his disdain for the bomb.
I presented the paper at the twelfth annual meeting of the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies (IALJS) in Halifax, Nova Scotia in May 2017. Relative to AJHA, this association and its attendant conferences are small. Approximately 75 presented at IALJS-12. It felt like half of them came to our panel, “Content, Form, and Time: Style as Argument,” which also featured Christopher Wilson (Boston College) discussing Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker murder stories and David Dowling (University of Iowa) presenting his award-winning paper on Marilynne Robinson’s radical environmental journalism.
I expected there to be some opposition in the audience. I was taking on a canonical writer, after all, as well as some canonical takes. If my students were bothered by my reading of Hiroshima, surely scholars who had vested interests in the text would also disagree with me.
(Readers can watch the panel and the feisty question and answer session here.)
Some believed I was unfairly critical of Hersey and his journalistic decision-making process. I explained that I was not—in the paper, anyway—offering a value judgment on Hersey’s reporting and writing choices, but rather noting that all choices have an effect; therefore, it was important to understand how Hersey’s choices positioned readers, then and now, to encounter the text in particular ways. (That said, I didn’t help my case by adding that I personally felt Hersey’s lack of transparency and reflexivity was compositionally manipulative.)
Other scholars questioned my use of the term “political,” wondering if I was suggesting that Hersey was either partisan or agenda-driven. I explained that I was using John J. Pauly’s conception of “politics” as “the realm of symbolic confrontation in which groups of citizens organize, enact, and negotiate their relationships with one another.” Moreover, I was not making any claims, nor am I interested in Hersey’s intention or agenda. Rather, I wanted to explore the effects of the choices that he made in his text.
An ancillary question attended these points: So what? Several scholars pointed out that Hersey’s text had been effective because the world had not experienced any atomic warfare after the publication of this influential account. I believe it is reductive to make such a correlation. Global politics are a volatile and complicated crucible, and to suggest that any one text—no matter how profound—ever has such direct influence is, I believe, simplistic. Moreover, the fact that civilization has thus far staved off nuclear annihilation really has nothing to do with my argument.
As the Q+A concluded I tried to emphasize this point: all styles are political—even (or, especially) a plain style. Such a statement, however, is not analogous to saying that Hersey had a political agenda or intended to smuggle a message into his text. Intention has nothing to do with it. Rather, saying the style is political acknowledges that all reporting and writing decisions have consequences for readers; our job as scholars is remove our value judgment about those decisions and instead highlight and understand those consequences.
I titled my essay “Hidden in Plain Style” to draw attention to the style’s subtlety. Although the approach is unadorned, direct, and simple, Hugh Kenner called it “the most disorienting form of discourse yet invented by man.” And once one notices it, the style is impossible to unsee. Yet for more than 70 years, most of the popular and scholarly criticism of Hiroshima has focused not on the story’s form, but rather on its content. There is good reason for this attention: the subject matter is literally (and thankfully) unparalleled. But that focus has also prevented us from understanding precisely how the story works. It’s not enough to note that Hersey travelled to Japan and bore witness to the effects of the first ever detonation of an atomic bomb on civilization. Scholars must account for the fact that he constructed a story based on what he saw and whom he talked to, and then chose to tell that story in a very particular way. The hope is that my article creates a space to start that discussion.
Josh Roiland is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Maine. His article, “Hidden in Plain Style: The Anti-Bomb Politics of John Hersey’s Hiroshima,” has been accepted by Journalism History pending minor revisions. His essays and criticism are available at www.joshroiland.com
This year’s call for nominations yielded a diverse pool for leadership positions in our organization. Two AJHA members have been nominated to fill the slot of 2017-2018 2nd VP, and three members were nominated to fill three three-year terms on the Board of Directors.
Here’s a little bit of information about each nominee (listed in alphabetical order, by position).
Donna Lampkin Stephens (University of Central Arkansas, Conway, Ark.) has been nominated for the position of 2nd VP. Stephens joined AJHA as a graduate student in 2008, where she won the Robert Lance Memorial Award for Outstanding Student Paper for one of her assignments in Dave Davies’ Historical Methods class at the University of Southern Mississippi (“The Conscience of the Arkansas Gazette: J.N. Heiskell Faces the Storm of Little Rock.”). Since then, she has attended conferences in Raleigh, New Orleans, St. Paul, Oklahoma City, St. Petersburg and Little Rock. In New Orleans, she presented her dissertation, “’If It Ain’t Broke, Break It’: How Corporate Journalism Killed the Arkansas Gazette,” which earned honorable mention for the Margaret A. Blanchard Dissertation Prize. It was published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2015. She has participated in panel discussions and served on the Public Relations and History in the Curriculum committees and has been a reviewer for American Journalism. Stephens is transitioning off the AJHA board after a three-year term and is one of the local hosts for the Little Rock conference. She holds undergraduate and master’s degrees in Journalism and English from the University of Arkansas, an M.Ed. in special education (Teaching Visually Impaired Children) from UA-Little Rock, and a Ph.D. in Mass Communication (History and Law) from the University of Southern Mississippi.
Amber Roessner (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) has been nominated for the position of 2nd VP. Roessner joined AJHA as a graduate student in 2006. In her time with the organization, she has served in numerous roles—as the member and chair of the AJHA Graduate Committee (2007-2011), as the chair of the Elections and Nominations Committee (2011-present), as a conference reviewer (2010-present), as a member of the Blanchard Doctoral Dissertation award committee (2013-2016) and the AJHA Book Award Committee (2011-2014). She also served on the Board of Directors 2013-2016. Roessner has published one book and 12 refereed articles, including three that appeared in American Journalism, where she has served as a manuscript reviewer on numerous occasions. Much of this research was presented at AJHA, where she has been honored with AJHA’s William Snorgrass Memorial Award and honorable mention for the David Sloan Outstanding Faculty Paper Award and the Robert E. Lance Award. Roessner recently was honored with the 2017 AJHA Award for Excellence in Teaching, with American Journalism’s 2014 Rising Scholar Award, and with AJHA’s 2011 Joseph McKerns Research Grant Award. Roessner is an associate professor of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; she received her Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee in 2010. Her research interests include twentieth century U.S. political communications and race and gender politics in American culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
David O. Dowling (University of Iowa, Iowa City) has been nominated to serve on the board of directors. Dowling has been a member of AJHA since 2014. Dowling has served as a referee for Research Paper Submissions for the 2016 and 2017 Annual Conferences and on the American Journalism Editorial Board since 2016. Two of his articles, one on the ideological convergence of Margaret Fuller and Herman Melville in the periodical press, and the other on multimedia approaches to teaching journalism history, have been published (the latter in press) in American Journalism. His presentations on radical nineteenth-century intellectual culture in mainstream press was presented at the 2014 and 2015 AJHA Annual Conferences prior to inclusion in “Emerson’s Newspaperman: Horace Greeley and Radical Intellectual Culture, 1836-1872,” J&C Monographs spring 2017. In 2016, he presented his research on Indian journalist T.G. Narayanan, the figure responsible for publicizing the revolutionary vision of Mahatma Ghandi. This research is currently under review at Modern Asian Studies.
Dowling, an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa, is the author of six books and numerous articles on digital media and journalism history. His research on publishing industries and cultural production has appeared in Literary Journalism Studies, Genre, Convergence, Digital Humanities Quarterly, Journalism & Communication Monographs, and elsewhere. His current book project is titled, Immersed: Narrative Journalism in the Digital Age.
Keith Greenwood (Missouri, Columbia) has been nominated to serve on the board of directors. He has been a member of the American Journalism Historians Association since 2005. He has served AJHA as a member of the Nominations and Elections Committee and as a current member of the Board of Directors. He also manages the website of the AEJMC history division.
He is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism where he is part of the photojournalism and journalism studies faculty groups. He teaches History of Photojournalism as well as graduate seminars on photography in society and research methods. His research on the history of photojournalism has included the study of individual photographers. His research also includes visual framing analysis of news photographs and adoption of technology in photojournalism.
Sonny Rhodes (University of Arkansas, Little Rock) has been nominated to serve on the board of directors. He has been a member of the American Journalism Historians Association since 2005. He has attended a number of AJHA national conferences since then, given that AJHA is, by far, his favorite organization. Having a strong commitment to service, he has served AJHA by reading numerous papers submitted for presentation at annual conferences. He also has served the organization by reviewing papers submitted for publication in American Journalism and by writing book reviews for the journal. Since early 2016 he has aided in planning for the 2017 national conference in Little Rock.
Additional nominations can be made from the floor during the election that will be held during the annual convention in October. Please remember that any nominee must have been a member of AJHA for at least one calendar year immediately preceding the date of the election. No more than one person from an institution can serve on the Board of Directors at one time; individuals from the same institution may serve on the Board of Directors and in the Presidency or Vice-Presidency, concurrently. Dues paying AJHA members unable to attend the conference are eligible to vote. They should send their name, email address, and intent to vote online to AJHA Nominations and Election Committee Chair Amber Roessner (firstname.lastname@example.org) no later than midnight Sept. 31. After elections are held on Saturday, October 14, at the 35th annual AJHA convention in Little Rock, current 2nd VP Ross Collins (North Dakota State University) will become 1st VP, and current 1st VP Dianne Bragg (University of Alabama) will become president for 2017-2018.
A reporter from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette whose work has exposed judicial and higher education corruption will soon be honored by the American Journalism Historians Association. Debra Hale-Shelton, who joined the Democrat-Gazette in 2004, will receive AJHA’s 2017 Local Journalist Award at the organization’s annual convention, which will be held Oct. 12-14 in Little Rock.
“Every year AJHA honors a journalist in our convention city who has repeatedly ensured that the public interest is served by governmental, societal and corporate institutions,” Dave Vergobbi, AJHA President and a University of Utah professor. “We are indeed pleased to so honor Debra Hale-Shelton this year in Little Rock, because her career exemplifies the vital role of journalism in a democracy.”
Hale-Shelton has reported stories that led to the resignations of two University of Central Arkansas presidents, and she reported extensively on a judicial corruption probe. Hale-Shelton previously worked more than 20 years for The Associated Press. She has interviewed former Presidents Carter and Clinton, the late advice columnist Ann Landers, a young Donald Trump, death-row inmates and the suspected Tylenol killer.
"Debra Hale-Shelton is, perhaps, the best reporter in Arkansas,” said Donna Lampkin Stephens, Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Central Arkansas. “The epitome of journalism's watchdog role, she is a dogged, determined journalist who has uncovered a number of cases of wrongdoing and been the catalyst for correcting them. I hope my students grow up to be just like her."
Editor’s Note: University of Bamberg doctoral candidate Hendrik Michael presented his paper, “The World’s ‘True Stories of the News’ and the Commodification of Literary Journalism Before 1900,” at the recent International Association of Literary Journalism Studies conference held in Canada. The Intelligencer asked Mr. Michael to tell us more about how and why he started researching this topic, and why this research is important and interesting for himself and our field.
By Hendrik Michael
University of Bamberg
The mission statement of the International Association of Literary Journalism Studies broadly defines literary journalism to be “journalism as literature.” It is a genre of nonfiction writing that combines discursive strategies and research practices of traditional journalism with storytelling techniques more commonly associated with fiction.
Interrelations of literature and journalism are historically varied and complex. The historical roots of literary journalism have been traced back to the advent of mass media in the 16th century. Since then the genre has been adopted in different journalism cultures across the globe and has gone by various names. Its best known practitioners arguably are the so-called New Journalists of the 1960s and 1970s. But this period, which many regard as the genres most prominent phase, marks just one heyday in the genre’s checkered history. Thomas Connery, among others, argued that Pulitzer’s New Journalism of the 1880s and 1890s marked the first most prominent phase of the genre in mainstream journalism. Only recently, Robert Alexander called literary journalism “a genre whose time, once again, has come.”
The continuous re-emergence of literary journalism makes the genre an interesting subject to study changes of media, journalism and culture. My field of research focuses on the formation phase of modern journalism in the late 19th century and explores the role of literary journalism within this process.
One of the most active fields of research in the genre has been author studies. By pointing out commendable examples of literary journalism, researchers attempt to build a canon. However, with respect to the 19th century, this canon aims mainly at the upper echelons of journalism. It includes better-known journalistic and literary writers. Notably, Richard Harding Davis, Stephen Crane, Abraham Cahan, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, to name a few, are all male. Only recently research on women journalists attracted wider interest.
Through Karen Roggenkamp’s research on women journalists of the period I came across Elizabeth Jordan’s journalistic work for Pulitzer’s The World: “The True Stories of the News,” a popular reportage series that was a stepping stone for Jordan’s later career in journalism and as a novelist.
Although less recognized as part of the canon, I realized that the “True Stories of the News” could reveal important aspects of journalistic story-telling in urban mass periodicals and the significance of literary journalism in this context. Roggenkamp kindly sent me a handful of facsimiles and during a research trip to Minneapolis, I was able to get hold of the full series through the University of Minnesota Library in 2015.
Here, I want to briefly outline why I believe that The World’s “True Stories of the News” is an example for the initial commodification of literary journalism in mass periodicals. By the term commodification I mean the implementation of literary journalism as a marketable good in mass journalism. My analysis followed a heuristic approach that differentiates three dimensions: media messages, media agents and media organizations.
As regards media organizations, I considered the newspaper’s hierarchies, its resources such as money, staff, information technology, and informal competencies, and furthermore its production routines of news-gathering and processing. With respect to media agents it proved helpful to look at journalists’ working methods and job conditions, as well as personal experience and biographies. I believe these intervening factors shaped the message level, meaning the narrative form and content of a journalistic genre. With respect to narrative form I differentiated between the components voice, character, time and space.
Let me start on the message level by outlining the form and content of the series. The “True Stories of the News” appeared regularly in The World for about half a year between November 1890 and May 1891. More than 90 articles were published in this period of time. Often the series was printed in the section “Metropolis Day by Day” on page 9. The articles ran over about a third of a newspaper page. Their layout was characteristic for the New Journalism of Pulitzer’ World with screaming headlines, bold leads and sub-headings.
Stories dealt with curious events like a freak-show, intrigues in upper-class circles, or curious events from other parts of the country. But by and large the topics focused on the life of the lower classes and immigrants. None of the articles had a byline. Only through autobiographical claims do we know that Elizabeth Jordan authored all of the articles.
Recurring topics from the lower strata of New York social life were court cases, tragic events in the life of immigrants and workers, visits to the city’s institutions, and accounts of the day-to-day chasm between cultures. Thereby “True Stories of the News” fit into the routine local reporting of the New York press. Evident is a tendency for personalization and tapping into social issues as regards housing, health-care and immigration in a rapidly changing urban environment. Interesting is the fact that the series selected events and situations that had been previously reported as small news items. The marginal thereby became relevant and received public attention.
With regard to narrative form an analysis of journalistic voice yield interesting results. My findings show that voice is quite ambiguous in the series. Less than a fifth of sampled articles feature a homodiegetic narrator (someone who is part of the story). Most articles feature a heterodiegetic narrator (someone who is not directly linked to the story). Events are often told from a limited epistemic and emotional perspective. This figural perspective is sometimes identified as a “World reporter” or a “World man,” only in three instances “a female reporter.” Another dominant feature of voice is the presence of an omniscient narrator, someone who seems to tell and comment the story from an elevated position.
In contrast, only 15 or so stories feature a homodiegetic narrator. Direct evidence for a homodiegetic narrator appears in the reportage, “Only a Case of Mumps” and “The Happiest Woman in New York.” In both texts, personal and spatial deixis can be detected, which establishes a direct reference between narrator and story. In “Only a Case of Mumps,” the narrator, although covert in most of the story, speaks up to demand better health-care: “[This] hospital is a necessity. I have advocated it for years. So has Dr. Jacobi.“
Overall, the analysis of narrative voice shows that even though most articles have a male figural focalizer or an omniscient narrator, the narratorial perspective, referring to attitudes and ideology, is still identical between a heterodiegetic and a homodiegetic narrator.
This means, Jordan, then unknown to be the author of all texts, deliberately manipulated the narrative situation. Obviously this created variation from story to story and possibly contributed to their relative longevity. On the other hand, Jordan indirectly manipulated her readers, too. By creating a narrative ambivalence she strengthened the collective public voice of The World, while also creating an overlap between this collective voice and the individual voice of the seldom present women reporter.
Overall, results of my textual analysis suggest that characteristics of literary journalism were successfully adapted to a feature series in the context of New York’s mass print market. To understand how a Elizabeth Jordan was able to establish the genre in form and practice, I want to point out some aspects about the media organization and its journalistic agents.
It must be acknowledged that publishing became less profitable at the end of the 1880s. Market competition forced papers to invest more in new technologies and expand their correspondent networks while advertising revenues stalled. This resulted in soaring news-gathering costs while the market grew more and more saturated.
To balance spending, labor costs for the city staff was cut drastically. Even the biggest papers like The World, while still expanding their staff, cut employment costs. Their local reporting still kept up in quality because editorial resources and news-gathering routines were bound to relatively flat hierarchies. The moderating influence of managing editor John A. Cockerill in the newsroom was already recognized by contemporaries. His regime still allowed for innovative practices to be realized. The innovation of stunt reporting can be considered an example of this.
While providing chances for women to make a career in journalism that wasn’t confined to the “Women’s Pages,” editors certainly exploited new women reporters, sending them on sometimes dangerous assignments to get a “fresh” reaction about deplorable conditions in the big city.
Informal feedback was established to keep staff motivated and channel the production process towards editorial goals. Such feedback consisted of an internal credit system, displaying specific journalists’ ‘model stories’ for a week in the newsroom.
On the agent level this fired up job competition. Bear in mind that, around 1890, about 100,000 people wanted to make a career in journalism, meaning if you underperformed you were given the boot pretty quickly. In addition the role of women journalists was constantly under attack by male colleagues. In her autobiography, Elizabeth Banks pointed out the growing competition among newspaper women as well.
To establish her position in the journalistic field, Jordan had to take a risk and escape the woman’s page duties, quitting her job at Peck’s Sun in Milwaukee and moving to New York.
She benefited from The World’s internal credit system. Her reportage “The Death of Number 9,” left a footprint and became The World’s “model story.” This emboldened Jordan to solidify her role by asking the managing editor to give her an extensive assignment just as Bly had three years earlier with her undercover reporting from Bellevue Asylum. Therefore Jordan’s “True Stories of the News” was surely a “task with entrepreneurial nature” as Alice Fahs pointed out. It competed with stunt-reporting and investigative reporting done by other women reporters.
Jordan’s job writing the series was most challenging. In order to crank out two to three pieces a week, researching, meeting sources and writing meant working up to 18 hours a day. Her task was slavishly “done on time and space specifications” as Jordan recalled in her autobiography. In addition to gathering information and writing up stories, Jordan also was responsible for editing and laying out the Sunday edition of the paper. But this meant Jordan had achieved a solid standing within the newspaper’s institutional hierarchy.
Therefore, the presence of the male reporter in many stories may indicate that she also had the authority to coordinate research. Jordan may have made use of her better editorial position and relied on organizational routines of information gathering to delegate rookie reporters to visit a scene and provide their impressions in short-hand. For Jordan, this meant filtering the information and channeling it into stories, based on the facts gathered on the scene by somebody else.
On the other hand, this freed Jordan to investigate other cases in depth and write stories about the fate of individuals such as Annie Meyer, who had been secluded to her bedroom for 18 years due to illness. Karen Roggenkamp referred to this case in particular to illustrate how Jordan later on transformed these factual stories into very popular fictional stories about the world of journalism.
In this respect, one can definitely conclude that Jordan differed from other newspaper women with her work on “True Stories of the News.” Her status was indicated by earning higher wages than some male colleagues − $30 per week. Lincoln Steffens, in contrast, paid his reporters a meager $15 a week at the Commercial Advertiser. Most female journalists earned only a “delightfully erratic income,” as a contemporary essay about women journalists made clear.
Thus Jordan also helped to create what Alice Fahs called “an important new social space within the pages of the newspaper.” On the one hand, this was meant to be an interactive, participatory space: in “True Stories of the News” readers were invited to interact with the newspaper by tipping stories, seeking advice, and using the paper as their public forum. On the other hand, the series also created a new representational space that included women as emancipated subjects of the social world, not only as women reporters but also as heroines of news stories.
Working with the resources provided by The World Jordan achieved to make “True Stories of the News” highly compatible with the general wave of human-interest that swept urban mass periodicals in reviews, urban sketches, advice columns, interviews, profiles and other features − a phenomenon that Thomas Connery coined as a “paradigm of actuality.” The “True Stories of the News” became a successful product because it complied with a double-principle of journalistic production. The stories helped reduce complexity of the urban life world and engage readers, but also save resources and make profit in a time of increased market competition and saturation.
Thereby the feature series is an interesting case for historical genre studies:
First, it shows that while media systems and societies change overtime, the content and form of literary journalism has remained relatively stable. A research focus on the first prominent phase of literary journalism in American journalism, the triumph of the popular press in the 1880s and 1890s, reveals how the genre offered journalists very effective strategies to process information efficiently.
Second, the “True Stories of the News” prove that literary journalism cannot be merely evaluated from an aesthetic perspective but research should take into account the institutional conditions that allowed fostering a “humanistic approach” to news-writing, as Norman Sims has called it repeatedly.
Third, with respect to contemporary developments and challenges in journalism, an in-depth look at the commodification of literary journalism during the 1880s and 1890s may help us understand how specific genres offer the necessary stability to information processing in a time of New Obscurity, to borrow a phrase by Jürgen Habermas. Rudolf Stöber explains this necessity through biological analogy. He wrote just as “without stability in the reproduction process of genetics, the genes would go astray, without stability in communication, the same will happen to societies.”
Hendrik Michael is a doctoral candidate in the Institute of Communication Studies at the University of Bamberg (Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg), Germany.
Copyright © 2019 AJHA ♦ All Rights Reserved
Contact AJHA via email