These blogs, an experiment in online historical commentary in Boston/New England studies, are less editorial blogs then Web-based columns. Timed to be a 20 minute or so read, sourced, but never peer-reviewed, they are the latest iteration of DST’s columns on WGBH, Boston’s PBS outlet, for Christopher Lydon’s Ten O’clock News. The column moved in the 1990’s to The Boston Phoenix as “Skyline” (so named by editor Peter Kadzis) and has now moved again, on line, modeled on the Center for History and New Media blogs at George Mason University and David Walsh’s Globe economics column, which made the move from print to online in 2002..
The obsequies now begun for the eventual passing of the familiar daily Globe have grown to my mind increasingly unseemly. In New York, The Times, though it has at times attempted condescension, has on the whole reported the matter well. Similarly, though the Washington Post is clearly too impressed with the Globe, it has not taken the “end of civilization as we know it” attitude that in such cases is too easy. But in Boston, the Globe’s coverage, never mind the Herald’s, has verged on hysterical. Bostonians, citizens of the nations founding city and its intellectual capital, ought to show more of a sense of proportion about such things than might always be expected of the economic and political capitals. Yet both the New York and Washington media have shown to a much greater extent the due regard for historical perspective and civic propriety that has been so lacking in Boston’s coverage. In fact, the Globe’s demise at some point is so inevitable in the era of the Internet, it is unlikely any owner, including the family that long controlled the paper, would do anything very differently than the New York Times Co. Moreover, the closing of the Globe is hardly the shutting down of a Boston institution of the stature, say, of WGBH. The greatest poet writing in English in the 20th century did not write a poem about the Globe, but about The Boston Evening Transcript, the demise of which in 1941, a genuinely fraught event in Boston’s history, is today hardly remembered at all.
An Attitude of Mind
The furor over this issue comes from the same part of the arena as the guest on a local talk show who declared once that the three top Bostonians in his book were the mayor of the core city, the editor of the Globe and the manager of the Red Sox! Gosh. And there was me, an historian of Boston studies for more years than I want to admit, sure it was as I was told growing up — in Dorchester, by the way — the president of Harvard, the conductor of the Symphony and the Govenor of the Commonwealth (or perhaps the Cardinal). In our house alternatives included the (Episcopal) bishop of Massachusetts, the editor of the Atlantic and the president of the State Street Bank. Neither His Honor, nor the Globe ,nor the Red Sox ever came up.
When I ran all this by a friend I discovered yet another perspective when he asserted that since Nathan Pusey no president of Harvard, now an international institution, was a Bostonian. President Eliot’s Harvard was not an international institution? Neither Louis Agassiz nor William James would have been pleased to hear that. Pusey, of course, was Iowa born and came to Harvard from Wisconsin. I wondered, however, did they say that about Cardinal Madeiros when he came from Texas to be Archbishop of Boston? I recalled my close friend and mentor, poet David McCord, when he was made a “Grand Bostonian”, no less, saying that while he’d been born in New York and raised in Oregon, “the Oregon Trail begins in Boston”.
Point is, of course, in a nearly 400 year old metropolis of many millions more than one definition of Bostonian is on offer, from Dean Road in Brookline to DStreet in South Boston, and — to touch home plate again — no surer measure of same is to be found then what paper one takes. The working class reads the Herald (especially in the city), the middle classes ( in the suburbs) reads the Globe, and the chattering classes — academe or, if you prefer, intellectuals — read the New England edition of the New York Times and perhaps the Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. College students read the Phoenix.
Today one would have to add — with respect to print editions — none of the above if you are under forty. A salient fact of the Globe furor too frequently ignored is that the paper now is only 14th among American newspapers in readership, while its online edition , Boston.com, with over five million unique visitors a month, ranks sixth in America, “an imbalance”, the Times notes, “that reflects how heavily wired (Boston’s} highly educated market is”.
Ink Colonial and Victorian
The modern Globe, like the Boston Phoenix, dates from the mid 1960s, an era when Boston’s colleges and schools set a new pace both papers thrived on. The result of a series of mergers among a family of alternative papers of which The Real Paper was perhaps the best known, the Phoenix , a weekly which has always offered excellent arts coverage – – winning a Purlitzer Prize for the work of music critic Lloyd Schwartz — and been boldly liberal in its editorial policy, may very well now survive the Globe, which won in 1965 its first Purlitzer under now legendary editor Tom Winship. It ushered in decades of excellent journalism that raised the Globe to national repute, the reason in 1993 the Times paid over one billion dollars for it, the highest price ever paid for a single newspaper. But as David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace point out, “untill 1965 [the Globe] was undistinguished”, very much a “bystander” in the words of historian Louis Lyons, and in a city with an exceptional journalistic history. (The Transcript at once supported H. L. Mencken in his Boston censorship fight in the 1920s, the Globe did not.And the Globe was shamefully silent all throughout the Sacco Vanzetti furor. ) A little history in the case of the Globe yields quite a lot of perspective.
Historian George H . Payne traces Boston’s journalistic history back to “the pioneer journalist of America”, Benjamin Harris, who in 1690 started Public Occurances, the first newspaper in British NorthAmerica, and to Samuel Adams, who Payne calls “America’s greatest journalist” ever, closely identified with the Boston Gazette of 1704, the nations first continiously published newspaper. Others might choose Benjamin Franklin, who when his brother was in jail wrote many of the articles in New England Courant under the name of “Silence Dogood”. In whichever event one has only to read Bernard Bailyn’s Origins of American Politics to understand what an outstanding journalistic legacy was passed on to Victorian Boston journalism.
Three of those 19th century papers, all weeklies, stand out themselves, each examples of ardent advocacy journalism with respect to the abolition of slavery and womens suffrage and black civil rights generally. The first cause was championed by the Liberator, founded in 1831 and edited for decades thereafter by William Lloyd Garrison, whose role in urging abolitionism on America can hardly be exagerated. The second was the cause of the Woman’s Journal, started in 1870 by pioneer feminist Lucy Stone, which even when the leadership in the women’s movement shifted to New York, remained the leading voice for the movement nationally. Finally, there was the Guardian, the brainchild of one of Harvard’s first black graduates, William Munroe Trotter, with W. E.B. DuBois a charter memeber of the Niagra movement out of which came the NAACP, which, however, Trotter was too radical to join. Similarly his paper, of which DuBois wrote that it was “bitter, satirical and personal; but it was earnest, and it published facts. It attracted wide attention among colored people, it circulated among them all over the counrty.” And like the other two it created a context that could hardly be ignored by the cities leading general interest daily paper of this period, the Boston Evening Transcript, founded in 1830.
T. S. Eliot delivers the Paper
What better evokes old Boston in the imagination of the world than young Eliot, then at Harvard, arrived at Cousin Harriet’s front door on Beacon Hill — “wearily, as one would turn to nod good-bye to Rochefoucald, if the street were time, and he at the end of the street” — all this of a Boston Edwardian twilight, “wakening the apetite of life in some/ And to others bringing the Boston Evening Transcript”. Grand, worldly and avuncular, words nonetheless sharp enough to measure the rise and fall of the day, the premiere poet of Boston’s Brahmin aristocracy was delivering the Transcript in its 85th year, long past its prime, when it too had fiercely fought slavery, “advocated on behalf of Irish immigrants”, in David Walsh’s words, “at a time when predjudice against Catholics was very great”, and had the first woman editor of a major American daily (Cornelia Walter) and as late as the 1900s rejoiced in a superb African American literary critic, William S. Braithwaite. Yet even in its decline David Walsh was right that “among American newspapers the Transcript was unique”.
In two respects particularly: not least in the music and dance criticism of H. T. Parker, a critic whose work is still accounted so valuable an academic press has republished the best of his columns more than a century later, and above all in what can only be called the papers conspicious patriotism. Every time one sings America the Beautiful the Transcript’s legacy shines bright, for the final authorised version of that poem was first published by Wellesley professor Katharine Lee Bates in the Transcript in 1904. And when one remembers that it was scarcely a decade before that The Youth’s Companion, a Boston weekly, first published the Pledge of Alligiance, written by staff member Francis Bellamy, the character and pervasive influence of these Boston papers becomes very clear. And it was, moreover, a more sophisticated witness than might at first seem to be the case. The author of America the Beautiful was gay, living in a “Boston marriage” of 25 years, and the author of the Pledge was a Christian socialist.
All that said, “the most durable monument to the Transcript”, writes David Walsh, “is the Wall Street Journal”, the back story for which extraordinary assertion is the purchase of that New York newspaper in 1902 by the celebrated turn of the 20th century Boston financier, Clarence Barron, also the founder of Barron’s magazine, whose spectacular Back Bay mansion by Ralph Adams Cram stands still at 334 Beacon Street. Often called the father of American financial journalism, Barron, while at the Transcript, “invented its financial department at a time when few papers thought business news worthy of note”, in Walsh’s words, and went on to endow the Wall Street Journal with a similar distinction. “Many of [the Journal’s] genteelisms are those of the Transcript”, moreover, Walsh writes, including the deliberately old fashioned and confidence- inspiring front page. Even when the Journal was revamped in the 1940’s after Barron’s death, “it was Barron’s framework that [was]expanded and Barrons family, through his step daughter Jane Bancroft and her heirs, that continued to own and oversee the newspaper — from Boston”, according to Walsh, who wonders “what part of the Wall Street Journal [now it’s been bought] will remain true to its Boston roots under Rupert Murdoch”.
Journalism as a Public Service
When Louis Lyons surveyed Boston’s newspapers between the two world wars, he described the scene as a “kaleidoscope [that] ran from the idealistic Christian Science Monitor , the sedate Transcript, conservative Herald and middle ground Globe in rising decibels of sensationalism to the Traveler, Post and Hearsts evening American, morning Record and Sunday Advertiser”. It was a spectrum in which two papers particularly stood out: the mass circulation Boston Post, perhaps read by more people than any other American paper, and another that is the only Boston-based paper ever to have been called, as journalist and historian Robert Desmond did, “one of the great newspapers of the world” — The Christian Science Monitor.
There is about the advent of the Monitor both a big story and back story, the big story being the reform proposals of the 1900’s of the St.Louis and then New York publisher Joseph Purlitzer, proposals that since he was both the worst and the best sort of newspaperman, were in some measure not only sincerely reformative but also something of a bid for respectability. True of his idea of Purlitzer prizes, it was true too of his proposal to found and endow the first university level school of journalism, first mooted in 1903 and finally established at Columbia University. “Things might have been different”, Lyons contended, ” had President Eliot accepted Purlitzer’s original intent, to establish his school of journalism at Harvard. But they disagreed on what journalism education should be, so Purlitzer’s program and money went to Columbia”.
Actually, historians have not yet sorted out their disagreement . Why New York, not Boston, why Columbia, not Harvard, we may never know. But in the event Boston’s contribution to the reform journalism of the first decade of the 20th century was not to be made by America’s headmaster, as the founder of modern Harvard was often called, but by another and scarcely less formidible figure, the founder of a radical new Boston-based religion, Mary Baker Eddy. Long savaged by Purlitzer’s attacks, which the picturesque “Mrs.Eddy” was only too likely to invite, in the end she matched Purlitzer’s public spirit in reform journalism almost as a matter of self defense, doing so by her lights, not his. It was a case , as Frederic Moritz put it, of “to stir the pot, or calm the temper”, the former Purlitzer’sidea, the latter Eddy”s, though, in fact, years after the death of both, the two ideas met when the newspaper Eddy founded as “a public service” won its first Purlitzer prize.
The back story is especialy significent in the context of this blog because the lacklustre Globe of its first near hundred years was actually importantly involved in what was a historic moment in American journalism, the imediate idea of the Monitor coming as it did from a Globe reporter, John L.Wright, who became the new newspapers first city editor. Sparked perhaps by the advent in 1904 of Hearst’s sensationalistic Boston Americam, Wright, who was also a Christian Scientist, wrote to Eddy to protest “the commercialization of newspapers…mainly for dividends”, which he thought “a great misfortune to the country”, and to suggest that “many would like to read a paper that takes less notice of crime,etc,” He urged on the founder of Christian Science a secular, not a religious, paper, a “daily newspaper that will place principle before dividends, and that will be fair, frank and honest with the people on all subjects and under whatever pressure”, a paper “operated by experienced newspapermen who are Christian Scientists”, an idea that Eddy, rumored to have long been thinking of such a project, took up at once, only insisting that the denominations name appear on the masthead to make the point, Erwin Canham wrote, that even though it was “not a religious newspaper”, but, rather, “a real newspaper”, it should make plain that it was “motivated by profoundly religious criteria”.
True to intent, the new newspaper, the first issue of which appeared in 1908, espoused “an affirmative reformation, rather than a alarmist attitude”, in Canham’s words, and “a crusading, reformative approach”, passably progressive in its support, for example, for Theodore Roosevelt’s trust busting and FDR’s New Deal. Circulation was not great, and as Lyons observed , the Monitor “sold more papers in California than in New England”. But that was part of the plan of a paper that when it opened its first London bureau in 1908 was doing something unheard of in American journalism. To be sure , there were Christian Science taboo’s to contend with like avoidance of tobacco, but as Canham pointed out , the famous Churchill cigar duly appeared in the Monitor, which meanwhile achieved its purposes early enough. Noted Robert Desmond in his history of world news coverage between the wars, “the New York Times did come as close as any…to being a newspaper of national distribution,…rivaled only by the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal”, while the Boston paper “offered an alternative to the triviality and sensationalism that had become increasingly common in the urban press of the U.S.”
Through the years, furthermore, the Monitor has penetrated further into the national psyche than most would have predicted. Its art critic between the wars, Dorothy Adlow, the Radcliffe educated daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, was one of the few outside New York who spoke up for modernism, and a good deal of the work of Sylvia Plath, the controversial poet, appeared in the Monitor, including her national publication debut. On the other hand a notorious editorial — “The Jewish Peril” — published in 1921 hinted at a problem the vaguely anti-semitic tone of a part of Canham’s book did nothing to atone for. Still, the Monitor got one of the first exclusive interviews with Adolph Hitler, in 1923 , an interview that made plain his evil intent, and it was a measure of the papers distinction that on the same page appeared an article written by no less than Winston Churchill.
There was something decidedly Bostonian about what might seem to be today the most improbable aspect of the Monitor: the fact that it wasand is the secular imprint of a religious denomination. In fact, the older denomination that could also claim to be a “Boston religion” — Mark DeWolfe Howe’s term — the Unitarians, had pioneered this idea in their establishment of the entirely secular imprint eventually of Beacon Press, today one of the landmarks of what I have taken to calling “Bostonian publishing”, or now, “Bostonian media”.
The attributes of same? To have, above all, a worthy cause (think the Liberator or the Woman’s Journal), worthy, indeed, of the most idealistic “do-gooder”; to keep in that cause as steady a course as possible, as persistently and stubbornly (think Franklin or Garrison, the gold standard) ; and to be, while not indifferent to such things as circulation and profit, concerned foremost withmaintaining high standards, both intellectual and literary, after the manner, say, of the Transcript then and the Monitor now. All this, even though frankly advocacy journalism is by ourpresent standards restricted to the editorial page, yields still for many distinctly a “moral clarity” that deserves its hearing too in the public square.
Consider, finally, Arthur Gillman’s contemporary description of Garrison’s base of operations for the Liberator: “the dingy walls, the small windows, be-spattered with printers-ink; the press standing in one corner, the composing stands opposite; the long editorial and mailing table covered with newspapers; the bed of the editor and publisher on the floor”. And consider the report to the agents sent to spy out all this out by the mayor, that they had “ferreted out the paper and its editor; whose office was an obscure hole; his only visible auxiliary a negro boy; his supporters [for by no means all Bostonians were abolitionists] a few ignorant persons”. Yet Boston’s mayor had set about this investigation because of the consternation that had been caused by the Liberator’s appearance in far away Baltimore, the mayor of which demanded the newspapers closure.
In other blogs later this year, we shall probe further into “Bostonian media” (as opposed to Boston media generally, not that different from New Yorks), and especially into its companion culmination to the Monitor: Boston’s role in the creation of NPR and PBS.
Meanwhile, remember that in each of its five centuries, beginning with the closure of the towns first newspaper by the authorities in 1690, Boston has set an American standard. And cock a wary eye , as Garrison might have said, to all the hand ringing over the not exactly epochal demise at some point of the present day Globe. There are, of course, human costs involved in all this, which, to say the least, is very unfortunate. But insofar as the larger issue is concerned, it is unlikely Boston without newspapers will be Boston without news.
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