Yellow Journalism, Arthur Brisbane, and the Sins of the Grandfather
The grand fogeys of the New York Times are out in force. First there was Bill Keller trolling about Twitter; now public editor Arthur Brisbane is decrying stuff that's only surprising if you haven't read the Satyricon, or Ecclesiastes:
THE culture is headed for the curb, and The New York Times is on the story.
I can appreciate that, as a chronicler of the times, the newspaper has a mandate to cover events and culture wherever they may lead. As Jim Rutenberg, the author of the article on the cash economy behind tabloid reporting, told me: “We can’t pretend that this part of the world doesn’t exist. This is part of our culture.”
That said, it’s a challenge for The Times to preserve its dignified brand as it undertakes to cover the world as we have come to know it: high, low and, at times, suffused with vulgarity.
Among his complaints: the Times ran three articles about a cross-dressing author. (Shhh... no one tell him about Eddie Izzard.)
Curious where Brisbane came by his conservatism, I checked his biography for clues. And as they say in journalism, you can't make this stuff up:
Mr. Brisbane, who is the grandson of the legendary Hearst editor Arthur Brisbane....
Arthur Brisbane was William Randolph Hearst's go-to editor, whom he recruited from the grip of Joseph Pulitzer. Brisbane headed up the Evening Journal, the Mirror, and Chicago's own Herald and Examiner under Hearst, during the scrappy period that inspired Ben Hecht's The Front Page:
In Carson's desk, at Hearst's Chicago Herald & Examiner, was an arsenal of blank search warrants, summonses, writs, a full repertory of badges for police, detectives, sheriffs, coroners, Federal agents. When a story broke Carson simply faked an appropriate document. A tough, impersonating reporter or Carson himself did the rest. The evidence was usually photostated in the office, quietly returned, the forged "writ" destroyed. A dozen sets of wiretapping apparatus supplemented his arsenal.
He was arguably the newspaper editor of his time... and, ironically enough, was a pioneer of the yellow journalism of the period made famous by Hearst's papers.
How did Brisbane become the most powerful newspaper editor in America? I'm glad you asked:
He had cut his teeth in [Charles] Dana's London bureau, where he had the good fortune, for a journalist at least, of being present when Jack the Ripper was terrorizing Whitechapel. Brisbane devoted himself to the Ripper tale, often sending back reports so exaggerated and colorful that his New York editors found them to be stomach-turning. As Brisbane himself once noted, he knew that "murder, mayhem, and mystery" sold newspapers. When Pulitzer, his second major employer, complained that his precious journal was turning into a Victorian scandal sheet, Brisbane retaliated by trotting out the circulation figures and the increased advertising revenues.
I don't blame Brisbane the younger for the sins of his grandfather. I don't even think they're sins, per se; I like murder, mayhem, and mystery as much as the next reader, even if I prefer seamy crime stories to the comparatively boring peccadilloes of the rich and famous.
And he has every right to stand athwart history yelling "ew, gross, a crossdresser." But when the grandson of a Jack the Ripper beat reporter looks at an essay about "the semantics of women's private parts" and sees not the eternal verities of journalism but a culture "headed for the curb," I think he's feinting, not fainting.