James Gordon Bennett
Publish and be Damned

 

 

Sensationalist or Heretic

James Gordon Bennett (1795-1872), the prominent newspaper publisher and editor who is widely recognized as a pioneer of American popular journalism. Born in Keith, Scotland, Bennett emigrated to Nova Scotia in 1819 and settled in New York City four years later. He worked as the Washington correspondent for the New York Enquirer in 1827-28 and became associate editor for the Courier and Enquirer in 1829.

In 1835, with ten years of newspaper experience and a largely borrowed stake of five hundred dollars, he rented a basement office and invented the modern newspaper--the New York Herald, assuming the responsibilities of editor, reporter, proofreader, folder, and cashier. Because of his independent and opinionated style, Bennett was lambasted in other publications and was physically assaulted by two of the targets of his critical pen. Nevertheless, the newspaper's coverage of finance and politics, crime and scandal, and national and international news, along with Bennett's bold and often controversial editorials, made the Herald one of the most successful daily newspapers in the United States. Bennett retired in 1867 but continued to write for the Herald until he died on June 1, 1872.

He was to set the style and tone of much of what subsequently would pass for American journalism. He offered the following editorial prescription in the first edition of the Herald: "What is to prevent a daily newspaper from being made the greatest organ of social life? Books have had their day--the theaters have had their day--the temple of religion has had its day. A newspaper can be made to take the lead of all these in the great movements of human thought and of human civilization. A newspaper can send more souls to Heaven, and save more from Hell, than all the churches or chapels in New York--besides making money at the same time."

Bennett originally charged readers 2 cents for the paper, but within a year or so dropped the price to 1 cent -- making the Herald one of the notorious "penny -papers" that became popular in American cities in the mid-1800s. As such, the Herald hungrily reported Gotham's more lurid news: violent or sexual crime stories were a specialty, and more refined readers denounced the paper as salacious and sensationalist. These criticisms bounced off Bennett, who declared defiantly at one point just a few years before the Amistad incident broke: "I have seen human depravity to the core -- I proclaim each morning on 15,000 sheets of thought and intellect the deep guilt that is encrusting our society." This outlook proved popular: by 1860, the Herald's circulation had reached 77,000 -- making it the most widely read daily paper in the nation.

Politically, the Herald resisted affiliation with any particular party. In 1840, the paper leaned toward the Whigs; in later years, during the Civil War, it took on a tone that was distinctly Democratic and sympathetic to the South. Still, by the standards of the day, the Herald was not particularly partisan. The Herald was fiercely critical, though, of reform movements, especially abolitionism. It waged an ongoing war against the overtly abolitionist papers, calling them "nigger papers." And throughout the Amistad incident the paper launched repeated attacks against Lewis Tappan and the Africans' other sympathizers. The Herald's coverage of the Amistad dwelt on the Africans' "savagery" and the shocking violence of their revolt. In short, the Herald's take on the Amistad story was virulently racist -- and often even more outspoken than that of the Southern press.

For this reason, the Herald makes for some ugly reading, and we are a little uncomfortable putting it on-line, since some material here amounts to hate speech. But it is important to recognize that this kind of thing was circulating in the United States in response to the Amistad story. The Herald 's perspective represented an important slice of American popular culture: sensationalist, hungry for spectacle, racist, fascinated by images of crime and depravity.