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America's Greatest Journalist

John Simkin

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The "Godfather" of American investigative journalism is Lincoln Steffens. He was born in San Francisco, California, on 6th April, 1866. The son of a wealthy businessman, he studied in France and Germany before graduating from the University of California, where he developed radical political views.

In 1892 Steffens became a reporter on the New York Evening Post. Later he became editor of McClure's Magazine, where he became associated with the style of investigative journalism that became known as muckraking. One of Steffen's major investigations involved exposing local government corruption.

A collection of Steffen's articles appeared in the book The Shame of the Cities (1904). This was followed by an investigation into state politicians, The Struggle for Self-Government (1906). He praised some politicians such as Robert La Follette and Seth Low for their honesty.

In 1906 Steffens joined with the investigative journalists, Ida Tarbell and Ray Stannard Baker to establish the radical American Magazine. He continued to write about corruption until 1910 when he went with John Reed to Mexico to report on Pancho Villa and his army. He became a strong supporter of the rebels and during this period developed the view revolution, rather than reform, was the way to change capitalism.

Steffens was also a great teacher. Journalists who he supported from a young age included John Reed and Walter Lippmann.

Steffens biggest mistake involved his views on communism. Steffens visited Russia in 1919 and in 1921 and when he returned to the United States he said to Bernard Baruch, "I have seen the future and it works." He admitted that "it was harder on the real reds than it was on us liberals. Emma Goldman, the anarchist who was deported to that socialist heaven, came out and said it was hell. And the socialists, the American, English, the European socialists, they did not recognize their own heaven. As some will put it, the trouble with them was that they were waiting at a station for a local train, and an express tore by and left them there. My summary of all our experiences was that it showed that heaven and hell are one place, and we all go there. To those who are prepared, it is heaven; to those who are not fit and ready, it is hell."


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  • 1 year later...

Another candidate in Agnes Smedley. She wrote about Russia, Germany and China during the 1930s for the Manchester Guardian. She returned to the United States during the Second World War but her reporting on civil rights in the Deep South resulted in her being described as a communist.

On 1st January 1948, the Chicago Tribune carried a story claiming that Smedley was being investigated as part of communist espionage ring based in Japan during the 1930s. The article claimed that Smedley was working with the German journalist, Richard Sorge, who was spying on the Japanese government on behalf of the Soviet Union.

Sorge was indeed a spy and had been the first to supply evidence to the west about the proposed attack on Pearl Harbour. Sorge had been arrested by the Japanese authorities in October 1941 and was executed three years later. Although Smedley had been a close friend of Sorge when he had been in China in 1930, she was not involved in his spying activities and despite the article no charges were ever brought against Smedley.

Harold Ickes, secretary of the interior for ten years under Franklin D. Roosevelt, bravely wrote an article in the New York Post, arguing that there was no truth in the claim that the United States government knew that Smedley was a communist spy. However, America was now entering the period of McCarthyism and this was the first of many smear stories circulated about Smedley.

Depressed by the smear stories and the early deaths of her close friends, Joseph Stilwell and Evans Carlson, Smedley decided to move to England in November 1949. Agnes Smedley went to live in Oxford but was now in poor health and she died of acute circulatory failure on 6th May, 1950.


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Ray Stannard Baker joined McClure's Magazine, where he worked with Lincoln Steffens and Ira Tarbell in the kind of investigative journalism that became known as muckraking. Baker himself was involved in exposing railroad and financial corruption.

In February 1905 he wrote an article on lynching for the McClure's Magazine:

Well, on Monday afternoon the mob began to gather. At first it was an absurd, ineffectual crowd, made up largely of lawless boys of sixteen to twenty - a pronounced feature of every mob - with a wide fringe of more respectable citizens, their hands in their pockets and no convictions in their souls, looking on curiously, helplessly. They gathered hooting around the jail, cowardly, at first, as all mobs are, but growing bolder as darkness came on and no move was made to check them. The murder of Collis was not a horrible, soul-rending crime like that at Statesboro, Georgia; these men in the mob were not personal friends of the murdered man; it was a mob from the back rooms of the swarming saloons of Springfield; and it included also the sort of idle boys "who hang around cigar stores," as one observer told me. The newspaper reports are fond of describing lynching mobs as "made up of the foremost citizens of the town." In no cases that I know of, either South or North, has a mob been made up of what may be called the best citizens; but the best citizens have often stood afar off "decrying the mob" - as a Springfield man told me piously - and letting it go on. A mob is the method by which good citizens turn over the law and the government to the criminal or irresponsible classes.

And no official in direct authority in Springfield that evening, apparently, had so much as an ounce of grit within him. The sheriff came out and made a weak speech in which he said he "didn't want to hurt anybody." They threw stones at him and broke his windows. The chief of police sent eighteen men to the jail but did not go near himself. All of these policemen undoubtedly sympathized with the mob in its efforts to get at the slayer of their brother officer; at least, they did nothing effective to prevent the lynching. An appeal was made to the Mayor to order out the engine companies that water might be turned on the mob. He said he didn't like to; the hose might be cut! The local militia company was called to its barracks, but the officer in charge hesitated, vacillated, doubted his authority, and objected finally because he had no ammunition except Krag-Jorgenson cartridges, which, if fired into a mob, would kill too many people! The soldiers did not stir that night from the safe and comfortable precincts of their armory.

A sort of dry rot, a moral paralysis, seems to strike the administrators of law in a town like Springfield. What can be expected of officers who are not accustomed to enforce the law, or of a people not accustomed to obey it - or who make reservations and exceptions when they do enforce it or obey it?

When the sheriff made his speech to the mob, urging them to let the law take its course they jeered him. The law! When, in the past, had the law taken its proper course in dark County? Someone shouted, referring to Dixon:

"He'll only get fined for shooting in the city limits."

"He'll get ten days in jail and suspended sentence."

Then there were voices:

"Let's go hang Mower and Miller" - the two judges.

This threat, indeed, was frequently repeated both on the night of the lynching and on the day following.

So the mob came finally, and cracked the door of the jail with a railroad rail. This jail is said to be the strongest in Ohio, and having seen it, I can well believe that the report is true. But steel bars have never yet kept out a mob; it takes something a good deal stronger: human courage backed up by the consciousness of being right.

They murdered the Negro in cold blood in the jail doorway; then they dragged him to the principal business street and hung him to a telegraph-pole, afterward riddling his lifeless body with revolver shots.

That was the end of that. Mob justice administered. And there the Negro hung until daylight the next morning - an unspeakably grisly, dangling horror, advertising the shame of the town. His head was shockingly crooked to one side, his ragged clothing, cut for souvenirs, exposed in places his bare body: he dripped blood. And, with the crowds of men both here and at the morgue where the body was publicly exhibited, came young boys in knickerbockers, and little girls and women by scores, horrified but curious. They came even with baby carriages! Men made jokes: "A dead n is a good n." And the purblind, dollars-and-cents man, most despicable of all, was congratulating the public:

'"It'll save the county a lot of money!"

Significant lessons, these, for the young!

But the mob wasn't through with its work. Easy people imagine that, having hanged a Negro, the mob goes quietly about its business; but that is never the way of the mob. Once released, the spirit of anarchy spreads and spreads, not subsiding until it has accomplished its full measure of evil.


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  • 4 weeks later...

Best American Journalism of the 20th Century

The following works were chosen as the 20th century's best American journalism by a panel of experts assembled by New York University's journalism department.

1. John Hersey: “Hiroshima,” The New Yorker, 1946

2. Rachel Carson: Silent Spring, book, 1962

3. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein: Investigation of the Watergate break-in, The Washington Post, 1972

4. Edward R. Murrow: Battle of Britain, CBS radio, 1940

5. Ida Tarbell: “The History of the Standard Oil Company,” McClure's, 1902–1904

6. Lincoln Steffens: “The Shame of the Cities,” McClure's, 1902–1904

7. John Reed: Ten Days That Shook the World, book, 1919

8. H. L. Mencken: Scopes “Monkey” trial, The Sun of Baltimore, 1925

9. Ernie Pyle: Reports from Europe and the Pacific during World War II, Scripps-Howard newspapers, 1940–1945

10. Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly: Investigation of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, CBS, 1954

11. Edward R. Murrow, David Lowe, and Fred Friendly: “Harvest of Shame,”documentary, CBS television, 1960

12. Seymour Hersh: Investigation of massacre by American soldiers at My Lai in Vietnam, Dispatch News Service, 1969

13. The New York Times: Publication of the Pentagon Papers, 1971

14. James Agee and Walker Evans: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, book, 1941

15. W.E.B. Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk, collected articles, 1903

16. I. F. Stone: I. F. Stone's Weekly, 1953–1967

17. Henry Hampton: “Eyes on the Prize,” documentary, 1987

18. Tom Wolfe: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, book, 1968

19. Norman Mailer: The Armies of the Night, book, 1968

20. Hannah Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,collected articles, 1963

21. William Shirer: Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1939–1941, collected articles, 1941

22. Truman Capote: In Cold Blood, book, 1965

23. Joan Didion: Slouching Towards Bethlehem, collected articles, 1968

24. Tom Wolfe: The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, collected articles, 1965

25. Michael Herr: Dispatches, book, 1977

26. Theodore White: The Making of the President: 1960, book, 1961

27. Robert Capa: Ten photographs from D-Day, 1944

28. J. Anthony Lukas: Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, book, 1985

29. Richard Harding Davis: Coverage of German march into Belgium, Wheeler Syndicate and magazines, 1914

30. Dorothy Thompson: Reports on the rise of Hitler, Cosmopolitan and Saturday Evening Post, 1931–1934

31. John Steinbeck: Reports on Okie migrant camp life, The San Francisco News,1936

32. A. J. Liebling: The Road Back to Paris, collected articles, 1944

33. Ernest Hemingway: Reports on the Spanish Civil War, The New Republic, 1937–1938

34. Martha Gellhorn: The Face of War, collected articles, 1959

35. James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time, book, 1963

36. Joseph Mitchell: Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories, collection of much older articles, 1992

37. Betty Friedan: The Feminine Mystique, book, 1963

38. Ralph Nader: Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, book, 1965

39. Herblock (Herbert Block): Cartoons on McCarthyism, The Washington Post, 1950

40. James Baldwin: “Letter from the South: Nobody Knows My Name,” The Partisan Review, 1959

41. Nick Ut: Photograph of a burning girl running from a napalm attack, The Associated Press, 1972

42. Pauline Kael: “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” Harper's, 1969

43. Gay Talese: Fame and Obscurity: Portraits by Gay Talese, collected articles, 1970

44. Randy Shilts: Reports on AIDS, The San Francisco Chronicle, 1981–1985

45. Janet Flanner (Genet): Paris Journals chronicling Paris's emergence from the Occupation, The New Yorker, 1944–45

46. Neil Sheehan: A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, book, 1988

47. A. J. Liebling: The Wayward Pressman, collected articles, 1947

48. Tom Wolfe: The Right Stuff, book, 1979

49. Murray Kempton: America Comes of Middle Age: Columns 1950–1962, collected articles, 1963

50. Murray Kempton: Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties, book, 1955

51. Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele: “America: What Went Wrong?,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1991

52. Taylor Branch: Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963, 1988

53. Harrison Salisbury: Reporting from the Soviet Union, The New York Times, 1949–1954

54. John McPhee: The John McPhee Reader, collected articles, 1976

55. ABC: Live television broadcast of Army-McCarthy hearings, 1954

56. Frederick Wiseman: Titicut Follies, documentary, 1967

57. David Remnick: Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, book, 1993

58. Richard Ben Cramer: What It Takes: The Way to the White House, book, 1992

59. Jonathan Schell: The Fate of the Earth, book, 1982

60. Russell Baker: “Francs and Beans,” The New York Times, 1975

61. Homer Bigart: Account of being over Japan in a bomber, The New York Herald-Tribune, 1945

62. Ben Hecht: 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago, collected articles, 1922

63. Walter Cronkite: Documentary on Vietnam, CBS television, 1968

64. Walter Lippmann: Early essays, The New Republic, 1914

65. Margaret Bourke-White: Photographs following the defeat of Germany, Life magazine, 1945

66. Lillian Ross: Reporting, collected articles, 1964

67. Nicholas Lemann: The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, book, 1991

68. Joe Rosenthal: Photograph of Marines raising an American flag on Mount Suribachi, The Associated Press, 1945

69. Hodding Carter Jr.: “Go for Broke,” editorial, Carter's Delta Democrat-Times (Greenville, Miss.), 1945

70. The New Yorker: The New Yorker Book of War Pieces, collected articles, 1947

71. Meyer Berger: Report on the murderer Howard Unruh, The New York Times, 1949

72. Norman Mailer: The Executioner's Song, book, 1979

73. Robert Capa: Spanish Civil War photos, Life magazine, 1936

74. Susan Sontag: “Notes on ‘Camp,’” The Partisan Review, 1964

75. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein: All the President's Men, book, 1974

76. John Hersey: Here to Stay, collected articles, 1963

77. A. J. Liebling: The Earl of Louisiana, book, 1961

78. Mike Davis: City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, book, 1990

79. Melissa Fay Greene: Praying for Sheetrock, book, 1991

80. J. Anthony Lukas: “The Two Worlds of Linda Fitzpatrick,” The New York Times, 1967

81. Herbert Bayard Swope: “Klan Exposed,” The New York World, 1921

82. William Allen White: “To an Anxious Friend,” The Emporia (Kan.) Gazette,1922

83. Edward R. Murrow: Report of the liberation of Buchenwald, CBS radio, 1945

84. Joseph Mitchell: McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, collected articles, 1943

85. Lillian Ross: Picture, book, 1952

86. Earl Brown: Series of articles on race, Harper's and Life magazines, 1942–1944

87. Greil Marcus: Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music, book,1975

88. Morley Safer: Atrocities committed by American soldiers in Vietnam, CBS television, 1965

89. Ted Poston: Coverage of the “Little Scottsboro” trial, The New York Post, 1949

90. Leon Dash: “Rosa Lee's Story,” The Washington Post, 1994

91. Jane Kramer: Europeans, collected articles, 1988

92. Eddie Adams and Vo Suu: Associated Press photograph and NBC television footage of a Saigon execution, 1968

93. Grantland Rice: “Notre Dame's ‘Four Horsemen,’” The New York Herald-Tribune, 1924

94. Jane Kramer: The Politics of Memory: Looking for Germany in the New Germany, collected articles, 1996

95. Frank McCourt: Angela's Ashes, book, 1996

96. Vincent Sheean: Personal History, book, 1935

97. W.E.B. Du Bois: Columns on race during his tenure as editor of The Crisis,1910–1934

98. Damon Runyon: Crime reporting, The New York American, 1926

99. Joe McGinniss: The Selling of the President 1968, book, 1969

100. Hunter S. Thompson: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, book, 1973

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  • 4 weeks later...

Charles Edward Russell worked for "The Davenport Gazette", "The Minneapolis Journal", "The Detroit Tribune", "The New York World", "The New York Herald" and "The Chicago Examiner". In 1905 Russell wrote an article entitled The Greatest Trust in the World for "Everybody's Magazine". The article revealled how the Beef Trust had used its economic position to increase the price of beef. At the same time Russell argued that the development of technology had substantially reduced the cost of producing meat. He followed this with "The Uprising of Many" (1907) and "Lawless Wealth: The Origin of Some Great American Fortunes" (1908), a book about the American Tobacco Trust.

William Randolph Hearst, the owner of "Cosmopolitan" also employed Russell. Articles written by Russell for the magazine included two collections: At the Throat of the Republic (December, 1907 - March, 1908) and What Are You Going to Do About It? (July, 1910 - January, 1911). Other articles written by Russell for the magazine included The Growth of Caste in America (March, 1907) and Colarado - New Tricks in an Old Game (December, 1910).

Lincoln Steffens recalled in his autobiography: "I recall vividly meeting Charles Edward Russell and asking him what he had got out of it all. He was the most earnest, emotional, and gifted of the muckrakers. There was something of the martyr in him; he had given up better jobs to go forth, rake in hand, to show things up; and he wanted them to be changed. His face looked as if he had suffered from the facts he saw and reported."

In 1909 Charles Edward Russell joined with several other radicals to form the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). Other members included Mary White Ovington, William English Walling, Josephine Ruffin, Mary Talbert, Mary Church Terrell, Inez Milholland, Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Sophonisba Breckinridge, John Haynes Holmes, Mary McLeod Bethune, George Henry White, William Du Bois, John Dewey, William Dean Howells, Lillian Wald, Charles Darrow, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, Fanny Garrison Villard, Oswald Garrison Villard and Ida Wells-Barnett.

Other investigations carried out by Russell included Georgia's prison system (Everybody's Magazine, June, 1908) and how big business controlled the content of newspapers, How Business Controls News in "Pearson's Weekly" in May, 1914. Russell was proud of being a muckraking journalist: "Looking back, it seems to me clear that the muckraking magazine was the greatest single power that ever appeared in this country. The mere mention in one of these magazines of something that was wrong was usually sufficient to bring about at least an ostensible reformation."

A member of the American Socialist Party, on two occasions he was unsuccessful in his attempt to be elected as Governor of the State of New York. He explained in his book, Why I Am a Socialist (1910): "This is the offer of Socialism: the righting of the centuries of wrong the producers have suffered, the dawn of a genuine democracy, peace instead of war, sufficiency instead of suffering, life raised above the level of appetite, a chance at last for the good in people to attain their normal development."

Benjamin Flower argued in his book, Progressive Men, Women and Movements (1914), that Russell's work could be compared with that of Upton Sinclair and Jack London: "Charles Edward Russell, Upton Sinclair and Jack London are three very popular authors who have become outspoken Socialists and with the pen and voice have contributed materially to the general educational campaign along radical social lines. Russell was for many years, or until he became so uncompromisingly radical in his utterances as to arouse the enmity of the great interests, he was one of the most popular of our magazine writers."


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In 1936 Howard K. Smith found work as a reporter in New Orleans before securing a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University. He became involved in student politics and became the first American to be elected chairman of the university Labour club. He was also active in the campaign against the appeasement policy of Neville Chamberlain and his Conservative government.

On the outbreak of the Second World War the United Press sent Smith to Nazi Germany to report on the conflict. In 1941 he was recruited by Edward Murrow to work for CBS Berlin Bureau. Within a few months Smith was arrested by the Gestapo for refusing to include Nazi propaganda in his scripts being broadcast. When he was released he moved to Switzerland. The following day Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States entered the war. For the next two years Smith reported on Germany and central Europe from Berne. He also published Last Train from Berlin (1942).

In 1945 Smith accompanied Allied troops when they invaded Nazi Germany. After the war he reported on the Nuremberg Trials. He was the only journalist to be selected to witness the execution of Wilhelm Frick, Hans Frank, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Walther Funk, Fritz Saukel, Alfred Rosenberg, Julius Streicher, Alfred Jodl, Wilhelm Keitel, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, and Joachim von Ribbentrop on 1st October, 1946. Smith now joined the CBS London Bureau.

He was a sympathetic reporter of Clement Attlee and his Labour Government (1945-51). In 1949 Smith published The State of Europe, where he advocated a planned economy and the Welfare State for post-war Europe. Senator Joseph McCarthy denounced Smith as a communist sympathizer and in 1950 was one of those listed in Red Channels. Most of those listed found it very difficult to find work.

Smith returned to the United States in 1957 and three years later became head of the CBS Washington Bureau where he hosted programmes such as Eyewitness to History (1960-62) and Face the Nation (1960-63). In 1960 Smith was chosen to chair the presidential election debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the first of its kind on television.

In 1961 Smith went to Alabama, where he witnessed the Ku Klux Klan beating up Freedom Riders in Birmingham. Smith then went on to make a television documentary on the struggle for Civil Rights. The network's head of news objected to the ending of the documentary when Smith quoted Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." He claimed that Smith was guilty of editorialism and told him to delete the quote from Burke. Smith refused and when William Paley, the head of CBS, failed to support him, he resigned. Smith commented: "They (CBS) said it was against the rules to take sides on a controversial issue. I said, I wish you had told me that during World War II, when I took sides against Hitler."

Smith now joined ABC and became the presenter of Howard K. Smith - News and Comment. In November 1962 Richard Nixon was defeated in the election for California governor. Smith made a programme about Nixon's career entitled The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon. This included an interview with Alger Hiss, the state department official accused of espionage and jailed for perjury. Smith was severely criticised for including Hiss and the sponsor quickly ended support of the show and it was cancelled.

ABC recalled Smith to television three years later and he presented ABC Scope (1966-68) and ABC Evening News (1969-75). By this time his political views had become more conservative and he gave his full support to the Vietnam War. However he did take part in the campaign for Richard Nixon to resign over the Watergate scandal.


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Best American Journalism of the 20th Century

The following works were chosen as the 20th century's best American journalism by a panel of experts assembled by New York University's journalism department.

81. Herbert Bayard Swope: “Klan Exposed,” The New York World, 1921

82. William Allen White: “To an Anxious Friend,” The Emporia (Kan.) Gazette,1922



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