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Treasure Adolph Ochs' legacy of impartiality

Treasure Adolph Ochs' legacy of impartiality

March 15th, 2019 by Paul Neely/Special to the Gazette in National News
Adolph Ochs was the publisher of The Chattanooga Daily Times beginning in 1878, nine years after its beginning. A lot more than one person's intelligence, drive and character made it possible, but Ochs' timing was just right to be out front. In the first half of the 19th century, American newspapers were basically advocates for one particular ideology or another. They were small, slow, awkward and opinionated, but most cities had a selection of them. By the time Ochs died, the ideal had changed. (Shutterstock.com)

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the conclusion of a five-part Sunshine Week series that focused on press access to public information, open government, transparency, and in this article, fairness.)


The Times Free Press is observing its 150th anniversary this year, in Chattanooga, Tenn. It was part of a revolution in journalism that began and flourished there and changed American life.

The focal point was Adolph Ochs, publisher of The Chattanooga Daily Times beginning in 1878, nine years after its beginning. A lot more than one person's intelligence, drive and character made it possible, but Ochs' timing was just right to be out front.

In the first half of the 19th century, American newspapers were basically advocates for one particular ideology or another. They were small, slow, awkward and opinionated, but most cities had a selection of them. You could find one to suit your tastes and beliefs. Some even wore their allegiance in their names—the Arkansas Democrat or the Springfield Republican. No one expected them to be paragons of truth.

By the time Ochs died, during a visit to Chattanooga in 1935, the ideal had changed. Most papers claimed to present fast but accurate facts, even if their practices often fell short.

 

TECHNOLOGY, NATURE

OF NEWS CHANGES

The first big change began in the 1840s with the invention of the rotary press. Newspapers could now be printed off one continuing roll of paper fed through rotating cylinders rather than one sheet at time (picture Ben Franklin at work). Even better, the rotary press could be powered by steam rather than hand cranks. Within a few years, presses could produce thousands of copies an hour rather than some small fraction of that. It was mass production, an early example of the Industrial Revolution.

The news itself was changing too. In the decade before Ochs was born, the telegraph began with a 46-mile line from Baltimore to Washington. One of the first items to be transmitted was news—that a convention in Baltimore had nominated Henry Clay as a presidential candidate, and the report went right to the U.S. Capitol. For the first time, news spread faster than a horse, railroad or steamship could carry it. By the end of the Civil War, thousands of miles of telegraph wires crisscrossed the nation and not much later crossed the ocean.

In 1814, the Battle of New Orleans took place two weeks after the Treaty of Ghent, in Belgium, which was meant to end the War of 1812. That would not happen again. News now came with its own urgency.

Soon newspapers were sharing stories by telegraph. But which stories? How could they be verified as truthful?

The Associated Press, begun in 1846, was formed as a nonprofit cooperative to spread the news. Its members were newspapers of all stripes, so it could not take one party line or another. It had to emphasize "an accurate and impartial account of the news," words still in its mission statement. Suddenly the bulk of a newspaper's nonlocal news was run through the neutralizing filter of the AP.

The stage was set for the kind of newspaper that suited Ochs, one whose word could be trusted just as well as his could.

This sounds easier than it is. We all have our own beliefs and biases, yet we think of them as objective truths. Or we don't think of them at all. They simply corrode the effort to bring objective facts to dominate.

Ochs, however, proclaimed the effort as his mission. "To give the news impartially, without fear or favor," still appears on Page 1 as the guiding goal of the paper.

He did more than turn a phrase, though. He would make important if symbolic gestures. In a local political race, he might publish profiles of each candidate carefully written to be exactly the same length. This would have been unheard of before his time.

The paper prospered, and that got the attention of newspaper leaders elsewhere. Again, the timing was right, because now there was a business reason for success. The American economy was turning to mass production and mass consumption. People turned from making their own clothes to buying them off a rack. And advertising left behind the dull look of directory listings in favor of attention-grabbing splashes. The bigger they were, the more the paper made from them.

At the forefront were the department stores. Macy's opened in New York in 1858. Gimbels arrived there in 1910.

In 1875, the Loveman brothers from Atlanta moved to Chattanooga and began a dry goods store. In 1888, it was converted to the city's first department store, and it became a major advertiser until it was sold in 1988. When a small group of Chattanooga business leaders formed The Mountain City Club in 1889, D.B. Loveman and Adolph Ochs were among the founders.

In the new economy, a department store owner would not want to be identified with one segment or faction. He was selling to the new middle class, and politics did not matter. The old model of partisan journalism was not a comfortable home. He wanted to advertise in a newspaper that appealed to the entire community, and Ochs' new vision of impartial news fit right into that. Both would profit from a newspaper known for credible content.

 

TO THE BIG APPLE

In 1896, Ochs was feeling financial pressure from some bad real estate investments in Chattanooga. He decided to recoup his losses with what he knew best, so he went to New York and bought The New York Times at the equivalent of a sheriff's auction. That became his big stage, of course. He built it into what is still the gold standard of sound journalism. One reason he could do so is that his reputation preceded him. He arrived in New York known for personal integrity that translated into news that could be trusted and business dealings of equal stature. All of sudden, the idea of impartial news had a home in New York and thus in the wider world, but it was the standards he established in Chattanooga that were taking root.

Much has changed since then. The Supreme Court decision that certified segregation as a way of life was written the same year Ochs moved to New York. It would begin to unravel only after World War II, 50 years later. The news may have been impartial in the narrow context of its own times, but no white newspaper was objectively reporting on the now-clear subjugation of African-Americans. Likewise for the second-class status of women.

That's one aspect that makes impartial news so difficult. Over time, the background changes, even when the facts of the moment do not. How could reporters in the 1890s turn a blind eye to the wide pattern of lynchings, even in Chattanooga? Were they failing Ochs' standards, or were they merely products of their times?

Another problem is that many issues do not divide neatly half and half. Drug abuse, failing schools and pollution do not split into pro and con.

Still, it's safe to say the citizens of Chattanooga and elsewhere came closer to the truth because the standards of impartiality existed, even if the result frequently fell short of the full truth as we see it now.

And now the standards are under their own assault. Walmart and then Amazon have upended the advertising base of newspapers. Cable television and then the internet have blown up the bunching around the middle that kept middle-class America a coherent group. Now we can pick our own way to shop and our own news. Sad to say, that often means we can pick our own facts, which is to say that we can pick facts that aren't facts at all.

In some ways we have come full circle, back to a world of loose standards and partisan emotion that Adolph Ochs tried to straighten up. He hit the right era for doing so, and his high standards, summarized on the front page every day, echo those times and that man. Somehow, for those who truly believe in impartial truth, the echoes have to get louder again.

 

 


(Paul Neely is the former publisher of The Chattanooga Times, a position held from 1992 to 1999. He had previously been a reporter and editor at the Riverside Press-Enterprise in California, The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, and the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. The newspaper was sold in 1999 by the Ochs/Sulzberger family to the Hussman family's WEHCO Media Inc., which owns the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Texarkana Gazette and other media companies.)