Yes, Virginia, American Journalism WAS Sensational

Think that today’s news media is biased, subjective, self serving or sensationalist? Does it bother you that scandal-mongerers and character assassins can hide in the blurry margin between news and entertainment? It’s a tradition! A tradition that goes back at least to the free-wheeling, two-fisted penny paper era of journalism in America, situated right here in downtown Manhattan in an area once known as “Newspaper Row.”

Horace Greeley. Joseph Pulitzer. Wm Randolph Hearst. Walt Whitman. Sounds pretty literary and historic and all-American, until you look beyond the whitewash.

In fact, it was a world of hard-boiled, sensationalist scandal-mongering, and shameful and crass vendettas.

Hey, when you’re going for cheap, popular and disposable, what better strategy than dragging standards down to the lowest possible level?

Hardly anyone in the industry was immune to it. However it was The New York Sun -- a paper which had the largest circulation in the United States within a year of its debut in 1833 -- which was probably the grandpappy of American Trash Journalism.

Corruptive? Debasing? Sure. But the sheer energy and enthusiasm of The Sun is the kind of irresistable duality thing we cherish in the train wreck we call Urban Dynamism. Call it the dark side of Walt Whitman's Barbaric Yawp.

For all its crassness, there were some diamond moments for The Sun. The paper was the first to hire boys to hawk papers on street corners. It was first to hire a female reporter, Emily Verdery Bettey. It took a lead role in exposing corruption in the Grant administration. It published a series of articles exposing crime in the world of NYC longshoreman, the basis for Budd Schulberg’s great “On The Waterfront.”

The Sun’s elaborate hoaxes -- The Great Moon Hoax of 1835, Edgar Allen Poe’s Great Balloon Hoax a decade later -- set the precedent for deceptions some of us love, today. Orson Welle’s War of the Worlds. Ashton Kutcher’s Punk’d.

And at least two of the best journalism one-liners come from The Sun. The first was in 1882, when editor John B Bogart said to a friend “When a Man Bites A Dog, That’s News.”

The second? Sep 21 1897, when Francis P Church wrote the op/ed piece Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus.

“He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy,” wrote Church. ”Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no child-like faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.”

High sentiments, indeed, for a newspaper that established the benchmark for slander, deception, scandal-mongering, sensationalism and punk journalism.