It is with a heavy heart that I make this observation: The Golden Age of Journalism has been eclipsed by a perverse, mechanistic new form of news media. The downfall of genuine, truth-seeking, corruption exposing, civil-minded, muckraking storytellers is owed in part to the attention deficit masses but also to the complacency of professional writers and editors.
At the turn of the 20th century, there existed brilliant journalists whose articles revealed deeply entrenched networks of corruption in government and industry. These muckrakers shed light on shady relationships between political parties and wealthy industrialists across the country, affording voters a peek behind the heavy curtain of government.
The prodigious group of early 20th century journalists whose thoughtful, genuinely inquisitive stories both enthralled and ignited the American people also served to elevate and unite our national consciousness. When Ida Tarbell revealed the rapacious business practices of Standard Oil in a series of in-depth exposes, she effectively galvanized the public behind revolutionary anti-trust legislation. The leading political theories and policies of that day would become known to history as progressivism. The Progressive Era was, in my opinion, one of the greatest epochs of American politics.
By the latter half of the 19th century, the rise of industrialism had placed power in the hands of wealthy business tycoons and their political puppets. Essentially, the American people were being robbed of their constitutionally-endowed political power by duplicitous representatives who acted on behalf of their wealthy campaign contributors at the expense of their constituents. Working-class Americans were being farmed for their labor in brutally callous ways, as there were scant legal safeguards against egregious abuses of employer-held power.
Eventually, the American masses grew weary of their position beneath the wealthy ruling class. The muckraking journalists of the day were able to articulate the resentments of the people and point out the real source of their grievances: ranks of bought and paid-for politicians who were serving their corporate benefactors in opposition to the best interests of their constituents. Once people were intimately exposed to the political corruption that existed in their local, state and national government institutions, they could root out the bad apples and replace them with honest, well-intentioned representatives.
In short, the Golden Age of Journalism, which spanned the first 20 to 30 years of the 20th century, captured and amplified the voice of the American public, allowing it to be heard and forcing those in power to listen. News media today largely fails to achieve this aim.
The great journalists of the Golden Age used to spend months or sometimes even years writing and researching their articles. Today, journalists are expected to crank out a constant stream of content, with editors caring more for the quantity of pieces they produce than the quality thereof. Excessive coverage of awards conventions and celebrity gossip columns take precedent over and distract our attention away from truly important conversations about the direction of our society. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say they reflect the sorry state of our society’s moral and intellectual stagnation. I’m not saying that ours is a country in want of political- or social-minded media. However, the vast majority of media coverage for significant political and social matters is too shallow to foster constructive public discourse.
Ray Baker, in reference to his coverage of political corruption in the Wisconsin state government in the early 1900s, once remarked: “Month after month they (the public) would swallow dissertations of ten or twelve thousand words without even blinking — and ask for more.” Today’s consumers prefer to gobble up and regurgitate bite-sized Tweets containing only the most superficial sorts of analyses. Complacent editors oblige and empower the ignorant mentality of the impatient public by limiting their authors to word counts that cultivate superficial, uninspired content. But good stories, compelling stories, ones that matter and carry with them the potential to advance the interests and improve the lives of average Americans, cannot be told in the confines of 140 characters, or 1,000 words, for that matter.