There are hundreds of dailies in which editorials on certain subjects are as predictable as a catechism, whose news departments are designed to over-react or under-react to certain kinds of news, notably financial and political, not because of incompetence or sensationalism but because of the impulse to create a picture closer to the dreams of the ownership. Nor is it unusual for owners to believe that their paper’s staff is filled with radicals dangerous to the point of doubtful patriotism. Owners, typically, are conservative Republicans, and staffs—in journalism, as in most fields—tend to be Democrats.

If there were a tradition within newspapering to contain this distrust and tension between owners and staff, as there is in universities, it could result in a pluralism with the advantage of a checks-and-balances system. But there is no such tradition. Too many owners have been alienated too long from the social realities their staffs must perceive and report (and amid which the staff lives and owners generally do not). The Boston Transcript was perhaps the last metropolitan daily that lived within a closed elite. The power of both the Transcript and its elite were changed with the Depression. Millions of words in thousands of editorials will not bring back the mid-twenties.

There are continual legislative and vigilante attacks on freedom of the press. It will be an uncomfortable time when the owners of newspapers have to depend for preservation of this freedom on the understanding of constituents with whom the owners have been out of sympathy and, worse, out of touch, for thirty years.

When Creed Black resigned he got the unexpected sympathy of some prominent citizens of Delaware, partly because not many hired hands publicly dispute the Du Ponts. Some publishers wrote him that owners will never learn. Editors sympathized with him. And one bright university student who had planned a newspaper career wrote:

I have always had a few doubts about the newspaper business… if this is at all typical of the behind the scenes actions in the fourth estate, I’ll have no part of it.


Wilmington papers: rebuttals and reply, Fall, 1964

“Case History: Wilmington’s ‘Independent’ Newspapers,” the article by Ben H. Bagdikian that appeared in the summer, 1964, issue, attracted more comment than any other feature in the Review’s three years of publication. The article described relations between the editors of the Wilmington News and Journal and the papers’ owners, a subsidiary of the Christiana Securities Company. It was read into the Congressional Record by Senator Clark of Pennsylvania. It won approving comment in several score letters from journalists across the country.

But the reactions in Wilmington were mixed. The Review prints here three letters, two from members of the staff of the newspapers, and one that was written to the staff of the News-Journal by Henry B. du Pont, president of Christiana. It is printed in the absence of any owners’ reply addressed to the Review.

To the News and Editorial Staffs of the News-Journal Papers:

The “Columbia Journalism Review,” in its current issue, is publishing an article on the recent change in top editorial personnel at the News-Journal. I would have hoped that any comment from this source would have been a carefully-weighed examination of the situation presented with impartial detachment. The fact is, I regret to say, that the article is nothing more than a fabric of half truths, misstatements and prejudicial innuendoes, as you will readily recognize from the attached photocopy.

Such articles have the effect, if not the purpose, of placing competent and high-principled employees of the News-Journal papers in what may appear to be an uncomfortable position before their professional colleagues. This is as unjustified as it is unfortunate. Reckless disregard for truth and personal attacks upon officers and directors of your Company and its owners can be ignored. The implications with respect to News-Journal personnel, however, cannot be permitted to stand unchallenged.

Ben Bagdikian was an assistant managing editor at The Washington Post, and later dean of the University of California, Berkeley's journalism school. He wrote about the Washington press regularly for CJR in the 1960s and '70s.