The first time anyone saw the New York Times’ famous motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” wasn’t in the pages of the Times, but in a declaration of war.
In October 1896, a few weeks after Adolph S. Ochs had taken ownership of the “quality” paper that had fallen on hard times, he rented the billboard space on a windowless brick wall of the Cumberland Hotel, later razed to make way for the Flatiron Building. It was New York City’s first electric sign, with nearly 2,700 individual lights of white, red, green, and blue that could be arranged into block letters to spell out words.
ALL THE NEWS
THAT’S FIT TO PRINT
HAVE YOU SEEN IT?
For newspaper readers of the time, the meaning was clear: Ochs was taking direct aim at the two papers then dominating the New York market—Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal—and their brightly colored and richly illustrated front pages, loud headlines, and heavy coverage of lurid crime, political scandals, and tear-jerking human-interest stories. The style was called “yellow journalism.” Today it’d be called “clickbait” or “fake news.”
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The slogan was trumpeted repeatedly as an ideology worth supporting in letters and columns, billboards and parade signs, and the pages of the New York Times itself. A big chunk of Ochs’s editorial page was dedicated to the paper’s crusade. “There is an abundance of news in the world without descending to that which is not fit to print, news of wholesome human interest, that is neither a contamination nor a waste of time to read,” said an unsigned editorial on the “fit to print” ethos, published November 15, 1896.
The Times actively sought to sway opinions. It was leading, not following. “It certainly seems incredible that the fake journalism of which The New York World and The New York Journal are the most conspicuous exponents should leave no market for journalism of a sounder and better class,” wrote the Montreal Herald on January 7, 1897.
Since then, as times grew gentler, the Times has forgotten it is in a fight over how we should see the world—perhaps because it has had the luxury of not having to defend itself. Until recently, anyone of any importance simply had to read the Times. As an unquestioned member of the American power elite, the Times did not need to spend any energy explaining why it mattered. Those days, like Ochs’s billboard, are long gone.
This alignment in outlook of the powers that be and the Times newsroom allowed the Times to set itself above the fray: it could report and leave it to the politicians to fight it out.
But this pandemic, and the protests and riots that have followed, have shown us that the bubbles that separate us are as durable as we ever imagined, and the stakes of the battle over how we see the world—who we trust, and how to handle crises—could not be higher. The debates over the best way to mitigate the pandemic are not partisan confusion; they’re a matter of life and death—of relying on science, facts, and expertise to guide society’s actions or adopting a political program that would junk them altogether.
Given what is at stake, it is not enough to present conspiracy theories unchallenged—as, just to cite a single example, an April report on a Texas protest against lockdowns did when it quoted the right-wing internet fabulist Alex Jones’s pronouncement on covid-19 (“America knows it’s a hoax”)—in the hopes that readers will simply conclude on their own that they are beyond the pale. On matters where there is a very right and a very wrong answer—and not competing political talking points—such “both sides” coverage is irresponsible.
To those within the Times, this criticism no doubt registers as a bit unfair given the resources and effort expended every day to uncover wrongdoing, gather and verify facts, and otherwise convey journalism as a public service. But there is, especially now, a critical difference between doing something important and being able to explain why it is important. Those who can’t define themselves leave themselves open to being defined by others.
The paper could stand to be forthright in advocating for this, even to the point of being adversarial. Compare the straightforwardness of judging news fit, or not fit, to print with the tepid pronouncements of the Times’ “Truth” campaign. In the first incarnation of that campaign, introduced in a TV spot on the Oscars, the Times was hobbled by its instinct to avoid appearing partisan—even at the cost of watering down its core principles. One of the ad executives behind the spot, which concluded that “the truth is hard,” went so far as to argue at the time that the concept of truth doesn’t really exist.
It is a stance more in keeping with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg—who recently said, “I think that’s kind of a dangerous line to get to in terms of deciding what is true and what isn’t”—than with Ochs.
In the campaign’s latest incarnation, the Times has moved even further from any dispositive stance: “The Truth Is Worth It” is a declaration not so much of the value of the truth as of that of a New York Times subscription.
In 1901, the Times gave its “fit to print” motto credit for ridding journalism of the “indecencies” and “reckless sensationalism of the yellow journals.” In a self-assessment written for the Times’ fiftieth anniversary, the paper confidently declared, “No censor of newspaper writing, no matter with what vigilance he performed his duty, could so effectually purge a public journal of peccant and offending stuff as the motto The Times carries at the end of its first page.”
Perhaps it’s time, as we confront two pandemics—one a virus, the other cynical misinformation peddled mostly for financial gain—that the Times stopped focusing on all the news, and took a stand once more on what is fit to print.
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