Today, we all know that the principle purpose behind journalism is pretty close to what it was at America’s inception — to spread rumors and bring down governments (something that becomes obvious when you read David McCullough’s biography about John Adams). Certainly, both of these are activities that the First Amendment protects, although they’re not precisely laudable. During a halcyon period between the 1920s and Watergate, though, journalists actually thought that their responsibility was to convey the most accurate information possible. I’m sure many, if not most, of those journalists struggled with achieving these goals, but they had least had them as goals.
All this occurred to me as I’ve been reading, with much pleasure, Melanie Rehak’s Girl Sleuth : Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. As the title suggests, this book tells how the Nancy Drew books came to be. It turns out that two women were the moving forces behind the Nancy Drew books: Harriet Stratemeyer Adams (whose father came up with the idea) and Mildred Wirt Benson. Benson, in the mid-1920s, enrolled in the University of Iowa’s prestigious journalism school. Here’s what the book has to say (p. 88) about her experiences there:
In the fall of 1926, [Benson] reenrolled at Iowa, this time in the brand-new master’s program in journalism. There, she soaked up more of the principles and rules of journalism that would serve her for the rest of her life. In a guest lecture, the editor of the Sioux City Journal charged the young hopefuls with a serious task: “I enjoin every journalist to make sacrifices to truth and in furtherance of truth. Write nothing that you do not know to be true. Check and double-check your facts. Do not crucify the truth for the sake of a good story. Invention should have no place in newspaper writing.” (Emphasis mine.)
Someone really needs to nail those words over the doorway at Reuters. And maybe the BBC. And possibly AP. And CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, and MSNBC. And of course the New York Times….