I seem to have gained and lost focus at the same time. I just bought a sangria-red ZX-5 (which the girlfriend wants to name Velma), but at the same time I momentarily forgot what I was doing. I was having a thought . . . and then real life rushed in. I think I’m having a Jeff Lebowski moment.

Perhaps it was a mistake to convert the six-CD Creedence Clearwater box set to MP3s right away to take advantage of the built-in MP3 player. I’ve started eyeing the 400 watts worth of Linear Power amplifiers that have been gathering dust on my shelf for around six years. But, since I think I’ll probably be making the twelve-hour trip between here and Minneapolis several times in the next couple of months . . . Technology is fun. I’m really starting to get into the whole itunes thing; watching songlists pop-up when I insert obscure Television bootlegs is an awe-inspiring thing. But, I was thinking of something else before all this happened.

Maybe it had something to do with the perception of images as “signals” around the dawn of wirephoto in the early 1930s. In essence, that is what music is becoming— songs can be identified by “codes” in a database. The presence of information as pure signal is one part of the dissemination of images in the early twentieth century. But I think Michael Carlebach, in Photojournalism Comes of Age, goes over the top:

Most professional photographers in the early twentieth century wore their anonymity proudly, like badges. In a six-part series published in the Photographic Times magazine in 1905, a news photographer carefully avoided giving the reader any clue to his or her identity; the author of the series was simply “one of them.” References to newspapers were similarly oblique. It was the profession and the images that ran on the printed page that counted, not the identity or character of the person behind the camera (3).

I think that this picture of journalism as a cohesive profession that thought of the value of its “information” as something existing outside of any name recognition is positively ludicrous. Newspaper reputations were built on having star writers, at least—the scandal over the faked European news bureau in the Hearst papers of the 1920s comes to mind. They often attached names to prestige coverage. Thinking of the Collier’s coverage of the Sino-Japanese war (1894-1895) it seemed absolutely imperative that not only the writers were presented on the scene in pictures, but also the photographers to grant credibility to their coverage. There was nothing “anonymous” about it at all—except, perhaps, the absence of individual credit lines for photographs. Actually, from the Civil War onward, the public was used to knowing where their news-dispatches came from.

Carlesbach’s creative re-write of the situation seems to fall in line with the current tendency to want to separate form from content. Journalism, at one extreme, is seen as content without form. Modernist photography, on the other hand (and in the same period) is seen as form without content. Perhaps the unique thing about pictorialism is its retrograde insistence on an organicist notion of cohesion between the two. I think part of the problem of separating things out so neatly is the ethical dilemma involved—if the message is only a signal, then the sender is not responsible for its interpretation. Or, alternately, if the image is only an exercise in form, then culpability for the images content is similarly limited. What does it matter if the image sells insincerity? Isn’t it just meant to be arresting?

I was thinking about this while I was waiting at the car lot. Reagan’s funeral was the only thing on TV. It’s hard for me to avoid sounding callous about the whole thing. I genuinely disliked the man, from the time he was governor of California. Actually, his budget cuts were part of what forced me to drop out of school many years ago. I began to wonder why Nancy didn’t arrange a world tour for the body—prop it up at the site of the Berlin wall, photograph it in front of the Kremlin— after all, a funeral is just an exercise in form. The content doesn’t matter that much at all. Surely we must comfort the grieving world. People will debate what the actual legacy (signal) of the Reagan presidency was for a long time. The funeral is and should be a separate issue.

When form is writ large, it is hard to discern the signal.

Text Bites

Text Bites

From Video Killed the Text-News Star

The commodification of news was a key theme underlying the sometimes contentious talk about blogging at the ONA conference. Instead of asking “Why pay for news?” the pro-blogging speakers asked, “Why pay for edited news?” In a keynote speech, Web log pioneer Andrew Sullivan declared that newspaper op-ed columnists would eventually be replaced by online bloggers such as himself.

Some editors among the ONA speakers were not so ready to concede their irrelevance. “Down with blogging,” Retha Hill, vice president for content at, said when asked for a final sound bite on one panel. Yet, Hill said the problem with many news Web sites is they do not allow for the two-way interactive dialogue that Web users want.

Even the most avid news junkies accessing the Web do not want to deal with the massive amounts of information without help, added Ruth Gersh, editorial director of The Associated Press’ AP Digital: “They don’t want to have to sift through it, so there is still a need for, dare I say it, editorial judgement.”

Frank Munsey

George Britt Forty Years—Forty Millions: The Career of Frank A. Munsey (1935)

Britt’s book is the earliest biography of Frank Munsey, a man difficult to sum up in a few words. Modern references to Munsey refer to him as a grocer, a magazine publisher, and corporate raider. However, rich with first hand accounts, Britt takes a different angle on Munsey:

Mr. Munsey like to think that his greatest work, his newspapers, represented the same giant activity that Commodore Vanderbilt had performed among the railroads, by a process of mergers building up stronger lines, buying rivals wholesale, scrapping, consolidating, eliminating duplication, feeding the strong upon the resources of the weak or the weak upon the strong, killing, whenever it became necessary, ignoring sentimentality, inducing a new point of view. Mr. Munsey’s vision had recognized newspapers as just so many miles of rusty track. His romance was in the bold unification of a system and likewise of junking it again. He had made a contribution in his application of industrial principles; he had sped the day of efficient business overlordship into the newspaper shop. (3)

Continue reading “Frank Munsey”



One of the articles that I’ve read this week, Margaret A Blanchard’s “The Ossification of Journalism History: A Challenge for the Twentieth Century” from Journalism History 25:3 (Autumn 1999) raises some interesting points about the perception of history in journalism departments. I’ve started an independent study on that area because it intersects with my thesis.

I hate journalism. I always have. The most painful writing class I ever took was in writing for journalism—an intro course which spoon-feeds you the inverted pyramid et. al. Funny, but as I explore the historical side of it, the same sort of petrifaction seems to have occurred in the historical outlook.

Blanchard argues that what is deemed “acceptable” for publication are articles which are in some way biographical. In other words, a journalism history scholar is stopped from thinking about larger theoretical problems and encouraged to exhume lost biographical details of publications and/or authors. Most of the articles I have read so far seem to be thinly veiled paeans to some “pioneer” who in Horatio Alger fashion, made good the American dream of success.

I think her thesis is strong—that all attempts at journalism history have been stalled by their “insider” perspectives which do nothing to position journalism in the context of the larger media culture. It’s all rather inbred and self-congratulatory. But, just the same, I’m finding myself fascinated by the transition from nineteenth century journalism into the progressive era. There is a lot of scholarship going on there, but very little which directly addresses the twenties or thirties, which I think is another important flash-point.

A quick web search on Blanchard didn’t turn up much, except that she teaches at Chapel Hill and has written an article on Writing Your First Book for the Society of Academic Authors.