August 23, 2002
Down to the Wire

People in America just sort of take for granted that our mainstream news outlets are, or at least should be, relatively objective, simply reporting news events as they happen. We're also used to knowing what is happening all over the world at the instant it ocurrs. Actually, this so-called objectivity, and the ability to learn what's happening in the next town, let alone the next country in less than a week is rather a recent phenomenon, really only about a hundred and fifty years old

Before this time, all the way back to the invention of the printing press that made news papers possible, objectivity in news reporting simply wasn't a consideration. Newspapers were by and large (in the US at least) seen as mouthpieces for the political viewpoints of whatever party the editor-in-chief happened to be a member of. The bigger the newspaper was, the bigger the party that ran it. They all claimed to speak the truth, but hardly any claimed to be objective about it.

The Associated Press got its start through a consortium of New York City papers. Before the telegraph was invented most news, especially news from Europe, traveled via ship. To ensure a "scoop", these papers would put reporters on rowboats to meet ships as they pulled into harbor. There were so many, and the competition so fierce, many times reporters would end up in the harbor, becoming news instead of reporting it. The idea was to send just one reporter out to a ship, after it had docked, and then share the news with whoever was part of the consortium.

This consortiums didn't really come into its own until the telegraph, coincidentally invented just a few years earlier, began to spread.

It's difficult to emphasize how magical the telegraph seemed at the time. Unlike the printing press, which was essentially just a mechanized method of copying written communication, the telegraph represented a fundamental change in how people communicated with each other. Suddenly people were able to "speak" with each other just as if they were together in the same room, even though they were sometimes hundreds of miles apart. When Samuel Morse tapped out "What hath God Wrought" from the US Capitol to Alfred Vail at the B&O Railway Station in Baltimore (39 miles north), the world became infinitely smaller in an instant.

News that once took weeks to transmit from one place to another now took just a few seconds. By placing specially-paid "Morse operators" in every city as it got wired up, what initially started out as a method of keeping reporters from drowning turned into a powerful method of transmitting news from one location to another. Because very few papers could actually keep reporters in every single city around the country, other newspapers would quite gladly pay for the services', well, service, and so it became an extremely lucrative method as well.

But there was a problem. Different cities had different newspapers, and therefore different political parties, "in charge". If a reporter in one city wrote copy from, say, a Democratically controlled news paper's normal point of view, it would be completely unsellable to at least half the rest of the newspapers across the country. You wrote what happened and not what you thought or you couldn't make any money. The economics of the telegraph itself, where you weren't charged by the minute, you were charged by the word, also lead to an extreme economy of reportage which didn't lend itself well to "spin" and "slant".

The invention of the printing press turned general information into a commodity. The invention of the telegraph turned news, time-sensitive information, into the same sort of commodity. The "wire service" changed that news from something that suited the agenda of just one group, even just one man, into a tool of freedom.

People were able to learn what happened rather than what they were supposed to think about it. They were able to cross-check their own local paper against a national organization which literally reported "just the facts". They were able to care about what was happening on the other side of the country, eventually even on the other side of the world, because what they learned didn't happen last week, or last month, it was happening right now, when they could actually do something about it.

While it can be said the modern age started with the printing press, the information age, this constantly changing, obsolete-before-it's-invented world we live in now, started with the telegraph.

And, once again, the world would never be the same.

Posted by scott at August 23, 2002 04:43 PM

eMail this entry!

scott i think everyone agrees with me when i say that your posts are just too long. they sound interesting but i cant bring myself to read all that. btw did you ever get back to me about the d link password?

Posted by: neenah on August 23, 2002 05:41 PM

Not quite 700 words this time... one of my shorter ones. I write them for myself as much as for everyone else. I have it on good authority that at least one person likes them a lot (and not just my mom).

Posted by: Scott on August 23, 2002 05:54 PM

Yeah, Scott! If you can't make a point in less than 40 words, don't make it at all!

[You can assume I'm making some stereotyped anti-American comment on this line, but actually my own countrymen are no better in this respect.]

I would make the point that reading off a screen is hard - it's actually an acquired skill, you'll find your eyes settle into it if you do it enough, but if you mostly read off paper, it can be painful at first.

To Scott: You might want to look at the layout of the essays. Browers tend to run test right across their windows, which makes large blocks of text almost illegible. You can help that by resizing your window to be tall and narrow, but not everyone knows to do that. Look at the formatting of, a very narrow text column, double spaced, is much easier to read than the default text layout. (Just to be awkward they're currently displaying the 2000-10-10 edition, which is single spaced, but normally it's double spaced). If you expect people to read 700 words off-screen, you should make it as painless as possible.

Posted by: Robert UK on August 23, 2002 06:21 PM

bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch bitch, thats all you ppl do!

Posted by: Ellen on August 23, 2002 06:47 PM

So, basically, the text needs to be narrower, and more widely spaced? This shouldn't be tough, I just have to dig around in the stylesheets.

I always thought it was easier to read when it was spread out. *shrug*

Posted by: scott on August 23, 2002 07:11 PM

Scott, Please, PLEEEASE don't stop writing your long, wonderful essays. Reading off a screen is not hard unless it's a bad font. (too small or not enough contrast, or light on dark) A narrower column is easier as long as it's not too narrow About 1/2 to 2/3 of the screen width is about right. I read all of Crime and Punishment at with no trouble, and I read very long essays, much much longer than yours, all the time.

The font on your "more" page is okay now but it's very hard to read a column that's so narrow there's only 2 or 3 words on each line.

Posted by: Lynn on August 23, 2002 09:10 PM

OMG! I hate the two or three words sentences. Hate it!!!!!! Please go back to the other set up. I do like the larger font but please go back to the original of the extended template. Sorry I opened a can of worms asking for lighter material. I just happen to enjoy your sense of humor.

Posted by: Pat on August 24, 2002 01:25 AM

BTW I find it in no way painful to read your essays!!! Write what you want, how you want and when you want. If I don't like it I don't have to read it.

Posted by: Pat on August 24, 2002 01:27 AM

Neenah, Not everyone agrees with you! LOL

Posted by: Pat on August 24, 2002 03:32 AM

Ok, please re-examine and let me know now!

Posted by: scott on August 24, 2002 07:21 AM
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