Journalism Then and Now

“Nobody rewrites what I write!” John Reed (portrayed by Warren Beatty) storms in the movie “Reds” just re-released along with its DVD for the first time since the movie opened in 1981.

This would be a good time to look back and see what’s happened to journalism since those exuberant World War I days when crusading journalist, Jack Reed, who hailed from Portland, Oregon, but was called “the wonder boy of Greenwich Village”, reported for independent media like Metropolitan Magazine, the New York World, and leftist periodicals, The Masses, The New Communist and Voice of Labour.

In 1919, Reed managed to get into Russia, with his wife, Louise Bryant, to report on the exploding Bolshevik Revolution and came back with a book called “Ten Days That Shook the World” that literally “shook the world” and made journalists think twice about what they were doing with their time.

The fear of “Bolshevism” was played up across American by the US government violating civil rights and the Constitution, arresting dissenting citizens and deporting aliens, in “Palmer Raids”, named for Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, not unlike what the Bush Administration is doing today.

The mainstream media had not yet been conglomerated. In fact, a good chunk of it didn’t yet exist. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone had just arrived on the scene. Guglielmo Marconi shared his Nobel Prize with Karl Ferdinand Braun for the invention of wireless telegraphy. Radio was growing like topsy with inventors from Hertz to Tesla to Bose and others from half a dozen countries vying to be the first to nail it down.

Television was further down the pipeline. It had to snuggle its way through wartime radar before it could emerge full-blown into real, live television after World War II. But as early as 1927, two brave souls were credited with inventing television-Vladimir Zworykin, a Russian born American inventor working for Westinghouse, and Philo Taylor Farnsworth, a privately backed farm boy from the state of Utah. The problem was, “Zworykin had a patent but Farnsworth had a picture.” David Sarnoff’s RCA took over the Zworykin invention and television showed its black and white face.

Sarnoff’s next conquest was winning the Supreme Court case that gave RCA the go-ahead for its color tube over CBS’s mechanical color wheel system in 1953.

Prior to that fuzzy period between the end of World War II and the early 1950s, the mainstream media consisted solely of print journalism-journals, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, books and the lecture circuit. Every major city had about six or more daily newspapers, morning and afternoon editions, which the public read voraciously and where they could find a range of opinion, unlike our great cable news networks, today, where, on five hundred channels the opinion range is about as wide as from A to B.

Our Bill of Rights “freedom of speech” amendment allowed for a rich history of dissent in this country-Tom Paine, pamphleteer, Mark Twain, writer and humorist, Walt Whitman, poet, Will Rogers, satirist, to name a few.

With the coming of color and the cable news networks, television became even more marinated in commercialism than it was when there were only three commercial networks. As early as 1961, Newton Minow, head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made his famous “vaste wasteland” speech before the National Association of Broadcasters convention. Minow gave the broadcasters unshirted hell for not doing more to serve the public interest. But that message went in one ear and out the other. Mergers and acquisitions among media companies continued until a handful of global giants emerged with a strangle hold on information. The five largest were Time Warner, Disney that owns ABC, Bertlesmann, a German firm with $15 billion in media assets, Sumner Redstone’s Viacom that owns CBS, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, that controls and runs Fox News on TV and the New York Post on paper and all the news they fix to print. In addition, they all have interests in major movie studios, other TV channels and networks, cable companies, most of the music companies, book publishing, retail stores, amusement parks, video games, and merchandizing and on and on. Grow or die. They fear it.

Such a concentration of media power into so few hands violates every known theory of a free marketplace of ideas that the people had in John Reed’s day.

“While television is supposed to be free”, said Walter Lippmann, prominent journalist, in 1959, “it has, in fact, become the creature, the servant and indeed the prostitute of merchandising,”

Despite his disdain for commercial television, Walter Lippmann also exhibited his distain for the intelligence of the American public. He didn’t think they were smart enough to understand complicated political issues so they needed journalists to filter the news for them, to inform the public what the elites (the police-makers, the politicians) were doing. But to accomplish that, publishers and editors, in the mainstream media, have to get individual journalists working for them to internalize the establishment group-think and sell their souls for a mess of potage while remaining in a state of denial-or get out! One man’s journalist is another man’s propagandist.

“Nobody rewrites what I write!” John Reed storms in “Reds”.

“Who’ll pay your rent?” his editor (Gene Hackman) shouts after him as Reed slams out the door.

Fortunately, there are still other outlets in the alternative media and we still have the Internet. But watch out! They’re going for control of that, too!

STEPHEN FLEISCHMAN, television writer-director-producer, spent thirty years in Network News at CBS and ABC, starting in 1953. In 1959, he participated in the formation of the renowned Murrow-Friendly “CBS Reports” series. In 1983, Fleischman won the prestigious Columbia University-Dupont Television Journalism Award. In 2004, he wrote his memoir. See:, E-mail:



STEPHEN FLEISCHMAN, writer-producer-director of documentaries, spent thirty years in Network News at CBS and ABC. His memoir is now in print. See, e-mail