A History of American Journalism in the 20th Century

Front page of The Prospector in 1900 / 123RF.com

In the quest for increased readership, newspaper editors began to publish sensational headlines and lurid stories.

By Dr. Rick Musser
Professor Emeritus of Journalism
University of Kansas


This article focuses on American journalism from 1900-1999. Although history does not often compartmentalize itself into convenient pieces, this focuses on the 10 decades as if each 10 years were a chapter.

From the first newsreels to the advent of the Internet, the 20th century will be remembered for the birth, evolution and impending demise of “modern,” mainstream journalism. While this article concentrates on American journalists and news services, the contributions from other parts of the world also are recognized.

The 1900s


Immigration and industry both boomed in the United States in the 1900s. These immigrants, seeking better opportunities in the U.S., found hazardous working conditions in factories and squalid living conditions in tenements. Big business led to big questions for many journalists of the 1900s. From Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle to Ida Tarbell’s investigation of John D. Rockefeller, newspapers and magazines in the 1900s were full of exposés. President Theodore Roosevelt described these journalists as muckrakers.

In the quest for increased readership, newspaper editors began to publish sensational headlines and lurid stories. The age of yellow journalism was in full flower.

International communication was made advanced by Guglielmo Marconi, who sent the first radio transmission across the Atlantic Ocean. Thomas Edison harnessed electricity and started one of the first movie companies. His execution movie told the tale of President William McKinley’s assassin’s death.

Journalists and Media Personalities

Joseph Pulitzer / Wikimedia Commons

A Hungarian immigrant with few resources, Pulitzer rose to purchase the struggling New York World newspaper in 1883 after many successes in St. Louis. Pulitzer used his newspapers to crusade for the rights of immigrants, the poor and the working class. Sensational headlines such as “Baptized in Blood” competed with those of the New York Journal owned by William Randolph Hearst.

William Randolph Hearst / Wikimedia Commons

William Randolph Hearst, the only son from a rich family, took control of his father’s newspaper in 1887 after an unsuccessful stint at Harvard. Hearst became a major competitor of Joseph Pulitzer when he purchased The New York Journal in 1895. Under Hearst’s direction, the paper fanned the flames of war, urging it’s readers to “Remember the Maine”, a U.S. navy ship that exploded mysteriously in Cuba. Hearst’s efforts contributed to the start of the Spanish-American War. Hearst is quoted as saying, “War makes for great circulation.” Hearst used the expansion of his newspaper chain to further his political ambitions, though without the same level of success as his media empire.

Richard Outcault / Wikimedia Commons

Creator of The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown comics. The Yellow Kid would symbolize the circulation wars between Pulitzer and Hearst; the comic appeared in both newspapers simultaneously. The term “yellow journalism” derives from his popular comic strip. Outcault’s creations also generated the first comic merchandising; key rings, statues and other Yellow Kid paraphernalia predated Happy Meals by decades.

Lincoln Steffens / Wikimedia Commons

New York Post reporter and managing editor of McClure’s Magazine. Steffens wrote a series of articles that exposed corruption in the local governments of Chicago, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Philadelphia and New York City; later collected in the book The Shame of the Cities (1904). The Struggle for Self-Government (1906) told of investigations of state politicians. He joined other muckrakers like Tarbell and Ray Stannard Baker to form the American Magazine.

Ida Tarbell / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

As a teenager, Ida Tarbell witnessed first hand the efforts of the Standard Oil Company’s efforts to monopolize oil production in Pennsylvania. Tarbell wrote The History of the Standard Oil Company articles in McClure’s Magazine criticizing the business practices of Standard Oil and its president, John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller responded to these attacks by describing her as “Miss Tarbarrel”.

Upton Sinclair / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

A muckraker and novelist known for his best seller The Jungle, first serialized in 1905 by the socialist journal of tiny Girard, Kansas, Appeal to Reason. Upton Sinclair’s classic book described the unsanitary practices of a Chicago meat packing company and led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act (1906) and the Meat Inspection Act (1906).

“There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage; there would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was moldy and white – it would be dosed with borax and glycerin, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption.”

Excerpt from The Jungle
Ray Stannard Baker / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

A muckraker on the staff of McClure’s Magazine, Ray Stannard Baker joined Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, William Allen White and others to found American Magazine in 1906. Baker’s articles investigated labor relations and race relations; the latter were collected together in Following the Color Line, illuminating Jim Crow laws, lynching, and poverty. Baker later served as press secretary to President Woodrow Wilson during the Paris Peace Treaty, and wrote a multi-volume biography of Wilson.

“But the mob wasn’t through with its work. Easy people imagine that, having hanged a Negro, the mob goes quietly about its business; but that is never the way of the mob. Once released, the spirit of anarchy spreads and spreads, not subsiding until it has accomplished its full measure of evil.

Excerpt from an article entitled What is Lynching?
Nellie Bly / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

A pseudonym for Elizabeth Cochrane, Nelly Bly is known for numerous journalistic and business accomplishments. As a reporter, Bly pioneered techniques in investigative journalism by faking her own insanity in order to go undercover in New York’s insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island. During her lifetime, Bly also circumnavigated the globe in 72 days, managed two multi-million dollar companies at the same time, and was the first female correspondent to cover the eastern front during World War I.

Political Scene

President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt was the first U.S. president to have his career and life captured on film. When President William McKinley was assassinated at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901, Vice-President Roosevelt took office.

Known for his “big stick” policy in international affairs, Roosevelt has been quoted saying, “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”

After re-election in 1905, Roosevelt worked to bring a peace settlement to the Russo-Japanese War. Roosevelt also acquired the right for the U.S. to build a canal in Panama and visited the country, the first time a U.S. president had ever visited a foreign nation.

Roosevelt coined the phrase “muckraker” to describe investigative journalists who fueled the progressive era crusades. He also sued Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World for libel following the publication of an unfavorable editorial regarding the involvement of the United States in the Panamanian Revolution. The case was dismissed.

Social Climate

Child labor was still a common practice at the beginning of the 20th century.

The turn of the century also marked the dawn of many new technologies. Inventors, scientists and industrialists were busy around the turn of the century developing inventions. Thomas Edison created moving pictures and harnessed electricity while the Wright Brothers spread their wings.

At the same time, millions of immigrants arrived on U.S. soil, mostly from southern and eastern Europe. Though most were farmers, a majority would only find factory jobs in eastern U.S. cities.

Technological breakthroughs in transportation, communication, mechanization and science fostered an industrialized society. Corporate consolidations ruled the day, and the working conditions of men, women and children as laborers were harsh and brutal. Boys as young as 12 years old commonly worked in dangerous conditions in the coal mining industry.

Races relations degraded following the Plessy vs. Ferguson of 1896 decision that legalized segregation. Jim Crow laws also marginalized African Americans, preventing them from voting, while also turning a blind eye to white violence.

The first nickelodeon theater, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.

One of the new media technologies — new storefront theaters dubbed nickelodeons — succeeded wildly as an innovative form of entertainment. Appearing first in 1905, nickelodeons featured movie shows all day long, in contrast to the vaudeville theaters. Actuality film — reenactments of media events and the forerunners of newsreels — proved to be very popular with the new audiences.

The first nickelodeon was built in Pittsburgh in June 1905, and others quickly flourished around the country. By 1908, approximately 8,000 nickelodeons in the U.S. allowed people to stop in almost anytime to enjoy the frequent showings. Later, bigger theaters would be built allowing larger audiences to see longer films projected on a bigger screens.

Media Moments

1900 – Thomas Edison’s execution movie of McKinley’s assassin. An actuality – a short non-fiction film – of the execution of the assassin of McKinley carried out from the description of an eyewitness. Motion pictures became popular, first as single-viewer kinetoscopes, then as films projected for mass audiences. Edison’s company, Thomas A. Edison, Inc., produced films showing famous people, news events, disasters, and everyday people doing everyday activities.

Guglielmo Marconi demonstrating apparatus he used in his first long-distance radio transmissions in the 1890s. The transmitter is at right, the receiver with paper tape recorder at left. / Wikimedia Commons

1901 – Guglielmo Marconi, the “father of radio”, took a simple interest in “Hertzian Waves” and invented one of the most important new media’s of the new century. Having first experimented with radio transmissions in the attic of his parent’s home, Marconi traveled to England in a search for investors. There, he founded the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company Limited which began building radio equipment in 1889. To publicize the new invention, Marconi gave numerous demonstration, including one to Queen Victoria. In 1901, Marconi successfully transmitted the first radio signals across the Atlantic Ocean.

Library of Congress

1903 – One of Edison’s most famous ‘actualities’, this action film depicted a robbery by Butch Cassidy. Enormously popular, it is one of the first films to tell a coherent story. Later, when the audiences became bored with “real” events, Edison and his company began producing action, drama and comedic films.

Prelinger Archives

April 18, 1906 – San Francisco’s devastation captured on film. Only days after and earthquake and fire destroyed much of San Francisco, the first “newsreels” were there to capture the devastation. This disaster would be the first major event of its kind to be captured for the viewing audiences around the United States and the world, though much the “ongoing destruction” was staged for the cameras.

Front page, New York American, June 26, 1906. / Wikimedia Commons

1907 – First trial of the century. Girl meets boy: Evelyn Nesbit, a 16-year-old showgirl, enjoyed some, but not all of the affections of Standford White, the famous New York architect who designed Madison Square Garden. Boy meets girl: Henry K. Thaw, an “eccentric” millionaire met and eventually married Evelyn, but grew to hate her former seducer, White. Boy flies into a jealous rage and kills wife’s ex-lover: Thaw shot White as he entertained on the roof garden of Madison Square Garden and was immediately arrested. Press has field day: supposedly even President Theodore Roosevelt followed the coverage in the newspapers. Justice served?: Thaw was eventually freed and immediately divorced Evelyn.

Thomas Edison’s first successful model of light bulb, used in public demonstration at Menlo Park, December 1879. / Wikimedia Commons

1908 – Electric light. Thomas Edison — having already conceived, built and marketed an amazing number of devices like the motion picture camera — invents the electric light. Now taken for granted, the electric light changes society. It became much easier for people to to stay up late in the evening and enjoy more social activities. The night was somewhat tamed by the spread of street lamps, headlights and illuminated signs. The stars disappear in urban areas, and life becomes a 24-hour experience with the simple flick of a switch.

Trends in Journalism

“The Yellow Kid”

The era before and during the 1900s is known as the age of yellow journalism, when sensational headlines and lurid stories were the norm. It was also a time when many determined journalists exposed corruption in government, the unfair treatment of factory workers, and the privileges of the upper class.

McClure’s Magazine, owned by Samuel McClure and originally established as a general interest magazine, moved into the business of muckraking, exposing the faults of expansion and industrialization. These two trends — yellow journalism and muckraking — helped newspapers and magazines become the dominant form of mass media.

The USS Maine, shortly after it had exploded and sunk.

Newspaper publishers Hearst of The New York Journal and Pulitzer of The New York World were in a circulation war fighting for the same new target audience – immigrants, who were still pouring in to the New World from Europe. One of the most memorable stories from the era, the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, would help to propel the United States to war with Spain.

Advertising grew and promoted a culture of consumption. Magazines such as Call’s Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post took advantage of advertising to increase their circulation and still keep subscription prices low.

General interest and ladies magazines also flourished. Magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Vogue began targeting niche markets: homemakers and fashion-oriented women. Between 1890 and 1905 the circulation of monthly periodicals went from 18 million to 64 million.

The 1910s


The Muckrakers of the 1900s gave way to investigative reporting and war correspondents in the 1910s. Political and social pressures helped form the decade with the four-way presidential election of 1912, the release of the film “Birth of a Nation,” and World War I all helping to divide the American public.

Newspapers were a source of activism for political parties and for social equality. Radio was beginning to make an impact on society and journalism, and the 1910s would lay the groundwork for the rise of radio in the 1920s.

Journalists and Media Personalities

Carr V. Van Anda / Internet Archive, Wikimedia Commons

Carr Van Anda was an editor at the New York Times when the Titanic struck an iceberg on Sunday April 14, 1912. The next morning, the Times was the only newspaper to report that the Titanic had indeed sunk — other newspapers having simply reported that the ship had been damaged. When the survivors returned to New York, Van Anda organized the coverage by renting one floor of a local hotel and installing an unprecedented four phone lines. Van Anda reinvented the way the media covered disasters.

William Monroe Trotter / Dickinson College, Wikimedia Commons

William Monroe Trotter was born April 7, 1872, and raised in the wealthy Hyde Park suburb of Boston. He was the only African American in his high school, but was elected class president and graduated as the valedictorian. After college at Harvard, Trotter founded the activist newspaper The Boston Guardian. The paper was “propaganda against discrimination,” and fought for equal rights for blacks. Trotter’s paper frequently railed against Woodrow Wilson because the president had segregated some public offices. Trotter led a delegation to the White House 1914, where he debated Wilson until he was thrown out. William Monroe Trotter is remembered as an early civil rights activist and the founder of an African American newspaper.

Richard Harding Davis / Wikimedia Commons

Richard Harding Davis was the first modern war correspondent. By the age of 26 he had become the managing editor of Harper’s Weekly, but left to cover the Spanish War. He then went to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War, then the Greco-Turkish War, and then the Boer War in Africa. By the time World War I began in Europe, Davis had become such a respected war correspondent that he was paid $32,000 a year to report on it. He was captured by the Germans in 1914 and accused of being a British spy, but was released soon after they found he was an American. He covered the war until 1915, when he left because he disagreed with the Allied restrictions on the press.

Peggy Hull / The Bismarck Tribune, Wikimedia Commons

Henrietta “Peggy” Deuell, a Kansas farm girl, left home at an early age to become a journalist. After her marriage to a fellow journalist, Peggy Hull covered General Pershing’s pursuit of Pancho Villa in Mexico, and survived submarine-infested waters to report from the Western Front during World War I — without any official recognition or assistance from the United States government, which frowned on the idea of female war correspondents. With help from General Perusing, Hull became the first officially accredited female war correspondent and promptly accompanied American soldiers to Siberia during the Russian revolution. In Shanghai during the Japanese invasion of the city, Hull stayed to cover the action, and would continue coving the war in the Pacific after the United States entered the Second World War. She was known for featuring the “ordinary” man in her stories. In 1944, an American G. I. wrote to her, saying “You will never realize what those yarns of yours . . . did to this gang. . . . You made them know they weren’t forgotten.”

Floyd Gibbons is given a “home town” welcome at Minneapolis, Minnesota on October 5, 1918. To the right of the photo is his sister Zelda. / Wikimedia Commons

Floyd Gibbons, a war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, was aboard the troop transport, S.S. Laconia, when it was sunk by a German U-boat. Later, he was wounded in the trench warfare in Europe. Having been hit by three bullets, the grievously wounded Gibbons waited hours for the sun to set before he could retreat from where he was pinned down by enemy fire.

Lowell Thomas / Wikimedia Commons

Depressed by the carnage on the Western Front, Lloyd Thomas a war correspondent with an interest in the new art of documentary filmmaking, traveled with his cameraman to the Middle East in search of a story. He found and filmed T. E. Lawrence, an eccentric British officer leading a revolt of the Arabs against the Ottoman Empire. Thomas joined a traveling show with his documentary film With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia. The success the film made Thomas famous as an adventuring journalist, and made “Lawrence of Arabia” a legend. Thomas would have a long career as a radio newscaster and narrator of newsreels. He also appeared on the first television news broadcast in 1939. He would retire from journalism in 1976, after almost 60 years in the business.

Benito Mussolini / Wikimedia Commons

Benito Mussolini broke from Socialism in 1914 when he founded a paper called “The Italian People.” He also started a pro-war group and coined the term “fascism” from a symbol of Roman power. After being wounded by a grenade in 1917, he returned to edit his paper until he was elected to the Italian parliament in 1921. His skills as a journalist would help him win election to head the Italian government, and he would prove to be a popular international figure until the 1930s.

George Creel / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

George Creel began his newspaper career at the Kansas City World, then started the Kansas City Independent. He was chosen by Wilson to head the Committee for Public Information in 1917, which was responsible for raising American support for the war effort. He organized poster campaigns, music tours, speaking engagements and cartoons to galvanize American sentiment. He also organized a campaign in America and Europe to raise support for Wilson’s Fourteen Points and he is credited in part with the acceptance of the plan.

Political Scene

President Woodrow Wilson

1910-1919 was a decade of unrest throughout the world. In America, the decade began with a contentious election between the Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Republican Taft, Progressive Roosevelt, and the Socialist Eugene Debs. With Republican voters split between Taft and Roosevelt, Wilson won 42 percent of the popular vote and 82 percent of the electoral college.

The outcome might have been different if the Roosevelt camp leaked an letter taken from Wilson’s luggage that would have disclosed an affair between Wilson and Mary Peck.

British soldiers going “over the top” during World War I.

After the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, a web of allegiances pulled Europe into war. The isolationist United States entered the war in 1917 as U.S. pressures against Germany grew with revelations that they had fermented unrest against the U.S. in Mexico.

The Treaty of Versailles ended the war in 1919, but the Allied leaders, Lloyd George of England, Vittorio Orlando of Italy, and Georges Clemenceau of France, forced unreasonable restrictions on Germany. Wilson’s Fourteen Points were a starting point, and the League of Nations was established, but the U.S. Congress was dissatisfied with the arrangement and never allowed the U.S. to join the League.

In Russia, the Bolsheviks led by Lenin seized control of the countr and the United States was worried that a revolution might be incited here as well. Legislation that was eventually ruled unconstitutional restricted Americans’ speech. Eugene Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison under the Sedition Act of 1918, and Emma Goldman deported in 1919 under the California Criminal Syndicalism Act.”

Social Climate

British casualties of a gas attack

In July of 1914, a Serbian terrorist shot and killed Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austria-Hungary throne, while he visited the city of Sarajevo in Bosnia. Thanks to a web of confusing alliances and agreements between the various European powers, the continent descended into war. Austria marches on Serbs; the Serbians call on their ally Russia; the German Kaiser unsuccessfully urged his cousin, the Russian czar, not to intercede; the Germans came to the defense of Austria; once attacked, Russia drew in France; the Germans marched into France through Belgium — which was neutral, thus bringing England, Italy, The Ottoman Empire and — eventually — the United States to enter the war.

World War I produced new technologies that killed soldiers more effectively than had ever been seen. The use of poison gases, heavy artillery, machine guns, tanks, blimps and airplanes contributed to a stalemate that dragged the battles into muddy trench warfare with forces separated by a no-man’s land.

Eugene V. Debs speaking in 1918.

Socialism became a political force in American politics. Eugene V. Debs ran for president in 1912, his forth attempt, while Victor Berger, a Socialist newspaper owner from Wisconsin, was elected to U.S. Senate. Both men were punished under new laws that condemned political dissent.

Berger’s most influential newspaper, the Milwaukee Leader, established in 1911, became the vehicle for his vocal opposition to World War I. Berger’s views on World War I were complicated by the socialist view and the difficulties around his Germanic heritage. However, he did support his party’s stance against the war.

When the United States entered the war and passed the Espionage Act in 1917, Berger’s continued opposition made him a target: He and four other Socialists were indicted under the Espionage Act in February 1918. Berger was eventually sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. Berger appealed and his sentence was ultimately overturned on a technicality on January 31, 1921, by the Supreme Court, three years after the end of the First World War.

In spite of his being under indictment at the time, the people of Milwaukee elected Berger to the House of Representatives in 1918. When Berger arrived in Washington to claim his seat, Congress formed a special committee to determine whether a convicted felon and war opponent should be seated as a member of Congress. On November 10, 1919, they concluded that he should not, and declared the seat vacant. Wisconsin promptly held a special election to fill the vacant seat and on December 19 elected Berger a second time. On January 10, 1920, the House again refused to seat him and the seat remained vacant until 1921, when Republican William H. Stafford claimed the seat after defeating Berger in the 1920 general election.

Media Moments

Theatrical release poster

1914 – D. W. Griffith’s film, Birth of a Nation based on the Thomas Dixon novel The Clansman was a huge success and put Griffith at the top of the film industry. Called a racist and picketed by black leaders such as William Monroe Trotter, Griffith released Intolerance as a counterpoint, but to much less acclaim. The most popular film of its time, Birth of a Nation would ultimately ruin Griffith’s career.

The bow of the wrecked Titanic, photographed in June 2004. / NOAA, Wikimedia Commons

April 15, 1912: The Titanic sinks – At 1:20 a.m. on April 15, a Marconi wireless station in New Foundland picks up an SOS from the R.M.S. Titanic. Carr Van Anda of the New York Times calls to find that the Titanic’s wireless was silent half hour after the distress call was received. Before 3:30 a.m. Van Anda and staff organize the story, retrieving a passenger list and pictures of the Titanic. Reports of icebergs were received from ships in the area where the Titanic last transmitted. The following morning the New York Times led with the story that the Titanic had sunk, while other papers report inconclusive news.

When ships carrying rescued passengers arrived, Van Anda rented out a floor in a hotel a block from where R.M.S. Carpathia would dock with survivors and install four telephone lines direct to New York Times offices. Van Anda persuaded Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of wireless, to interview the Titanic’s wireless operator on board the Carpathia and scored another scoop with the last messages of Titanic.

The heads of the “Big Four” nations at the Paris Peace Conference, 27 May 1919. From left to right: David Lloyd George, Vittorio Orlando, Georges Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson. / Wikimedia Commons

June 28, 1919: Peace treaty ends First World War, sets stage for second – The Treaty of Versailles, signed in Paris, ended the First World War. Woodrow Wilson presented his Fourteen Points to keep the world safe for democracy, but other Allied leaders wished to punish Germany. At left, Lloyd George of England, Orlando Vittorio of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France and U.S. president Woodrow Wilson in Paris were negotiating the treaty that would breed resentment in Germany, leading to the rise of Adolf Hitler and World War II.

Trends in Journalism

The radio room of the Titanic

During the 1910s, American’s interest in muckraking journalism waned and publishers shifted focus as their audience’s tastes changed. Magazines like Vanity FairThe Smart Set and Vogue focused on the lifestyles of the rich, while the squalid lives of the underclass became the staple of tabloid newspapers and confessional magazines.

New technologies also made the 1910s important. The Radio Act of 1912 marked the first time Congress attempted to regulate the new technology, also known as the wireless telegraph. The act put radio waves in control of government, which divided the bandwidths up for different uses. Each broadcaster was assigned a three- or four-letter codes and all ships were required to carry wireless radio equipment, due in part to the Titanic disaster in April of 1912. The use of radio would expand during the 1910s, especially after wartime advances funded by the United States military filtered down into commercial use in the media industry.

With the start of the First World War, modern war journalism was born upon the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East, and nurtured by journalists like Richard Harding Davis, Floyd Gibbons, Peggy Hull and Lowell Thomas. Hundreds of American journalists provided unprecedented and unmatched coverage of the war. Back on the home front, modern propaganda in America was born when President Woodrow Wilson created the Committee of Public Information, headed by George Creel, to help manage the flow of news and information to the American populace.

Charlie Chaplin in “The Kid.” The film debuted in 1921 and was written and directed by Chaplin.

Movies became increasingly popular with the public, but many serious actors refused to work in the new medium. One of the early silent film stars and a beloved actor of the early century was Charlie Chaplin. His first big-studio picture came out in 1914, which he starred in and directed. Chaplin was also known to write the accompanying music for his silent films. Other stars of the first age of film include Rudolf Valentino, Lillian Gish, Buster Keaton, Lon Chaney, Mary Pickford and Fatty Arbuckle.

D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation would prove to be the most popular and most controversial film of the decade. Highlighting the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, Griffith’s reputation would be stained by his most “successful” film. Lillian Gish called him “the father of film” and Charlie Chaplin called him “the teacher of us all.”

Newsreels, still in their childhood as a new medium, would continue to mature. Woodrow Wilson, during the twilight of his presidency, spent many hours watching newsreels of himself during the happier moments of his administration.

The 1920s


Profound cultural and social conflict marked the years of the 1920s. New cultural attitudes towards race, immigration and evolution, along with changes in the social fabric, pitted the new cosmopolitan culture against more traditional and conservative ideals. Social changes included the rise of consumer culture and mass entertainment in the form of radio and movies. The changing of sexual mores and gender roles marked a sharp separation from the Victorian past. Prohibition made alcohol illegal, while wild speculation in the stock market, along with unhealthy corporate structures, ensured the decade’s relative prosperity would end in a Great Crash.

Jazz and tabloid journalism charted a new era of sensationalism focusing on sex and crime. While the victorious nations from the First World War enjoyed the spoils, resentment bred in Germany, setting the stage for future conflict.

In his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Journalists and Media Personalities

David Sarnoff / Wikimedia Commons

The creator of the National Broadcasting Company who helped develop television. Sarnoff became the most powerful figure in the communications and media industries. He claimed to have scooped the world on the Titanic disaster, staying at his telegraph key for 72 hours. In 1915, he submitted a memo to the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America, which granted him $2,000 to develop his idea for a “radio music box.” By 1924, the box had sold $83 million worth of units. Sarnoff’s chief ambition wasn’t making money but enlarging the applications of the electronic media through research and development.

William S. Paley / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Radio tycoon who headed the Columbia Broadcasting System. Paley was regarded as a programming genius who rewrote the nation’s definition of entertainment and news. In 1928 he bought $50 worth of advertising on Philadelphia station WCAU for his father’s company, La Palina Cigars. Sales skyrocketed and the family ended up buying a chain of stations, which Paley renamed the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). He became president of the network on September 28. He set up his own news organization and recruited a veritable dean’s list of newsmen: Edward R. Murrow, William Shirer and Eric Sevareid, just to name a few.

Henry Luce / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Henry Luce, along with Briton Hadden, launched Time magazine in 1923. The magazine developed innovative approaches to news coverage, including packaging the news in topical units and replacing standard newspaper prose with a catchy narrative style. From the start, Time was accused of bias; Luce and Hadden were conservatives who opposed government interference of business. After Hadden died in 1929, Luce went on to build a media empire that included FortuneLifeSports Illustrated and Time-Life books.

William Allen White / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

A Kansas editorial writer and newspaper owner who walked among the giants of politics, White worked fervently for the causes he believed in. White even left his newspaper, The Emporia Gazette, to run independently for governor when the two main candidates accepted endorsements from the Ku Klux Klan. White won a Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for his editorial To an Anxious Friend”, defending free expression.

“You tell me that law is above freedom of utterance. And I reply that you can have no wise laws nor free entertainment of wise laws unless there is free expression of the wisdom of the people – and, alas, their folly with it. But if there is freedom, folly will die of its own poison, and the wisdom will survive.”

William Allen White, “To an Anxious Friend”, July 27, 1922
Freeman Gosden at right with Charles Correll. / Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), Wikimedia Commons

The stars of America’s most popular radio show, Amos ‘n’ Andy. The white men did schtick based on stereotypical black men. In an era of blackface entertainment, there were no protests. The show broadcast six nights a week in 15-minute installments. So popular was the show, that America would stop from 7:00 to 7:15, movie theaters would shut off their projectors and roll out radio sets. The show retained its popularity through the 1940s.

Will Rogers / Internet Archive, Wikimedia Commons

The comedian and social critic rose to radio stardom in 1922. He was famous for saying, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” Rogers regarded Congress as his “joke factory.” He became a syndicated writer whose columns appeared in more than 400 newspapers. His homespun wit made him a beloved national figure. At the 1932 Democratic National Convention, Rogers fell asleep only to wake up to find he’d been nominated for President. “If elected, I promise to resign,” he said. He died in a plane crash in 1935.

I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson. / Photo by Sodebunny, Wikimedia Commons

The Johnsons traveled the globe photographing and filming their adventures in Africa, the South Pacific and elsewhere. In order to finance their trips, the Johnsons signed contracts to advertise tobacco, soft drinks, cosmetics and coffee. Their films proved extremely popular and, for a time, Osa Johnson’s popularity matched that of Eleanor Roosevelt or Ann Lindbergh.

Bernarr Macfadden / Wikimedia Commons

Health guru who earned his fortune from the magazine Physical Culture. Macfadden introduced the confession magazine in 1919 with True Story, which had a weekly circulation of more than 2 million. Its success was attributed largely to its sexual frankness. True Story addressed sexual problems in a clinical rather than erotic way. Realizing that the word “true” sold copies, Macfadden launched the first quasi-factual detective magazine, True Detective Mysteries, in 1924. Macfadden’s magazines were profitable and innovative, but his newspapers, including the tabloid the New York Evening Graphic, failed.

Walter Winchell / ABC Television, Wikimedia Commons

The most widely read columnist in American journalism. His “three-dot” column was a must-read in the New York Evening Graphic and, later, in the New York Daily Mirror. Once he said about celebrity: “To become famous, throw a brick at someone who is famous.” The content of his columns broadened through time, starting with show-biz gossip and expanding to include items about politics and business. His writings spawned a journalistic genre. Winchell’s greatest media exposure came from his weekly radio broadcasts, which began in 1930 with the greeting: “Good evening, Mr. And Mrs. America and all the ships at sea.” After World War II, he was denounced as a fascist by the left for his strong stance against communism.

John R. “Doc” Brinkley / Internet Archive, Wikimedia Commons

Originally from North Carolina, “Doctor” Brinkley, a con man with a dubious medical education, claimed he could restore male virility by implanting goat glands from his clinic in Milford, Kansas. Brinkley then opened KFKB, one the of first radio stations in the country. Unburdened by federal limitations on signal strength, Brinkley’s high-powered station sold his pharmaceuticals and spread his politics nationwide. After an unsuccessful write-in campaign for the governorship of Kansas, Brinkley would move his operation to Mexico.

William Ashely “Billy” Sunday / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Following a successful baseball career, Billy Sunday traded his uniform for a preacher’s collar, becoming one of the most successful evangelical ministers of the early decades of the 20th century. Preaching conservative christian ideals, Sunday played a crucial role in the Prohibition movement. He would also inspire future evangelical ministers with his charismatic — and athletic — preaching style, as well as his use of radio to spread his message.

Political Scene

Detail from a cartoon entitled “Cleaning the Nest”

With the end of World War I came deep-seated fears of political radicalism, the beginnings of what would become the “Red Scare.” Before the end of the Wilson presidency, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer led raids on leftist organizations such as the International Workers of the World, a labor union. Palmer hoped his crusade against radicalism would usher him into the presidency. He created the precursor to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which collected the names of thousands of suspected Communists.

More than 500 aliens on the list were deported, including the radical orator Emma Goldman. Palmer claimed he was ridding the country of “moral perverts,” but his tactics, which tended to violate civil liberties, proved to be too draconian in the minds of the electorate.

Marcus Garvey

During the early 1920s, the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan swelled to 4.5 million. The Klan helped to elect 16 U.S. Senators, as well as many Representatives and local officials. When David Curtis Stephenson, Indiana’s head Klansman, was convicted of kidnapping and sexual assault in 1925, indictments and prosecutions of Klan-supported politicians on corruption charges followed. Nationwide membership of the Klan fell to just 45,000 in five years.

Marcus Garvey, the “Black Moses,” led a national movement whose theme was the impossibility of equal rights in white America. Garvey preached black pride, segregation and a return to Africa, but the decade’s currents of white supremacy overpowered him. He was charged with mail fraud, jailed and deported.

William Allen White, a small-town editor in Emporia, Kansas, crusaded against the Klan and for free speech. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial, he wrote: “If there is freedom, folly will die of its own poison.”

Woman celebrating the passage of the 19th Amendment.

With the passage of the 19th Amendment, women were given the right to vote in 1920, but voting remained an upper- and middle-class activity. No new opportunities in the workplace arose, and the momentum of the women’s movement at the beginning of the decade was eventually swallowed by the rise of consumer culture.

Warren G. Harding, a Republican Senator from Ohio, was elected President in 1920. Under Harding, government’s previous efforts to regulate business practices were relaxed in favor of a new emphasis on corporate partnerships. Best known for a series of outrageously corrupt political scandals, Harding’s presidency was not without its merits. He pardoned Eugene Debs, the imprisoned Socialist Party leader; he persuaded the steel industry to enact an 8-hour workday; and he helped slow down the arms race. However, his administration was stacked with corrupt officials who gave kickbacks to the Justice Department and the Veterans Bureau. After Harding died of a stroke while still in office in 1923, the Teapot Dome scandal broke, revealed that private oil companies had been draining oil from federal lands.

Herbert Hoover

Harding’s sudden demise meant his Vice President, Calvin Coolidge, held the top office. Nicknamed “Silent Cal,” Coolidge was asked during the 1924 election if he had anything to say about the world situation. His reply: “No.” Still, a divisive Democratic Party helped the incumbent win the election by 7 million votes.

When the Democrats nominated Al Smith, an Irish-Catholic from New York’s Lower East Side, for President in 1928, the party closed ranks behind him, but economic prosperity and anti-Catholic sentiment kept Smith from being elected. He is credited with awakening a vast army of immigrants in the big cities and with shifting African-American voters toward the Democrats.

The 1928 President-elect, Herbert Hoover, envisioned a private economy that would operate mostly free from government intervention. Predicting ever-greater prosperity, he said, “We shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation.” But then the stock market fell out from under him.

Social Climate


The image of the 1920s as a decade of prosperity, of flappers and hot jazz, is largely a myth, even in the eyes of the writer who coined some of those terms. In his article “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “It was borrowed time anyway – the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of a grand duc and the casualness of chorus girls.”

There is some truth to the decade’s image of prosperity but, as Fitzgerald notes, it was concentrated at the top. Six million families made less than $1,000 a year. According to the Brookings Institution, one-tenth of 1 percent of families at the top took in as much income as 42 percent of families at the bottom. In New York City, millions of people lived in tenements condemned as firetraps. When Fiorello La Guardia, a Congressman from East Harlem, toured the poorer districts of New York in 1928, he reported: “I confess I was not prepared for what I actually saw. It seemed almost incredible that such conditions of poverty could really exist.”

The Ku Klux Klan march in Stocktan, California, during the 1920s.

Labor strikes broke out, pitting coal miners and railroad men against their powerful employers. Burton Wheeler, a Senator from Montana, visited one of the strike areas: “All day long I have listened to heartrending stories of women evicted from their homes by the coal companies. I heard pitiful pleas of little children crying for bread. I stood aghast as I heard most amazing stories from men brutally beaten by private policemen.”

There was a sweeping crackdown on immigration. New quotas were established that heavily favored Anglo-Saxons. China, Bulgaria, Palestine and the African nations could send no more than 100 people. England and Northern Ireland could send 34,000, while Italy could send just under 4,000.

Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis were part of a generation of writers, artists and musicians who were among the most innovative in the country’s history. Traditional taboos concerning sex and gender politics were challenged. The country went dry on January 16, 1920, after Prohibition was successfully linked with Progressive Era causes, such as reforms to end wife beating and child abuse.

The African-American district burns during the Tulsa race riots of May, 1921.

The 1920s also saw a rise in tension between whites and blacks. In May of 1921, a large section of Tulsa was burned to the ground and a number of blacks and whites were killed. Some of the worst racial violence in American history took place during the 1920s. On the first day of 1923, a white mob searching for an alleged rapist burned all but one building in the tiny black settlement of Rosewood, Florida. Millions of blacks moved to northern cities. Soon, the black population of Chicago had swelled by 148 percent, Detroit’s by 611 percent. Many cities adopted residential segregation ordinances to keep blacks out of white neighborhoods.

The United States became a consumer society in the 1920s. The automobile was its symbol; by 1929, there were 27 million autos on America’s roads. Cigarettes, cosmetics and synthetic fabrics became staples of life. The rise of radio and the talking motion pictures (90 million Americans were going to them weekly) helped create a new popular culture that disseminated common speech, dress and behavior.

Media Moments

Photograph of the 9th floor KDKA transmission room. c. 1921. / Wikimedia Commons

1920 — KDKA, the first official radio station: Frank Conrad of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, first started experimenting with the recently invented medium of radio in 1912. At the time, the technology primarily functioned as a means of naval communications; a lesson learned from the sinking of the Titanic. As the public began purchased amateur radios, Conrad’s broadcasts became popular. Conrad is credited with inventing radio advertising when he started mentioning the name of the store giving him new records to play on the air. Westinghouse Electric Company, Conrad’s employer, recognized the potential of his hobby and began manufacturing and selling more radio receivers. On October 27, 1920, Westinghouse received the first formal license from the federal government to broadcast as a terrestrial radio station. Designate KDKA, the station gained instant success when it broadcast live results of the 1928 presidential election.The call letters, KDKA, carry no significance, and would have been awarded to a naval station had Westinghouse and Conrad not discovered a new use for the technology.

Leopold and Loeb

1924 — Leopold and Loeb: Another “trial of the century.” The two teenagers from highly privileged Chicago families, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, kidnapped, killed and mutilated a 14-year-old neighbor. The case challenged previously held notions of juvenile killers with below-average IQs. Leopold would describe the pair as evil geniuses who were above normal standards of morality. Their attorney, Clarence Darrow, introduced the psychiatric defense into the legal system. The jury and the press accepted Darrow’s argument that society, schools and violent social conditions were to blame, and the killers avoided execution.

Darrow (left) and Bryan (right) during the trial. / Wikimedia Commons

1925 — Scopes Monkey Trial: Fundamentalist-christians introduced 37 anti-evolution bills to 20 state legislatures during the 1920s, and the first one to pass was in Tennessee. Taking up the ACLU’s offer to defend anyone who violated the new law, Dayton, Tennessee, booster George Rappleyea realized the town would get all kinds of publicity if a local teacher was arrested for teaching evolution. He enlisted John Scopes, a science teacher and football coach. The trial was marked by a carnival-like atmosphere; for 12 days, 100 reporters sent dispatches from Dayton. Scopes’ $100 fine was later thrown out on a technicality. It went down in history and literature as one of America’s best-known trials and symbolized the conflict between faith and reason.

“Daredevil Lindbergh” in a re-engined Standard J-1, c. 1925. The plane in this photo is often misidentified as a Curtiss “Jenny”. / San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives, Wikimedia Commons

May 21, 1927 — Lindbergh’s flight: 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh completed the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight in history in “The Spirit of St. Louis.” The trip was 3,610 miles, beginning from Roosevelt Field on Long Island and ending in Paris after 33 hours and 30 minutes. The aftermath was what came to be known as the “Lindbergh boom” in aviation: industry stocks rose and interest in flying skyrocketed. Lindbergh’s subsequent U.S. tour demonstrated the potential of the plane as a safe and reliable mode of transportation.

Ruth Snyder’s mid-execution photo taken by Tom Howard and published the next day in the New York Daily News. / Wikimedia Commons

1928 — Ruth Snyder Executed: Ruth Snyder, a discontented Long Island housewife, convinced her lover, Judd Gray, that her husband was mistreating her. The pair killed him with a sash weight. Their trial was a media frenzy, attended by such celebrities as film pioneer D.W. Griffith and evangelist Billy Sunday. The jury was out 98 minutes before it returned with a guilty verdict. Gray was executed first on January 12, 1928. Snyder followed just a few minutes later. A clever photographer from the New York Daily News, with a camera strapped to his ankle, snapped a picture of her as the juice coursed through her body. It sold 250,000 extra copies and is the iconic image of the 1920s.

Crowd gathering on Wall Street after the 1929 crash. / Wikimedia Commons

October 29, 1929 — The Stock Market crashes: Heavy speculation on in stocks cause a bubble which burst in October. Fortunes were lost almost instantly. Breadlines filled with the unemployed and the homeless become commonplace. This unprecedented downturn in the economy would cause stagnation and strife around the world. The Roaring Twenties come to screeching halt and the Great Depression settled in, dominating the 1930s.

Trends in Journalism

The silent newsreels first produced by Pathe Weekly in 1911 became hugely popular talkies when Theodore Case developed his sound-on-film system.

The shift from print-based journalism to electronic media began in the 1920s. Competition between newspapers and radio was minimal, because the latter was not yet an effective news medium. People listened to radio bulletins, but to “read all about it” they picked up a tabloid or a broadsheet.

The New York World was generally known as the best paper of the decade. Regarded as “the newspaperman’s newspaper,” it was, in stature, the New York Times of its day, relying on solid reporting and writing instead of broad coverage. The paper’s lauded and independently liberal editorial page was edited by Walter Lippmann, who became one of the most influential American writers of the century. The paper’s merger into the World-Telegram is seen as a black day in newspaper history.

The talkie newsreel was born when Theodore Case developed his sound-on-film system. The Fox Film Corporation bought Case’s system in 1926 and developed Fox Movietone News. The first talkie newsreel showed Charles Lindbergh taking off on his transatlantic flight on May 20, 1927. Its enormous success compelled other studios to produce competing newsreels. They became so popular that theaters showing only newsreels opened in major cities around the country.

Al Jolson, a white man, performing in “blackface”.

Radios were first marketed for home use in 1920. By 1929, they sold 5 million sets every year. RCA’s Radiola was the most widely advertised model, selling for $35. RCA formed the National Broadcasting Company, which had its first broadcast on November 15, 1926. Programming remained unimaginative until the end of the decade, relying on speeches, lectures (on such topics as basket weaving) and music. In 1925, more than 70 percent of air time was devoted to music; less than 1 percent was devoted to news. By 1929, 40 percent of the population owned radios, tuning in to hear music, sports scores, Al Jolson (the decade’s top star) and Amos ‘n’ Andy.

Jazz journalism brought with it sensational stories printed in a popular tabloid format. Modern media’s obsession with sex and crime has nothing on the era’s scandalous content. Stories such as the 1922 Hall-Mills case (involving the murder of a minister and a choir singer) and the 1927 Snyder-Gray case (involving the murder of a husband by an adulterous wife) gripped the nation. Competing tabloids included Joseph Medill Patterson’s The New York Daily News, William Randolph Hearst’s The New York Daily Mirror, and Bernarr Macfadden’s New York Evening Graphic, also known as the “Porno-Graphic.”

Modern advertising took root in the 1920s when advertising agencies started to take shape.

The 1930s


The Great Depression dominated the 1930s. The despair of the poor and unemployed eventually turned to hope as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated the New Deal, an “alphabet soup” of programs designed to boost the economy through public works programs and other federal intervention. The failed experiment of Prohibition would end in 1934.

Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party came to power in Germany; Benito Mussolini’s Fascists expanded Italy’s empire, and Francisco Franco’s Falangists brought their own version of fascism to Spain. Before the decade ended, Europe would descend into war for the second time in the century. The United States claimed neutrality, but supported the British.

The 1930s has been called the “Age of the Columnists.” The form of the signed, regular editorial spot for writers on social and cultural issues of the day included everyone from comedians to First Ladies. It was also the decade which saw the rise of 35mm photography and photojournalism, and the heyday of newsreels. Radio journalism became the dominant elecronic medium for news and entertainment, while the newly invented television technology would have to wait until for another decade before it’s potential could be realized,

Journalists and Media Personalities

Walter Lippman / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Widely respected editor of The New Republic, an independent liberal journal of opinion, which relied on donations and grants instead of advertising for revenue. Lippman helped President Woodrow Wilson draft his Fourteen Points, though he would later argue against the League of Nations and the Allies’ postwar demands. In the 1930s, Lippman began his nationally syndicated column, “Today and Tomorrow”, which would remain popular with readers for the next 30 years.

Edward R. Murrow / U.S. Information Agency, Wikimedia Commons

Murrow’s long and influential career in broadcasting started with a radio report from Vienna when Adolf Hitler’s Germany annexed Austria. He would go on to gather the most illustrious team of broadcast journalists the next decade saw, and continue to be an important journalistic voice into the early 1960s.

Hans von Kaltenborn / Wikimedia Commons

Kaltenborn began his career in radio with CBS in the 1930s, making a name for himself with broadcasts from the front during the Spanish Civil War. He gained greater fame for covering the Munich Crisis when Germany, England and France negotiated the fate of Czechoslovakia in 1938. During this time, he worked closely with Edward R. Murrow; but in 1940, Kaltenborn would move to NBC. His career in radio would continue into the 1950s, despite garnering the ire of a victorious Truman following the 1948 presidential election. Truman mocked the radio man’s premature projection of a Dewey victory, but Kaltenborn laughed, saying “we can all be human with Truman. Beware of that man in power who has no sense of humor.”

Walter Winchell / ABC Television, Wikimedia Commons

Winchell began his career covering Broadway as a gossip columnist in New York city. In the 1930s, Winchell moved to the growing medium of radio, expanding his coverage to political gossip. An early critic of both Adolf Hitler and Communism, Winchell would be a staple of both radio and print until the 1950s. Though Winchell would enjoy a lucrative paycheck as narrator for the television show The Untouchables, it would be Winchell’s support of Joseph McCarthy that ended his success as a columnist and radio personality.

“‘Good Morning, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea.”

Winchell radio show greeting
Henry Luce / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Luce began publishing Time, the first weekly news magazine, in 1923. In 1930, he introduced the prototypical business magazine, Fortune. In 1936 Luce pioneered the photojournalism magazine genre with Life. His empire also included radio and newsreel journalism with the March of Time series.

Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Documentary photographer who depicted the plight of Dust Bowl migrants in California for the Federal Emergency Relief Agency. Later for the Farm Service Administration, she photographed the depopulated Great Plains and the lives of rural Americans throughout the Southern and Midwestern United States.

Margaret Bourke-White / Bureau of Industrial Service, Wikimedia Commons

Bourke-White’s photo of a TVA dam project would be used as the first cover of Life magazine. She was the first woman war photographer, the first woman to fly on a combat mission, as well as the first American to document in pictures the lives and industry of Soviet Union.

Martha Ella Gellhorn / John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Wikimedia Commons

A leading magazine reporter of her day, she covered the Spanish Civil War as well as World War II as a “literary journalist.” She wrote several novels, met Ernest Hemingway while in Spain, married him, then left him to cover World War II.

Father Charles Coughlin / Wikimedia Commons

Coughlin, a Catholic priest with a charismatic preaching style, became a popular radio personality during the late 1920s and 1930s. Originally a supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Coughlin broke with the president in 1934, believing that FDR had moved too far to the left. An ardent anti-communist, Coughlin applauded Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini for their tough stand against communists and Jews. Following the United States entry into the war, Coughlin disappeared from the media stage.

Huey Long / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

A charismatic politician, Huey Long became governor — some would say dictator — of Louisiana in the late 1920s and would eventually run for president during the 1936 election cycle. Long owned newspapers and used radio to build support for his populist viewpoints. Huey Long seemed to thrive on controversy, and his progressive ideas proved too radical for some. On September 10, 1935, Long died of wounds suffered at the hands of a lone gunman.

Political Scene

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in a landslide election for the U.S. presidency, due mainly to the nation’s struggles of the Great Depression. Many of the voters blamed Hoover and “Hoovervilles” became a common nickname for the migrant shantytowns popping up around the country.

Following his inauguration, Roosevelt immediately introduced legislation for a wide range of liberal reforms — collectively known as the New Deal — intended to stimulate the economy. These programs, along with Roosevelt’s deft media manipulation, would help him win the presidency four times, the only person to win more than two. He achieved this feat despite the fact that he had suffered from polio as a child and did not have the use of his legs — a fact that the media kept secret from the public.

Still from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will

In Germany, a political maelstrom was brewing. By the early 1930s, the president and other U.S. officials had learned of Hitler’s power and domination in Europe. Under Hitler, the Nazi regime stripped away the rights of Jews and other citizens, killed the innocent, sterilized people with genetic defects and vied for German world domination. Leni Riefenstahl, German actress-turned-director, captured the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg and the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, among others.

Mussolini addresses his supporters

In Italy, Mussolini continued in power, eventually becoming absolute ruler of a fascist state. His armies would eventually invade the African nation of Ethiopia. His interest in media continued to flourish, though he was chiefly concerned with controlling the message and censoring dissent.

Social Climate

The Dust Bowl

The stock market crashed on October 24, 1929, initiating the Great Depression. By 1933, corporate profits sank to one-tenth of their 1929 levels, the gross national product declined by 50 percent. and 13 million unemployed men and woman — one in four workers — struggled to make ends meet. Social unrest grew among the populace, culminating in marches by unemployed veterans of World War I demanding assistance from the federal government. They were met with tear gas and riot batons.

Roosevelt’s New Deal created government projects that employed people to build roads and dams, in the hopes of stimulating the economy. The Dust Bowl drought eroded nine million acres of Midwestern farmland, driving hundreds of thousands of farmers to abandon their land and head west for California. John Steinbeck depicted this exodus in his masterpiece novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Due to the state of the economy, union membership increased dramatically, and communism attracted many who saw big business greed as responsible for the Depression. Many of these people would come to regret such affiliations in the McCarthy era of the 1950s.

Scene from The Wizard of Oz

Amos ‘n’ Andy, by far the most popular radio program, relied on two white men imitating (and helping to define) a stereotype of African-Americans for its humor.

In Hollywood, Busby Berkeley produced several spectacular, fabulously choreographed musicals, with innovative cinematography and lavish sets and costumes. Frank Capra spoke to a dispirited nation with movies like American Madness. In 1938, the Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, both directed by Victor Fleming, were released.

Mexican border radio stations featured hillbilly music shows, which introduced to the country such influential artists as the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Woody Guthrie moved to New York, bringing his songs of “Okie” travails and social protest to the city. Important blues musicians such as Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and Son House cut several records and toured mostly in the South.

Media Moments

1930s — FDR’s Fireside Chats: Roosevelt used the media as well as any media-savvy president of the 20th century. His most important innovation in communicating with the American public was his weekly radio broadcast. Known as “Fireside Chats,” these radio speeches and his warm, earnest speaking style reassured a citizenry jittery over the wrecked economy and the future of the country, and won the public over to his New Deal agenda.

Clockwise from top-left: members of the XI International Brigade at the Battle of Belchite; Granollers after being bombed by Nationalists aviation in 1938; Bombing of an airfield in Spanish Morocco; Republican soldiers at the siege of the Alcázar; Nationalist soldiers operating an anti-aircraft gun; The Lincoln Battalion. / Wikimedia Commons

1936 to 1939 — The Spanish Civil War: Roosevelt used the media as well as any media-savvy president of the 20th century. His most important innovation in communicating with the American public was his weekly radio broadcast. Known as “Fireside Chats,” these radio speeches and his warm, earnest speaking style reassured a citizenry jittery over the wrecked economy and the future of the country, and won the public over to his New Deal agenda.

May 6, 1937 – The crash of the Hindenberg: The crash of the huge German airship was the first major catastrophe to be covered by on-the-spot broadcast reporting. Herb Morrison, a radio reporter for the Chicago station WLS, was covering the zeppelin’s mooring in Lakehurst, N.J. His naked, emotional reactions, caught on a recording device he was trying out, would forever color memory of the disaster in the public mind. But in Nazi Germany, the crash of the Hindenberg would be downplayed; considered bad publicity.

1938 – Murrow’s broadcast from Vienna: On March 13, 1938, Murrow and William Shirer reported for CBS on the German annexation of Austria as the Nazi army marched in. The broadcast is significant because it marks both the beginning of the use of broadcast news correspondents (specifically Murrow and his “boys”), and the first part of Hitler’s plans for world domination.

1938 – The War of the Worlds: Orson Welles’ (pictured at left) use of the news report format in his October 30, 1938, radio dramatization of a Martian invasion proved so convincing that a Princeton University study conducted shortly thereafter concluded that one out of six listeners – out of a total estimated audience of six million – believed it was a real news broadcast.

September 1, 1939 – The Second World War begins: Following a fabricated report of Polish terrorists crossing the border, Adolf Hitler unleashed German military. Having practiced new tactics and tested new equipment in the Spanish Civil War, Poland was still able to hold out for six weeks before falling a combined attack by Germany and the Soviet Union. Though Britain and France were unable to send troops, their allegiance with Poland was enough to start a war the would last for six years and kill millions of soldiers and civilians.

Trends in Journalism

Signs posted before the Lindbergh baby was found dead

On March 1, 1932, shocked Americans learned that the 20-month-old baby of the world’s biggest celebrity and hero, Charles Lindbergh, had been abducted. The dead baby was found near the Lindbergh’s home a month after the first, secret ransom payment was made.

A trail of cash used to pay the ransom eventually led to a German immigrant carpenter named Bruno Richard Hauptmann. The subsequent trial was a prime candidate for “the trial of the century.” Hauptmann was all but convicted by the newsreels and public opinion before the jury’s verdict was read. Despite some holes in the prosecution’s case, Hauptmann was convicted and executed in 1936.

Partners Gerda Taro and Robert Capa

The development of photography as a way to document human experiences for news consumption began with the portable Leica camera and success of Life magazine. Robert Capa took memorable photos while his partner Gerda Taro shot newsreel footage of Republican soldiers fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

Dorothea Lange captured the Okie migrant experience, as well as those of other Americans not previously considered important or pretty enough for the camera.

The March of Time” was a journalistic highpoint for newsreels.

The newsreel first appeared in the 1900s, and soon newsreels showed before the main feature in more than 15,000 U.S. theatres each week. Relying on melodramatic music scores and staged re-creations of events, newsreels were the technological predecessors of television news. The most popular of these in the 1930s, when the medium hit its stride in popularity, was the March of Time series. Unlike so many of its competitors, this series dealt with controversial subjects, but was not squeamish about recreating events staged for its cameras.

The Federal Communications Act passed by Congress in 1934 re-created the Federal Radio Commission as the Federal Communications Commission, adding telephone and telegraph lines to the commission’s responsibilities. The Act granted commercial radio broadcasters continued hegemony over the airwaves, but did include provisions requiring stations to give equal time to opponents of political candidates who were afforded airtime. The same section denied broadcasters the right to censor a candidate’s material.

Orson Wells

Radio continued to grip the imagination of listeners in America and around the world. During the hard years of the Great Depression, radio programs would entertain, inform, and distract listeners from the troubles of their day. However, radio could also cause panic, as Orson Wells’ production of The War of the Worlds would prove.

Batman “The Caped Crusader”, and Superman, the “Man of Steel”, arrived, respectively, in the DC comics series Detective Comics in 1937, and in Action Comics in 1938. They each got their own comic book in the next few years, spawned hosts of imitators, and later enjoyed translation into every other kind of media.

The 1940s


The 1940s were a decade of tension and transition. Millions of American soldiers left for World War II, and with them went men and women journalists – most notably the “Murrow boys.” Edward R. Murrow, made famous by World War II, began a transition from radio to television.

It was the golden age of comic books. While print media were enjoying success, the war thwarted expansion of broadcast media, especially the new technology of television. The Federal Communication Commission forbade the creation of new radio and television stations during the war years.

The 1940s also saw the death of the beloved Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the fall of both Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany. From the embers of the Second World War came the “Cold War” a simmering competition for world dominance between the democratic, capitalist United States and totalitarian, communist Soviet Union.

Journalists and Media Personalities

Edward R. Murrow / U.S. Information Agency, Wikimedia Commons

Murrow had a profound impact on both radio and television. His ability to paint a picture with words brought him overnight success during his radio news reports from London during World War II. In fact, Murrow is often credited for inventing the radio correspondent. He was originally hired by CBS as “Director of talks”. Murrow and his “boys” reported in gripping detail on the war in Europe. When Murrow returned to the United States in 1941, he was a celebrity. He was reluctant to become actively involved with television, and worked as vice president and director of public affairs for CBS.

William Shirer / Department of State, Wikimedia Commons

Shirer was recruited by Murrow in 1937. As a CBS correspondent in Berlin, he witnessed the Nazi’s rise to power firsthand. He wrote several books about his experience, including Berlin Diary and This is Berlin: Reporting from Nazi Germany. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, published in 1959, is still one of the definitive histories of the era.

Eric Sevareid / Wikimedia Commons

Sevareid joined the “Murrow boys” and reported on the war from Europe, Asia, Africa and Central and South America. Sevareid reported on the fall of Paris, and landed with American troops at Omaha Beach, and once had to parachute in the Burma jungle when the plane carrying him experienced engine trouble. Sevareid’s career as a news analyst extended into the 1970s and he worked for The CBS Evening New as a national correspondent.

Charles Collingwood / Wikimedia Commons

Nicknamed “Bonnie Prince Charles ” because of his pretty boy looks and extravagant lifestyle, he was sent to cover operation “Torch” in Africa. Collingwood was Murrow’s protégé, and eventually replaced him on Murrow’s television hit Person to Person. Collingwood defended fellow broadcasters accused if communist sympathies during the Red Scare of the 1950s.

Larry Lesueur / Library of Congress, Public Domain

Lesueur, the forgotten “Murrow boy,” was a rough and ready journalist. He covered the London Blitz on CBS’s London After Dark, and also traveled to the Soviet Union to cover the eastern front. Lesuere covered the liberation of Paris and the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. He would later leave CBS to work with Voice of America.

Howard K. Smith / ABC News, Wikimedia Commons

Smith began his career as a foreign correspondent for United Press in London. In 1941, he joined the “Murrow boys” in Berlin. After the war, he worked for CBS’s Washington bureau as chief correspondent and general manager. He left CBS and later became an ABC anchor and a moderator for Face of the Nation.

Cecil Brown / NBC Television, Wikimedia Commons

Brown covered Italy, Yugoslavia, North Africa and the Far East as a “Murrow boy.” While reporting from the H.M.S. Repulse, Brown was forced to abandon ship when Japanese airplanes sunk the battleship. Brown would survive and wrote a book recounting his escape from the sinking Repulse and long return to England. However, Brown became unpopular with the CBS management for his outspoken criticism of war-time censorship. CBS later fired him for editorializing on air.

Winston Burdett / Getty Images

Burdett began his career at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and was eventually hired as one of the “Murrow Boys.” He later confessed to being a Communist spy during his early war career. In 1955, he willingly testified about his Communist past to the House Un-American Activities Committee. CBS and Murrow protected Burdett and assigned him to Rome where he finished his career.

Mary Marvin Breckinridge / Library of Congress, Public Domain

Breckinridge began her career as a photographer and videographer. During World War II, she was hired by Murrow as the first woman correspondent for CBS. Her career was short-lived. After her marriage to American diplomat, Jefferson Patterson, she was forced to retire from broadcasting. She quickly switched roles and became an active and social diplomatic wife.

Ernie Pyle / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Pyle worked as a war correspondent during World War II and accompanied Allied troops in North Africa, Italy and the Pacific. He was awarded the 1944 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished war correspondence. Pyle was known for his ability to bond with the troops and to capture the real emotions of the war. His account of the death of Captain Henry T. Waskow exemplified his skills as a writer.

Margaret Bourke-White / Bureau of Industrial Service, Wikimedia Commons

Bourke-White was born into a family that embraced female equality and ambition. She was a pioneer in the field of photojournalism. Many of her photographs appeared on the cover of Life magazine, and she provided the American people with a grim, visual reality of the war. An independent and determined woman who wasn’t afraid to take risks, she was the first woman to fly on bombing missions, and one of the first photographers to document the horrors of Nazi concentration camps.

Marguerite Higgins / Wikimedia Commons

After completing a degree in journalism at Columbia University, Higgins was hired by the New York Tribune. She wanted to report on the war in Europe, but it wasn’t until 1944 that she was finally allowed to go to London. She began by reporting on the war from France and later accompanied troops to the Nazi concentration camps in Dachau and Buchenwald. In later wars, Higgins also covered the fall of Seoul, Korea, and made several trips to Vietnam, where she was killed.

Robert Capa / Wikimedia Commons

Capa, already famous for his photo journalism during the Spanish Civil War, would cover one of the most important battles of the war, the June 6, 1944 invasion of Normandy. Capa would wade ashore with one of the first landing craft and snap many photos before returning to England aboard another landing craft. Most of his photos were destroyed while being developed, but 11 now-famous photos would be saved.

Political Scene

The Los Angeles Times spreads the dispiriting news.

Millions of Americans adored Roosevelt. They admired his strength and determination, and looked to him for support and guidance during times of crisis. His death on April 13, 1945, brought great sadness to the nation. An editorial in The New York Times personified the nation’s shocked and sad reaction: “Men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now, that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House.” The beloved president had served four terms, and during that time, guided the United States through both the Great Depression and World War II. Grieving Americans worried about how the future would unfold without him.

Harry S. Truman, a man who hardly knew Roosevelt, and knew even less about the administration’s war plans, became the 33rd president of the U.S. During his presidency, Truman was forced to make several monumental decisions, not the least being the decision to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

The Japanese surrender marked the end of the Second World War.

The Japanese surrender brought sudden peace to the world, and the U.S. emerged from the war as a global power. Americans were not accustomed to thinking in global terms, and for the rest of the decade the U.S. struggled to find her place as an international power.

International tensions remained high after the war was over and Germany was divided into East and West Germany. Eventually, the tensions would grow into the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S.

Social Climate

The USS Shaw explodes during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, on of the many iconic photographs of the Second World War.

Advances in technology, including the use of radio and television for news and entertainment, forced Americans to think more about the country’s role in global affairs. The 1940s was a decade that transformed the lives of millions and set the tone for future social, political and economic reforms in the U.S.

After years of struggling through the Great Depression, the U.S. entered the 1940s a weary and wary nation. The country resisted joining the war in Europe, even as the European democracies fell one at a time.

FDR was able to assist Britain through the Lend-Lease program, where the United States “lent” 50 older destroyers for leases on British bases. Initially chastised by American isolationists, opposition disappeared after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Roosevelt quickly mobilized the public’s support and committed the United States to total war. World War II defined the decade and would monopolized the nation’s attention until the Japanese surrender in 1945.

The Pittsburgh Courier launched the Double V Campaign.

Although the U.S. was fighting overseas in the name of freedom and democracy, at home, both African-Americans and Japanese-Americans suffered great civil rights injustices.

Thousands of African-Americans willingly joined the military to fight for freedom, yet at home, they continued to suffer from segregation and racism. The Pittsburgh Courier launched “The Double V Campaign.” Under the theme of “Democracy: Victory at Home, Victory Abroad,” the effort to rally African-Americans and raise awareness about civil rights issues was very successful. The campaign spread to all parts of the country.

In 1942, Roosevelt ordered the War Relocation Authority to relocate hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans to internment camps. The administration was afraid Japan would attempt to orchestrate an attack on the Pacific Coast using Japanese-American spies who lived in the U.S. Many of these individuals were, in fact, U.S. citizens. They were forced to close their stores, leave their jobs, give up their houses, and live in arid relocation camps far from the Pacific coast.

Media Moments

1941 — Pearl Harbor Attacked: On December 7 at 7:55 a.m., Japanese planes began dropping bombs on the U.S. base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack was sudden and devastating. More than 2,400 people died. The very next day, all Americans listened to the radio as Roosevelt declared war on Japan.

1942 — Hitler secretly recorded: Hitler never knowingly let his normal voice or conversations be recorded. As Fuehrer, he permitted recordings only of his carefully staged and rehearsed, formal speeches, delivered in a dramatic and high-pitched voice. But after Hitler delivered such a speech in Helsinki during 1942, a sound engineer left the recording equipment running and captured a private conversation between the dictator and Finnish leader CGE Mannerheim, a Nazi ally.

Hitler, in his rarely heard, low-pitched normal voice, confides to Mannerheim things such as, “Had I finished off France in ’39, then world history would have taken another course. … But then I had to wait until 1940. Then a two-front war, that was bad luck. After that, even we were broken.”

Sound engineer Thor Damen was almost executed after the Gestapo realized what he had done, but Damen managed to fool them into thinking he had destroyed the recording.

According to The Guardian, “It is the only one in existence where Hitler speaks freely,” says Lasse Vihonen, head of the sound archives at Finnish public broadcaster YLE, which operates Radio Finland.

1944 — D-Day, The invasion of Normandy: General Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower’s plan for a cross-channel invasion, code-named “Operation Overlord” was launched by the Allied Expeditionary Forces on June 6, 1945. Allied troops reached the beach near Bernieres, France and poured ashore on the Normandy coast.

April 1945 — Franklin D. Roosevelt dies: The tragic news of Roosevelt’s death was first heard on the radio. Listeners were jolted by broadcast interruptions, and a shocked nation struggled to come to terms with the news.

August 6, 1945 — Atomic bomb dropped: Americans first learned about the atomic bomb 16 hours after it was dropped on Hiroshima. Truman interrupted regular programming to announce that the Japanese “had been repaid many-fold” for their attack on Pearl Harbor.

August 15, 1945 — The Japanese surrender: Even after two bombs had destroyed two Japanese cities, and killed thousands of Japanese citizens, Japan’s Supreme War Council remained deadlocked on the issue of surrender. The Council turned to Emperor Hirohito for a decision, and it was Hirohito who announced Japan’s surrender on Japanese radio on August 15, 1945. The U.S. began broadcasting the news on the radio around midnight.

Members of the Hollywood Ten and their families in 1950, protesting the impending incarceration of the ten. / Wikimedia Commons

1947 — The Hollywood 10 refuse to testify before HUAC: Originally created to investigate the Ku Klux Klan and to search out Nazi and fascist plots within the United States, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) refocused its attention on searching for communists, and it found them in the form of Hollywood 10, a group of writers, directors and producers who would refuse to testify before the committee. Others in the motion picture industry did choose to testify, and the Hollywood 10 would be “blacklisted” in Hollywood because of it.

President Truman holding the infamous issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune. / Associated Press, Wikimedia Commons

1948 — “Dewey Defeats Truman”: Truman was a serious underdog in the 1948 presidential race. Despite predictions that Tom Dewey would sweep the race, Truman won 303 electoral votes, and a four-year term in the White House. Network radio and television stations were able to flash the news that Truman had won; however, the print media was one step behind. On the morning of November 3, 1948, The Chicago Tribune embarrassingly proclaimed “Dewey Defeats Truman”.

Trends in Journalism

Murrow and his “boys” brought the war home to the radio audience.

Wire services, newspapers and broadcast organizations sent correspondents to Europe and Asia to report on international developments during World War II. Unlike previous wars, this war was broadcast daily to a listening audience back in the U.S.

The radio played an important role and helped to radically change how people received news and entertainment. The “Murrow Boys” broadcasts from Europe brought the war closer to Americans back home in the states. CBS set a news standard that followed its journalists into television and lasted for decades.

The 1940s were the last decade in which radio was dominant. Television had become a viable technology in the late 1930s, but technical delays and the war both stopped widespread introduction until the late 1940s. After the war, the broadcast networks poured large amounts of money into television. Television began a media revolution in the late 1940s, transforming America, and opening the nation to whole new world of visual communication.

Comic books became successful in the 1940s because they provided cheap and exciting entertainment. Superheroes flourished during a time in which evil was all too real in the world. Captain MarvelCaptain America and Batman battled evil and fed the imagination of the youth. Comic books were also very popular in the military for two reasons: one, the soldiers of World War II were young; and two, comic books were easy to carry.

During WWII the government was actively involved in monitoring media and encouraged the media to send patriotic news messages. The Office of Censorship requested that news institutions adhere to a strict voluntary censorship code, and also began monitoring news entering and leaving the country.

Although, The War Department directed most propaganda broadcasts at Germany and Japan, propaganda techniques were utilized to in the U.S. as well. Major motion picture producers cooperated to produce war films, and journalists in radio and television willingly submitted stories for approval.

The 1950s


To many, the 1950s recall an idyllic era when everyone conformed and everyone lived simply and happily. Beneath this conformity, people were stirring and new ideas were simmering; some would not explode until the 1960s.

Television became a powerful medium. Commercials sold everything from chewing gum to presidents. The increased purchase of television sets was indicative of mid-century society’s materialistic mood. Beatniks turned against that materialism, did drugs and advocated sexual freedom, a lifestyle that would find wider acceptance in the 1960s and 1970s. This was the decade when rock ‘n’ roll began in earnest.

Congress was preoccupied with the Cold War and the Red Scare. Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy began his crusade to rid the United States of Communism. This decade saw the growth of the Women’s Rights Movement and the Civil Rights Movement, though injustices lasted into future decades.

Journalists and Media Personalities

Edward R. Murrow / U.S. Information Agency, Wikimedia Commons

Already famous for his radio career in the 1940s, Murrow led news into television as well. As CBS News Vice President and Director of Public Affairs, Murrow remained uncomfortable as an executive and returned to reporting in 1951. Although he was wary of television, he made the transition with See It Now the first television newsmagazine. Murrow also interviewed celebrities in their homes for the popular Person to Person. This show surprised some people who preferred the more serious Murrow. The serious Murrow took on the Red Scare and McCarthy in 1954.

Marguerite Higgins / Wikimedia Commons

Covered the Korean War, despite discrimination that almost kept her out of Korea because “war was no place for a woman.” She refused to return to Japan despite the Army’s orders and won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1951. In 1953, while covering the French military defeat in Vietnam, Higgins received wounds from the land mine that killed the photojournalist, Robert Capa.

John Cameron Swayze / NBC Television, Wikimedia Commons

Swayze’s show Camel News Caravan was one of the first national news shows on television. Because of the need for visuals, the show often relyed on newsreel-type footage produced by the movie industry. Camel also insisted on having an ashtray with a visible, lit Camel cigarette on camera during every show.

Walter Cronkite / U.S. National Archives, Wikimedia Commons

Although he once turned down the opportunity to be a Murrow boy, Cronkite was named a CBS anchor for the 1952 Democratic and Republican conventions. This new job popularized the term “anchor,” or, in those days, “anchor man.” Cronkite’s popularity grew after the 1950s and CBS started the first half-hour show with Cronkite as the anchor.

Chet Huntley / NBC Television, Wikimedia Commons

Huntley was the older, more serious component of the popular Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC. Huntley broadcast from New York, while co-anchor David Brinkley was in Washington D.C. The pair became known for their famous sign-off: “Good night, David,” “Good night, Chet.” The Huntley-Brinkley Report would continue on the air until 1970.

David Brinkley / NBC Television, Wikimedia Commons

As half of the successful news team of the Huntley-Brinkley Report, Brinkley, a young southerner, took to television easily. Brinkley’s wry wit ushered in the role of the anchor as a national celebrity. The two first paired up at the 1956 political conventions. The relationship between Brinkley and Huntley was, ironically, never close. They lived and worked in different cities. Following Huntley’s retirement in 1970, Brinkley became unhappy with reporting the news from New York. He moved to ABC — and back to Washington — for a new show, This Week With David Brinkley.

Mike Wallace / Wikimedia Commons

Wallace began his career as an announcer and game show host before he became a journalist. Wallace started on the radio for CBS and returned to CBS television during the Vietnam War. Wallace is best known for his investigative journalism and interviewing skills. In the 1950s, he interviewed the young Hugh Heffner about the role of Playboy in society. He went on to the popular Sunday news program 60 Minutes. Born in 1918, he continued his career into the next century as the oldest working journalist on television.

Betty Friedan / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Frustrated by the rejection she received from magazines that would not print her articles about women who did not conform to the 1950s housewifely ideal, Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique. Published in 1963, the book marks a milestone in the women’s rights movement. She also addressed the absence of women journalists in television in the 1950s.

I. F. “Izzy” Stone / Wikimedia Commons

I.F. Stone was a radically liberal journalist in the 1950s when there were not many leftists in any field. As a leftist, he started his own newspaper, The Progress, when he was 14 and worked for several papers, always leaving for one reason or another. He wrote The Hidden History of the Korean War and criticized the government openly in the 1950s. In 1952, Stone started his own paper; I.F. Stone’s Weekly, a liberal paper he used to espouse his views. He escaped accusations of Communism because he had visited the Soviet Union and returned with strong negative views. His anti-Soviet stance left him without allies on the far left and made him a target for the right wing. He became popular during the 1960s and 1970s for his anti-war sentiment. He was ahead of his time in the 1950s.

Ed Sullivan / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

A converted newspaper columnist, Sullivan’s on-air mannerisms were more often the subject of ridicule than reverence. But his ability to spot talent and cater to the tastes of younger Americans made his Sunday night variety show a TV staple, and provided the nation with a slew of historical moments in popular culture.

Political Scene

Senator Joesph McCarthy (right)

Wisconsin junior Senator Joseph McCarthy accused everyone from officials in the State Department to the United States Army of being Communist sympathizers. These claims, without validation, earned him press coverage, often biased in his favor. He knew how the press worked and timed his charges to reporters who, in many cases, did not have enough time to get a response from the accused before the accusations ran in the press.

As McCarthy’s accusations became more strident, Murrow and his show See It Now decided to expose McCarthy. The show and the televised Army hearings, in which the senator was pitted against attorney Joseph Welch, led to the unraveling of his career and an end to what was called McCarthyism.

A statue of Joseph Stalin torn down in Hungary

The Cold War turned hot in 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea at the 38th Parallel. President Harry Truman acted quickly and gave command to General Douglas MacArthur who was stationed in Japan. U.S. troops were able to push back the Communist North Koreans, but Truman feared Chinese involvement in the war if the U.S. went too far. The Chinese eventually joined the war and pushed the U.S. troops back to the 38th Parallel.

An American soldier in Korea during the winter of 1950.

MacArthur’s call for more aggressive tactics and open criticism of civilian strategy in Korea led to a rift between himself and Truman, eventually leading to MacArthur’s dismissal. MacArthur received a heroic welcome in the U.S. Truman’s popularity dropped and he did not run for re-election. When Republican Gen. Dwight Eisenhower won the 1952 election, he pushed for an armistice in Korea.

Cold war tensions would continue to simmer following the Soviet Union’s crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. At the end of the decade, Communist Leader Fidel Castro would consolidate power in Cuba on January 1, 1959, and relations between the Cold War protagonists would continue to deteriorate.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower giving a press conference

Defeating Democrat Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower became the first Republican in the White House after five terms of Democrats. His campaign was proof that a candidate needed to be able to work with the broadcast media to get elected. Eisenhower’s controversial Vice Presidential candidate Richard Nixon saved himself with the famous Checkers speech on national television and Eisenhower took the advertising advice that fellow Republican Tom Dewey ignored.

Eisenhower did commercials on television, and also experimented with the use of public relations during his presidency, especially during the Guatemala incident. Eisenhower and Nixon won another term in 1956.

Social Climate

Neal Cassidy (a.k.a Dean Moriarty, a.k.a Cody Pomeray) and Jack Kerouac

The Beat Generation signified everything the 1950s culture did not. Beatniks looked on the materialism of the 1950s and turned against it. Beat cultures centered around Greenwich Village and San Francisco. The Beat Generation did drugs, advocated sexual freedom and wrote about it in some detail. Major figures of the counterculture group include Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg’s Howl, published in 1956, and Kerouac’s On the Road, published in 1957, characterized the movement. The media reacted negatively toward the Beat generation and society feared its continuation by college students.

The majority of Americans accepted 1950s uniformity and prosperity and this acceptance was no more obvious than in sex roles in the 1950s. Media portrayed women as the perfect housewives in television shows and teen magazines. Marriage was a woman’s main goal in life. There was no birth control marketed. Sex outside of marriage was illegal in many states. Women went to college to find a husband and only “bad” women were interested in sex.

A detail of the cover from the first edition of Playboy

Alfred C. Kinsey was collecting data for his Report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Female at this time and found information contrary to what the media depicted. Although his 1948 report on males was generally accepted, when the female volume came out in 1953, the public reacted harshly and negatively. Kinsey had to defend himself against his critics who said he used a biased sample of women. Meanwhile, society allowed media to push the boundaries on sex with Heffner’s first Playboy.

Elvis Presley, one of the first example of what kids loved — and parents hated — about race music.

Conservative Americans’ fears about sex found audio form in the rock ‘n’ roll craze. American teens took their portable radios and record players of their parent-controlled living rooms and into their own spaces and began choosing a new kind of music. Radio changed to accommodate a television-dominated entertainment world by playing music, the “Top 40, news, weather and sports format. Rock ‘n’ roll – originally called race music – took off when white teenagers began buying black musicians’ records. Elvis Presley became one of the first white males to popularize race music. He soon epitomized rock ‘n’ roll for teenagers and sex ‘n’ danger for their parents.

Civil rights protesters

White society was not only confronted with an African-American presence in music, but also with the grim reality of racism in schools and public services. In 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas set off a series of battles between determined blacks and stubborn whites.

The murder of Emmett Till showed the nation the brutality of racism, no longer easy to ignore with pictures in the African-American press and national television coverage. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to prominence with his non-violent tactics.

The media’s role in the 1950s Civil Rights movement spawned a hatred for the Northern press in the South, especially during coverage of the forced integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Media Moments

1952 — Nixon talks about his dog: Vice Presidential Candidate Richard Nixon delivers the famous Checkers speech on television. Nixon addresses the nation – detailing the use of his funds, denying any wrongdoing and appealing to the audience’s hearts by claiming the only gift that he was keeping was the family dog, Checkers.

1953 — The decline of newspapers begins slowly: Newspaper employees strike in New York City over wages. After these strikes many papers have a hard time regaining subscribers and suffer due to competition with television.

March 9, 1954 — Murrow confronts McCarthy: Edward Murrow’s See It Now broadcast exposes McCarthy’s accusations, which contributes to his downfall. The Murrow’s confrontation of McCarthy is considered one of many high points in Murrow’s career, but would help sour his relationship with CBS management.

The members of the U.S. Supreme Court that on May 17, 1954, ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

May 17, 1954 — Segregation ends in violence: Supreme Court rules segregated schools unconstitutional in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. The unanimous decision declared that “separate is inherently unequal.” But in Little Rock, Ark., it takes federal troops to force integration of the high schools.

Emmett Till in a photograph taken by his mother on Christmas Day 1954. / Wikimedia Commons

1955 — The murder of Emmett Till: Two white men brutally beat and kill Till, a black Chicago teenager visiting Mississippi, after the boy allegedly flirts with a white woman. Till’s mother chooses to leave her son’s casket open and Jet magazine publishes a photo of Till’s battered body on its cover.

Till’s mutilated corpse on display. His mother had insisted on an open-casket funeral. Images of Till’s body, printed in The Chicago Defender and Jet magazine, made international news and directed attention to the lack of rights of blacks in the U.S. South. / Wikimedia Commons

Northern press covers the funeral and the resulting trial. The two men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, are acquitted and later sell the story of killing the boy to Look magazine. The pair cannot be tried again because of double jeopardy.

Orval Faubus speaking to a crowd protesting the integration of Little Rock schools. /Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

September 25, 1957 — Forced integration: Dwight Eisenhower orders the Arkansas National Guard and the 101st Airborne Division to protect nine black students attempting to enter Little Rock Central High School. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus (pictured) had previously used the Arkansas National Guard and local police to prevent the students from attending school.

Replica of Sputnik 1 / NASA, Wikimedia Commons

October 5, 1957 — The space race begins: The Russians launch the first satellite in space. Sputnik means the United States is losing the Space Race and makes Americans worry that their enemies have gained the advantage, especially in math and science. The familiar “beep-beep,” which the satellite emitted, was a constant reminder that could be heard on the radio 24-hours-a-day. Explorer 1, the first Earth satellite from the United States, would not enter orbit until January 31, 1958.

1958 — Quiz shows fixed: America learns that the popular television quiz shows of the decade are fixed. Columbia University Professor Charles Van Doren and popular winner of the show Twenty-One had been given the questions and answers before the show.

The wreckage of the Bonanza at the crash site. /

February 3, 1959 — The day the music died: Famous Rock ‘n’ Roll Singers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. Richardson and a pilot died in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, while on tour. The date lives on in history as “the day the music died” in Don McLean’s song American Pie.

1959 — Payola exposed: The “payola” scandals revealed that record promoters had paid disc jockeys to play certain songs and insured some songs more success than they could earn on their own. Famous Disc Jockey Alan Freed was questioned in the scandal, but maintained “he only played songs he liked.”

Trends in Journalism

Alan Freed

With the popularity of television, older sources of information had to adapt to a new audience. Radio changed programming to a mix of music, news, sports and weather. Popular disc jockeys, such as Freed in Cleveland and Dewey Phillips in Memphis, achieved celebrity status by playing rock ‘n’ roll. Magazines learned to find specialized audiences and men and women’s magazines dictated social culture for their readers.

The Anacin ad, created by Rosser Reeves, featured the silhouette of a human head accompanied by various annoying sounds and headache producing images.

Television became a powerful medium selling everything from headache medicine to a president. Commercials — originally presented live — began to be filmed and edited together in order to perfect the message, and prevent mistakes. President Eisenhower hired Rosser Reeves, a successful advertising executive known for his Anacin commercial, for his 1952 campaign.

Public relations grew as a popular method for a business to position itself positively in the public eye. United Fruit hired Edward Bernays, a long-time public relations guru, to throw the public’s support behind their cause in Guatemala. The Guatemalan government wanted to nationalize their fruit production and United Fruit, an U.S. company, didn’t want to see this happen. United Fruit and the U.S. government supported an uprising in Guatemala and tried to spin the news their way.

The 1960s


The 1960s was marked by clashes of ideologies. In the South, blacks fought a stubborn white establishment for the rights they were owed under the Constitution.

Abroad, the United States fought a multi-front battle against the spread Communism. On college campuses across the country, a new generation of Americans rejected the post-WWII, conservative values of their parents.

And even within the Civil Rights movement, the non-violent activists under Martin Luther King, Jr., butted heads with the militant followers of Malcolm X. The result was a decade mired in turbulence — but also one that brought important changes.

Journalists and Media Personalities

Walter Cronkite / U.S. National Archives, Wikimedia Commons

In the 1950s, Cronkite helped invent the role of the anchorman. Over the course of the 1960s, he established himself as a pre-eminent figure in television journalism. His coverage of the assassination of president Kennedy in 1963 helped make him the most trusted journalist in America, and gave him credibility when he criticized the Vietnam War publicly as the decade wore on.

David Brinkley / NBC Television, Wikimedia Commons

As part of a two-anchor team with Chet Huntley, Brinkley helped NBC put together a program that challenged CBS’s grip on broadcast news. Brinkley’s ability to write for television revolutionized broadcast style, and made him a fixture in the format. He would stay with NBC until the 1980s, when he moved over to ABC to host This Week, the first of the Sunday morning political roundup shows.

Edward R. Murrow / U.S. Information Agency, Wikimedia Commons

Murrow’s illustrious career in the media came to an end in the early 1960s. In 1958, following the cancellation of See It Now, Murrow delivered a scathing speech to a meeting of radio and television executives, chastising them for the shallow and mundane nature of television programming. Murrow soon parted ways with William Paley and CBS, but not before one final news classic in 1960: Harvest of Shame, a documentary about the struggles of migrant workers in the United States. After CBS, Murrow took a position in the Kennedy administration as Director of the U.S. Information Agency. Following an ironic attempt to prevent the BBC from airing Harvest of Shame, Murrow would soon succumb to lung cancer.

Barbara Walters in her office. / Wikimedia Commons

Walters joined NBC’s Today show in 1961 as a writer and researcher, before moving on camera as the “Today Girl”. Starting with light assignments, Walters eventually wrote and edited her own stories, but received little respect from here male contemporaries. Frank McGee, the Today Show host, insisted on always asking the first question in joint interviews. Walters would not receive official recognition as co-anchor of the Today Show until after McGee’s death in 1974.

David Halberstam / Department of Education, Wikimedia Commons

Halberstam was among the first journalists to publicly criticize the United States for its involvement in Vietnam. His reporting for the New York Times on the conflict so displeased the president that JFK asked Halberstam’s editor to move him to a different bureau. In the early 1970s, Halberstam would publish The Best and the Brightest, a rebuke of the Vietnam policies set forth by Kennedy and LBJ.

Helen Thomas with President Ford and chief of staff Dick Cheney (left) in 1976. / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

After a short stint as a cub reporter, Helen Thomas joined United Press International (UPI) in 1943. In 1960, she followed the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy and landed among the press corps in the White House. Thomas spent the next five decades, and nine presidents, sitting in the front row of every presidential press conference. She was the only female, print journalist to travel with Nixon to China in 1972. Known as the “Sitting Buddha,” Thomas was known for saying “Thank you, Mr. President” at the end of every press conference.

Ralph Nader / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Nader took the activist identity he had built for himself at Princeton and Harvard Law to a national level in 1965 when he published Unsafe at Any Speed, a scathing critique of General Motors’ safety record. The book caused a stir among the public, and eventually in Washington, where legislators grilled GM executives and passed new car safety laws. The success of his the book paved the way for a career of public activism, and later as a presidential candidate for the Green Party.

Johnny Carson / NBC Television, Wikimedia Commons

Carson took over the Tonight Show from Jack Paar in 1962, and quickly turned the already successful format into a ratings and advertising powerhouse. Carson’s quick wit and easygoing manner helped bring in the big name celebrities – and the big-time dollars – that made the Tonight Show a late night institution. He would host the Tonight Show into the 1990s.

Helen Gurley Brown / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Following a successful stint with a prominent advertising agency, Brown wrote the best selling book Sex and the Single Girl in 1962. In 1965, she became editor-in-chief of struggling magazine, Cosmopolitan, and remade it into an advocate for sexual freedom and empowerment for woman in the 1960s. Here leadership proved so successful, the term “Cosmo Girl” was coined to describe the new “liberated” woman the magazine targeted.

Jann Wenner

Wenner was only 21 when he published the first issue of Rolling Stone magazine in 1967. A Berkeley dropout, he was among the first magazine editors to access the untapped circulation potential of the youth market. Rolling Stone’s focus on music and youth-culture issues made it an instant success, and a powerful political voice in a turbulent era.

Tom Wolfe / Wikimedia Commons

Wolfe was among the first writers to embrace the techniques of a “new journalism” – one in which the narrator was largely involved with the story he told. Wolfe made a name for himself with the 1965 publication of the Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, an exploration of the culture of hot rod enthusiasts. However, his most famous work from the 1960s was the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a account of Ken Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters.

Political Scene

Kennedy delivering his inaugural speech, Jan. 20, 1961.

In 1960 John F. Kennedy took over the presidency of a nation that was on the verge of chaos. Abroad, the United States’ relationship with the nations of the Eastern Bloc was quickly deteriorating. Closer to home, Kennedy had to address the threat of Communism spreading in the Western Hemisphere. His desire to remove Fidel Castro from power in Cuba led to a crucial misstep in the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Tensions between America and Communist countries mounted, and the threat of nuclear war became increasingly real. Only through swift diplomatic measures was all-out nuclear war avoided in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Kennedy faced equally monumental challenges domestically. The seeds of the Civil Rights movement that had been planted in the late 50s began to blossom and threatened to tear the country apart. In 1962, Attorney General Robert Kennedy had to send the National Guard to Mississippi to intervene on behalf of a black man trying to enroll in classes at Ole’ Miss.

Martin Luther King, Jr., and others look on as Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

When Lyndon Baines Johnson took the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination, he used the political acumen he had honed in the Senate to secure the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But growing dissent for the nation’s involvement in Vietnam brought LBJ’s political career to an end and paved the way for the re-emergence of Richard M. Nixon.

Social Climate

Many of the baby boomer generation rebelled against the conservative ideals of their parents generation.

The social climate of the 1960s can be viewed as a systematic rejection of the conformity of the 1950s. A generation of young Americans born after WWII dismissed the mores of their parents and instead embraced the hedonistic values of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The hippie movement culminated with the Woodstock music fesival in the summer of 1969, a symbolic end to the innocence of the era of free love and psychedelic drugs.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X meet prior to a press conference in Washington DC, March 26, 1964. This would be the only meeting of the two civil rights leaders and would last less than a minute. Both leaders would be assassinated before the end of the 1960s.

The counter-culture also manifested itself in the political arena, where college students and Civil Rights activists took on what they perceived as an oppressive and unjust political system. In the early- and mid-60s, Civil Rights activists organized marches and protests around the country. In 1963, against the wishes of the Kennedy administration, Martin Luther King, Jr., led a 200,000 man march on Washington. The Civil Rights Act was signed the next year.

Anti-war protests are attacked by police in Grant Park near to where the Democrats held their chaotic 1968 presidential convention.

As the nation’s involvement in Vietnam escalated, and involved more of the nation’s youth, college students protested the war and the draft. Their dissatisfaction boiled over outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where protests turned into riots. The atmosphere inside the convention was tense as well.

Media Moments

September 26, 1960 — the Kennedy-Nixon debate: For the first time in history, a presidential debate is televised on national television. Vice President Richared M. Nixon, a seasoned politician, underestimated the importance of his television appearance. While Kennedy appeared calm and confident, an ill Nixon seemed nervous and noticeably sweaty.

Kennedy speaking at Rice University in Houston on September 12, 1962. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson can be seen behind him. / Wikimedia Commons

1960-1963 — The Kennedy Years: John F. Kennedy spent his short, three years as president using his skill as a speaker to deliver the precisely crafted words of his aids. The result was a body of oration and media performance that endures in popular culture.

Model of a Telstar satellite, on display at Conservatoire national des arts et métiers. / Wikimedia Commons

1962 — Telstar launched: On July 10, 1962, NASA launched this spherical satellite into space with much fanfare. Later in the day, live broadcasts were beamed for the first time between North America and Europe. Funded by both private firms and national postal services in the United States, Great Britain and France, the new technology would revolutionize numerous communication industries.

August 28, 1963 — “I have a dream”: From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed the 200,000 civil-rights marchers who had descended on Washington, D.C. The “I Have a Dream” speech would become one of the most well-known in American history. King won the Nobel Peace Prize a year later.

Secret Service Special Agent Clint Hill shields the occupants of the presidential limousine moments after the fatal shots. (Background blurred because the camera was panning in to follow the limousine). / Wikimedia Commons

November 1963 — Death of a president: Undoubtedly one of the most famous events of the 20th century, the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963 brought the nation to a halt from the time it was reported on Friday afternoon, until the funeral procession on Monday. It marked a time when TV brought an entire nation together.

The arrival of the Beatles in the US in 1964 marked the start of the British Invasion. / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

February 1964 — The British Invasion begins: A nation still mourning the assassination of its president was ready for distraction in early 1964. The Beatles, four lads from Liverpool, England, provided that distraction, signaling the start of a musical British Invasion. The Beatles first performances in America were broadcast nationwide on the Ed Sullivan Show. When Ed Sullivan announced “Ladies and gentlemen, the Beatles!”, no one could have predicted the impact they would have on Baby Boomer culture and entertainment media. Inspired by American rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues artists, the Beatles were one of the most influential bands of the 20th century.

September 7, 1964 — The “Daisy” commercial airs: Aired by the Johnson campaign only one time, the “Daisy” commercial became an infamous example of the power of television in presidential politics. Artistic and powerful in it’s simplicity, the short advertisement never mentioned Barry Goldwater by name.

LBJ Library, Wikimedia Commons

November 7, 1967— Johnson signs the Public Broadcasting Act: Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, creating the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to provide content for television, National Public Radio (NPR) to do the same for radio, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) for oversight. In final decades of the century, some conservative politicians and media pundits charged PBS and NPR with having a liberal bias, and attempted to end federal funding for the organization. While CPB budgets may have been reduced, public broadcasting continued to garner an audience that was the envy of many commercial media managers.

Eddie Adams’ photograph of Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing Nguyễn Văn Lém on February 1, 1968. / Associated Press, Wikimedia Commons

February 1, 1968 — Eddie Adams photographs execution: AP photographer Eddie Adams captured the execution of a Viet Cong leader in a photograph that earned him the Pulitzer Prize, and fueled the public’s growing dissatisfaction with the war in Vietnam.

Robert F. Kennedy lies mortally wounded on the floor immediately after the shooting. Kneeling beside him is 17-year-old busboy Juan Romero, who was shaking Kennedy’s hand when Sirhan Sirhan fired the shots. / Wikimedia Commons

June 4, 1968 — The Second Kennedy Assassination: Two months to the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Bobby Kennedy was in Los Angeles stumping for his recently-announced presidential candidacy. As he left the podium at the Ambassador Hotel, Sirhan Sirhan shot him in the head. Kennedy died later that afternoon.

July 20, 1969 — One Giant Leap: NASA accomplished the goal set forth by President Kennedy when Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface in July 1969. The moon landing was the most watched event in history at that point in time.

Trends in Journalism

The evening news brought the disturbing realities of the Vietnam War into Americans’ homes.

By the 1960s, it had become pracitcal to get fresh images of events from abroad onto the news every evening. The broadcast of disturbing footage from Vietnam on television gave the public a daily dose of the horrors of war and swayed public opinion. The press focus on Vietnam eventually helped bring the Johnson administration to its knees.

As television became increasingly popular, writers reacted with the creation of a “new journalism” based largely on literary technique and first-person accounts. Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test), Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) and Hunter S. Thompson (Hell’s Angels) all published works that straddled the line between literature and journalism.

Vice President Spiro Agnew had the press targeted virtually from the start of the Nixon administration.

The 1960s also bore witness to widespread scrutiny of the press. Scholars like Marshall McLuhan founded an academic movement which sought to explain the media’s relationship to culture. And the administration of Richard Nixon, who had developed a profound distaste for the press by the time of his election in 1968, publicly ridiculed the media for what it viewed as subversive practices. Vice President Spiro Agnew, in particular, lambasted the press for its supposedly pro-Democrat leanings.

The 1970s


Fueled by events and attitudes from the 1960s, the1970s bloomed with flower power, sexual liberation, drug use and protests. The counterculture’s impact on the 1970s also included music and fashion. But as exciting as the social movement was, it wouldn’t be outdone by the media drama.

Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered President Richard Nixon’s involvement with the Watergate scandal, which led to Nixon’s resignation. Convinced that the Vietnam War was wrong, Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine and Department of Defense expert, leaked the 1968 Defense Department history of Vietnam, later referred to as the Pentagon Papers, to The New York Times.

All in the Family, a television show with a bigoted protagonist, debuted along with a host of other programs dealing with the social issues of the day. Gonzo journalism emerged. Personal computers, an invention that would cross the decades and revolutionize media, originated in the 1970s.

Journalists and Media Personalities

Robert Woodward (right) and Carl Bernstein (left)

In 1972 and 1973, Woodward worked with fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein on stories that led to the resignation of President Nixon in 1974. Supported by The Washington Post editor Ben Bradley, the pair investigated a foiled burglary of the Democratic Party’s headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. Eventually, their investigations of the break-in revealed a scandal involving the Committee to Re-Elect the President and Nixon himself. Many of the high-ranking committee members and members of Nixon’s administration were indicted on federal charges of burglary and disrupting Democratic Party activities. In 1973, Woodward and Bernstein won the Pulitzer Prize for their stories.

Many considered Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation foolish and their stories inaccurate. The pair’s use of an anonymous source, known as Deep Throat, fueled the skepticism of the public and eve their editor, Ben Bradley. Their stories revealed the truth about Nixon’s and other high-ranking officials’ unscrupulous behavior to get Nixon re-elected. Woodward and Bernstein have been credited with cracking the Watergate scandal, which led to Nixon’s resignation August 8, 1974. In 1973, Bernstein and Woodward won the Pulitzer Prize for their stories.

Katharine Graham / Wikimedia Commons

A newspaper and magazine publisher who transformed The Washington Post into one of the most influential newspapers in the country. She took control of the paper in 1963, after the suicide of her husband, Phil Graham. In 1971 she gave her editors approval to publish the Pentagon Papers after a federal court enjoined The New York Times from doing so. Three years later she encouraged reporters Bernstein and Woodward in their relentless investigation of the Watergate scandal. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for her memoir, Personal History.

Mark Felt, a.k.a. “Deep Throat”

Upset after Richard Nixon refused to promote him to the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mark Felt anonymously leaked information about the president’s roll in the Watergate Scandal to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. Woodward, Carl Bernstein and the Washington Post honored Felt’s request to remain anonymous, and the secret identity of “Deep Throat” remained hotly debated in Washington DC for for 35 years. Felt, who was in failing health and losing his memory, finally admitted his identity as the source in a 2005 Vanity Fair article, shortly before his death.

Barbara Walters in her office. / Wikimedia Commons

Walters moved up the professional ladder at NBC’s The Today Show, a morning news program, and was part of the news team sent to report on President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1972. She was finally named co-host of The Today Show in 1974. She was part of the news team sent to report on President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1972. In 1976, Walters moved to the ABC Evening News to become the first female co-anchor of a national, nightly news show. She did not have a good working relationship with co-anchor Harry Reasoner. In 1979, she was teamed with Hugh Downs on the news show 20/20, a much more amicable pairing. During the 1970s, world figures interviewed by Walters included Egypt’s President Anwar Al Sadat, Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Cuba’s President Fidel Castro.

Seymour Hersh

In 1970, Hersh, an investigative reporter, broke the story of the My Lai massacre, recounting how U.S. troops killed over 300 unarmed civilian in the small Vietnamese village of My Lai. He won a Pulitzer Prize for the piece, which prompted an investigation of the attempted cover-up by the U.S. military. Hersh’s report greatly contributed to the flagging support the Vietnam War received from the American public.

Jim McKay / ABC Network, Wikimedia Commons

McKay was a sport announcer and journalist known for his work on ABC’s Wide World of Sports when, during the 1972 Olympics, he became the face of ABC’s coverage of the Munich hostage crisis, reporting on the events for 16 hours as they unfolded. When the rescue attempt ended in disaster. after it had originally been reported as a success, McKay relayed the information to the American viewing public.

“When I was a kid my father used to say our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized. Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They have now said there were eleven hostages; two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.”

Gloria Steinem / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

American journalist and feminist, Steinem gained prominence as a spokeswoman for women’s rights both in lectures and television appearances. She helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus (1971), the Women’s Action Alliance (1971) and the Coalition of Labor Union Women (1974). She was also the founding editor (1972-87) of Ms., a feminist magazine. Her books include Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1983) and Revolution from Within (1992).

Hunter S. Thompson / Wikimedia Commons

Originally a sports journalist, Thompson wrote for Rolling Stone during the late 1960s and 1970s and published several books. He is called the father of gonzo journalism, a writing style marked by his manic and twisted lifestyle — including the use of practically every recreational drug known to man. Some of his best known books include The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange TimeHell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.

Political Scene

Vietnamese children fleeing their burning village in 1972, which had been accidentally bombed by U.S. planes. Photographer Huynh Cong (Nick) Ut won a Pulitzer Prize for this shot, one of the most iconic photos of the twentieth century. Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the naked and burned girl in the center, survived the attack and became a peace activist.

Richard Nixon campaigned in 1968 on a “peace with honor” platform, but escalated the war after his election to the presidency. During the first half of the 1970s, the United States would expand the war to the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia before signing the Paris Peace Treaty, “officially” ending American involvement.

The civil war between North and South Vietnam would continue, eventually ending with the fall of Saigon to the Communist forces of the North Vietnamese Army. For Americans, the final images from the 10-year war would be that of Vietnamese refugees and American nationals climbing into helicopters from the roof of the United Stages embassy in Saigon.

American nationals and South Vietnamese refugees were forced to flee Saigon via helicopter as the North Vietnamese Army moved into the city.

This post-Vietnam period, when the Watergate scandal played out on television and in newspapers, marked a new era from which a widespread political cynicism emerged. Confidence in the country’s future seemed to erode on a daily basis. The final withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, with devastating casualties and no victory, was only one reason why.

The economy had also started to sink, and with it went consumer confidence. In the mid-1970s the cost of living was roughly one-third higher than it had been in 1960. The stock market was sagging, and in 1971 unemployment hit 6 percent while inflation continued unabated. By 1974, consumer prices had soared more than 10 percent and unemployment was nearly as high.

The American conviction in lower and middle class upward mobility began to falter during this decade. It became widely apparent that many within the lower strata of the socioeconomic hierarchy were not going to have a better life than the one their parents created for themselves. No longer was everyone moving forward together.

Republican Gerald Ford rose to the vice presidency when his successor Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace. The affable Ford then had to step in as president when Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment for Watergate. Ford, tinged with his pardon of Nixon and mired in inflation and fuel shortages, lost re-election to outsider Jimmy Carter in 1976.

American hostages in Iran

Carter, a Democrat, benefited from being an outsider with no ties to Washington. But, he soon found himself mired in economic crises and the Iranian hostage crisis, ensuring defeat in his attempt at a second term in 1980.

Social Climate

Women’s rights protest

The chaotic events of the 1960s, including war and social change, seemed destined to continue in the 1970s. Major trends included a growing disillusionment of government, advances in civil rights, increased influence of the women’s movement, a heightened concern for the environment and increased space exploration.

Many of the “radical” ideas of the 1960s gained wider acceptance in the new decade and were mainstreamed into American life and culture. The events of the times were reflected in and became the inspiration for much of the music, literature, entertainment and fashion of the decade.

Santa shows off the Altair 8800 personal computer in 1975.

The 1970s also gave birth to mainstream computers. In 1977, American students Stephen P. Jobs and Stephen G. Wozniak founded the Apple Computer Co. and introduced the Apple II personal computer. The Apple II was much less expensive than computers up to that time and sold successfully for business and even some home use. Apple II became first mass-market PC.

IBM joined the field in 1981. Bill Gates and Paul Allen started Microsoft to develop software for the fledgling “Altair 8800” personal computer. The company eventually dominated the PC software market with its MS DOS and Windows operating systems and other software innovations.

Media Moments

John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after the unarmed student was fatally shot by an Ohio National Guardsman. / Wikimedia Commons

May 4th, 1970 – Four Dead in Ohio: Four students were shot and killed by National Guardsman during protests on the Kent State campus. The students were protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia which President Nixon had announced the week before.

An audio recording of the protest surfaced 35 years later, reopening a debate regarding whether the guard were ordered to open fire on the students.

College student photographer John Paul Filo won a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio crouching over the body of student Jeffery Miller. During the early 1970s, the photograph was altered by someone to remove a fence post from behind Vecchio.

On May 14, 1970, another confrontation in Mississippi with police at the traditionally black college of Jackson State left two protesters dead, but received less media attention.

January 12, 1971 – Archie Bunker arrives: All in the Family debuts on CBS, a challenging situation-comedy, or sitcom, that cast a bright light on the social issues of the day. Unlike programs from the 1950s and 1960s, Norman Leer’s satirical creation commented on what ailed the nation, refusing to gloss over or ignore the ugly side of American society. Similar to All in the Family’s commentary on racism, the television show, M*A*S*H, addressed the Vietnam through comedy and drama.

Photo taken by United States Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle on 16 March 1968, in the aftermath of the Mỹ Lai Massacre showing mostly women and children dead on a road. / Wikimedia Commons

March 31st 1971 – My Lai verdict: In 1968, U.S. soldiers led by Lieutenant William Calley entered the village of My Lai and massacred 300 unarmed civilians, mainly woman, children and elderly. Calley was found guilty of the premeditated killings of 22 them. Sentenced to life, Calley was eventually released in 1974 after multiple appeals. The trial highlighted the rift growing in American opinion of the war.

Shortly after their release in June 1971, the Pentagon Papers were featured on the cover of Time magazine for revealing “The Secret War” of the United States in Vietnam. / Wikimedia Commons

June 13, 1971 – The Pentagon Papers published: The New York Times began publishing excerpts of the 7,000-page government study of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers. The document was originally leaked by a former Pentagon employee, Daniel Ellsberg. The U.S. government attempted to prohibit the publication, but the Supreme Court decided, in New York Times Co vs. United States, that the government actions were not justified, but the prior restraint horse was already out of the barn after Ellsberg sent copies of the Pentagon Papers to numerous other news affiliates.

Israeli hostages Kehat Shorr (left) and Andre Spitzer (right) talk to West German officials during the hostage crisis in Munich. / Wikimedia Commons

September 5, 1972 – Terror at the Olympics: Arab terrorists raid the Olympic Village in Munich and hold Israeli athletes hostage. The events unfolded under the spotlight of the world media, and 11 hostages were killed during a botched rescue attempt at the airport.

January 22, 1973 – Roe vs. Wade: A 7-2 decision by the Supreme Court legalized abortions in the U.S. The fallout from the decision would continue to divide American opinion past the end of the century. Support or opposition for the decision was a touchstone for many seeking political office, and would spark violence, terror attacks and murder.

Vietnam Peace Agreement / Wikimedia Commons

January 27, 1973 – Paris Peace Accords signed: After years of war, the U.S., North and South Vietnam agreed to stop the fighting, ending years of American participation which had begun during the Kennedy administration. American POWs were released and drawdowns of U.S. ground forces began. As the networks broadcast pictures of former prisoners-of-war returning to the home soil, American’s assumed their long nightmare in Vietnam was over.

“Burst of Joy,” a photo taken of prisoner-of-war Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm reuniting with his family, won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize in Photography for Associated Press photographer Sal Veder.

Patty Hearst’s mugshot / Wikimedia Commons

February 5, 1974 – Patricia Hearst kidnapped: Members of the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patricia “Patty” Hearst, the 19-year-old granddaughter of publisher William Randolph Hearst. The young heiress eventually grew to support the cause of the SLA and participated in a bank robbery to help finance the group. Following her arrest, Hearst served two years in prison before having her sentence commuted by President Jimmy Carter.

August 8, 1974 – A president resigns: Richard Nixon resigns in order to avoid impeachment and prosecution for his involvement in the Watergate scandal.

April 30, 1975 – The fall of Saigon: Hostilities in Vietnam re-ignited in December of 1974 when North Vietnamese forces invaded South Vietnamese territory. The South Vietnamese president called for U.S. air support to throw back the invasion, but no relief came. Without American support to prop up the government, South Vietnam collapsed, and on in late April, as North Vietnamese forces approached, President Ford insisted on evacuating as many refugees as possible before the last American helicopters finally lifted off from the U.S. embassy in Saigon on April 30th.

First “clear” image ever transmitted from the surface of Mars – shows rocks near the Viking 1 Lander (July 20, 1976). The haze on the left is possibly dust that had recently been kicked up by the landing rockets. Because of the “slow scan” facsimile nature of the cameras, the dust settled by mid-image. / NASA, Wikimedia Commons

July 20, 1976 – Mars landing: Viking I lands on Mars. Following the Viking II mission later in 1976, it would be 20 more years before the U.S. space program would return to Mars, as limited government funding would be concentrated on the new Space Shuttle program, which had both civilian and military value.

August 16, 1977 – Death of “the King”: Elvis Presley, the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, died at age 42. Though no longer a hit maker, the cult of personality for Presley fostered a lucrative business for his family and estate. However, rumors that Elvis faked his death saturated the American tabloid newspapers for decades.

September 17, 1978 – Camp David Peace Accord signed: Following a 12 days of secret talks, Egyptian President Anwar Al Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed an agreement to halt years of conflict between the two nations. The led to normalization of relations and an official peace treaty in 1979. While the accord was an important first step, it would be years before any further progress would be made between Israel and its other Arab neighbors.

November 19, 1978 – Jonestown massacre: Following the murder of Congressman Leo J. Ryan and four others, Jim Jones, leader of the Peoples Temple, and 900 of his followers commit mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana.

March 28, 1979 – Three Mile Island: Three Mile Island becomes the worst nuclear power plant accident in the history of the U.S. Though there were no fatalities, no new reactors were built in the United States after the accident.

Trends in Journalism

The New York Times front page coverage of the dismal of charges against Daniel Elsberg and Anthony J. Russo.

The Pentagon Papers was the popular name given to a government study of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in June 1967. The 47-volume, top-secret study covered the period from World War II to May 1968. A team of analysts who had access to classified documents wrote and completed it in January 1969.

The study revealed a considerable degree of miscalculation, bureaucratic arrogance and deception on the part of U.S. policymakers. In particular, it found that the U.S. government had continually resisted full disclosure of increasing military involvement in Southeast Asia air strikes over Laos, and raids along the coast of North Vietnam.

It showed offensive actions by U.S. Marines had taken place long before the American public was informed. On June 13, 1971, The New York Times began publishing a series of articles based on the study. The Justice Department obtained a court injunction against further publication on national security grounds, but the Supreme Court ruled that constitutional guarantees of a free press overrode other considerations and allowed further publication.

In 1971, the government indicted Daniel Ellsberg, a former government employee who made the Pentagon Papers available to The New York Times, along with Anthony J. Russo on charges of espionage, theft and conspiracy. On May 11, 1973, a federal court judge dismissed all charges against them because of improper government conduct.

Nixon releases the transcripts from the White House recording system

Considered a high water mark for American investigative journalism, ongoing coverage starting with a suspicious burglary of the Democratic Parties headquarters in the Watergate hotel and business complex led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Mark Felt, the second in command at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, anonymously fed information to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post about the Nixon administration’s involvement in the burglary.

Following Nixon’s resignation, Gerald Ford became the first U.S. president to rise to the office without being elected to the vice presidency. Initially popular, Ford would lose the good will of the public when he pardoned Nixon. Jimmy Carter would win the presidency in 1976.

Hunter S. Thompson, the preeminent gonzo journalist

Gonzo journalism is, in essence, an extension of “The New Journalism” championed by Tom Wolfe and George Plimpton during the 1960s. The best work in the genre is characterized by adding novelistic twist to reportage with usual standards of accuracy subjugated to catching the mood of a place or event.

In Hunter S. Thompson’s work there is usually a distorted viewpoint brought on by the author’s consumption of drugs and alcohol, usually recorded in the article for posterity. As such, much of his output – including the seminal Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – must be regarded as fiction rather than journalism.

A cultural change in the U.S. was reflected in the new manner in which media institutions reported on government officials. New and younger idealistic publishers took over many of the nation’s most prominent newspapers; and their reporters, likewise idealistic, challenged authority within the newsroom and public officials with equal vigor. In 1968, Agnew publicly challenged the “hard-line” some journalists took. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, the American public was left with suspicion of motives for both the government and media.

Following Watergate, thousands of Baby Boomers swelled enrollment in U.S. journalism college programs, creating a generation of journalists that would no be displaced until the rise of the Internet in the 21st century.

Because of a rising mistrust of the media from both the political left and right, many major journalistic organizations and many individual news organizations established codes and standards. These rules were put into place to limit the involvement of their journalists in activities thought to “embarrass their organizations.”

The 1980s


In a decade of change and consolidation, no one better epitomized the 1980’s than media mogul than Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch’s Fox Television Network was the first new network since the 1950s to compete with the “Big Three.”

In the 1980s, viewers had more media options. Thanks to deregulation, more channels were available and content was less restricted. There was a boom in the magazine industry, as magazine publishers streamlined their content for specific audiences. Many newspapers failed as production costs soared and consolidation ran amok.

The 1980s saw the rise of women in the media, including Oprah Winfrey, Connie Chung and Barbara Walters. Likewise, African-American personalities were garnering power in various media. Cable news and MTV came to fruition, both catching the attention of the nation. In 1981, the U.S. launched the space shuttle Discovery. Young and old people alike mourned the death of John Lennon and celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall. The term “Reaganomics” was coined to describe Ronald Reagan’s pro-business platform.

Journalists and Media Personalities

Rupert Murdoch / Wikimedia Commons

Murdoch became one of the world’s media giants during the global media revolution of the 1980s. Building on successes in his native Australia and in England, Murdoch merged 20th Century Fox Film Corporation with several independent television stations to form the Fox Television Network in 1985. Fox was the first nationwide television network in the United States to be created since the 1950s.

Ted Turner / Wikimedia Commons

One of the premier media moguls of the 1990’s, Ted Turner’s CNN revolutionized television news with its non-stop coverage of the Gulf War and its 24-hour news cycle. Turner also helped develop several other cable channels, including his own Turner Network Television (TNT)TBS, and the Cartoon Network. Turner also played a large part in the massive Time-Warner-AOL merger.

Tina Brown / Wikimedia Commons

Brown was the editor of Vanity Fair, one of the most talked about and controversial magazines of the 1980s. She was a talented writer and editor, who successfully exploited the “me” generation’s obsession with wealth, status, and celebrity. Vanity Fair combined stories about Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev with images of Roseanne and Tom Arnold mud wrestling.

Robert C. Maynard

Maynard purchased the Oakland Tribune in 1983. He was the first African-American to own a major daily newspaper in the U.S. He was also the first African-American national newspaper correspondent and the first African-American editor-in-chief.

Oprah Winfrey / Wikimedia Commons

In 1984, Winfrey moved to Chicago and began hosting A.M. Chicago, an ABC affiliate’s morning public affairs show. Within three months, her show had outscored the ratings of the popular national talk show hosted by Phil Donahue. Winfrey changed the format of daytime talk show television by providing a platform for honest, sincere discussions of sensitive and sometimes controversial topics. Her nationally syndicated Oprah Winfrey Show was one of the most popular shows of the 1980s.

Charles Kuralt / Wikimedia Commons

Kuralt is most famous for his series On the Road for which he logged more than 1 million miles in six motor homes and produced over 450 shows. Kuralt had always been drawn to unusual stories and unsung heroes. On the Road provided him with a chance to show off America’s beautiful landscape, acknowledge the unique individuals that make up the United States. Kuralt received eleven Emmy Awards and three Peabody Awards during his lifetime.

Barbara Walters in her office. / Wikimedia Commons

In 1979, Walters joined Hugh Downs as co-host of the news magazine 20/20, and stayed with the show for 25 years. Her Barbara Walters Specials, where she interviewed world leaders and celebrities during prime time, generally enjoyed high ratings, juicy scoops, and occasional tears from the interviewee.

Michael Deaver / Wikimedia Commons

One of Ronald Reagan’s top aides, Deaver expertly handled the media during the early 1980s. He successfully cultivated an image of Reagan as a powerful and patriotic leader, while steering the president away from having much direct and unscripted contact with the press. While Deaver was able to help Reagan easily win reelection in 1984, Deaver would later be convicted of perjury charges, leaving the administration before the end of the second term.

Political Scene

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan became as the 39th President of the United States in 1980. Reagan was a Hollywood actor and his speeches often reflected his acting skills. “Reaganomics”, with its tax-cutting fervor and pro-business bias, helped to promote the rise in a culture of self-interest. The administration defended cuts in social spending by noting that it was trying to undo the damage of “Great Society” programs, which had fostered a culture of dependency.

Globalization became the buzzword by the end of the 1980s, with increased international ownership reflecting the many mergers that took place.

Oliver North testifies during the Iran-Contra hearings

In the 1980s, another government scandal erupted, known as the Iran-Contra Affair. The executive branch of the United States government sold arms to Iran, using the funds to illegally finance the Contras, a rebel organization attempting to overthrow the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. This was in direct defiance of the U.S. Congress, which had not approved previous attempts by Reagan administration to finance the Contras.

Unlike Watergate in 1973, the Iran-Contra affair did not bring down the president. Reagan, a former movie actor, friend of many powerful media executives andwith a powerful PR image, enjoyed a warmer relationship with the media than his Republican predecessors.

Televised Senate hearings were watched by millions daily but not with the same urgency as with Watergate. Television and radio talk shows debated over Iran-Contra, but the public eventually became bored with the whole affair.

Social Climate

The AIDS quilt in Washington, D.C.

The liberal climate of the 1970s gave way to a more conservative attitude in the 1980s. There was a decline in activism, and the general mood reflected a belief that earlier movements had gone too far and that it was time to draw a moral and political line. The political energy, purpose, and perspective of the Reagan administration had a profound effect on American life in the 1980s.

When Rock Hudson died from an AIDS-related illness in 1985, the disease became a matter of national concern. As the disease continued to spread, AIDS became the topic of daily conversation and headlines. The disease, which slowly and fatally devastated the human body, had no known treatment. It created tremendous fear and uncertainty among all walks of life.

The Live Aid stage in London England, one of many around the world during the day long concert event.

Rock star Madonna’s number one hit song, Material Girl exemplified the decade’s ethos of self-gratification and the desire for material possessions. The yuppie (young urban professionals) generation is sometimes referred to as the “me” generation.

Yet the stars of the music industry found time to lend their efforts to bring attention to numerous causes, most noteably the Live Aid concerts to help bring food to starving people of Ethiopia. Though some of the promised food rotted in storage due to inadequate transportation, the effort was considered a huge success.

Media Moments

A police artist’s sketch of the murder of John Lennon / Wikimedia Commons

1980 – John Lennon Assassinated: On December 8, 1980, Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, were returning to their apartment home in New York when Mark David Chapman fired five shots at Lennon. Lennon, the former Beatle, died of his wounds shortly after. For many, the news first came to them from the mouth of Howard Cosell, a color commentator on Monday Night Football.

1981 – President Ronald Reagan Shot: Just two months into his presidency, Reagan was leaving the Washington Hilton Hotel when John Hinckley Jr., hidden among the onlookers, stepped out of the crowd and fired in the direction of the president.

1981 – MTV (Music Television) launches: Music Television (MTV) aired the first music video in August 1981. The song, Video Killed the Radio Star by the Buggles, captured the essence of the era. During the 1980s, MTV was a dominant force on cable television system and often provided controversy with the music videos it showed.Only later would the network move into more conventional programing.

1986 – The Challenger explodes: In a campaign designed to revive the public’s interest in space, NASA selected high school teacher Christa McAuliffe to journey into space with a team of astronauts. Seventy-four seconds after liftoff, the Challenger space shuttle burst into flames, killing everyone on board.The explosion was the media moment for a younger generation that the Kennedy assassination was to the youth of the 1960s.

Germans stand on top of the Wall in front of Brandenburg Gate in the days before the Wall was torn down. / Wikimedia Commons

1989 – The Berlin Wall crumbles: The physical manifestation of the Iron Curtain had separated East and West Berlin since 1961. Finally, on November 9, 1989, the East German government announced the border between East and West Berlin would be opened. Thousands of East Berliners poured into West Berlin, as young people climbed on top of the wall and began chipping away at the monument to Communism.

Trends in Journalism

CNN’s early years

During the 1980s, media companies merged and increasingly focused on the prices of their stocks on the stock exchange. As these new media mega-companies went public, corporate leaders mandated that news should make money.

The decade experienced rapid deregulation under the Reagan administration, which made new business developments possible. As a result, the broadcast industry began to focus more on the competitive nature of the industry and less on concepts of the public interest and public service.

New technologies such as cable television, led to expansion and the creation of new networks such as CNN and Fox. The “Big Three,” CBS, ABC, and NBC, were forced to reckon with these newcomers and fierce competition ensued.

MTV aired the first music video in August 1981, with Video Killed the Radio Star by the Buggles. It was a one-hit wonder for the band, but a multi-billion dollar success for the producers. MTV showed music videos non-stop, 24-hours-a-day, every day, with occasional breaks for rock news, commercials and special programming.

Apple’s 1984 commerical.

In the 1980s, when the underlying structure for the Internet was developed, the foundation was laid for one the biggest communication technology advances of the 20th and the following century. The personal computer also became a fixture in middle-class American homes and offices and set the stage forthe growth of the Internet a decade later.

Coverage of conflict and war changed in the 1980s. The government believed that the press had interfered with the outcome of the war in Vietnam. Journalists war coverage was heavily restricted and press pools were created to provide coverage during excursions into Grenada and Panama.

The 1990s


The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 officially ended the Cold War, and serves as a metaphor for journalism in the 1990’s. As the last great symbol of autocratic authority and censorship appeared to be vanquished, the dawning of the Internet Age introduced unprecedented freedom in the sharing of information.

Many trends from the 1980’s continued, including increased consolidation of media companies, declining newspaper readership, and increased cable options for television viewers. CNN became an equal player in television news with its coverage of the Gulf War, while the major networks saw the beginning of the end of the reign of the news anchor.

The economy created many new millionaires during the Internet boom, and saw many others lose their fortunes when the tech bubble burst. The rumblings of terrorism, both foreign and domestic, were a harbinger of things to come in the new millennium.

Journalists and Media Personalities

Tom Brokaw / Wikimedia Commons

Brokaw served as anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News. Sole anchor of the program from 1983 through 2004, he had previously been anchor of NBC News Today from 1976-1982 and had worked in a series of increasingly prominent assignments for NBC news. Brokaw’s distinctively smooth style and boyish charm made him a well-recognized star throughout the shifting sands of television news in the 1980s and 1990s.

Peter Jennings / Wikimedia Commons

Very few names in broadcast journalism are as recognizable as Peter Jennings. His father, Charles, was the most prominent radio announcer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Thus, it seems perhaps predictable that Peter Jennings would have his own successful career in the news industry. In an unprecedented rise to the top, Jennings, at 27, became the youngest ABC Evening News anchor. For his work, Jennings won several Emmy and Overseas Press Club Awards, and the prestigious Alfred I. DuPont Columbia University Award for journalism. In 1989, a Times Mirror poll found Jennings to bet he most believable source of news. Jennings was also named “best anchor” by the Washington Journalism Review in 1988,1990, and 1992.

Dan Rather / Wikimedia Commons

Dan Rather replaced the venerable Walter Cronkite as the anchor for the The CBS Evening News in 1981. Rather also served as reporter and host for prime-time news programs such as 48 Hours and 60 Minutes (with Mike Wallace), making him one of American television’s most prominent journalists for five decades. Known for his determination, emotion and folksy metaphors, Rather also became a lightning rod for criticism by conservatives, who charged that he was politically biased in his reporting. Rather was teamed with Connie Chung as co-anchor on CBS for a brief time (1994-1995) In 1990, Rather interviewed Saddam Hussein as the United States prepared to attack Iraq. Rather stepped down as anchor of the CBS Evening News on March 9, 2005, 24 years to the day he took over for Cronkite.

Peter Arnett / Wikimedia Commons

By the time the Gulf War started, Arnett was a decorated veteran journalist, having won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting for his coverage of the Vietnam War. At the beginning of the Gulf War, Arnett, Bernard Shaw and John Holliman were the only journalists reporting live from Baghdad as the bombs and rockets fell into the city. A week after the start of the war, Arnett interviewed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, which along with his coverage of civilian casualties, earned him the scorn of the Bush administration and several prominent Congressmen. In 1997 Arnett interviewed Osama bin Laden.

Bernard Shaw / Wikimedia Commons

Shaw joined CNN during it’s infancy in 1980 as an anchor. One of his early successes included CNN’s coverage of the attempt on President Reagan’s life in 1981. Unlike the big three network news programs, CNN and Shaw did not incorrectly report that James Brady had died during the shooting. Shaw joined Peter Arnett and John Holliman in a hotel room to broadcast around the clock in Baghdad while U.S. bombs fell around them during the Gulf War of 1990-1991. He retired from CNN in 2001.

Arthur Kent / Wikimedia Commons

Canadian correspondent Arthur Kent reported for NBC during the First Gulf War. Although he possessed a reputation as a solid reporter, it was his looks that got him noticed during the conflict, and won him the nickname, the “scud stud”. Kent was not able to transform his popularity into a successful television career, and left NBC. Disillusioned with network news, he would later produce documentaries for The History Channel, and report for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

Brian Williams / Wikimedia Commons

Brian Williams was a fast-rising star as the White House correspondent on NBC News when he took an unusual career turn for an aspiring nightly anchor. He accepted an offer to become anchor on an all-news cable channel launched in 1996 by NBC and Microsoft. Most journalists traveled in the other direction, from cable to network news, but Williams had no trouble making the decision to front his own hour-long news program on MSNBC, The News with Brian Williams. He eventually took over for Tom Brokaw when he retired as the NBC news anchor.

Connie Chung / Wikimedia Commons

Chung’s early career included a stint as a CBS correspondent in Washington D.C. during the Watergate scandal. After working in Los Angeles, followed by an early morning host position with NBC, Chung returned to CBS to become the second woman (after Barbara Walters) to co-anchor a nightly news program. Chung’s tenure was not without controversy, and she eventually left CBS.

Oprah Winfrey / Wikimedia Commons

Time named Oprah Winfrey one of the most important people of the twentieth century, and in 1998 Entertainment Weekly ranked her first in its annual list of the most influential people in Hollywood. In 1997 Newsweek named her the most important person in books and media, and TV Guide called her the television performer of the year. In the 1990s, she oversaw a media empire built around her name and brand.

Matt Drudge / Wikimedia Commons

The Monica Lewinsky story, which eventually led to the impeachment of President Clinton by the House of Representatives, was broken not in the mainstream media but by the gossip web siteThe Drudge Report, produced by Matt Drudge. Drudge fancied himself as following in the footsteps of Walter Winchell, right down to the fedora he wore.

Rush Limbaugh / Wikimedia Commons

The number one radio talk show host of the 1990s was Rush Limbaugh, whose 3-hour show was heard daily by 20 million listeners. Limbaugh mixed humor and entertainment with his fiery and often controversial conservative political viewpoints.

Howard Stern / Wikimedia Commons

The self-proclaimed “King of All Media,” Howard Stern was the third-leading radio host in the decade, delivering a foul-mouthed, offensive, overly sexual and highly successful syndicated show. He created a stir when he moved his show off of the terrestrial airwaves, and onto the new satellite radio service. Though he avoided the censors, his fans had to pay for the service to hear him.

Ira Glass / Wikimedia Commons

At the end of the 1990s, Ira Glass was changing the face of American journalism with his weekly radio program, This American Life. Broadcast out of Chicago public radio station WBEZ, This American Life was a show of stories held together by a theme. After only three and a half years the program aired on 350 public radio stations to an audience of more than 830,000. The show began when WBEZ received a MacArthur Foundation grant to create a weekly arts/news show and asked Glass to produce it.

Political Scene

Saddam Hussein with five-year-old Stuart Lockwood, a British citizen whose family lived and worked in Iraq at the time of the invasion. Lockwood, along with many other foreign nationals, were used as “human shields” to discourage attacks by the forces mustering against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

In 1990 the U.S. engaged in a war with Iraq and its despot leader (and former U.S. ally) Saddam Hussein after his invasion of neighboring Kuwait. While the war was a success in driving back the Iraqi forces, President George H. W. Bush saw his popularity plummet as he stopped short of removing Hussein from power, stating that overthrowing the Iraqi government would have “incurred incalculable human and political costs… We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq.”

The perceived failings of Bush’s war leadership combined with an economic recession and the entrance of a third party candidate, libertarian Ross Perot, paved the way for Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton to win the 1992 presidential election. Clinton oversaw one of the greatest eras of economic prosperity in American history, helped tremendously by the introduction of the Internet to the American public.

In 1994, the Democrats lost their 40-year stranglehold on the House of Representatives as the Republicans unveiled their “Contract with America,” a list of conservative policy initiatives designed to reform what many Americans saw as bloated and ineffective social and economic government programs. Despite the large Democratic losses suffered in both 1994 and 1996, President Clinton easily won reelection over Republican candidate and long-time senator Bob Dole.

Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky

President Clinton’s second term is most famous for the “Monica-gate” scandal, in which news of an affair between Clinton and a 22-year-old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky was first broken by the web site The Drudge Report. The scandal eventually led to Clinton’s impeachment by the House of Representatives, although he was never convicted of any charges.

The 1990’s also saw terrorism rise to the forefront of American consciousness, as several events proved to be dire warnings of far worse to come. On February 26, 1993, Islamic extremist Ramzi Yousef detonated a Ryder truck packed with 1500 lbs. of explosives in the subterranean parking garage of the World Trade Center, killing six people and injuring over 1,000.

The Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a fireman holding a dying child shortly after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

On April 19, 2005, anti-government domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck packed with 5,000 lbs. of explosives in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including 19 children. The bombing was allegedly in response to the government’s handling of the Waco and Ruby Ridge anti-government militia incidents.

In 1998, three American embassies in Africa were attacked by terrorist car bombs, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Two years later, a suicide bomber drove a boat filled with explosives into the American destroyer USS Cole, resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors. These bombings were all connected to the Al Qaeda terrorist network, and led its leader Osama bin Laden being placed on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list for the first time.

Social Climate

Video still of the cast of Seinfeld.

The economic prosperity of the 1990’s seemed a natural continuation of the “greed is good” mentality of the 1980’s, as Wall Street continued to see huge gains, and investors poured money into dubious dot.com startups, the Internet boom washed America in optimism.

Shows like SeinfeldFriends and Frasier effectively symbolized this optimism, showcasing the image of swinging, financially secure singles whose biggest problems were trivial concerns compared to the shadows of uncertainty and inequality of decades past.

Hidden beneath this veneer of economic prosperity was an ugly truth that the divide between the rich and the poor was growing larger.

Magic Johnson announces he’s HIV positive, and helps focus attention on AIDS.

Major social issues of the decade involved debates over abortion and homosexual rights. AIDS once again took center stage when NBA star Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV-positive.

In the latter half of the decade the Internet enabled people to communicate, organize and work in unprecedented fashion, and diminished the dominance the major networks and newspapers wielded.

Music received a shot in the arm in the early 1990’s from the grunge movement, in which Seattle-based flannel-wearing twenty-something slackers flailed on guitars and wailed angst-ridden lyrics of the injustice of being young, confused and ignored. Grunge was born with the debut of Nirvana’s Never Mind in 1991, and effectively died with the suicide of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain in 1994.

Video still from a surveillance camera in the Columbine High School cafeteria.

Meanwhile, hip-hop music rose in popularity with rappers like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice T, Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., all of whom specialized in “gangsta rap”, profanity-laced lyrics about day-to-day life in drug- and gang-infested American ghettos. While teens were delighted, their Baby Boomer parents were often shocked and outraged by the misogynistic and violent subject matter. The reality of the gangster lifestyle came into full view with the alleged gang-related slayings of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. in 1996 and 1997, respectively.

As in the 1960s, the youth of the nation became disenchanted with the conservative and sedate ideals of the parents generation, and in some cases, their rebellion proved destructive and horrible.

Gun violence in schools rose, forcing many school districts to install metal detectors. In 1999, a rampage by two heavily armed students of Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, left 12 students, a teacher, and the two shooters dead.

Media Moments

Clockwise from top: USAF F-15Es, F-16s, and a F-15C flying over burning Kuwaiti oil wells; British troops from the Staffordshire Regiment in Operation Granby; camera view from a Lockheed AC-130; the Highway of Death; M728 Combat Engineer Vehicle. / Wikimedia Commons

1990-91 – CNN covers the Gulf War: In August of 1990, Iraq, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, invaded the neighboring country of Kuwait. Hussein underestimated the response, and Iraq’s army and infrastructure would be decimated by a coalition of forces led by the United States. During the conflict, 24-hour cable news coverage came into it’s own, with CNN capturing big ratings and establishing its place beside the traditional broadcast news operations.

1991 – Rodney King beating: A routine traffic stop in Los Angeles turned violent when a African American motorist was beaten by numerous, predominantly white police officers. The incident was caught on video by a non-journalist and ran over and over on local and national news programs. The trial of the police officers would end in the acquittal of the officers, and spark the L. A. riots in 1992.

1991 – Magic Johnson announces that he is HIV-positive and retires: After a long and successful basketball career in the NBA, Earvin “Magic” Johnson discovered he was HIV-positive, and retired from the game. Johnson’s admissions were a wake up call for heterosexual men. Johnson admitted that his promiscuous lifestyle, specifically having unprotected sex with numerous women, had led to his contracting the disease. Fortunately for Johnson, his symptoms remained dormant, and he attempted multiple comebacks with both his Los Angeles Lakers NBA team, as well as the U.S. “Dream” Team in the 1992 Olympics.

Smoke rising from a building set on Hollywood Blvd. during the L.A. riots. / Photo by Ricky Bonilla, Wikimedia Commons

April 29, 1992 – Los Angeles riots: Following the acquittal by a predominately white jury of the police officers charged with beating Rodney King, African Americans in Los Angeles took to the streets. The resulting riot lasted for days, and included many dramatic scenes, notably video taken from a news helicopter of African American youths beating white truck driver Reginald Denny. Denny was eventually pulled to safety by other African Americans who had been watching the beating live on television.

Johnny Carson’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. / Photo by AllyUnion, Wikimedia Commons

May 22, 1992 – Johnny Carson retires: After almost 30 years of hosting the tonight show, Johnny Carson retired as one of the best known personalities in 20th Century television. “And so it has come to this. I am one of the lucky people in the world. I found something that I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it, ” Carson said in farewell.

Underground damage after the WTC bombing in 1993. / Wikimedia Commons

February 26, 1993 – World Trade Center bombing: Islamic terrorists intent on destroying the twin towers of the World Trade Center, detonated a car bomb in the parking garage below Tower One. Their intent was for the tower to crash into Tower Two, killing hundreds of thousands of people in the process. The towers did not fall, though six people were killed and over 1000 were injured. The conspirators were caught and sentenced to prison, but the World Trade Center, an icon of American business, would remain a target.

February 28 – April 19, 1993 – Siege of Branch-Davidian complex outside Waco, Texas: On February 28, 1993, agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) raided the Branch-Davidian compound. The Branch-Davidians were a religious cult who believed the apocalypse was near. When the ATF raided the compound looking for stockpiled weapons, and investigating allegations that Koresh was sexually abusing some of the children within the group, shots were fired. After the firefight ended, the ATF settled in for a siege of the compound. However, the siege would not end peacefully, and 83 Branch-Davidians would die when the compound burned to the ground while under assault from ATF agents. Allegations of operational mismanagement would plague the ATF, and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. The event would inspire the Oklahoma City bombing one year later.

1994-95 – O. J. Simpson slow-speed police chase: O. J. Simpson, former college and professional football star, was the chief suspect in the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman. Instead of turning himself in as expected, Simpson led police on a slow-speed chase through Los Angeles, much of which was broadcast live by trailing helicopters. His celebrity status, along with the slow-speed chase, meant Simpson’s prosecution was another “trial of the century” circus, dominating the news media until October 3, 1995 when he was found not guilty.

The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building two days after the bombing, viewed from across the adjacent parking lot. / Wikimedia Commons

April 19, 1995 – Oklahoma City bombing: One year after the Branch-Davidian compound burned to the ground in Waco, Texas, a car bomb exploded in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Almost by chance, police apprehended Timothy McVeigh, a former Army soldier, who would be tried and eventually convicted for positioning the truck containing the explosives. The bombing was the worst case of domestic terrorism the U.S. has ever experienced.

August 31, 1997 – Death of Princess Di: Princess Diana, the former wife of Charles, the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne of England, died in a car crash while evading paparazzi — journalists and photographers who focus on celebrities. Several of the paparazzi were charged with contributing to the crash, but blame for the accident was eventually placed primarily on the couple’s driver.

An FBI diagram of the library, with locations of fatalities at Columbine. / Wikimedia Commons

April 20, 1999 – Columbine Massacre: Armed with assault rifles and pipe bombs, two students walked into their Colorado high school. When the smoke had cleared and police had secured the building, 13 people, as well as the two shooters, were dead. The massacre renewed the debate over gun control.

John F. Kennedy, Jr. / Wikimedia Commons

July 16, 1999 – Death of JFK, Jr.: The son of President John F. Kennedy, died along with his wife, Carolyn Bessette, and her sister, Lauren, when the plane he was piloting crashed into the ocean. In 1995, Kennedy had founded the magazine George, which enjoyed limited success. At his funeral, Kennedy’s uncle, Senator Edward Kennedy said: “We dared to think that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair, with his beloved Carolyn by his side. But, like his father, he had every gift but length of years.”

Trends in Journalism

Jerry Springer

CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War signaled a watershed moment for television news, as viewers began to turn to CNN’s 24-hour news coverage over the traditional network evening newscasts. Falling ratings also indicated the beginning of the end of the iconic news anchor, as well cementing the legitimacy and popularity of cable channels in general.

The media consolidations and the emphasis on “profit over product” journalism of the 1980’s continued into the 1990’s, led by American companies such as GE, Viacom, Time Warner, Disney, as well as Australian Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which spawned the CNN rival Fox News in 1996.

The rise of “infotainment” led to a new look in American entertainment, as shows such as Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, COPS, and MTV’s The Real World created stars out of common people and crafted a genre of highly edited “reality” television, seemingly fulfilling Andy Warhol’s prophesy that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

Rush Limbaugh

The repeal of the “Fairness Doctrine” in the 1980’s led to the rise of highly-partisan conservative radio programs on the AM dial, highlighted by the hugely popular Rush Limbaugh, who boasted 20 million listeners a day during most of the 1990’s.

By the late-1990’s, the Internet was becoming a part of many American homes and businesses. Consumers no longer had to get their information on the media’s schedule, as the Internet enabled on-demand news, entertainment, and information.

The Internet revolution, along with increased popularity of cable channels, hastened the decline the traditional 20th century media’s hold on America and helped cause a shift in the way modern media would function.

Originally published by Rick Musser, School of Journalism and Mass Communications, University of Kansas, May 2003, free and open access, republished with permission for educational non-commercial purposes.



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