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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XX. Newspapers Since 1860

§ 18. Recent Tendencies

Although sensationalism has contributed much of value to journalism, much that is undersirable must be charged against it. One of its staple commodities is gossip, scandal, crime, the whole miserable calendar of misery and ugliness of life, served with a flavor of sentimentalism. This aspect of life was kept to the fore in the leading mongers of sensation, and, although the worst of them have gradually modified their tone since the closing decade of the last century, and a relatively small number of papers went to extremes at any time, the effect has been general and lasting. The demand for gossip led to ruthless trespassing on the right of privacy; the taste for exciting details led to distortion of facts or deliberate falsification; the appetite for the personal and concrete induced rank abuses of the otherwise admirable development of the interview. The inevitable effect of this emphasizing of the superficial and meretricious was a decline in the more substantial content of the papers. Instead of what a speaker said, appeared light-hearted chatter about his appearance, the audience, an interruption. Instead of the substance of discussions on public questions, in Congress or elsewhere, brief, inconsequential resumes were provided by writers of no authority. Against this tendency the most substantial press associations have exerted a constant and helpful influence, and a growing number of papers, great and small, have steadily maintained and improved many of the better characteristics of journalism; but these have not altered the general drift. The quality of editorial discussion has declined along with that of the news. Discussion and criticism of literature, drama, and art has almost disappeared in a flood of gossip about writers, actors, and artists. These important matters, which were once a leading occupation of the daily press, have been driven to find other journalistic lodgment.

The period embraced in the first twenty years of the present century may not inappropriately be characterized as one of transition and specialization. The older journalism has passed away and the newer has not yet found a medium of control satisfactory to the press itself and to society. The decay of old political and social definitions in society itself has aggravated and prolonged the process. As additional sources of news have been developed and the machinery for gathering and distributing the product has been improved, the problem of what to do with the available material has become increasingly difficult and important. In so far as a solution has been found, it has been in the selection of news and in the growth of innumerable papers having special interests. The all-round newspaper has become so huge an undertaking, entirely dependent on the more or less uncertain whim of popular favour, that the organs of special interests have usually taken some other form.