100 Years of News Media Sensationalism

When you fail to be interested in anything except the extreme, you feel competent to judge and condemn civilization wholly by its froth and fringes.

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Think today’s news is sensationalized to attract attention? More than 100 years ago, Post editors were already warning readers against focusing on the shocking, strange, and frightening.

—From the editorial “High Spots” in the May 15, 1920, issue of The Saturday Evening Post

As a people, we are suffering from an aggravated case of watching the high spots. The disease is not altogether new, but the present attack is serious. Its ravages have already made the patient blind to the everyday, wholesome foundations of life.

The chief symptom is easy to recognize. It consists in a failure to be interested in anything except the unrepresentative, the exceptional, the extreme. Finally the patient reaches an advanced stage of the malady, when he feels competent to judge and condemn civilization wholly by its froth and fringes.

The brain and nervous system of modern man, like other organs or systems of the human body, are the result of long evolution. Thus when people become abnormally excitable they always tend to go back to more primitive levels. When a man is angry or excited he acts like his ancestors of a hundred thousand years ago. The poise, reason and intellect so painfully acquired through long centuries are thrust aside.

When people go back to these primitive levels they are like children. They are interested in the eccentric and the bizarre. They are on the circus level instead of being sensible and rational.

What this country needs is a revival of its sense of proportion. We shiver naturally enough at the news of strikes, industrial unrest and red riots, and there is plenty of all three, but when we walk down the street we fail to notice the workmen who are quietly plying their trades with every appearance of industry. Recoil if you wish from the appalling headlines in the newspapers as you say to your wife or husband that “the world is in a terrible state” — and there is more truth than poetry in that statement — but do not neglect the next time you go downtown to notice that your neighbors’ houses are being repaired and painted much as usual and that the life of your community is going on in about the same old way. At morning and evening the streets are still filled with men and women walking to and from their work and chatting with their fellows without any undue display of bombs or revolvers. The reds and the wreckers are in a minority, but it is an active minority, while the great mass of sober and industrious people who are going about their business in a normal fashion fail to make themselves heard in the bedlam of its clamor.

Never has the spotlight been turned more mercilessly upon the profiteering businessman. The landlord is being everywhere execrated. But exorbitant rent increases are far better advertised than moderate and reasonable advances.

The profiteering landlord is haled before a committee or court, but the landlord who does not take an outrageous advantage over his tenant is not mentioned at all. Nor is the fact spread forth in big headlines across newspaper pages that year in and year out as far as anyone alive can remember the majority of landlords and tenants have got along pretty well together, or at least well enough to keep out of court.

Socialistic literature and capitalistic literature too, for that matter, are filled with tales of juicy dividends and profits in industry, but little is ever said of the ventures which prove unsuccessful or which just drag along, in time becoming lame ducks.

The successes are always advertised, but most of the mistakes and failures are easily forgotten and often purposely concealed by interested persons after at most a brief flare-up of attention. And as for the merely also-ran type of business enterprise, the tens and hundreds of thousands of concerns, personal and corporate, which make a bare living for their owners — no one, either capitalist or socialist, takes the slightest, teeniest little interest in them at all.

Practically our whole industrial structure is built upon a long record of experiments and mistakes. This is the story behind the steam engine; the internal-combustion engine; the turbine; telegraphy, both wire and wireless; the telephone; and the processes by which steel, chemicals and nearly every manufactured commodity are produced. It is doubtful if a single important process has been arrived at except through a long record of capital wasted in endeavor to convert theories and principles into working realities. Almost every success has been reared on the lessons of past failures, but though we have a whole literature on the romance of success, it would take an eager student indeed to find any literature that describes the romance of failure. We hear much today of the high price of gasoline and the resulting profits of oil companies, but who cares now because an oil company purposely destroyed nearly three million gallons of gasoline in a single conflagration in 1899 because there was no use for it?

We read all about divorces in the newspapers and unhappy marriages in fiction, but where is the chronicler of happy, commonplace married life? Every village has its notorious loafers who are pointed out to the visitor, but no one takes the trouble to call a roll of the workers for the benefit of strangers. The white lights and feverish amusements of Broadway are heralded forth as evidence of the abnormal life of the metropolis, but few are the sermons which mention the swarming but everyday, hard-working ordinary humans who live in the side streets of Harlem and Brooklyn.

The eccentricities of college professors form a choice subject of gossip in educational communities, but no one bothers much about the hundreds of dreary quiz papers which the professors have to read and correct. College students are supposed to be lazy, indifferent, sporty and sometimes boisterous, but there are nearly 260,000 of them altogether in this country, and anyone who supposes that in the main these young men and women are not engaged in the process of learning is merely ignorant of the achievements of education. Some of us who are older are inclined, at times, to an adverse opinion of young people. They seem superficial, irreverent, careless of all the deeper things of life, but every minute of the day many of these boys and girls are graduating into mature men and women who are carrying on the work of the world.

The newspaper headlines and the exaggerated, overstimulated action of some of our motion pictures are helping to give us a false impression of the world. We are fed on the sensational and the spectacular. From the very nature of its struggle for existence, the newspaper cannot inform us of the humdrum things which still constitute the bulk of our lives. Newspapers must attract readers, and the reader’s attention is caught by headlines. He is too busy to read everything, but he will read what is startling and he will go to the motion pictures if they are startling. Are most of the people able to appraise at its true value what is merely ephemeral, extravagant and without importance except as importance is attached to it? That is the serious question.

The future of this nation depends to no small extent upon how deeply into our natures these and other forms of sensationalism succeed in penetrating. No matter how shrill the screams of the outside world, there are men and women who still keep faith with their inner and higher selves, who know that real happiness is to be found within.

The man who smokes his quiet cigar, who watches his children at play or who works in his garden is still the normal and, let us hope, the typical pleasure seeker. Out of its deep wells of steadfastness and sanity the nation will surely in time regain its sense of proportion.

This article is featured in the September/October 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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