Frederick Law Olmsted’s indictment of journalism 150 years ago is as fresh as ever

tags: journalism, Frederick Law Olmsted

Richard Kreitner edits The Nation’s archives blog, “Back Issues.”

The Nation published its first issue 150 years ago today. Yet the idea for the magazine began two years before that. On the night of June 25, 1863, a week before the battle of Gettysburg, a group of elite New York gentlemen met at the Union League Club on 17th Street to hear a presentation from one of its founding members. Frederick Law Olmsted had traveled as a journalist through the antebellum South, designed Central Park and led the United States Sanitary Commission, the Civil War–era forerunner to the Red Cross—and he was only 44 years old. Now Olmsted had a new idea: a weekly magazine of politics and culture.

He raised some money from the group, but the venture stalled. The typically restless Olmsted soon gave up and moved to California to pursue an ill-fated gold-mining scheme near Yosemite Valley, leaving what little money he had raised to his friend, the journalist E.L. Godkin. In April of 1865, as the war drew to a close, a few radical abolitionists sought to start a publication to carry the cause of equality into the era of emancipation. They hired Godkin as editor and began publishing on this day in 1865.

The following winter, Olmsted returned to New York and joined the staff of the new magazine as an associate editor. After a struggle between Godkin and the financial backers—they deemed Godkin insufficiently radical on the question of racial equality—Olmsted took a one-sixth ownership of The Nation, which he held for a few years even after leaving the staff.

Olmsted’s “Prospectus for a Weekly Journal,” which he circulated among the attendees at the Union League Club in 1863, is the founding document not only of The Nation, but of an entire school of American journalism—“careful, candid and conscientious,” as Olmsted writes—that seems to be very much on the decline today. As The Nation reboots itself with a new website, it seems worth publishing excerpts from Olmsted’s original vision for the magazine. How does the magazine continue to pursue the mission he outlined? How, too, has it changed with the times? I’ve included a few scribbled notes on these questions and others posed by the “Prospectus”; subscribers can offer their own thoughts in the comments section below.

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It is proposed to establish a weekly journal, the main object of which would be to secure a more careful, accurate and elaborate discussion of political, economical and commercial topics, than is possible in the columns of the daily press, and a more candid and honest discussion of them than the constitution of the daily press admits of. The way in which the latter treats the questions of the day, is necessarily imperfect, slip-shod and inaccurate, if for no other reason, for the mere want of time of its writers to do better. Each topic has to be handled on the very day on which it comes up, and, let the writer who takes hold of it be ever so conscientious or pains-taking, he is compelled to dispose of it by the aid of such knowledge as he happens to command at the moment, and in most cases with the aid of scarcely any reflection. The result is, in appearance, an essay, but in reality an extemporaneous speech, containing simply a first impression, delivered as hastily as the pen can be made to move over the paper.

Olmsted’s criticism of the daily press of the 1860s serves as a fine description of the “hot take” journalism so ubiquitous today. More closely resembling herbal prognostication than anything traditionally recognized as informed analysis, the “first impression” that Olmsted derided has returned—and with a vengeance.

It wasn’t always thus. The quality of daily newspapers improved immensely in the first half of the 20th century before corporate mergers and demands for higher profits, combined with the blow from loss of classified-ads revenue, caused the cataclysmic decline of the past twenty or so years. While the rise of Internet journalism has vastly expanded the commentariat—providing megaphones to those who had long been silenced, often to the great benefit of writers and readers alike—the gaping hole in reporting left by the decline of the dailies remains largely unfilled. The ubiquitous, pseudo-contrarian hot take, successor to the “extemporaneous speech” Olmsted described, is now composed as swiftly as hands can be made to move over a keyboard, impoverishing political debate at least as much, and as damagingly, in 2015 as in 1863.

TheNation.com is as an experiment into whether it is possible to keep the faith with some of Olmsted’s concerns while compromising on others. How do you handle a topic on the very day on which it comes up in a way that is neither slipshod nor inaccurate? Can one be a conscientious and “pains-taking” writer, to use Olmsted’s spelling, and fast? There is a place for long and thoughtful essays, but I am not convinced that if given the chance Olmsted would decline to read the extemporaneous speeches, the hot takes, of his most beloved writers, Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin. Read Greg Grandin on the shooting in Charleston and tell me you don’t agree. ...

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