Friday, February 24, 2012


“News is History,” Mark Twain said, “in its first and best form.” Recorded news began at least 100,000 years ago. At the Newseum in Washington, D.C., displays of a wide range of text and memorabilia include photos of rock, circa 4,000 B.C., portraying people talking in Tassela, Algeria. I can picture our ancestors, sitting around campfires, exchanging news of food, shelter and survival.
As I wander through history, I find that today’s feats of endurance—Marathons—whether athletic competitions or television shows to benefit charities—honor the legendary run of an early war correspondent, named Pheidippides. Pheidippides died of exhaustion after racing from Marathon to Athens bringing news of the Greek Victory over Persia in 490 B.C.
The drums, bells, horns and gongs, exhibited in the Newseum, once carried messages to villages in Asia and Africa. Councils answered the call when the beat of drums meant danger or death. Bronze bells called the Chinese to worship, meet, plant and harvest in 600 B.C.—by 740 A.D., their descendants invented printing by pressing carved, inked blocks of wood onto paper.
Text exhibited along with coins proves that Julius Caesar was no shrinking violet. A daily newssheet—Acta Diurna—was published and posted in places accessible to the public. He wrote a history of his military feats in 59 B.C. and minted coins to commemorate his victories.
Koreans produced bronze type for molds in 1403, while in Cuzco Valley, Peru, Inca messengers recorded and tallied new conquests, birth, and death and crop yields on knotted, multi-colored cords called quipas. The quipas were then carried to local officials. This was the century Johann Gutenberg invented movable type and type metal. Little changed for 400 years but with the development of the linotype, a typesetting machine, printing was revolutionized. Low priced publication of books and newspapers was now possible leading Thomas Edison to call the machine, “The eighth wonder of the world.” The Newseum exhibits a rare 18th century wood printing press, a linotype and other typesetting machines along with video films that demonstrate how the machines work.
In 1609, printed weekly newspapers made their appearance around the globe—the first regularly printed American paper was the Boston Newsletter, printed in 1704 and James Gordon Bennett published the first penny papers in 1833. Featured were lurid crime stories, human interest and diverting pieces of gossip—most far fetched—just like today’s tabloids. The front page of an 1835 edition of the New York Sun reads, “Exclusive! Creatures with Wings…on the Moon.” A copy of The Charleston Mercury, dated December 20, 1860, announces the start of the Civil War; reporters followed the troops into battle providing the public with eyewitness news. Matthew Brady hired a team of photographers who covered nearly every battle of the Civil War.
Pulitzer and Hearst competed with their coverage of the Spanish-American War in 1898. The focus back then—railroads, civil rights, suffrage and immigration are still in the news today. Newspapers went unchallenged until 1920 when the public was introduced to newsreels, newsmagazines and radio.
Nine out of ten American households owned a radio by 1938—families gathered together to listen to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats and the broadcasts of commentators like H.V. Kaltenborn, Walter Winchell and Lowell Thomas. The Newseum exhibits their photographs and memorabilia ranging from field glasses, early microphones—including the microphone used by Edward R. Murrow to report the bombing of London and Ernest Hemingway’s press credentials. On display is a television set from the 1950’s, the first video tape recorder made by Ampex and Eleanor Roosevelt’s press pass—evoking memories of a much loved, much criticized and most controversial First Lady. Ernie Pyle’s typewriter and the shovel (used by the Scripps-Howard columnist to dig foxholes during World War II) are here. On April 18, 1945, on the island of Le Shima, a Japanese sniper killed the highly respected Pyle. “No man in this war, “President Harry S. Truman said, “so well told the story of the American fighting man.”
Today more journalists have been killed and wounded than ever before. Thursday news reported the deaths of Marie Colvin, a highly respected war correspondent and Remi Ochlik, a well-known photojournalist. They were reporting from the city of Homs in Syria. Reporting on the latest human tragedy brought on by man’s inhumanity to man.

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