Bennett, James Gordon (1795-1872)
BENNETT, JAMES GORDON (1795-1872)
When James Gordon Bennett Sr. died on June 1, 1872, his old rival Horace Greeley's New York Tribune eulogized: "He developed the capacities of journalism in a most wonderful manner, but he did it by degrading its character. He made the newspaper powerful, but he made it odious."
Bennett founded the New York Herald on May 6, 1835, with five hundred dollars and a cellar office. In the ensuing thirty-seven years, he guided the Herald into one of the world's most powerful newspapers, with circulation and advertising revenue second only to the London Times. Along the way, he helped create the modern newspaper. Bennett's credits include being the first Washington correspondent; first to publish a direct news interview (with a brothel madam); and first American editor to use news illustrations, print weather reports, cover sports regularly, and hire foreign correspondents.
Born September 1, 1795, in Keith, Banffshire, Scotland, Bennett was the son of one of the area's few independent farmers. At fifteen years of age, he attended seminary in Aberdeen to prepare for the priesthood. He was an eager student but experienced a crisis in faith and left college in 1814. During the next five years he traveled and read extensively and sold his first freelanced article. Fascinated by Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, he decided on impulse to visit America.
On New Year's Day 1820, Bennett arrived in Boston, Massachusetts. A fellow Scot hired him to clerk for booksellers/publishers Wells and Lilly. Though he worked hard, his appearance, accent, and sarcasm annoyed customers. One contemporary described Bennett as "so terribly cross-eyed that when he looked at me with one eye, he looked out at the City Hall with the other." Wells and Lilly moved him to proofreading, a job he excelled at, but which may have exacerbated his eye problems.
He soon moved on to New York and worked at odd jobs until Aaron Smith Willington, editor of the Charleston, South Carolina, Courier, hired him. Bennett spent ten months translating for Courier readers the French and Spanish newspaper articles that were brought by ships into Charleston's harbor. Returning to New York, he freelanced, failed in an attempt to found a commercial school, bought and sold the unprofitable Sunday Courier, and in 1827 obtained a job on Mordecai M. Noah's Enquirer. Like the Courier, the Enquirer was a mercantile newspaper primarily offering news for merchants. Also like its fellows, the Enquirer had a political position—it supported the Democratic party and Andrew Jackson—and in turn was supported by party members. Bennett actively entered party politics and rose to member of the Democratic Ward Committee in 1831, but his attempts to secure higher positions failed.
Though Bennett and Noah were both strong Jackson supporters and Noah appreciated Bennett's talents, he did not like Bennett personally. When Bennett proposed writing from Washington, Noah obliged and Bennett became New York's first Capitol Hill correspondent. He soon earned a national reputation for breezy, witty reporting as other Jacksonian papers picked up his stories.
In 1832, he started his own newspaper in New York, the Globe, but it failed. He bought shares in and edited the Pennsylvanian in 1833. He applied to Martin van Buren for a $25,000 loan but was turned down. After a year, he returned to New York, professing disillusion with the "hollowheartedness and humbuggery" of politicians.
While Bennett was in Pennsylvania, Benjamin H. Day had founded the New York Sun, an apolitical paper aimed at the newly literate masses. At that time, the twelve New York City dailies had average circulations of around two thousand each. By 1835, the Sun, which sold for a penny, had a daily circulation of nearly twenty thousand, more than the London Times. Bennett made overtures to Day but was not hired. He next tried to interest Horace Greeley in a partnership but was turned down. Then at forty years of age, after a string of political, business, and publishing failures, he launched the New York Herald, declaring, "We shall support no party… and care nothing for any election or candidate from president down to constable" and boasting that through "intelligence, good taste, sagacity, and industry," the Herald would soon have a circulation of "twenty or thirty thousand."
The Herald had something for everyone: concise news summaries; local stories emphasizing the humorous and tragic, especially police court; lively accounts of sporting events; reviews of plays and musicals; and economic news, including a financial feature, "Money Market," that brought Wall Street news to a general audience for the first time. Even advertising was checked daily to maintain its reader appeal. Unlike the Sun, the Herald from the beginning covered world and national news and economic developments as fully as its four pages allowed. It went after not only the blue-collar readers of the Sun, but also the middle-and upper-class readers of the mercantile press.
Bennett wrote about events vividly, intimately, and controversially. His sensational journalism did attract readers, but it also attracted enemies. From Wall Street businessmen to society doyennes, the upper crust resented having their private bankruptcies and dinner parties laid out for the hoi polloi. Bennett took advantage of his enemies, especially editors, by attacking them in the Herald, hoping they would print counterattacks, thereby publicizing the Herald to their own readers. Benjamin Day obliged, writing that Bennett's "only chance of dying an upright man will be that of hanging perpendicularly from a rope." In 1836, Bennett's former employer, James Watson Webb, responded by severely caning him one day on Wall Street. Bennett regaled the next day's Herald readers with an account of the attack, noting Webb had "cut a slash in my head about one and a half inches in length.… The fellow, no doubt, wanted to let out the never failing supply of good humour and wit… and appropriate the contents to supply the emptiness of his own thick skull."
Bennett accumulated powerful enemies, from politicians (he once wrote that his crossed eyes came from watching "the winding ways of Martin Van Buren") to clergymen (New York's Roman Catholic bishop excommunicated him for dubbing transubstantiation "religious cookery"). In 1840, these leaders declared a "Moral War" on him, organizing boycotts and attacking him viciously in the press. The war did not drive away Herald advertisers, but it did pull perhaps one-third of the readers; the paper took five years to regain its pre-1840 circulation. It also forced Bennett to promise publicly to improve the tone of the Herald. Never again was the paper quite so impishly egotistical, so crudely defiant. As Greeley later sneered, it gained some decency if not principle.
A consummate newsman, Bennett spent whatever it took to scoop others in reporting the day's events. He deployed the fastest boats to relay news from ships in New York Harbor, made early and frequent use of the telegraph, and organized a consortium of newspapers to pay for a pony express from New Orleans that regularly beat the post office by as much as four days. Bennett had long championed the South editorially, but when the U.S. Civil War came, he strongly supported the Union. The Herald sent sixty-three correspondents to cover the war and often published news from the front before it had reached the U.S. War Department.
By 1865, the Herald had a circulation of 110,000 with an annual revenue of $1,095,000. Bennett officially handed the Herald over to his son James Gordon Bennett Jr. in 1867. While the son had Bennett's nose for news—he sent Henry M. Stanley to Central Africa to find Dr. David Livingstone—he lacked his business sense and capacity for hard work. After his death in 1918, the Herald was bought by the owners of the New York Tribune, who merged the papers of rivals and enemies Bennett and Greeley into the New York Herald Tribune in 1924.
Crouthamel, James A. (1989). Bennett's New York Herald and the Rise of the Popular Press. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Fermer, Douglas. (1986). James Gordon Bennett and the New York Herald: A Study of Editorial Opinion in the Civil War Era 1854-1867. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Gordon, John Steele. (1996). "The Man Who Invented Mass Media." St. Louis Journalism Review 26 (184):10-13.
Herd, Harold. (1977). Seven Editors. Westport, CT:Greenwood Press.
Pray, Isaac C. (1855). Memoirs of James Gordon Bennett and his Times. New York: Stringer and Townsend. (Reprinted by Arno Press, 1970.)
Seitz, Don C. (1928). The James Gordon Bennetts: Father and Son, Proprietors of the New York Herald. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.
Ellen Williamson Kanervo