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Editor's Note, November/December 2003

Our History in Newspapers

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, November/December 2003 | Volume 24, Number 6

“Here and there through the smoke, creeping warily under the shadows of tottering walls, emerged occasional men and women,” Jack London wrote. “It was like the meeting of the handful of survivors after the day of the end of the world.”

The scene was one of the great cataclysms of the early twentieth century--the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. It was occurring on Jack London’s doorstep, and Collier’s commissioned the young novelist to cover it.

“Within an hour after the earthquake shock, the smoke of San Francisco’s burning was a lurid tower visible a hundred miles away,” he told Collier’s readers. “San Francisco, at the present time, is like the crater of a volcano, around which are camped tens of thousands of refugees.”

What happened that day and how the press covered it is the centerpiece of this issue of Humanities, marking the twentieth anniversary of the U.S. Newspaper Program. The program is an effort by the Endowment to preserve the nation’s history from its early days onward. When it is complete, 67.5 million pages of newsprint will be cataloged and microfilmed.

“From an historical viewpoint, the great tragedy--not only of course of human life and of buildings--is the loss of historical documentation,” says Gary Kurutz, curator of special collections at the California State Library. He enumerates never-to-be-recovered items: photographers’ negatives, the original Bear Flag of 1846, rare books. After the fire, California passed a law requiring county clerks to keep newspaper files as legal records.

The fire had its tragedies, its moments of heroism--and its moments of confusion, as people tried to make sense of the disaster. In San Francisco it was a journalist concluding incorrectly that martial law had been imposed when he saw the National Guard arrive. Throughout the years, the fissure between what reporters related and what authorities said would widen--beyond factual errors to differences in the interpretation of events and their consequences.

The arena most susceptible to misunderstanding was military conflict. A film airing this November explores the on-again, off-again relationship between correspondents covering war and those waging it. The documentary leads off with Richard Harding Davis, who found a hero in Teddy Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War, and traces the vacillations of this uneasy relationship through the world wars and the Cold War to the recent embedding of U.S. journalists in Iraq.

War has a mythic quality, says director Stephen Ives. “War correspondents participate in that myth, yet it’s important they are there. A great deal of what we think about war we learn from them.” General Dwight D. Eisenhower was clear about their value: “Fundamentally, public opinion wins wars.”

In this issue, we find ourselves at the intersection of a number of anniversaries: the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Central Park, the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Antonín Dvor¡ák, who invented a music for the New World, and the one hundredth anniversary of the American debut of Enrico Caruso. By happenstance Caruso takes us full circle, back to San Francisco, where he witnessed the earthquake firsthand. He had performed in Carmen at the Opera House the night before, and was asleep in his suite at the Palace Hotel when the tremor hit. “Everything was going round and round. The chandelier was trying to touch the ceiling and the chairs were all chasing each other. Crash-crash-crash! It was a terrible scene. Everywhere the walls were falling.” Caruso managed to get to Oakland and catch a train to New York, swearing never to return.

San Francisco would survive. It rebuilt in time to host the 1915 World’s Fair, drawing a crowd of nineteen million to the renewed city.