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The Rise and Fall of the First Internet

Donald Ritchie, author of Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps, Our Constitution, and The Congress of the United States: A Student Companion, has been Associate Historian of the United States Senate for more than three decades. This past weekend Ritchie spoke at the AEJMC conference (Association of Educators of Journalism and Mass Communications), and has been kind enough to share his opening remarks with us.  His comments make me wonder what will follow the internet.  Any thoughts?

The Internet as a medium for news reporting is still in its foundling stage, and we can only imagine how it will develop over the long run, or what its intended and unintended consequences might be. A past technology, however, offers some historical clues about its trajectory. Now as obsolete as smoke signals, the telegraph provided the first means of electronic communications and facilitated the news industry for a century and a half. Beyond providing speed, the telegraph changed the way news was reported and the definition of legitimate news reporting.

It was on May 24, 1844, at the U.S. Capitol, that Samuel F.B. Morse first publicly demonstrated that his telegraph would work over long distances. With the help of a congressional appropriation, he had strung wires along the railroad tracks between Washington and Baltimore. On that day, a young woman handed him with a message he had not seen before: “What Hath God Wrought.” The message went over the wires to Baltimore and returned to prove that the telegraph and Morse code had worked. One of the first messages from Baltimore was: “What is the news from Washington?” News stories flowed back and forth and newspapers in Baltimore and Washington became the first to print telegraphic dispatches.

In a few years a consortium of newspapers had founded the Associated Press and had stationed a correspondent permanently in Washington. When the Civil War began, and the Union Army did poorly at first, the War Department censored telegraphic news reports from the capital. Somehow the AP escaped most of this censorship. When Congress investigated in 1862, the AP reporter testified that his business was simply to telegraph facts, not to comment on them, because his reports went to papers of all political hues. Rather than express opinion, he had to “be truthful and impartial,” which made his dispatches “dry matters of fact and detail.” The reporter’s apology served as one of the first definitions of objective news reporting. In addition, the cost of telegraphing shortened the word count on news stories and forced reporters to summarize their stories in their lead paragraphs.

After lobbyists invaded the congressional press galleries during the Gilded Age, the leaders of the Washington press corps banded and drew up a set of rules defining who should be issued a press pass. By 1880 both houses of Congress had adopted rules that limited admission to the press gallery to those who filed stories for a daily newspaper via telegraph. As intended, these rules ousted the lobbyists, but they also barred women reporters, who filed social news by letter rather than the more expensive telegraph, and African Americans reporters, since the black press then consisted entirely of weekly papers. Later in the twentieth century, the same rules kept magazine and radio reporters out of the press gallery. They finally persuaded Congress to create a separate Periodical Press Gallery and Radio Gallery (now the Radio-TV Gallery), which set their own definitions of legitimate news reporting.

As late as the 1980s, reporters in the press galleries were still typing stories and shouting “Copy!” A runner would whisk the text to a nearby telegraph operator, who would telegraph it back to the reporter’s paper. Downstairs, in the lobbies behind the Senate and House chambers, members would gather around large wooden boxes that held teletype machines. The “telex” constantly typed out telegraph dispatches with breaking news. By 1990, faxes, email, and computers had banished the telegraph and telex entirely from the Capitol. The AP and other wire services survived the demise of the wire and adopted their reporting to digital electronics. Today’s reporters, most of whom have never seen a telegraph outside a museum, send stories from their laptops from wireless committee rooms.

Reporting via telegraph is no longer a requirement for a press pass, but the congressional press galleries, along with the White House and executive departments, continue to grapple with how to sort out professional reporters from the amateurs and advocacy groups that apply. Bloggers especially have stretched the old definitions and posed problems for those who determine accreditation. Internet reporting is redefining the news business as dramatically as the telegraph once did. News stories are now being filed in installments and posted online as they developed rather than waiting for set deadlines. The length and presentation of reports are being shaped to conform to the reading habits of those who surf the Net. . Eventually, Internet reporters will be fully integrated within the press corps and will redefine the requirements for press accreditation to fit their mirror image. Until, that is, some other communications medium emerges to supplant them.

Recent Comments

  1. Richard Lawrence

    For an interesting account of the electric telegraph before Morse’s demonstration in 1844, see Laszlo Solymar: Getting the Message: A History of Communications (OUP, Oxford 1999). An account of the first fax machine in 1865 (not 1965) and the mechanical telegraphs that preceded the electric telegraph are also fascinating.

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