Crime Beat History

"John McMan, brought up for whipping Juda McMan, his darling wife – excuse was that his head was rather thick, in consequence of taking a wee drap of whiskey. Not being able to find bail, he was accommodated with a room in Bridewell [the city jail]." – New York Sun, Sept. 3, 1833

This brief story, from the premiere issue of the Sun, likely was written by George W. Wisner, considered America's first police reporter.

Crime reporting had been institutionalized in the western press in 1821, when the London Morning Herald hired John Wight to cover night sessions at Bow Street Court, where cops presented a procession of drunks and petty criminals, most of them poor East Enders. Wight wrote accounts of the court proceedings, often quoting the suspects in dialect and spicing his stories with humorous asides that belittled the uneducated court denizens.

Wight explained police reporting:

"The reader is placed without personal sacrifice amidst the various and somewhat repulsive groups of a police office and made acquainted with the states and conditions of human nature, with which, from the sympathy due to the more unfortunate part of the species, he should not be entirely ignorant; it is by such means alone that the prosperous and orderly portion of society can know what passes among the destitute and disorderly portion of it."

The Sun, the prototype Penny Press newspaper, hired Wisner, a Brit who had worked with Wight in London, to write local police stories.

Wisner was assigned to report from Police Court, in lower Manhattan, where slum residents – Irish immigrants, blacks and other destitute men and women – were paraded before a judge. Like Wight, Wisner used dialect in his reports.

James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald ratcheted up crime coverage by printing purple prose about lurid crimes, making public sensations of rather routine murders, such as the killing in 1836 of Manhattan prostitute Ellen Jewett.

The Herald explained in an editorial, "A good police reporter in such a city as New York is a useful person to society. Half the misery of the world is occasioned by secret impulses, unrestrained by public opinion. An exact and correct record of crime – ingenious crime, not vulgar drunken brawls – is useful as a warning and a beacon for others to avoid.''

Working in the 1850s, George Goodrich Foster of Horace Greeley's New York Tribune was a trend-setting crime reporter. He produced hundreds of stories from the seamy side of New York, leading readers on tours of police court, the city jail, brothels, gambling dens and other places where polite citizens did not go. His pieces were collected into six books that became best sellers.

Foster described a journalist as "defender of the assailed, the protector of the weak, the vindicator of the innocent, the terror of the oppressor, the scourge of the false, and the standard of all courtesy and honorable dealing."

'New Journalism'
In the 1880s, Joseph Pulitzer borrowed from the Penny Press story topics to develop a style of reporting and marketing that became known as "new journalism,'' a combination of crime coverage, public advocacy and patronage of the working class. Pulitzer, a native Hungarian, opened the St. Louis Dispatch in 1878 and filled its pages with stories of tippling clergymen, defiled virgins, love triangles, prostitution and sundry adulteries.

Five years later, when he began publishing the New York World, he cajoled his staff to focus "on what is original, distinctive, dramatic, romantic, thrilling, unique, curious, quaint, humorous, odd, apt to be talked about.''

The paper's fast presses, color printing, cartoons, illustrations, photographs and clever writers attracted unprecedented numbers of readers, and this brought the World vast influence. Editors across the country took note.

During the 1880s and 1890s new daily newspapers started at a rate of more than one per week in the United States. As these papers jockeyed for a place in the crowded news market, many tried to emulate the success of Pulitzer by adapting his crime-reporting techniques.

Papers like the Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Record and Boston Globe featured the over-the-top crime stories that defined the World. The Denver Post used huge headlines in red ink to call attention to its crime stories. The paper earned the nickname "Bucket of Blood."

In 1895, the young California editor William Randolph Hearst bought the New York Journal, and his rivalry with Pulitzer's World became known as "yellow journalism" – "a shrieking, gaudy, sensation-loving, devil-may-care kind of journalism which lured the reader by any possible means,'' according to journalism historian Edwin Emery.

Tabloids Created
In 1903, British publisher Alfred C. Harmsworth (a.k.a. Lord Northcliffe) created the London Daily Mirror, a tabloid-size format. The paper was popular with trolley and subway riders because it was easy to handle in tight quarters.

Harmsworth decreed no story should run longer than 250 words in the Daily Mirror, dubbed "The busy man's paper." The paper specialized in punchy little crime stories. The Daily Mirror was a circulation success, and it spawned a number of tabloid imitators in London.

On June 26, 1919, the trend moved to the United States when the Illustrated Daily News bowed in New York. The paper scandalized the city's bluenoses. One critic moaned that the Daily News "sank its tentacles still deeper into the strata of the faintly literate.'' Another said such tabloids "reduce the highest ideals of the newspaper to the process of fastening a camera lens to every boudoir keyhole." The Saturday Review of Literature worried that crime stories would leave children with "soiled minds, rotten before they are ripe.''

Yet the Daily News would help define crime reporting for several generations of U.S. journalists. As a dominant paper in America's largest city, the Daily News developed a national reputation for its crime coverage.

Most big cities had at least one tabloid during the first half of the 20th century. The brash little papers developed a style that became known as "jazz journalism," covering celebrity gossip and lifestyles with relish. But crime and trials attracted the brightest tabloid spotlights – cases such as that of Fatty Arbuckle, a silent film star acquitted of manslaughter in 1921 after he beat a starlet, and, in 1924, the murder of a boy by teenagers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.

Electric Chair Photo
In 1927, the national crime sensation was another rather routine love-triangle murder. Judd Gray, a corset salesman, and Ruth Snyder, his married lover, were accusing of killing Snyder's husband in Queens.

Snyder and Gray were convicted, and the press eagerly awaited their comeuppance. On Jan. 12, 1928, Ruth Snyder faced execution at Sing Sing prison in upstate New York.

The day before the execution, the Daily Graphic enticed readers with a full-page tease: "Don't fail to read tomorrow's Graphic. An installment that thrills and stuns! A story that fairly pierces the heart and reveals Ruth Snyder's last thoughts on earth; that pulses the blood as it discloses her final letters. Think of it! A woman's final thoughts just before she is clutched in the deadly snare that sears and burns and FRIES AND KILLS! Her very last words! Exclusively in tomorrow's Graphic.''

But the Daily News managed to do the Graphic one better. As the hour of Snyder's electrocution approached, Daily News staffer Tom Howard took a front-row seat, reserved for journalists. At 11:06 p.m., as the electrical current was activated, Howard discreetly raised the cuff of his baggy trousers and snapped a single shot from a forbidden camera strapped to his ankle.

The News published the photograph in an extra edition on Jan. 13, then printed it again on the Jan. 14 front page. The blurry photo showed a blindfolded Snyder sitting in the electric chair with straps around her torso, arms, and legs. The caption below began, "When Ruth paid her debt to the state!" On the second day the photo ran, the caption described the snapshot as "the most talked-of feat in the history of journalism.'' The competition shrieked, the moralists fretted, and the public bought. The Daily News sold an extra half-million copies that day.

Tabloid Television
Rupert Murdoch, the international media magnate, initiated another trend in crime coverage in 1986 as he assembled TV stations for his Fox network.

One of the first projects Murdoch approved for development was a newsmagazine show, "A Current Affair." Several of the program's key staffers were Australians who had worked at the Star, Murdoch's supermarket tabloid.

"A Current Affair" debuted as a local broadcast on July 28, 1986, on Murdoch's WYNY (Channel 5) in New York. From the start, the program frequently featured crime stories – "tragic, offbeat, and human," as its publicity material put it.

Was it journalism or entertainment? Even the host, Maury Povich, was confused.

He said, "I was, in fact, embarrassed by the gaudy nature of some of the stories we were programming for 'A Current Affair.' I didn't think that our rundown should be all focused on torrid sex, ruthless murder, and boundless greed. What about social responsibility?'' He summarized that rundown as "televangelist spoofs, tales of quadriplegic killers, reports of Satanic teenage murders, cow-mooing contests, Marilyn Monroe bulletins, Elvis sightings – all presented with a kind of wide-eyed exuberance by our goofy staff.''

Some television historians trace the lineage of "A Current Affair" to the 1950s and programs such as Edward R. Murrow's "Person to Person" and "See It Now." Other cite NBC's "The Big Story" or even CBS' "60 Minutes."

But none of those had the immediate impact on news coverage of "A Current Affair," which soon faced competition from a series of "newsmagazine" imitators, such as "Hard Copy" and "Inside Edition." By 1995, tabloid TV-style crime coverage was standard fare on local and national news broadcasts. No longer novel, the original tabloid TV programs folded one by one.