Brief Encounters

Short reviews of a classic novel about journalism and a biography of a pioneering female reporter

A Modern Instance | By William Dean Howells | J. R. Osgood and Company | 514 pages, available online for free

More than 125 years after his creation, Bartley Hubbard is still with us in spirit. The self-regarding, unprincipled protagonist of William Dean Howells’s A Modern Instance (1882) remains an undying portrayal of journalism’s dark side. Drawing on his own experiences in journalism and his observation of the disorderly Boston press of the 1870s, Howells sketched a Faustian story. Hubbard arrives in Boston, newly married, from the editorship of a small weekly in Maine. He quickly grasps how to popularize, expose, and sell. He insinuates himself onto a paper that employs him to interview major advertisers and write flattering profiles—a sleazy synergy that has yet to go out of style.

Absorbing his lessons quickly, Hubbard sees the reading public as consumers of sensation, and argues for an apolitical, even amoral, omnibus newspaper, covering all the highs and lows of society: “If the community is full of vice and crime, the newspaper can’t do better than reflect its condition.” His philosophical antagonist is an editor, Ricker, who insists that “a newspaper [is] a public enterprise . . . sacredly bound not to do anything to deprave or debauch its readers . . . not to mislead or betray them.” The idealistic Ricker remains an assistant editor. Hubbard rises to the top, for a time, but his behavior reflects the amorality of his ideal newspaper. Calamities follow: loss of job, the divorce that comprises the main narrative, and finally Hubbard’s murder at the hands of an offended reader in Arizona.

The Ricker-Hubbard debate continues, in varying forms, to this day. The good-guy side of journalism claims that it is the keystone of democracy and the balance wheel of society; the other side is more reluctant to state its claims outright, but in these desperate days, scrambles to do whatever will seize and hold an audience. And often these two sides are embedded in a single institution, or even a single journalist. All of which is to say that the culture clash captured by Howells more than a century ago is a modern one indeed. (A Modern Instance can be read in its original format here.)

Doris Fleeson: Incomparably the First Political Journalist of Her Time | By Carolyn Sayler | Sunstone Press | 302 pages, $32.95

Doris Fleeson is one of the half-lost pioneers of the pre-feminist era of political journalism. A Kansan who learned her trade on the New York Daily News, she came to Washington at the dawn of the New Deal. She and her husband, John O’Donnell, collaborated on a column called “Capital Stuff.” In 1933, she was one of the brave souls who stepped forward to help found the journalists’ new union, the American Newspaper Guild.

As O’Donnell and the News turned to the right, he and Fleeson divorced. It was Fleeson, of course, who lost her job. During World War II, she became an overseas correspondent for Woman’s Home Companion. On her own after the war, Fleeson began a syndicated column that combined diligent reporting, cultivation of sources, and liberal perspectives. She was the first Washington-based female reporter to have her work syndicated throughout the United States. Eventually she appeared in seventy newspapers, and was characterized by Time magazine as the capital’s “top news hen”—a well-meaning compliment of precisely the sort that Fleeson’s career would make obsolete.

For the next twenty years, she filed her column and robustly resisted the inevitable discrimination of that era against women journalists. She collected a host of worthy prizes and a cadre of younger admirers, including Mary McGrory, Liz Carpenter, and Helen Thomas. (Thomas, the recently dethroned grande dame of the Washington press corps, was particularly impressed by the even-handed quality of Fleeson’s work, which she called “straight, balanced, [and] unbiased.”) Fleeson married again, to Dan Kimball, undersecretary of the Navy; they died within hours of each other in 1970.

This biography contains plentiful and illuminating excerpts from Fleeson’s correspondence with such famous friends as H. L. Mencken and Eleanor Roosevelt, and sufficient quotations from her work. Like many journalists, Fleeson herself disdained autobiography or reminiscence. The biographer, a friend of the Fleeson relatives in Kansas, relies on the family connection and on her subject’s papers at the University of Kansas, but doesn’t really get out and dig, Fleeson-style, into what might have been available in resources farther afield, especially in Washington. Still, a pioneering journalist finally has a footnote in history.

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.