AUDIO: Lance Morrow on the End of Journalism’s Golden Age

February 23, 2023 | 10 Blocks Podcast

On February 23, Lance Morrow appeared on City Journal’s 10 Blocks podcast to discuss his new book, The Noise of Typewriters: Remembering Journalism and the history of American journalism.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Lance Morrow. He’s the Henry Grunwald Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in D.C. He’s a contributing editor of City Journal and was also for many years an essayist at Time Magazine, where he wrote more of the “Man of the Year” articles for that publication than any other writer.

He won the 1981 National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and was a finalist for the same award in 1991. His books include America: A Rediscovery, Evil: An Investigation, and more recently, God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money. His brand new book, however, is called The Noise of Typewriters: Remembering Journalism. That subtitle can be read in a couple of ways, of course, in a time when many are proclaiming the death of journalism, or at least of objective news reporting. Remembering Journalism promises to look back to an era when certain things could be taken for granted.

But Remembering Journalism also describes a memoir of sorts of Lance Morrow’s long career at Time, of a lost world of manual typewriters and news tickers and of the power of both a journalistic and mythmaking power of Time its founder and mastermind, Henry Luce, a man whom Lance never met, but whose presence looms large in this new book, which will be out later this month in February. So, Lance Morrow, thanks very much for joining us.

Lance Morrow: Thank you, Brian. Great to be here.

Brian Anderson: So let’s start with this legendary figure, Luce, and with Time, a venerable publication. You have much to say about both of these things in this book, but let’s start with some of your observations about Luce. You note that many people or most people have forgotten who he is. But you say that he was in some ways the key to understanding journalism in the 20th century. “His career,” you write, “Raised essential questions about the nature of journalism, about the politics of storytelling, and about the morals of power.”

You also observed that he understood that news doesn’t die if you transform it into myth, and you call him, “The preeminent American mythmaker of the 20th century.” So I wonder if you could just elaborate a little bit about some of these points that you raised with regard to Luce. And what it was about his career and what he forged with Time and some of the other publications in his empire, that is important, in your view, for people to understand today?

Lance Morrow: Well, I’ll start with the fact that exactly right now, it is the 100th anniversary of Time Magazine, which was founded in 1923 by Henry Luce and his partner, Briton Hadden. Luce was, as you say, he’s mostly forgotten now, but people, I think, in the age of the internet and social media don’t understand, don’t appreciate how important magazines were. And the hundred years, or rather the time from, say, the early 20th century until, let’s say, 1972, which was the date of the folding of Life magazine.

That was a golden age of magazines. That was a time when magazines were extremely important in the ecology of American information and American self-conception in the way that Americans thought of themselves. There were no national newspapers. The newspapers had at best a regional range like The Chicago Tribune, but newspapers tended to be local.

Luce and Briton Hadden invented this thing called the news magazine in 1923. There were a number of very important magazines. For example, the Saturday Evening Post, which had a long history. Other magazines came along, The New Yorker just after Time Magazine, and then Luce’s extraordinary invention called Fortune Magazine, which was a very opulent production that started just at the beginning of the Depression, which was sort of a counterintuitive thing to do.

And in 1936, Life Magazine, which in a third direction was a real piece of genius as a journalistic inception. It was an extraordinarily successful American magazine. But Luce was the son of missionaries. He was born in China in Shandong in 1898 at a period of immense American self-confidence. The Spanish–American War in fact broke out only a few weeks after Luce was born. It was the Teddy Roosevelt time, it was a breaking out beyond the American shores. And Luce absorbed a tremendous sense of self-confidence and idealism about America.

Because he spent his boyhood in China at the mission there, he looked at America from a very far distance, from the other side of the world, and as a result, by the time he got to Hotchkiss at the age of 13 or so, and then went on to Yale, he had a very idealistic conception of the country, and he never quite lost that. He was a great hard-facts journalist. He was among the best journalists ever. I mean, he was really just as a journalist, as a hard-facts person, he was terrific.

But he had this added feeling about America, that he idealized America in some ways. He came from old American stock; the first Henry Luce had landed on Martha’s Vineyard in 1636. But at the same time, because he came from China over to America at the age of 13, he came as a sort of immigrant in the sense that he had a very fresh eye and a very naïve eye in many ways. And it’s my theory that he used his magazines to reinvent America or to invent America along the lines of his rather fervent missionary idea of the country.

If he’d been born in Scranton or Boston or Chicago or someplace like that, he might have had a very different and less starry-eyed sense of America. But he never lost that somewhat starry-eyed idea of the country, and that was a myth. In other words, it was a sustaining conception that he managed to impress upon the American middle class for a long, long time. Many years in the middle decades of the 20th century, a very consequential time, world War II and the Cold War, and after.

And it was in the Vietnam time, of course. He died in February of ’67, just as Vietnam was getting deeply serious. And it was the Vietnam era that changed the idea of Luce and changed the conception that Luce had imposed or impressed upon the country. So I think he was, along with movies for example, he was a terrific mythmaker. Americans are very, very, very self-conscious people, I think, and Luce had a great deal to do with their idea of themselves. That is an organizing idea behind my book, although the book has a lot to do with other things, many other things besides Luce.

Brian Anderson: It’s interesting, Lance, you talk about him being, you just mentioned this, a kind of hard-facts journalist, yet you’re also saying he was a mythmaker. So there does seem to be a tension between reporting and storytelling, between fact and myth. You have a nice observation in the book that, “Journalism,” this is a quote, “in the 20th century, proceeded on the assumption that there was such a thing as objective reality. We took it for granted that there was something called the truth and that it could be discovered.” Yet, at the same time as we’ve been discussing, the Lucian universe was mythmaking. So I wonder if that’s a resolvable tension, or if this is just part of his genius.

Lance Morrow: Well, particularly when Luce was alive and up into the 1960s and in the Vietnam time, it was classic for the correspondents in the field in this vast system of correspondent bureaus all over the world. The correspondents would file a great deal of information on stories that Time was going to publish. Then Time‘s editors and writers in the Time Life Building in New York would work these files and other research into stories for the magazine.

And you talk about tension between the hard facts and the myth. The classic tension was between what the correspondents regarded as the hard facts of the story and The New York office’s version, which the correspondents often bitterly contested. There was a famous case where Whittaker Chambers, the famous Whittaker Chambers of the Alger Hiss case, became the foreign editor around, I don’t know, ’45, ’46. And he would get files from the Moscow Bureau and the Paris Bureau and the London Bureau, and he would completely ignore them, and he would sit down in his office and write the story his way.

And he felt that the correspondents were naïve and fell for too many socialist or communist scenarios, and so Whittaker Chambers would write the story his ways. And then there was a revolt among the correspondents, Charlie Wharton Baker and Walter Grabner and others who went to Henry Luce and said, “This is an impossible situation. Our factual reporting is being ignored, and myths are being purveyed by Time Magazine.”

And of course, Time got into a lot of trouble from time to time over its slanting of the news and mythmaking and so on. But very often, Whittaker Chambers was right, and the correspondents were wrong, and Henry Luce was often correct. And especially the intellectuals, the left-wing, tending to be left-wing intellectuals who just loathed and despised Henry Luce. They often were wrong and were just flat-out wrong. And some of them had been Stalinists or Trotskyists in the 1930s, and they carried a lot of baggage themselves, some of them anyway.

Like Teddy White when he was out in Chongqing, in China, in the 1930s and during the war. Theodore H. White, who became a very famous author of the Making of the President series and so on, was a young protégé of Henry Luce, and when he was out in China, he was enamored of Mao Zedong and the Communists who were the idealistic, wonderful guys in the countryside. And Chiang Kai-shek was this corrupt guy that Luce had a completely disingenuous, almost reverence for, and that drove Teddy White crazy. So there was a terrific tension between Teddy White and Luce, and eventually they broke and Teddy White went his way. So that was part of the Luce story.

But the funny thing is that Luce, which was a kind of famous public version of Luce and the Luce story, but for all of that, most of the time he was extraordinarily tolerant of dissent in his ranks. And he could be persuaded time after time, if you had good arguments, he would let the story go, he’d let the story run. And he hired communists, he hired socialists, he hired, for example, James Agee and Ralph Ingersoll, who was one of his top men and went on to found PM a notorious or famous, very left wing newspaper. And Ingersoll, while he was the editor of Fortune, one night a week, he would go to a Marxist study group, which was kind of amusing.

And when finally Ingersoll decided that he wanted to start PM, the newspaper, the left wing newspaper, Henry Luce offered him a million dollars to stay, not to abandon Time Inc. And Ingersoll stuck to his guns and went and founded PM. But Luce was very tolerant of heterodox views in Time Magazine. Contrary to the view of story that is normally told, Luce was caricatured in a book by W.A. Swanberg in 1972 called, Luce and his Empire. And Swanberg was a thirties socialist out of Minnesota who absolutely loathed Luce. And he wrote this book with a great deal of hatred in his heart and committed all the sins of which he accused Luce, in distortion and so on. And that was kind of the parting word on Luce, unfortunately. My view is that Luce was much more important and much more interesting than he was remembered at the time, and certainly much more a better man than Swanberg made him out to be.

Brian Anderson: Now, you also have a fascinating chapter in this book looking at the celebrated work of American journalism, John Hersey’s Hiroshima. And you do so in a broader context than one normally encounters with that book. So in your chapter you discuss the Rape of Nanking, the Japanese barbarities and mass rapes of Chinese women and girls in 1937 and ’38, which may have wound up killing many more people than the Hiroshima bomb itself. I wonder if you could discuss a bit what you felt was lacking in Hersey’s treatment of Hiroshima? And is there a lesson there for today’s American journalists, who often seem most at home in a kind of mode of self-castigation?

Lance Morrow: Yeah, that certainly is true. Hersey became a sort of saint, and his Hiroshima is a very penitential book. It’s got a certain purity, which is quite moving. But when you look more closely at it, and then if you look at the surrounding history, yeah, I began to become skeptical. And while I admire the book on its own terms, I think that if you look at it with a certain perspective, you become less reverential about Hersey. This was a book that was published on the first anniversary of Hiroshima, that is published in August of 1946 by The New Yorker as the contents of one entire issue of The New Yorker. And it made a big sensation because it was kept secret, his project was secret until that issue of The New Yorker appeared, after appearing in that magazine, it was published as a book.

Hersey’s method was to interview a handful of victims upon whom the bomb had fallen. One of them was a German Jesuit and then another group of Japanese figures. He humanized them in many artful ways. He called them, “Mister,” and, “Sir,” with honorifics and so on. He made them very human and very sympathetic and he told what had happened. Well, an atom bomb fell on them, so you couldn’t help but be moved and horrified by what had happened to them. And they survived but suffered terribly. It was a devastating apocalyptic event and of course, it has changed world history and so on.

But there’s so many other dimensions to that moment that he does not discuss, that I believe influence the larger moral judgment that should be made about the event and the coverage and the way he wrote about it. As you mentioned a moment ago, during the Rape of Nanking in ’37, ’38, 300,000 Chinese were murdered very brutally. So savagely that you almost can’t conceive of the atrocity, you can’t conceive of human beings committing such atrocities, the many, many, many, many rapes. The suffering was absolutely terrible. And this went on for weeks and weeks.

Now, if John Hersey had gone to Nanking and had written a book detailing what happened there, I would argue that the American view and the worldview of the Japanese after the war would’ve been very different, and the occupation of Japan would’ve been, I think, arguably much harsher than it was. And I think it would’ve taken a generation or two. The Japanese were incredibly atrocious occupiers in Manila and then in what happened in Corregidor and Batan, and elsewhere.

If he had lavished the kind of detail upon that behavior that he lavished upon the bomb into Hiroshima, I think it would’ve, arguably, changed history. One of my theses in this book has to do with the way that journalism touches history or touched history in the 20th century. So while I admire John Hersey and his book, Hiroshima, I think it’s been granted a reverence that it is not quite entitled to, or at least one should look at it with an asterisk and say, “Well, yes, but.”

Brian Anderson: Now, Lance, speaking of journalism more broadly, near the end of the book, you described Time‘s 75th anniversary dinner, which was in 1998, and the many famous people who attended that dinner. Most of them at that time not realizing that Time‘s reign as this kind of collective power was near its end. And as you write, “New technologies were about to rearrange the world.” So here we are a quarter century later. What do you think about the world of new media today that has emerged? Do you see the losses outweighing the gains? Or do you have some hope about the future of journalism? And maybe address a little bit more of this question of the tension between myth and fact. Because today, as we’ve been chronicling a bit in City Journal, there is this kind of post-journalism that’s taking place, where facts are no longer really considered part of the picture.

Lance Morrow: Yeah, I don’t idealize the old journalism too much. I don’t. One tends to do that a little bit, but certainly it had its big limitations. But what’s happening in the 21st century, it seems, well, in the first place, difficult to understand because there are so many things going on simultaneously. And I think one could start with a couple of simple things. Famously, the greatest casualty of the 1960s, people said, was authority, the authority of parents, the authority of the president, the military, the religion, institutions, and so on.

If you look at The New York Times and its performance in the firing of James Bennett or the firing of Donald McNeil over what—I think the firings were way out of line, and there were revolts on the staff making demands. And so the management caved in. Well, it seemed to me that the failure of authority there was very clear. And that in the absence of an authority that has a sense of clarity about the truth and about the obligations of journalism, and about the standards of journalism, and about the limits of individual discretion of individual reporters who say, “I must tell my truth,” or something like that. There seems to be a large failure in that direction.

And then the influence of technology, there’s a convergence of various elements, the technology, the social media, the economic facts of life, which were transformative. I mean, for example, at Time Magazine, I remember vividly when it dawned on the business office, when the old Lucian authority, his control over both church and state, began to wane in the years after his death. And then it occurred to the business office that they could close the bureaus, and that they could just parachute a guy in, a woman in, with a laptop and a stay in a hotel room. And well, you lost a tremendous amount when you closed the bureaus. You lost a lot of knowledge of people who had been embedded there for a long time and had a Rolodex and knew everybody and knew the story.

And so a superficiality came to prevail. And they also began overworking the correspondents tremendously, and this is still true. There’s a tremendous imposition of seven days a week and they not only report, but they have to read, and so on. And simultaneously you have people so overworked that they sit at their desks and do most of their reporting with a mouse. They just do it on the screens, they hit websites and they do it by email, and interviews, for example, are done by email. Well, you lose a tremendous amount in losing the face-to-face by doing an interview by email because you send an email to the politician, he just gives it to his press secretary or legislative assistant, and they work out an answer and feed it back by email. And you’ve lost a great deal about the spontaneity and the train of follow-up questioning and so on.

I’m afraid I’m being scattershot about this because I see so many different elements at work all at once in the changes in journalism. I think a focusing event like the Ukraine War, for example, will tend to bring out the better qualities of journalism in the 21st century. Because you have such a vivid, demanding story and the politics are a bit at a distance when you talk about just the battle coverage and so on. And of course, people get badly hurt, like Ben Hall at Fox News had gotten very badly wounded early on in the war. But you see, there’s a lot of very good reporting going on. But there is this incredible tendency to let people just . . . politics and identity politics and wokeism and all that stuff has gotten in like an infection. And it’s just gone like wildfire through the old idea of objective reporting. And with the result, that you can often read things in The New York Times, for example, or The Washington Post and others. On the other side, sometimes Fox is guilty of these things, which you just don’t trust them anymore.

I used to trust The New York Times, and I don’t anymore, because so many of the media have adopted storylines. I talk in the book a lot about storylines, and they’ve adopted an intensely partisan point of view, which is almost a theology, it’s a belief system. They adopt belief systems, and anything that does not conform to the belief system has to be cast out and is to be regarded as heresy. Well, if you have journalism based on that kind of an almost fanaticism in some cases, then you are losing a very, very great deal in the possibility of getting toward the truth.

And particularly in political coverage, coverage of government and coverage of politics. One thing that sticks in my mind is the story of the border stuff. And when the guys, the border patrol were on horseback, and the Left’s coverage said that these guys had been using their long reins to whip these immigrants in the water. I think it was in The Rio Grande, actually. It was complete nonsense.

These guys were doing no such thing, and yet they conjured up a whole time and degree, the whole world of the atrocities of slavery and the cruelties and so on. And these are the myths, these instant exaggerations or the images that carry with them an entire world of meaning, moral meaning and ethnic meaning and so on. And so it’s very volatile.

I think back to the Vietnam War, and I think of Eddie Adams’ famous picture in 1968 in January or early February of ’68 during the Tet Offensive. And you remember the picture, Colonel Loan, who was the police chief of Saigon. And he pulled out a snub nose revolver and with a straight arm pointed it directly at the head of a Viet Cong and shot him dead right in the street there. And it was on the front page of every paper in the world.

And it became an iconic, as they say, image of the American. These are the brutes that we’re involved with. Well, Eddie Adams always felt guilty about that picture, because the stories did not tell the other half of the story. Which was that just up the street, just a little while before, this Viet Cong who was executed had himself executed the entire family of the best friend of Colonel Loan. And he’d executed them like the Romanovs in the basement and just shot them in a bloody mess on the floor in the basement. Well, if a picture, a photograph of that massacre of the family had appeared side by side with the picture of Colonel Loan executing the Viet Cong, world opinion would’ve been rather different. It’s a little like Hiroshima and Nanking.

Brian Anderson: Right. The full context is missing. Yeah.

Lance Morrow: Yeah, yeah.

Brian Anderson: Well, Lance Morrow, thank you very, very much. The new book is called The Noise of Typewriters. It’s available now on Amazon and will be out officially at the end of the month. You’ll be able to find it in bookstores as well. Don’t forget to check out Lance’s work on the City Journal website, We’ll link to his author page and website in the show description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter CityJournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And as always, if you like what you’ve heard on the podcast today, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. Lance Morrow, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you, and congratulations on the book.

Lance Morrow: Brian, thank you so much. Great to talk to you.

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