There’s a profound sense of irony in that the information age has delivered unprecedented levels of visibility to every facet of human life and, at the same time, an impenetrable haze of obfuscation, misinformation, and distrust of the press. However, there have always been challenges to reporting on stories that matter, but that never held back those with the determination to do so — like these intrepid reporters from days past.
In 1885, following the passing of her father, an 18-year-old young woman read a column with the title “What Girls Are Good For.” The column proposed that working women, not simply being inappropriate, were in fact immoral. The piece, inimical to her character, roused up an impassioned written response that reached the desk of the editor. With that began the career of Nellie Bly.
Bly’s career was an uphill battle against sexism of the Victorian era, but she managed to continue to break major stories. Struggling to gain access early in her career, her first major scoop came from a report on the insane ward at Blackwell Island. Bly faked insanity to be admitted and then reported on the conditions around her. Her piece documented misdiagnosis, bizarre and inhumane “treatments” that mirrored water boarding, and forced isolation. After 10 days in the asylum, an attorney from "The World" (the publication for which she was writing) arranged for her release, and the story broke shortly afterwards. A month later, Bly returned with a grand jury panel to oversee improvements at Blackwell.
Bly went on to write on social issues such as the plight of orphans, cruelty in zoos and homelessness. In 1889, she set off on a journey around the world in 72 days as another challenge to Victorian conventions of womanhood. Her career was marked by pushing boundaries and uncovering injustice.
In his rise to prolific journalism, Seymour Hersh embodied the archetype of a pavement-pounding reporter with gumption. Hersh was born into a lower-middle-class Jewish family in a black neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. He didn’t have family ties to the press or an in to Ivy League education. However, he was relentless and resourceful, and he possessed an uncanny ability to mingle in unfamiliar circles.
Hersh made his way through junior college, then on to the University of Chicago and started his career in reporting in his home town. Early on, Hersh encountered instances of police corruption and self-censorship in the press. These early experiences drove Hersh down a path of investigative journalism with an inextinguishable drive to uncover hidden abuses of power. Throughout his career, Hersh covered everything from birth control to racial strife.
As his career progressed, Hersh tackled bigger fish. The first major story that he broke involved Pentagon research into chemical and biological warfare (CBW). He followed paper trails and inside sources to reveal a harrowing arsenal of destruction, but his story was buried by the AP wire. Determined to get the news out, Hersh went to "The New Republic" to publish the story, which ignited student protests when it finally hit. With the CBW behind him, Hersh went on to reveal the gravity of the My Lai massacre in South Vietnam, once again sending shock waves throughout the world.
Hersh continues his career into the present day, reporting on stories from corporate corruption to the Syrian Civil War.
Edward R. Murrow
“Good night and good luck.”
Such were the words of a singular voice speaking to a concerned public throughout a time of darkness. Multiple Peabody and Grammy award winner, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire, Edward R. Murrow is regarded as one of the greatest figures of journalism in history.
Murrow started his career reporting on WWII. He flew in over 20 bombing missions over Berlin and broke the story of the atrocities at German concentration camps. Throughout the war, Murrow coined his famous sign-off, which, unbeknownst to him, had been heard by most of the country. When Murrow returned from the war, he was already a national public figure. He was asked to host a television news show (“See It Now”), one of the first of its kind, while he also worked on a radio broadcast (“Hear It Now”).
As a radio and TV host, Murrow stood for and reported on the lives of everyday Americans. His pieces often provided poignant commentary on political and social issues. As the Cold War progressed, one of the salient issues he began to tackle was McCarthyism and the Red Scare. After reporting on individual cases of wrongful censures, Murrow launched a lengthy investigation for a report on Joseph McCarthy himself. When the piece was broadcast, it painted McCarthy as a fanatic, sent tremors through his hold on the nation, and led to the end of both of their careers. McCarthy lost his hold on the nation, and Murrow’s relationship with CBS was severed shortly after.
However, his work hardly went unnoticed, and President Kennedy appointed Murrow as the Head of the U.S. Information Agency, where he spent the end of his career before his death in 1965.
Cover image credit: microgen/ Shutterstock