Press Warrior: Richard Harding Davis

Richard Harding Davis portrait, c. 1890

Richard Harding Davis

The title of this Cavalcade of America wartime episode, “Soldier of a Free Press” (1942), certainly describes Richard Harding Davis, star reporter from the Spanish American War through World War I. The radio broadcast’s brief biography of the most famous war reporter of a century ago, superficial and gung-ho though it may be, could be a good starting point for a classroom  discussion of media ethics in any era.

Do a reporter’s loyalties lie with some abstract concept of journalism, or with his or her nation (at least in time of war), or with a media organization? The latter loyalty may be rare today, after a century of consolidations, convergences and careers that flip-flop between press and publicity. Devotion to a particular newspaper or to the news business itself may have been stronger in Davis’s day.

The text below, the opening of Davis’s fictional story “The Reporter Who Made Himself King,”  captures a sense of enthusiasm for newspaper journalism that also may be rare now. I think it summarizes old-time reporters’ attitudes that are echoed in many of the radio programs I’m posting here about journalists, real and fictional.

Davis’s full Reporter/King story is available at various places online. I’ve seen no evidence that it was ever dramatized for radio, and “Soldier of a Free Press” from Cavalcade is the only Davis biography I’ve found in radio archives. However, the stories of other real-life “Soldiers of the Press” were broadcast often during World War II — that was even the title of a radio series dramatizing the lives of United Press correspondents in the 1940s. I’ll be getting to them in future episodes of this blog and podcast.

For now, here is an excerpt from Davis’s tale of a young reporter’s adventures — with a couple of passages in bold for your attention, including one 100-word sentence that demonstrates a decidedly pre-Internet, multi-semicolon writing style, but still does its job:

Davis, Richard Harding, 1864-1916. The Reporter Who Made Himself King, from full text at the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia

The Old Time Journalist will tell you that the best reporter is the one who works his way up. He holds that the only way to start is as a printer’s devil or as an office boy, to learn in time to set type, to graduate from a compositor into a stenographer, and as a stenographer take down speeches at public meetings, and so finally grow into a real reporter, with a fire badge on your left suspender, and a speaking acquaintance with all the greatest men in the city, not even excepting Police Captains.

That is the old time journalist’s idea of it. That is the way he was trained, and that is why at the age of sixty he is still a reporter. If you train up a youth in this way, he will go into reporting with too full a knowledge of the newspaper business, with no illusions concerning it, and with no ignorant enthusiasms, but with a keen and justifiable impression that he is not paid enough for what he does. And he will only do what he is paid to do.

Now, you cannot pay a good reporter for what he does, because he does not work for pay. He works for his paper. He gives his time, his health, his brains, his sleeping hours, and his eating hours, and sometimes his life, to get news for it. He thinks the sun rises only that men may have light by which to read it. But if he has been in a newspaper office from his youth up, he finds out before he becomes a reporter that this is not so, and loses his real value. He should come right out of the University where he has been doing “campus notes” for the college weekly, and be pitchforked out into city work without knowing whether the Battery is at Harlem or Hunter’s Point, and with the idea that he is a Moulder of Public Opinion and that the Power of the Press is greater than the Power of Money, and that the few lines he writes are of more value in the Editor’s eyes than is the column of advertising on the last page, which they are not.

After three years — it is sometimes longer, sometimes not so long — he finds out that he has given his nerves and his youth and his enthusiasm in exchange for a general fund of miscellaneous knowledge, the opportunity of personal encounter with all the greatest and most remarkable men and events that have risen in those three years, and a  great fund of resource and patience. He will find that he has crowded the experiences of the lifetime of the ordinary young business man, doctor, or lawyer, or man about town, into three short years; that he has learned to think and to act quickly, to be patient and unmoved when everyone else has lost his head, actually or figuratively speaking; to write as fast as another man can talk, and to be able to talk with authority on matters of which other men do not venture even to think until they have read what he has written with a copy-boy at his elbow on the night previous.

It is necessary for you to know this, that you may understand what manner of man young Albert Gordon was.

Young Gordon had been a reporter just three years. He had left Yale when his last living relative died, and had taken the morning train for New York, where they had promised him reportorial work on one of the innumerable Greatest New York Dailies. He arrived at the office at noon, and was sent back over the same road on which he had just come, to Spuyten Duyvil, where a train had been wrecked and everybody of consequence to suburban New York killed. One of the old reporters hurried him to the office again with his “copy,” and after he had delivered that, he was  sent to the Tombs to talk French to a man in Murderers’ Row, who could not talk anything else, but who had shown some international skill in the use of a jimmy. And at eight, he covered a flower-show in Madison Square Garden; and at eleven was sent over the Brooklyn Bridge in a cab to watch a fire and make guesses at the losses to the insurance companies.

He went to bed at one, and dreamed of shattered locomotives, human beings lying still with blankets over them, rows of cells, and banks of beautiful flowers nodding their heads to the tunes of the brass band in the gallery. He decided when he awoke the next morning that he had entered upon a picturesque and exciting career, and as one day followed another, he became more and more convinced of it, and more and more devoted to it. He was twenty then, and he was now twenty-three, and in that time had become a great reporter, and had been to Presidential conventions in Chicago, revolutions in Hayti, Indian outbreaks on the Plains, and midnight meetings of moonlighters in Tennessee, and had seen what work earthquakes, floods, fire, and fever could do in great cities, and had contradicted the President, and borrowed matches from burglars. And now he thought he would like to rest and breathe a bit, and not to work again unless as a war correspondent.

The only obstacle to his becoming a great war correspondent lay in the fact that there was no war, and a war correspondent without a war is about as absurd an individual as a general without an army. He read the papers every morning on the elevated trains for war clouds; but though there were many war clouds, they always drifted apart, and peace smiled again. This was very disappointing to young Gordon, and he became more and more keenly discouraged.

And then as war work was out of the question, he decided to write his novel. It was to be a novel of New York life, and he wanted a quiet place in which to work on it. He was already making inquiries among the suburban residents of his acquaintance for just such a quiet spot, when he received an offer to go to the Island of Opeki in the North Pacific Ocean, as secretary to the American consul at that place…

See full story.


Other sources:
Richard Harding Davis: Adventures and Letters at Virginia.edu and Google e-book version.


Footnote — While the “Reporter Who Made Himself King” passage sounds like an endorsement of a naive college-boy introduction to journalism, Davis himself is a special case. He was a second-generation journalist on both sides: His mother Rebecca Harding Davis was a reporter for Horace Greeley‘s Tribune as well as a writer of fiction; his father, Lemuel Clarke Davis, was editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger.


Another of Richard Harding Davis’s fictional creations, a copyboy-turned-reporter named Gallegher, briefly made it to television in the 1960s as a Disney mini-series. TV episode summaries and a copy of Davis’s first Gallegher story are available here at FlyingDreams.org

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.
This entry was posted in 1900s, 19th century, foreign correspondents, international, journalism, newspapers, reporters. Bookmark the permalink.

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