The Power of the Press

“Governmental actions should be neither secret nor unjust. . . . If we cannot get justice through the courts, every newspaper in the United States shall have the facts as we have them and then see what the opinion of the world will be.” osa Sutton [A Soul on Trial pgs. 183, 62]

Rosa Sutton’s statements reveal why this story mattered so much a century ago—and why it should now. The need for governmental transparency on matters unrelated to national security is central to democracy. In this case, the secret element was what was not examined and what was not said at the 1907 investigation into Sutton’s death (or what was not in the official record).  Secrecy is often behind a person’s alleged failure of memory when that failure is convenient. And Americans’ weapons against government reticence have long been their journalists.

In this case, an unknown Oregon housewife had opportunities in 1909 that her mother would not have had a generation earlier. At the end of the nineteenth century, the nation had become a neighborhood, and its newspapers proliferated. New modes of transportation and communication led to the exploding population of America’s cities. “Public opinion” was no longer confined to the educated middle classes—a vast urban and immigrant population now turned to morning, afternoon, and evening papers for information and entertainment. For reporters, the story of a heartbroken mother confronting a military bureaucracy proved irresistible; the paranormal aspects of the Sutton story only added to its potential to fascinate.

It was the job of the papers—the only media at that time—to be guardians of democracy and the legal system that is key to making democracy work. A century ago, men and women, including public figures, depended on the newspapers for the most basic information—even information about their own family members. Telephones were still not used widely. In a very real sense, the press corps became a third protagonist in this story.

Rosa Sutton’s story would compete for attention on the new wire services with the Wright brothers’ daring flights, urban calamities, or any one of several grisly criminal trials. All the major New York papers followed her campaign, including respectable ones such as the staid Evening Post and the New York Times, The case also stimulated the decade-old circulation war between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal.