The Top 100 Works of Journalism in the United States in the 20th Century

MessaGe (German media magazine) 1/1999

Mitchell Stephens

Acting Chairman, Department of Journalism, New York University

Author: "the rise of the image the fall of the word," "A History of News"

 

"Top hundred" lists of all sorts had begun to pop up in this country before we decided to work on our list: the top hundred English-language novels of the century, the top hundred movies. But lists of favorite novels or movies are often compiled – in dormitory rooms, at dinner parties. Journalism is not often discussed in this way. Works of journalism are not often compared across decades. And some of the best works of journalism – great investigative books, for example, or dramatic magazine articles -- are not always placed under the heading of journalism. We thought we had an opportunity to begin an important discussion of what makes for excellence, enduring excellence, in journalism – at a time when journalism’s failings receive most of the attention.

From the moment we began putting together the group of seventeen distinguished outside judges, who would join with the faculty of the Department of Journalism and New York University in selecting our list, there was little doubt about which work was most likely to finish first. Most of us guessed it would be the exhaustively reported, finely detailed and hauntingly understated account the accomplished reporter (and later successful novelist) John Hersey produced on the consequences of the atomic bomb dropped by the United States on the Japanese city Hiroshima. It is still assigned reading in American high schools. Its effect on this country when it was first published in 1946 was profound. "This spare, uninflected, factual account brought home to America the experience of nuclear war by telling the stories of some of its victims," noted Robert Manoff, director of the Center for War, Peace and the News Media at New York University. "The New Yorker magazine devoted a full issue to it, and it caused a sensation."

"Hiroshima" can be said to be the founding document of the anti-nuclear movement. The second item on our list, again no surprise, played a crucial role in launching the environmental movement. The deleterious effects of pesticides such as DDT were rarely discussed when in 1962 Rachel Carson, a nature writer, published, again in The New Yorker, the articles that were collected in the book "Silent Spring." Journalists do not often change the way their readers think. Carson helped many Americans realize that our spot-free apples and bug-free crops were not without cost – to birds, animals, streams and humans.

Impact was clearly one of the most important standards our judges used in selecting the 270 or so works that were nominated for our list and then the final one hundred. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were two not particularly successful local reporters on the Washington Post when they began covering what seemed a minor break-in at the Watergate apartment complex in Washington in 1972. They stayed with the story. By the time they were done they were probably the best-known journalists in the country (played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the movie of their book, "All the President’s Men"); the Washington Post had established itself as the second most influential newspaper in the United States (after the New York Times); and the country’s president, Richard Nixon, had been forced to resign because of his efforts to cover-up his administration’s involvement in that break-in. That’s impact. Would the cover-up have been discovered without Woodward and Bernstein? Historians debate the point. But there is no debate about the doggedness, insight and power of their reporting.

It took courage to take on a president – courage on the part of those two reporters and their newspaper. Courage was another of the qualities much valued by our judges.

Radio and television journalism were not well represented on our list – an fair indication of their reputation in America today. However, three of our top eleven works were by the revered CBS radio and television correspondent Edward R. Murrow: His television documentary exposing the conditions of migrant farm workers in the United States, "Harvest of Shame" (1960) finished eleventh. Another television documentary, also produced with Fred Friendly, courageously taking on the redbaiting senator, Joseph McCarthy, (1954) was tenth. And Murrow’s unusually compelling radio news reports during the bombing of London in 1940, which played a significant role in alerting Americans to the Nazi threat, were judged our fourth best work of the century.

In 1902 an issue of McClure’s magazine featured the first installment of two major investigations. Together these magazine series helped establish the golden age of "muckraking," or investigative reporting, in the United States. One, Ida Tarbell’s historical investigation of the monopolistic practices of John Rockefeller’s Standard Oil company, finished fifth on our list. The other, Lincoln Steffens’ series on municipal corruption in the United States, finished sixth. Both played a major role in the Progressive movement in the United States. Both led to major reforms – in the oil business, in city government. Not enough reforms, Steffens argued.

Perhaps the most controversial work on our list is the seventh, John Reed’s book, "Ten Days That Shook the World," reporting on the October revolution in Russia in 1917. Yes, as conservative critics have noted, Reed was a partisan. Yes, historians would do better. But this was probably the most consequential news story of the century, and Reed was there, and Reed could write. The magnitude of the event being reported on and the quality of the writing were other important standards in our considerations.

Two of the country’s most respected journalists finished eighth and ninth on our list: H. L. Mencken and Ernie Pyle. Mencken – a hard-bitten, incisive critic with a remarkably wide vocabulary – was honored for his devastating account of a legal challenge to the teaching of evolution in the schools in 1925; Pyle for his emotional, detailed and wonderfully human reports from Europe and the Pacific during World War II. Again, exceptionally good writers covering crucial stories. And one measure of Pyle’s courage is that he was killed while reporting on a battle in the Pacific.

This list was never intended as the last word on the subject. We realize that all such list have a degree of arbitrariness. The comparisons upon which they are based are difficult, in some sense impossible. However, our list has led to a lively debate on what makes for quality in journalism. (For example: Can broadcast journalists today produce work on this level? Is it necessary to crusade and take on the establishment to produce great journalism?) This list has also inspired many students, journalists and others to revisit work they may have missed. That is all we could have asked.