(The following article originally appeared in the July 7, 1993 issue of the now-defunct Lower East Side alternative weekly, Downtown).
The historical origins of A.P. go back to 1848 when six Downtown Manhattan daily newspaper publishers, led by New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett, decided to share the telegraph costs of news-gathering and, thus, reduce their individual newspaper news-gathering costs. As then-Boston Globe publisher General Taylor said in 1900:
“Mr. Bennett called the other newspaper proprietors together and proposed that they take a [telegraph] report of two hours and divide the expenses. That was the origin of The Associated Press.”
But Bennett, like A.P., was never too famous for either the quality of his journalism work or for using the special influence he possessed in the world of Downtown Manhattan journalism to promote equal rights for African-American people and the radical democratization of U.S. society. As The Early Black Press In America, 1827 to 1860 by Frankie Hutton recalled:
“In particular, the New York Herald founded by James Gordon Bennett in 1835, said to be one of the most profitable newspapers of its time, was criticized as being such poor journalism as to `vitiate all correct tastes, corrupt all the social and moral habits, and morally degrade human beings.’ Bennett had no qualms about using violent and sensational news to sell his newspaper…”
And, in his Bennett’s `New York Herald’ and The Rise Of The Popular Press book, James Crouthamel asserts that “Bennett was consistent in defending the rights of the South and its institutions of slavery,, in his belief in Negro inferiority and in his view that the antislavery movement was the major threat” and “consistent with his belief in Negro inferiority Bennett opposed extension of the franchise to blacks and integrated education in the North.”
By the 1870s, around 200 U.S. newspapers were utilizing the A.P. wire service to secure international news and national news by telegraph for their readers, without having to hire their own national and foreign correspondents. As a result, according to Development of American Journalism by Sidney Kobre, by the 1870s “control of the wire service meant that someone might shape the thinking of newspaper readers everywhere.” And, in fact, during this period “a handful of men in charge of the monopoly” apparently fabricated A.P. news on occasion whenever it dealt with politics, economics or other controversial issues, according to A.P., The Story Of News by Oliver Gramling.
Around this time, the original Downtown Manhattan newspaper publishers-dominated A.P. began calling itself “United Press.” Later in the 19th-century, a competing news-gathering wire service organization—the Associated Press [A.P.] of Illinois—was established by rival Midwestern newspaper publishers which came to replace the original A.P./”United Press” organization. As a result, in 1893 the Associated Press [A.P.] of Illinois was reorganized as a national press association, with the name of “Associated Press [A.P.],” under a revised set of rules. Following an adverse Illinois court decision, the A.P. was again reorganized as a New York-chartered non-profit cooperative in 1900.
Between 1900 and the early 1940s, “nearly all newspapers which took membership in it were guaranteed that no newspaper that might later be established in their respective cities would be permitted to join the national Associated Press without the consent of The Associated Press members in those cities” and “the promise of exclusivity was considered by all members to be a `franchise’ and that is what they called it…,” according to Kent Cooper And The Associated Press: An Autobiography. Led by newspaper publisher E.W. Scripps, however, those newspaper publishers who were denied the right to print A.P. news because a local A.P.-affiliated competing newspaper already held the A.P. “franchise” in their cities organized a competing news agency wire service in the U.S.—United Press—in the early 20th century.
But after the A.P. board of directors refused to allow the Chicago Sun to join the A.P. and publish A.P.-furnished news in Chicago in the early 1940s, the Department of Justice finally prosecuted the A.P. for violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. A federal court then found A.P. guilty and the A.P. News Trust’s board of directors was forced to discontinue its policy of allowing A.P.-affiliated newspapers to monopolize the printing of A.P.-furnished news items in each U.S. city. In the early 1940s, the A.P. also began to furnish its regular news report to radio stations, instead of just to newspaper subscribers.
The Ochs-Sulzberger Dynasty’s New York Times apparently relied heavily on its A.P.-provided copy during the early part of the 20th century, before it became as lucrative a media operation as it was in the 1990s. According to former A.P. Executive Director Kent Cooper, New York Times publisher Sulzberger’s great-grandfather—Adolph Ochs—once said the following with regard to A.P.:
“I owe more loyalty to the Associated Press than I can express. For when I bought the New York Times, with its Associated Press membership, I had no money left with which to buy special correspondence. So the New York Times reached prosperity practically on The Associated Press news service alone. Though we now spend a great deal for our own specials, The Associated Press still remains our prime reliance. Therefore, for the property value the New York Times has now become, I owe most to the Associated Press."
In the late 1950s, A.P.’s United Press competitor in the U.S. took over the Hearst media empire’s International News Service to form United Press International [U.P.I.]. But by 1985, U.P.I. was facing financial bankruptcy, in part “because the A.P. reaped so much more revenue from newspapers it could engage in never-ending price wars to woo away U.P.I. broadcast clients,” according to Down To The Wire: U.P.I.’s Fight For Survival by Gergory Gordon and Ronald Cohen. The same book also noted that “as U.P.I. had shriveled A.P. had grown, its budget soaring toward $300 million a year.” And as the New York Times (8/26/91) also noted, in 1991 U.P.I. was again on the verge of bankruptcy due, in part, to the “competition from A.P.” which had “squeezed U.P.I.’s revenues”—until the Saudi royal family decided to purchase U.P.I. in 1992. (end of part 4)
Next: The A.P. News Trust’s Special Influence: A 1990s Look At The Associated Press—Part 5