James Gordon Bennett

The Scottish-born American journalist James Gordon Bennett (1795-1872) developed editorial techniques that promoted readership and freed the press of its need for financial support from political parties and other special-interest groups.

James Gordon Bennett was born near Keith, Banffshire, Scotland, on Sept. 1, 1795. In his early 20s he migrated to Nova Scotia, where he taught briefly before going to the United States to work for a Boston book publisher. Bennett went to New York City, then Charleston, S.C., where he worked as a translator for the newspaper Courier. He soon returned north and worked for the New York Courier. Twice Bennett tried to launch a paper of his own, but each time his paper failed for lack of political support. These rejections caused him to turn his back on political patronage as being too uncertain and demeaning.

In 1835, at the age of 40, with $500 as working capital, Bennett launched the New York Herald, the paper that made him famous. An excessively egotistical man, he wanted to be the Shakespeare of journalism. By five each morning he was at his desk—a plank supported by two barrels. Brilliant but brassy, he issued a saucy, informative sheet and used sensational techniques, particularly in the Robinson-Jewett murder case, which was a sordid affair.

Bennett, who had a compulsion to be first with the news, initiated daily Wall Street reports, sent small boats out to intercept oceangoing vessels for news, initiated the society page, and was the first to use the telegraph extensively for news coverage. He insisted that advertisers change their ads frequently, a policy that skyrocketed consumer sales and caused merchants seeking similar results to flock to the Herald. He collected in advance.

Bennett's pugnacious writing and his flair for self-promotion frequently got him into trouble. He suffered severe beatings in the streets for inglorious references to his enemies. Twice he was mauled and caned by a former employer, and a few years later a Wall Street broker used a horsewhip on him. In 1850 a defeated political candidate and his two brothers knocked Bennett down and beat him as his wife watched helplessly. Finally Mrs. Bennett could no longer bear the pressures and the street indignities, and she fled to Europe with the three Bennett children.

In 1867 Bennett turned over the operation of the Herald to his son, James Gordon Bennett, Jr. The elder Bennett visited the office frequently, then kept in touch by direct telegraph wire until June 1, 1872, when he died in his sleep.

Though so abrasive in life that he was a social outcast, Bennett was praised after death. His old opponent Horace Greeley said that Bennett's success was due to personal journalism. The New York Sun more shrewdly remarked that Bennett emancipated the press "from the domination of sects, parties, and cliques…."

Further Reading on James Gordon Bennett

Biographies of Bennett include Don C. Seitz, The James Gordon Bennetts: Father and Son, Proprietors of the New York Herald (1928), and Oliver Carlson, The Man Who Made News: James Gordon Bennett (1942). Interesting aspects are treated in Richard O'Connor, The Scandalous Mr. Bennett (1962). Other helpful works are Oswald Garrison Villard, Some Newspapers and Newspaper-Men (1923; rev. ed. 1926); Willard Grosvenor Bleyer, Main Currents in the History of American Journalism (1927); and Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism (1941; 3d ed. 1962), which offers a concise account of Bennett.

Additional Biography Sources

Fermer, Douglas, James Gordon Bennett and the New York herald: a study of editorial opinion in the Civil War era, 1854-1867, London: Royal Historical Society; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.

Herd, Harold, Seven editors, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Seitz, Don Carlos, The James Gordon Bennetts: father & son, proprietors of the New York Herald, New York, Beekman Publishers, 1974.