David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers is, of course, about aviation, but a few passages made me think about journalism.
After the Dec. 17, 1903 maiden flight of the Wright Flyer, the news coverage was, at least looking back more than a century later, embarrassing. Newspapers either whiffed on the story of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s historic achievement entirely or got major facts wrong.
The Wrights, who made their first successful engine-powered flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C., actually offered the story to their hometown papers back in Dayton, Ohio, where they operated a bicycle shop and had designed the plane. After his successful flight, Orville sent a telegraph home to his sister, Katharine, and older brother, Lorin:
SUCCESS FOUR FLIGHTS THURSDAY MORNING ALL AGAINST TWENTY ONE MILE WIND STARTED FROM LEVEL WITH ENGINE POWER ALONE AVERAGE SPEED THROUGH AIR TWENTY ONE MILES LONGEST 57 SECONDS INFORM PRESS HOME FOR CHRISTMAS.
McCullough details the media coverage in Chapter Six:
It had been agreed earlier at home that were Wilbur and Orville to succeed at Kitty Hawk, Lorin, acting as press agent, would immediately notify the local papers and the Associated Press. So once Katharine had delivered their ‘SUCCESS’ telegram to him, Lorin took it downtown to the city editor at the Dayton Daily Journal, Frank Tunison, who also represented the Associated Press.
Tunison read the telegram and showed no interest. ‘Fifty-seven seconds, hey?” he said. “If it had been fifty-seven minutes, then it might have been a news item.’
No mention was made of the story in the Journal the following day, though it did get brief attention in the Dayton Daily News on an inside page. Elsewhere in the country, a ludicrously inaccurate account of what the brothers had done got much play as a result of a story that appeared on the front page of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot under a banner headline: ‘FLYING MACHINE SOARS 3 MILES IN TEETH OF HIGH WIND OVER HILLS AND WAVES AT KITTY HAWK ON CAROLINA COAST.’
On the afternoon they had sent their telegram from the Kitty Hawk weather station, the brothers had specifically told the operator on duty, Joseph Dosher, that its content was confidential. When the operator at the Norfolk station asked if he could share the news with a friend at the Virginian-Pilot, the brothers had Dosher cable back, ‘POSITIVELY NO.’
It had made no difference. From the scant solid information contained in the telegram, the Virginian-Pilot editors concocted an account that was almost entirely contrived.
McCullough detailed the factual errors in the story, including length and altitude of the flight, the description of the plane and a claim that Wilbur had said “Eureka!” after the flight. Variations of the Virginian-Pilot story were published by other newspapers, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Cincinnati Enquirer, McCullough wrote, “but little happened as a consequence.”
The brothers returned to Dayton after making their first historic flights on North Carolina’s windy Outer Banks. They continued flying, perfecting the machine and their handling of it, in a field outside Dayton called the Huffman Prairie, observed by local residents but still not covered by the newspapers. More from McCullough:
Little more than a week later, on September 15, (Wilbur) flew fully half a mile but for the first time succeeded in turning a half circle, a major achievement.
Not one reporter bothered to attend during this time. …
Writing his autobiography later, James Cox, publisher of the Dayton Daily News, remembered reports coming ‘to our office that the airship had been in the air over the Huffman Prairie … but our news staff would not believe the stories. Nor did they ever take the pains to go out and see.’ Nor did Cox.
When the city editor of the Daily News, Dan Kumler, was asked later why for so long nothing was reported of the momentous accomplishments taking place so nearby, he said after a moment’s reflection, ‘I guess the truth is that we were just plain dumb.’
The first detailed, accurate account of the Wright brothers’ flying success was written by Amos Ives Root, who drove 200 miles to Dayton from Medina, a town near Cleveland, on primitive roads in an Oldsmobile Runabout to talk to the Wrights and see their machine fly. He made and sold beekeeping supplies and published, and wrote a column for, a trade journal, Gleanings in Bee Culture. Again from McCullough:
It was to be he of all people, the Ohio bee man, who would recognize as no one yet had the genius of the Wrights and the full importance of their flying machine.
Root worked his sources well, corresponding with the Wrights in February, 1904, after their return to Ohio. Finally, in mid-August, the Wrights told him they were ready to fly again. The machine did not perform as well as the brothers had hoped during Root’s visit, and he agreed not to write about it yet. In September, the Wrights invited him to return and he arrive on Sept. 20. That day, for the first time, Wilbur flew their airplane in a complete circle.
Root was excited at what he saw:
God in his great mercy has permitted me to be, at least somewhat instrumental in ushering in and introducing to the great wide world an invention that may outrank electric cars, the automobile … and … may fairly take a place beside the telephone and wireless telegraphy. …
I recognized at once they were really scientific explorers who were serving the world in much the same way that Columbus had when he discovered America.
Root described the flight and Wilbur’s “skillful management” of the machine in great detail:
When it first turned that circle, and came near the starting point, I was right in front of it, and I said then, and I believe still, it was one of the grandest sights, if not the grandest sight, of my life.
Root didn’t publish his account immediately. He returned to Dayton in December with a draft “to read aloud what he had written in advance of publication” and ensure its accuracy, McCullough wrote, adding that it’s not known what, if any, changes the Wrights suggested.
Root published the column in Gleanings in Bee Culture in January 1905. He offered it free to the editor of Scientific American. The editor blew it off, McCullough wrote, and a year later the magazine wrote skeptically of the achievement in an article titled “The Wright Aeroplane and Its Fabled Performances”:
If such sensational and tremendously important experiments are being conducted in a not very remote part of the country, on a subject in which almost everybody feels the most profound interest, is it possible to believe that the enterprising American reporter, who, it is well known, comes down the chimney when the door is locked in his face … would not have ascertained all about them and published … long ago?
McCullough added wryly:
The thought that Amos Root was the ‘enterprising reporter’ apparently never entered the editor’s mind.
I don’t want to dwell further on the mistakes made by journalists of the past century. So I’ll just ask these questions to journalists today:
- Would you recognize a historic story happening in your community today? How would you cover it?
- What story that someone’s press agent dropped in your lap have you misjudged?
- What stories submitted to you by enterprising reporters have you misjudged?
- What niche publication (or blog) is beating you on an important story that you should be covering?
- If you did recognize the historic story happening in your territory, would the facts you reported stand up under a historian’s examination?
- Do you have sources good enough to tip you off to stories, even when the primary sources want to steer the story to someone else?
- Do you just crank out a story from a tip, or do you dig deeper to learn the facts you don’t know and get interviews with the primary sources?
- Do you get out of the office and into the field to find, witness and cover the interesting stories unfolding in your community and beyond?
- Are you patient enough to develop a relationship with a source that may not pay off in a story for months?
- What are the dumb things you’re doing today to miss big stories?
- Would you share a story with a source in advance of publication to ensure its accuracy?
- How can you change how you work to avoid regrets and embarrassment when you look back on today?
Correction: I had the wrong dates (21st Century, instead of 20th, embarrassingly) in a couple instances in the original version of this post.
More to come: I wrote this post after reading about the press coverage of the first flight. But I wasn’t finished with the book. More observations about press coverage continue in the book, and I’ll post again after I’ve finished.