The more things change, the more they stay the same.
A review of Mr. Associated Press: Kent Cooper and the Twentieth-Century World of New by Gene Allen
In Mr. Associated Press, Gene Allen investigates the Associated Press (AP) and its trajectory from a pony express news agency founded in 1846 to the international stage, by way of the person most responsible for that transformation, Kent Cooper (1880-1965). As exceptional as every era believes itself to be, the history chronicled in these pages reveals that many of the problems currently facing the media and the public’s relationship to it are reiterations of the past. Some one hundred years on, Allen—a professor emeritus of journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University—analyzes Cooper’s time in the news industry and spotlights evergreen issues, including the politicization, polarization, and corporatization of the news.
Allen’s deep dive into Associated Press archives and survey of the broader news industry from the 19th century onward illuminates Cooper’s ambitions for the AP, and consequent impact on national and global news making. Highlighting historical facts and perspectives, showcasing a who’s who in the news industry, Mr. Associated Press could easily serve as required reading for journalism students. Bridging gaps of knowledge from one decade to the next, it offers insights into how an upstart news route expanded to cover the world, and why journalism—rightly or wrongly—has become nearly synonymous with “the media.” Moreover, it addresses fundamental questions about the profession, such as, “Does competition produce better journalism, or a race to the bottom?” and “Can journalism fulfill a public service role while competing in the economic marketplace?”
The propaganda and fake news that stemmed from party politics in Cooper’s day were the basis of his calls for accuracy in reporting. Peddling the phrase “the right to know,” Cooper found a home in the Associated Press, the news agency that still lays claim to “advancing the power of facts.” Over the course of 41 years, Cooper moved through AP’s ranks as senior executive, general manager, and lastly, as executive director from 1925 to 1948. The AP is the United States’ largest, most senior 24-hour news cooperative, working in one hundred countries. Although Cooper was pivotal in this achievement, under his direction, AP’s growth was more of a roller coaster ride than a steady ascent.
Said to be a man of convictions, convenience and career aims played a part in just how tightly Cooper held them. Such was the case in the lead-up to World War II when AP coverage of the Nazis deliberately lagged. Louis Lochner, head of AP’s Berlin bureau, purportedly wanted to give the Nazi Party a fair shot. Leaning on AP’s reputation for “fairness, integrity, and objectivity,” Lochner and Cooper justified Nazi media control and censorship as a trade-off for permission to stay in Germany while other foreign reporters were being harassed or ousted. AP reports that minimized Nazi crimes and the regime’s hostile treatment of the international press only came to an end once Germany declared war on the United States in 1941. Lochner’s and Cooper’s refusals to denounce the Nazi Party and Nazi-controlled media led to accusations of Nazi sympathy. While Cooper, Lochner, and the AP may not have been Nazi sympathizers, Cooper’s public stance against government-censored media and “the right to know,” unsurprisingly, took a hit.
Allen writes that, despite this, Cooper continued to focus on censorship, and was quick to call out other governments for suppressing facts. At the same time, Cooper maintained a policy to work with authoritarian regimes in countries to which AP reporters were dispatched. This came at a cost. AP reporters, he’d argued, were guests, and the only way to avoid expulsion was to defer to host country rules and laws. Though the tact was diplomatic, such deference led to reporters succumbing to self-censorship, and to Cooper appearing to have exchanged his professed anti-censorship philosophy for the sake of AP expansion.
Cooper’s determination to overtake AP’s primary competitor, United Press (established 1907), resulted in his decision to create other categories of “news” within AP’s standard coverage. Infotainment, including celebrity and sports “news,” lifestyle and human-interest stories, and photography, were brought alongside rigidly vetted reports, shifting towards a market-driven approach to media.
Opening journalism to other genres proved lucrative, and Cooper’s foresight put photojournalism, for example, on the map. AP’s Wirephoto service is 87 years strong with a growing collection of more than 35 million images. Until AT&T developed technology to transmit photos over telephone lines, photos had to be mailed. With the 1927 launch of this new service, photos sped between the East and West Coasts in seven minutes. Pushing against naysayers concerned with costs, Cooper managed to get his way by promising that AP would do things better and cheaper than any competitor. Early to embrace innovation, Cooper has been credited with prepping the AP for the digital age.
Another progressive move was Cooper’s decision to bring women journalists into the male-dominated field. By today’s standards, hiring eight women over a span of six years (1926-1931) would seem a mere token. In 1927, however, Cooper was “lavishly praised” at an AP annual meeting for his courage and resourcefulness.
For his entire career, Cooper publicly cast himself as an unwavering advocate for a censorship-free press. Highly competitive, he was also a staunch defender of the free market. Wielding accuracy and political impartiality in AP messaging, Cooper drew criticism from the left who accused him of Republican nepotism, as being beholden to wealth and big business. Though he never made public pronouncements on his political affiliation, Cooper was alleged to be a lifelong Republican.
Allen does not make clear whether Cooper suffered any sleepless nights over his conflicting positions, but his book raises questions about how public service ethics square up with big business. Curiously, throughout Mr. Associated Press Allen returns to describing Cooper as faithful to AP’s mission, an assessment that seems based on Cooper’s own definition of journalistic objectivity. For Cooper, objectivity equated to impartial reporting on the American two-party political system. Analyzing this within the context of the times—hyper-partisan reporting dominated much of the 19th and early 20th century news scene—it was a groundbreaking ideal.
Under Cooper’s leadership, advances for the AP and “the news” more broadly were undeniable, but his leadership and earlier AP bylaws are also sometimes blamed for the surge in media monopolies that took place following anti-trust litigation against the AP in 1942. The board was divided on its response—some were hotly opposed to new competitors, unwilling to give up their advantage. More liberal board members, by contrast, favored allowing membership to other newspapers. Cooper’s public pledge was to non-involvement with board negotiations. Privately though, he formulated a response that included requiring new applicants to pay high fees and provide rights to their services to existing AP members. Allen references a Newsweek article from May 4, 1942, which stated that, regardless of changes in the bylaws, “the club members were still being mighty exclusive.”
By contemporary norms, the parameters of exclusivity may be viewed as elitism or colonialism, particularly when analyzing Cooper’s argument for American journalism as the gold standard. He believed the United States’ model of press freedom should be replicated around the world; but without any mechanisms to make that happen, it was more or less an empty slogan. Like the principles put forth in Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unless national governments agree, there is nothing compelling the right to freedom of expression to action. Unlike the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, however, Cooper’s ideas had more to do with the presumed right of a news agency to operate in any nation it chooses, rather than a universal application of “the right to know.”
Around 1942, public and industry opinion coalesced around the idea that the United States was obligated to forge a new world order and spread democracy across the globe. Cooper (and others) fused capitalism with democracy. Promoting globalized commerce, a neoliberal world order took off. Allen discusses Cooper’s 1942 book, Barriers Down. Praised within US borders, a review in The Economist that same year revealed a different opinion on this new world order. Referring to Cooper as a “big business executive,” the article contended that “democracy does not necessarily mean making the whole world safe for the AP.”
To tout Cooper solely as a champion for press freedom would have been misleading. To be fair, Cooper’s general insistence on political impartiality and fact-based reporting are to his and to AP’s credit. Allen’s due diligence illuminates Cooper as a multidimensional human being—contradictions and all. Thanks to Allen’s thorough research and critical attention to controversies as well as victories, this authoritative study of Kent Cooper, the Associated Press, and the media landscape as a whole, is worthy of reflection.
As though documenting a pendulum’s swing across the centuries, Mr. Associated Press makes clear that extremism in politics, rejection of facts in favor of trendy issues, devotion to cults of personality, public attacks on facts, and corporate media takeovers that result in monopolies, news deserts, and out-of-work reporters are not unique to the 21st century. The need for a Fourth Estate that holds governments to account and reports without censorship or fear of retaliation remains fundamental to the pre- and post-Cooper AP, to ethical journalism, and to democracy.
Cooper seemed convinced that the free market would provide journalism with insurance of its role in society. Allen wonders if that wasn’t just wishful thinking, given that corporations have as much, or more, power now than many governments, and can manipulate or manufacture “news” for their own profit. The double-edged sword that Cooper brandished through AP exemplifies a repetition of history, and keeps key questions front and center. Does competition in the marketplace produce better journalism? Can journalism simultaneously serve the public and generate profits too? If Allen’s review of the mediascape points to one thing, it’s that we may well be asking these very questions for years to come.