The interview is now such a standard part of journalistic practice that it may come as a surprise to read that the New York Times once editorialized against it back in 1874. As Glenn Wallace tells it in his fascinating essay ‘A Depraved Taste for Publicity:’ The Press and Private Life in the Gilded Age,” the new-fangled newspaper interview “symbolized the stakes in a debate raging over public figures and intrusions into their private lives.” Since public figures barely have private lives today, the origins of this state of affairs bear some study.
The Gilded Age was the dawn of celebrity culture and its perhaps inevitable side effect, the sex scandal. All of this coalesced around the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most famous figures of the day. Beecher was a staunch abolitionist, one who raised money to buy slaves from captivity and to send rifles, known as “Beecher’s Bibles,” to militant abolitionists in Kansas and Nebraska. He supported woman’s suffrage, and found nothing in his Congregational beliefs to contradict Darwin’s theory of evolution. His “Gospel of Love,” however, drew the line at “free love,” which he denounced from the pulpit.
The married Beecher was, however, a ladies’ man. Such things might have been whispered about by those in the know, but they were rarely mentioned in the press, even as intensely partisan as it was. Writes Wallace, “The nineteenth century press insisted on indirection.” In 1872, all that began to change. After hearing an aggrieved husband’s charges, free-love advocate Victoria Woodhull exposed Beecher’s infidelity in her newspaper. For her efforts, she was promptly thrown in jail for sending obscene material through the mail.
But then in 1874, the aggravated husband himself, Theodore Tilton, publicly charged Beecher with adultery. The resulting trial exploded into one of the first media “events of the century.” While it ended in a hung jury, the trial’s resulting coverage saw a transformation in the concepts of private and public spheres. The private lives of public figures had begun to become fodder for mass edification and/or entertainment. Human interest, publicity, and gossip, all began to trump political interest. The interview became one of the main tools of this new age. Some newspapers railed against the trend, but it only grew. “Overstepping the modesty of modern reporting,” one newspaper complained of another in 1871, when its reporters interviewed some jailed politicians. They hadn’t seen anything yet.