Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Great Moment in American Journalism

A great moment in American journalism occurred 100 years ago in the aftermath of the sinking of the Titanic.

Unfortunately, it is probably one of the lesser known stories surrounding the famous shipwreck.

Carr Van Anda, managing editor of the New York Times, scooped the competition largely because he put two and two together and concluded that the reason there had been no more communication from the ship was that it had sunk, and he insisted on publishing that information.

The problem was that the White Star Line, the shipping company that owned Titanic, had reported via wireless transmissions that the ship had, in fact, encountered some problems with ice, but it insisted the ship had not sunk.

But Van Anda had seen the wireless transmissions from the ship and noted the fact that there had been no more transmissions after the early morning hours of April 15. He was convinced that meant the ship had gone down, but, since Van Anda was nearly 1,000 miles away from the scene of the disaster, other newspapers were reluctant to dispute White Star's account. Van Anda, of course, did not have the benefit of modern technology; he went with his gut instincts.

It was a real gamble, a roll of the dice, and if White Star's version of events had been true, and it turned out that the reason there had been no more transmissions from Titanic was due to equipment failure or something like that, we might be commemorating the centennial of "Van Anda's folly" and not the sinking of the Titanic.

It was a few days before he was proven correct. The ship that brought the Titanic's survivors to New York was delayed by various factors (including the same ice that had brought down Titanic) and didn't get there for three more days — and it "was under a virtual news blackout," writes James Barron of the New York Times. "Its telegraph operators were not distributing messages from newspapers seeking information about the Titanic."

But when it finally arrived, the story was told — and Van Anda was vindicated.

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