A New Deal in journalism . . . and its end

The other day in class we briefly discussed Weegee and his distinctive way of depicting New York city in the 1930s and ’40s. Walker Evans gives us a somber, underground world, and his portraits show us usually solitary, often introspective and frequently bedraggled looking New Yorkers. Weegee, by contrast, portrays a vivid and dramatic–or, perhaps, melodramatic–city.

Weegee, Subway Serves as Blackout Shelter, 1943 --note the difference from Evans's vision of the subway.

Weegee’s New York is a place of crime, tragedy, and violent death. But it’s also a land of ribaldry, passion, and broad humor. Above all, both in the people it depicts and in the audience it implicity addresses, Weegee’s world is a place of popular community. Rarely are there solitary figures in Weegee’s pictures. His urban working-class subjects live in a city of crowded streets and intense sociability. His audience likewise is presumed to be collectively obsessed about the dramas of passion and the morality plays his photographs convey.

Weegee, "First Murder" -- a characteristically mislabeled picture.*

Weegee’s city, in other words, is the tabloid metropolis. It’s a world of heightened and simple passions and of popular belonging mediated and emphasized by mass journalism. (Illuminating discussion of that world can be found in the essays in this book.)

During the 1940s, the tabloid metropolis had a great deal of power precisely because New York City’s immigrant working class was large, vibrant, and (by comparison to the poverty that existed during the Depression) relatively prosperous. Thanks in part to the success of the LaGuardia administration and of the New Deal, it also had a justified sense of its political and cultural power.

Interestingly, for a time in the 1940s, Weegee worked for a progressive newspaper–PM–that had been created specifically to speak to and for that class. PM, which ran from 1940 to 1948, has been all but forgotten. But it has an impressive and illuminating history. Founded by Ralph Ingersoll, a journalist who had been an editor at The New Yorker and Henry Luce’s Fortune, and funded by the department store heir Marshall Field III, PM was intended to provide an alternative to New York’s largely conservative newspapers. (Paul Milkman offers a solid history of the paper in PM: A New Deal in Journalism. You can also read a shorter profile of the paper in this magazine article by Roger Starr.) It was closely affiliated with FDR and the New Deal, which it ardently supported, and it never made any pretense to objectivity or neutrality. The paper aimed to be the champion of the common man and to fight privilege, intolerance, and bigotry wherever it saw such evils.

Especially during World War II, PM was able to combine these populist and progressive politics with a tabloid format and a largely tabloid aesthetic. The paper was meant to be read by both reformist elites (two Supreme Court Justices and Eleanor Roosevelt were subscribers) and by New York’s liberal working class. During the War, the paper cheered on the American boys and gave its readers vivid renditions of the progress of battle.

A map of European conflict of the sort that PM regularly provided its readers during the War

On the homefront, PM positioned itself as the defender of little guys against predatory landlords, greedy employers, callous millionaires, and complacent bigots. It claimed to be able to take this populist line because, uniquely among mass circulation newspapers, it refused advertising and survived only on subscriber and newstand sales and the beneficence of Field.

For a time, PM experienced impressive success with this model. Its circulation averaged 165,000 per issue, and it attracted many highly talented contributors. Along with Weegee, they included, among many others, I. F. Stone, James Wechsler, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, Erskine Caldwell, Margaret Bourke-White, and Crockett Johnson–the progressive cartoonist best known now for Harold and the Purple Crayon.

During the War, Dr. Seuss regularly contributed (often racist) cartoons urging on the Allied effort.

But PM never really had a chance of surviving. Its no-advertising business model couldn’t compete with powerful, advertising-driven tabloids like the highly conservative Daily News. Despite garnering a stable and substantial readership, the paper never turned a profit.

Perhaps equally important, the paper fell victim to changing political tides. During WWII, the paper could take advantage of wartime patriotism and of the popularity of the Roosevelt administration, among whom it had powerful defenders. During the later 1940s, as the Cold War displaced WWII as the central concern of national politics, PM became a target of conservative critics, who complained that the newspaper had Communist Party members or fellow travellers among its staffers and was too friendly to the Soviet Union. The populist and progressive community that PM envisioned no longer existed.

Weegee the celebrity

As it happens, the newspaper’s last days were also the years when Weegee was beginning to parlay his local renown into national fame. The connection is perhaps an illuminating one. The end of PM and the decline of New York’s New Deal politics coincided with Weegee’s departure from the tabloid world and his rise to fame as an artist.

* Weegee’s caption in Naked City suggested that these children were responding to a gangster’s corpse–shown in a photo on a facing page–and that the woman in the center was a relative of the victim. In fact, in an earlier print, he indicated that these were children escaping from the last day of school. His revised caption highlights a premise of his photos generally–that all New Yorkers are fascinated by his subject matter.*

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