Journalism in the History and Theory of Writing
2006 SAMLA Convention
Charlotte, NC
10-12 November

Richard Menke
University of Georgia


“Who is Mr. Reuter?”: Objectivity and Electric Language


Do not cite without permission of the author.


As the telegraph in the nineteenth century came to link cities and nations, and became a vital medium for journalism, emergent ideas about the supposed transparency and neutrality of electrified language became bound up with evolving ideas about factuality and objective reporting. As early as the late 1840s, only a few years after stories and facts transmitted by telegraph first began appearing in the British or American press, a telegraphic dateline could already function as a token of “objectivity” and “authenticity” in newspapers—even when the news had actually traveled via mail, sea, or courier for most of the way (West). By the end of the century, the journalistic distinction between fact and opinion could be mapped onto the difference between media. As a reporter for the Times of London was admonished in 1894, “telegraphs are for facts; appreciation and political comment can come by post” (quoted in Stephens 258).

This paper examines the media mapping that made writing that passed through the electric telegraph seem specially endowed with objective, impersonal facticity. After a brief discussion of the comparable and contemporary use of telegraphy as a model for nineteenth-century fictional realism, I summarize the various justifications that historians of journalism have offered for the persistent association between newspaper telegraphy and objectivity. Finally, I explore the status of electric objectivity in greater detail by analyzing popular representations of Julius Reuter, the founder of the eponymous news agency. Focusing on contemporary writing by Andrew Wynter and Charles Dickens, I discuss these accounts' handling of Reuter's curious anonymity and impersonality. As the embodiment of telegraphic journalism, and the head of an apparently omnipresent information system, Reuter becomes a peculiar node in the cultural complex that connects technology to the production of objective coverage—and that moves the nineteenth-century press a step closer to the modern assemblage that would later be called “the media.”

* * *

Without mentioning the telegraph by name, the opening chapter of Thomas Babington Macaulay's History of England (1848) invokes the new topos of seamless, automatic, wired information when it contrasts a modern age of journalism, communication, and publicity with medieval society:

We live in a highly civilised society, through which intelligence is so rapidly diffused by means of the press and of the post office that any gross act of oppression committed in any part of our island is, in a few hours, discussed by millions. If the sovereign were now to immure a subject in defiance of the writ of Habeas Corpus, or to put a conspirator to the torture, the whole nation would be instantly electrified by the news . In the middle ages the state of society was widely different. Rarely and with great difficulty did the wrongs of individuals come to the knowledge of the public. (1.26, emphasis added)

Thanks to nineteenth-century communication systems, asserts the famously Whiggish historian, individual wrongs will immediately electrify the public; modern information seems to circulate effortlessly, instantly, truthfully, automatically.

Writing his History , Macaulay hoped to combine accuracy and thoroughness with the excitement of “the last fashionable novel”; this passage also indicates his affiliations with contemporary fiction ( Letters 4.2). Mid-Victorian novelists turn to the electric telegraph as an analogue for the workings of fiction, emphasizing its speed, its directness, its ability to connect a far-flung world through language, and its electric neutrality (see Menke, “Telegraphic Realism” 976-78). For instance, Elizabeth Gaskell left few pronouncements on the art of the novel. But one of her rare statements (a response in 1859 to a young writer who had asked her opinion of his manuscript) cites the telegraph as a model for neutral discourse:

I believe in spite of yr objection to the term “novel” you do wish to “narrate,”—and I believe you can do it if you try,—but I think you must observe what is out of you, instead of examining what is in you. It is always an unhealthy sign when we are too conscious of any of the physical processes that go on within us; & I believe in like manner that we ought not to be too cognizant of our mental proceedings, only taking note of the results. But certainly—whether introspection be morbid or not,—it is not a safe training for a novelist. It is a weakening of the art which has crept in of late years. Just read a few pages of De Foe &c—and you will see the healthy way in which he sets objects not feelings before you. I am sure the right way is this. You are an Electric telegraph something or other ,— (Gaskell 541, emphasis in final sentence added)

Gaskell's stance on the need to avoid an excess of emotion or self-consciousness in fictional writing may seem naïve. Yet Marshall McLuhan characterized printed, alphabetic writing in similar if more gnomic terms a century later, identifying it as a “hot medium,” one that worked in high-definition and therefore had to avoid cultivating too much audience “empathy or participation” (23, 30). “[P]rint is the content of the telegraph,” McLuhan also observed (8). Yet with its terseness and lower definition, the electric telegraph might offer an inspiration for cooled-down print, for writing that could involve an audience by telling less.

Telegraphy, in its association with neutral, abstract information, offers a modern figure for what Gaskell claims novels do best. “You are an Electric telegraph something or other,—” she pronounces, that is, a device that instantly relays bodiless information from point to point. Gaskell uses the telegraphic metaphor to encapsulate a sense of writing's mediation but also to render it neutral, impersonal, objective in a literal sense. For her, the metaphor of telegraphy both diminishes the distortion involved in the novelist's mediations and provides a safeguard against the queasy possibilities of an inward, psychologized fiction. It's an unhealthy sign when we are too aware of the corporeal processes within us, but the telegraph signifies electric information that seems identifiable with nobody in particular, or no body at all. Coming down the line from points unknown, it seems to bring the kind of “view from nowhere” that more broadly characterizes the stance of objectivity (Nagel).

These beliefs in the telegraph's technological neutrality also characterize the discourse of telegraphic journalism, perhaps the most public use of the device in the mid-nineteenth-century, as well as its most direct connection to the larger world of print and writing. Indeed, during this period, ideas about the putative transparency and neutrality of the electromagnetic medium became deeply bound up with evolving ideas about objective reporting. The terms differ from Gaskell's, but the logic is the same: the telegraph represents directness, clarity, facts and objects rather than individual subjectivity, feelings, or opinions. Neither the extension of the telegraphic network nor growing familiarity with telegraphy as medium for personal communication—developments represented by the transcontinental telegraph in America (1861), the first successful transatlantic cable (1866), and the nationalization of the telegraph network in Britain (1870)—would altogether dispel such associations.

To this day, newspaper historians often identify “[t]he introduction of the electric telegraph in the 1840s . . . as a crucial contributory factor” in “the emergence of journalistic ‘objectivity' as a professional ideal” (Allan 16). Nineteenth-century journalists and modern historians attempt to explain the alignment between telegraphy and objecivity in a number of ways. For one thing, the technology brought the rise of telegraphic news agencies, such as Reuters in Britain and the Associated Press in America, which sold subscriptions to a range of newspapers, as well as to commercial clients more concerned with accuracy than with political spin. In 1854, the manager of the New York Associated Press directed reporters to send only “bare matter of fact” on the wires (quoted in Blondheim 195). An internal memo issued by Reuters in 1883 made the connection between telegraphic speed and unembellished factuality into company policy, instructing that when it came to unexpected events “the bare fact be first telegraphed with the utmost promptitude,” followed afterwards by “a descriptive account” (quoted in Read 106). To the extent that Victorian journalism sought to collect and present untouched “information,” rather than overtly “collating or interpreting it” as modern journalism tends to do, columns of virtually unedited telegrams soon became a hallmark of this effort (Matheson 566). By the end of the century, the Reuters editor who took credit for instituting “the present service of sober, naked statements of facts” back in the 1850s now complained of the “dull skeleton telegrams” that still circulated despite the vastly reduced cost of telegraphy (quoted in Read 107).

But why should the unvarnished fact or dull skeleton go first? Maybe this protocol arose when the telegraph lines were unstable, as during the American Civil War, when telegraphy became a critical tool for military strategy and telegraphic sabotage became a military tactic (Stephens 253). Picturing such an atmosphere of urgency and flux, one can even imagine the famous “inverted pyramid” story structure coming into existence as reporters learned to place the most important information first in case of transmission trouble. Many later accounts of the history of news-writing have made precisely this assertion, with little actual evidence—especially since the inverted pyramid structure does not actually seem to become common until considerably later (for a summary of such claims, and a statistical debunking of them, see Errico).

Or perhaps telegraphy was simply too expensive to allow its use for anything more elaborate than the barest facts—although this argument hardly applies to journalistic telegrams in Britain after nationalization, which went by a special cheap rate (a feature originally intended to gain the press's support for the government takeover, but one that caused financial trouble for the Post Office's new Telegraph Department). Or the preference for unembellished facts might come about not at the source of the transmission but at its destination. In newsrooms, material submitted by a far-off correspondent might have to be quickly assembled and refashioned by a “stringer” who had no special familiarity with the story and therefore did best to stick with the facts (Carey 211).

Such multiple explanations for the overdetermined connection between electric telegraphy and objective, fact-oriented reportage strongly suggest that the convention of associating them is just that, an expression of ideology more than of any real implications of nineteenth-century telegraphy for the press. Michael Schudson, for one, has cast doubt on any simple relationship between use of the telegraph and the norm of objectivity. For instance, he notes that newspaper writing frequently remained effusive and emotional (by modern standards) through the end of the nineteenth century—which contradicts telegraphic journalism's supposed emphasis on unadorned fact (“Objectivity Norm” 158-59; see also Power of News 67-68, Discovering the News 4-5). But however misleading they may be, modern accounts that link electric telegraphy to objectivity or factuality are clearly picking up a widespread nineteenth-century association. And the very pervasiveness of the association should prompt us to explore the cultural assumptions about the telegraph that might support this connection in the first place. Speculatively, I would suggest that the putative connection between telegraphy and objectivity would have been consolidated by factors such as the telegraph's conjunction of technology , distance , immaterial information , and interconnectivity .

As a new technological medium , telegraphy was “frequently compared” to photography as a high-tech vehicle of mechanically truthful fidelity; in typical fashion, an 1859 article in Britain's National Review celebrated the era as “the age of the electric telegraph and of photography” (Armstrong 115, 298n22). Early accounts of both media tend to emphasize the uncanny, machinic truthfulness in their powers of reproduction or transmission, without much regard either for the sources of built-in distortion that might affect them or for the obvious fact that a photograph or telegraph may feature what are manipulated truths, partial truths, or untruths to begin with. The supposed technological faithfulness of the medium becomes the mechanical truth of the message.

Furthermore, the idea of electric language that could instantly cross imponderable distances imbued telegraphic discourse with a sense of automatic detachment from its place of origin. The great marvel of the electric telegraph was that it once and for all decoupled data transmission from physical transportation, relieving the circulation of messages from the constraints of geography or movement. James Carey and others have rightly recognized this aspect of telegraphy as a turning point in the history of communication. A telegraph message could traverse the earth as a set of electrical pulses at lightning speed, ending up at any distance from its original source. This property might further encourage the sense of writing that transcended mere local significance or truth. In this context, Thoreau's famous comment on the telegraph in Walden (1854)—“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate”—might sound like not simply an animadversion on modern technology but a specific response to the pretensions of telegraphic discourse (Thoreau 52).

As I argue at greater length in a forthcoming study, nineteenth-century electric telegraphy occupies a crucial place in the development not only of communication technology but of information as an idea (Menke, Telegraphic Realism ). While Geoffrey Nunberg identifies the core, contemporary sense of “information” as “a kind of abstract stuff present in the world, disconnected from the situations that it is about ,” Katherine Hayles incisively critiques our tendency to speak of it as an “immaterial fluid that circulates effortlessly around the globe while still retaining the solidity of a reified concept” (Nunberg 111, Hayles 246). I would note that this peculiar combination—a sense of abstraction and disconnection from context via an immaterial but reified fluid—precisely characterizes the nineteenth-century discourses of telegraphy and of electricity, an intangible, weightless phenomenon that struck some writers as more like “a spiritual than a material force” (Briggs and Maverick 13). Electric transmission and telegraphic compression would seem to turn language into something like modern information: instantaneous, bodiless, abstracted, decontextualized. Once again, properties of the medium become ascribed to its messages. The telegraph abstracts a message from its physical medium of writing and leaves that material substrate behind. Transcending matter and place via the “spiritual” force of the electric fluid, telegraphic discourse might readily acquire an air of authority that similarly rose above more material media as it did above the constraints of geographic space or time.

Finally, the “vast, inter-connected system ” of the telegraph promised to create a massive dialogic structure throbbing with undifferentiated, decorporealized “thought” (in the century's favorite description of what the electric telegraph transmitted—never mind the fact that what really went across the wires was not mentalese but messages sent for someone to read, signals, coded characters, language) (Briggs and Maverick 12, 11, my emphasis). Clearly, there is a “close connection between objectivity and intersubjectivity” (Nagel 63); objectivity becomes a view that might be arrived at by consensus, or one that nearly anyone might readily accept. When the supposedly dialogic telegraph met the more one-way communication structure of the press, the results might well seem to take on the imprimatur of the entire system. As Gaskell hints, electric information seemed more difficult to identify with any specific body, and therefore with any individual point of view.

But what if nineteenth-century telegraphic discourse, in its breadth, multiplicity, and supposed objectivity and accuracy, were also identifiable with a name and identity? By the end of the 1850s, this was rapidly becoming the situation in British journalism, thanks to the work of Paul Julius Reuter. Born Israel Beer Josaphat in the German state of Hesse, Julius Reuter had by then changed his name, religion, and country. After several attempts to establish European services to transmit news and market information via telegraph and carrier pigeon, he closed shop in order to try his fortune in London in 1851, as England was on the verge of establishing cross-channel telegraph service for the first time. Once it did, Reuter began selling his information services to financial firms and European newspapers. After several years of work, Reuter also made headway with the major British newspapers by offering them free trials of his wire service in late 1858. All soon became subscribers, even the mighty Times , and Reuter's stories, along with his credit lines, became a familiar element of British newspapers almost overnight.

Reuter's name was suddenly part of the news, even if his precise relationship to it—as source, channel, or guarantor—was slightly ambiguous. When the British Prime Minister presented him to Queen Victoria and her court in 1860, the introduction seems to have placed him before the public as well, in a new way. The journal Notes & Queries featured a query about “this mysterious person,” and attracted a factual note in response (quoted in Read 36). “Who is Mr. Reuter?” asked the title of a February 1861 essay by Andrew Wynter, a physician and editor, as well as an essayist whose articles include many examinations of contemporary media and communication systems: the Victorian post office, railways, telegraphy, photography, newspapers, circulating libraries, even pneumatic message tubes. “All the world is asking this question,” begins Wynter; is “this Mr. Reuter an institution or a myth? . . . or is he a man like ourselves, having ‘feelings, organs, dimensions,' &c.?” (297). After all, this figure's very name was now synonymous with a “system” that stood for “impartiality and accuracy” as well as “quickness” (301, 300). If Reuter is a man with organs and dimensions, “by what extraordinary organization does he manage to gather up over night a summary of events over the entire continent, and to place it before us . . . at the breakfast-table?” (297). Dr. Wynter's pun on “organization” deftly turns the inquiry into Reuter's anatomy into a corporate profile.

Why were the British newspapers slow to adopt Reuter's services in the previous decade? Wynter attributes the delay to the British press's emphasis on “obtaining exclusive information,” often via “special correspondents” and even chartered locomotives and steamships (299, 301). Given such competition for exclusive stories, why should an editor pay for news that every other paper would receive at the same time? In fact, claims Wynter, editors eventually found that “[t]he adoption by the English press of the few short but decisive facts communicated by the telegraph” need not undermine the papers' emphasis on “‘exclusive special correspondents” (300-301):

on the contrary, it allowed [newspapers' own correspondents] more time to elaborate their information and to go into detail. A dozen lines gave us the fact of the victory at Solferino [during the Austro-Sardinian War of 1859]; but the battle itself a week afterwards stood before the British public with all the photographic strength and completeness of the Times' special correspondent's pen. (301)

Conveying the basic “fact,” telegraphic speed and concision complement the “photographic” detail provided later by a correspondent's fuller writing. As a matter of fact, not only the Times but also “Mr. Reuter sent special correspondents” to report on the war in Italy (300). But significantly, in Wynter's account, once information starts coming down the wires, only the “pen”-driven reports of the Times 's correspondent seem to possess what Michel Foucault has taught us to recognize as a hallmark of so much nineteenth-century discourse—an author.

In an 1865 speech to a group of news-sellers, a more famous editor and journalist played on the impersonality of telegraph journalism in order to envisage the effects of a news-sellers' strike in amusingly incongruous terms:

Why, even Mr. Reuter, the great Reuter whom I am always glad to imagine slumbering at night by the side of Mrs. Reuter, with a galvanic battery under the bolster, telegraph wires to the head of the bed, and an electric bell at each ear [ roars of laughter ] even he would click and flash those wondrous dispatches of his to little purpose, if it were not for the humble . . . activity, which gathers up the stitches of the electric needle, and scatters them over the land. [ Cheers .] (Dickens 339)

Charles Dickens's treatment of the Reuters' domestic arrangements is suitably absurd, but some of the comedy in the passage comes from the strangeness of imagining Mr. Reuter—an actual human being between the electric bells and wires—at all. Yet Dickens's image is also curiously near the mark, as he might have known. The three London offices of Reuters were connected to each other by telegraph, and the company's busy “night office at King Street backed on to the garden of Reuter's house in Finsbury Square” (Read 36). The wires might not quite reach Mr. Reuter's bed, but they certainly came close.

The apparent disparity between the “humble . . . activity” of selling papers and the work of “the great Reuter,” whose flashing electric dispatches provided a good portion of their shared content, echoes the rift between the middle-aged husband snoozing next to his mate and the quasi-electrical being suggested by the eponymous byline of “Reuter's Telegram Company” (the name of the limited liability company organized earlier in the year Dickens was writing). In this paradigm, the individual and material contrasts with something vaguely transhuman, proto-cyborgian, or at least supraindividual. As Dickens's words suggest, the mechanics of Cooke and Wheatstone's British “needle” telegraphs could enhance the association between the telegraphic network and the stitching together of disparate stories into a multifarious text representing the fabric of reality. The telegraph encapsulated not only daily journalism's claims to speed and trustworthiness but also a new idea of “covering” events, in a sense of the word first applied to newspaper reporting near the end of the century.

If newspapers increasingly seemed to cover the contemporary world, this was largely because the telegraph wires already did. More generally, electric telegraphy offered a topos for linking individual stories to a coherent, pervasive framework for organizing and disseminating information. As Wynter's comments also suggested, Reuters's business model itself held similar theoretical and practical implications; after a few early experiments with offering exclusive stories to favored newspapers, the company soon found it simpler and more profitable to offer all subscribers the same information, without favor. Such commercial impartiality paralleled the sense of telegraphic neutrality, but it also meant that the content of many Reuters's dispatches would be repeated across the day's papers, often verbatim. When British newspapers began subscribing to Reuter's service en masse in the late 1850s, they discovered—perhaps with some surprise—“that readers did not complain because identical Reuters telegrams were appearing in other newspapers” (Read 24). In addition to the generic air of objectivity that might be granted the telegraph through the associations I have outlined, Reuter's telegraphic news could also benefit from the impressions that such simultaneous reduplication might convey. When it came from a wire service, telegraphic news might achieve a measure of the universality, commonality, or consensus we could associate with objectivity—at least through dint of sheer repetition across different competing journals—no matter what the content was of any given story.

These explorations of why telegraphy and telegraphic journalism might carry an impression of objectivity suggest how the real or imagined properties of the medium itself could become bound up with status of the message, even when the medium functioned behind the scene of news-writing. But technology, distance, intangible information, interconnectivity, and self-confirming repetition all continue to be dimensions of the everyday phenomenology of daily public discourse in our Internet age. As we track the impressions of objectivity and impersonality originally conveyed by telegraphic journalism, I believe we also glimpse an early episode in the transition from the scrum of nineteenth-century journalism to the modern complex of “the media.”


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