Read “Into Africa” to see journalism in its heyday

downloadI’ve just finished reading Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard. The book recounts legendary British explorer Dr. David Livingstone’s nearly life-long (and ultimately failed) quest to locate the source of the Nile river, his disappearance for about five years, the frantic search to find him, and his celebrated “discovery” by American journalist Henry Morton Stanley. At the time, in the late 1860s, this was the story of the century and was covered avidly by newspapers in the US and England.

In fact, that Stanley—who actually wasn’t American, but you’ll have to read the book to learn about that angle—was looking for Livingstone at all had less to do with his own adventurousness than with the hard-charging entrepreneurship of his boss, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the rich and brash editor of the New York Herald.

Into Africa is as much about journalism in its heyday as about African explorers. Editors on either side of the Atlantic hunted for scoops just as avidly as the tabloid journalists of today and often with just as few scruples. Bennett, a tycoon and political operative, was a sort of Gilded Age Rupert Murdoch. He didn’t want to save Livingstone; he wanted to write screaming headlines.

And he got his wish. England had practically held its collective breath awaiting word about its beloved hero, Livingstone. Imagine Bennett’s delight, and the Brits’ dismay, that the world learned of the rescue from an upstart American newspaper.

Finally, I learned that Stanley, at least according to Stanley, really did say, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” That this greeting is recalled today is one measure of just how big the story was.

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