HOW A GREAT REPORTER STARTED A CRIME WAVE. Nicholas Lemann discusses how an enterprising journalist created the theory that New Yorkers would not call the police when they saw a crime. Lincoln Steffens, the great journalist and muckraker of a hundred years ago, wrote a reminiscence showing how journalist can create a story where there is not a story—in this case a crime wave. He wrote: “I enjoy crime waves. I made one once; Jake Riis help….and T.R. stopped it.” (Jacob Riis was another great journalist and reformer of the period and Theodore Roosevelt was then the police commissioner of New York City).

In brief, there was a nightly poker game among the police reporters in the basement of police headquarters in which they swapped stories. Steffens was amused by a yarn about how a burglar had persuaded a cop to load furniture he was stealing onto a wagon. Steffens made the mistake of writing it up. The consequence was that the other reporters were chastised by their editors for not having this scoop. Competition followed, with all the reporters coming up with crimes to write about. Anyone reading the papers could conclude that New York City was in the middle of a crime wave.

I recommend you read the story at the link because Steffens conveys the worldly wisdom and cynicism of a great reporter. It reads a lot like O. Henry, who also wrote about New York City in the early part of the 20th century.

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