Titanic 1912: the original news stories of the disaster

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The original news stories of the sinking of the Titanic

Titanic 1912 VIDEO

Chapter One – Breaking News

Just three months and a single day were all that separated the tragedy of the magnificent liner RMS Titanic in 1912 and that of a modern ship, the Costa Concordia, one hundred years later.
In both cases, the “press” as it used to be called, and the “media” as it is now commonly referred to describe the various electronic and print sources of news coverage; played an important role in the tragedies.
At about 11:40 pm on Sunday, April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic arrived at a point in destiny with an iceberg, the fatal blow being struck underwater. At about 9:30 pm on Friday the 13th of January, 2012, the Concordia struck a large underwater rock which ripped a fatal gash into that ship.
Both instances could have been easily avoided by the masters of the ship.
Captain Edward J. Smith, the Admiral of the White Star Line was to retire after guiding the Titanic on its maiden voyage. The hapless captain of the Costa Concordia offered silly excuses for his venture close to shore which put his $450 million ship in jeopardy and cost the lives of 32 souls entrusted to his care. Captain Smith went down with his ship while Concordia’s Captain Schettino claimed he fell into a lifeboat and now is under house arrest while authorities prepare to try him for his alleged crimes.

Capt. E. J. Smith, as portrayed by actor Lowell Lytle. / The Chesapeake photo

The Titanic disaster is one of the greatest stories ever told, retold and dramatized in musicals, movies, books and even sheet music.
There is little to add to the body of facts and much that could be added to sort out the misconceptions, myths and fabrications which have crept up over the years. Therefore, pointing out the former and sifting through the latter is the purpose of this effort. The approach here is to provide to the reader how news coverage of the Titanic was provided in the hours, days and weeks following the sinking of the ship and how or whether that coverage was efficient, tawdry or accurate — or some strange combination of all three.
The era of “yellow journalism” was in full flower in 1912 when the Titanic set out from Southampton, England on April 10, 1912.
The first tool of communication at that time was the ‘wireless’ telegraph. How ironic that the most immediate tool at hand for a reporter one hundred years later is the ‘wireless’ telephone. With all the advances in technology, men walking on the moon, a space station and heart transplants seemingly routine, the most important communication devise for a breaking news story is still referred to as ‘wireless’.

Virginian-Pilot front page April 14, 1912

Two of the major players in the story of the Titanic had been adversaries for quite a while. William Randolph Hearst, owner of the Hearst syndicate of newspapers, already had been given credit for starting the Spanish-American War, or so some believe, and he had a chip on his shoulder for White Star Line President Bruce Ismay.
Ismay had taken over the shipping company which had been owned by his father and he arranged a deal with a large international company based in New Jersey – International Mercantile Marine. That company was part of the financial empire owned by J. Pierpont Morgan, a wealthy industrialist and banker who personified the “Gilded Age”.
When Ismay’s great liner met her doom with an iceberg, the tragedy became fodder for the grist mills of Hearst’s pulp empire as newspapers explored every facet of the Titanic demise and the more than 1500 souls who perished.

The wireless men of the Titanic were heroes; stayed put at their posts until the end sending distress signals

The story got off to a tepid start as the men in the wireless room on the Titanic who first telegraphed to Cape Race the news that the ship had hit an iceberg, even admitted later to having made light of the possibility that the ship would sink.
Within ten minutes the seriousness of the sinking ship sunk in to Harold Bride and Jack Phillips, who lost his life as he used every minute to transmit calls for help. Bride later told the investigating enquiry in England that he last saw Phillips as he ran aft following his release from his duties by the Captain.

Two of the heroes of the Titanic: Capt. Rostrun of the Carpathia & the Unsinkable Molly Brown

The first reports came from the Titanic which sent out their urgent messages to Cape Race and to other ships.
Ironically, the wireless equipment had been malfunctioning on the Titanic on April 14th. After the equipment was restored to working order, the backlog of messages, for which the White Star Line made handsome sums, was keeping the wireless operators busy. When a message came in from the Californian, letting them know that the ship had found so much ice that the captain ordered the ship to pause for the night, the telegraph operator was met with a rude response.
“Shut up, we are busy sending telegrams” was the response from the Titanic. At that point, the Californian, just 30 miles away, shut off her telegraph and the operator went to sleep.
In the news business, both in 1912 as well as in 2012, it takes two to tango.

RMS Titanic leaves Ireland

On April 14, 1912, the closest party able to receive a desperate plea for help, the Californian wireless operator, was asleep. That situation would later change as a result of the inquiries held by both the United States and Britain and safety standards adopted included a requirement that all ships keep a telegraph operator on duty 24 hours.
Washington Post front pageThe first responders of the sea began to rush towards the Titanic to save her passengers and crew. The message had become increasingly desperate. “We are sinking by the head,” said the message from the Titanic.
In sharp contrast to the first messages pleading for help from the Titanic, were the silly conditions on the Concordia. In the 2012 Concordia capsizing, Italian Coast Guard officials called the ship and offered aid and assistance, telling the ship that passengers were calling ashore and reporting that they were sinking and had been ordered to lifeboat stations. The incredible response was that all was well on the ship that they simply had experienced a “blackout”.
In spite of the most advanced and modern technology available to the Concordia, the common thread in both disasters was the human element.
On the Titanic, Capt. Smith had ignored at least six warnings during the day of icebergs and in the fifteen minutes prior to Titanic striking the iceberg, the lookouts had sent three warnings to the bridge of looming icebergs.
The silly antics of the Concordia captain have made him the butt of wry jokes, which, were it not for his actions costing the lives of 32 passengers and crew, might be funny.

New York World April 16, 1912

For the Titanic disaster, even before the ship sank, the first news reports began to circle the globe due to the wireless telegraph reports to newspaper offices around the world. There was a glaring error made during the process. A garbled message began with the question: “are all saved”. The reply came back in error and was retransmitted: “all saved”.
Within hours presses were rolling in London, New York and Washington, D.C., as well as across the continents.
The early news reports began to build fantasy on error and reports were carried in banner headlines on front pages that the Titanic was “Under Tow to Halifax”.
The New York World reported the “liner takes off passengers; Titanic said to be sinking”. The same front page on April 15th, reported the ship to be under tow. By the time the newspaper was reporting that news, the Titanic had reached its final destination at the bottom of the sea, about two miles from the surface.
The New York World wasn’t the only newspaper to run with the errors mixed with the conjured and fabricated news stories.
The Washington Post reported in a banner headline which reached the full width of its front page: “Titanic’s 1,470 Passengers Are Now Being Transferred in Lifeboats to Cunard Liner”.
The Christian Science Monitor also ran with the story that all passengers were safe and had been transferred to another ship while the Titanic was under tow.
An English newspaper reported that the Titanic would have to be towed back to Britain as there were no shipyards in America large enough to work on the Titanic.
The New York World printed even more details about the Titanic, reporting that the ship’s bow had been “Crumpled by Collision with Iceberg”.
Not only witness testimony by the crew at the official inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic revealed that the ship had not hit the iceberg head-on but had brushed by it on the starboard side with an underwater protrusion ripping open the hull like a can opener.
The New York World staff must have been in a real frenzy conjuring up more details. The newspaper reported that the Allan Liner Virginian was towing the Titanic, which was in ‘bad shape’ to Halifax.
The many notable passengers were reported by the New York World to have been transferred from the Titanic to the Carpathia and the Parisian. In reality, the Carpathia actually did pick up all of the survivors while the Parisian didn’t find anyone alive.

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