A Pageant of Newspaper Stunts

July 16, 2018

by Leo Morris

I honestly wasn’t going to write about the Miss America pageant dropping the swimsuit competition, even when the news came that the Miss Indiana contest would naturally follow suit, so to speak.

It’s not that I didn’t have anything to say about it. I just calculated that anything I did say was likely to get me kicked out of the state, and, despite Indiana’s well-documented flaws, I still like living here.

I’m a guy who enjoys seeing attractive women in swimsuits? True, but that would get half the state’s population after my hide. The pageant is an anachronistic, demeaning embarrassment? Also true, but there went the other half of the state. Maybe the two sentiments would cancel each other out, and I would be spared. No, not worth the risk.

Then Lydia Tremaine, the newly crowned Miss Indiana, turned up in an interview with a local TV station because, it turns out, she was this year’s Miss Fort Wayne. Civic pride trumped my fear of opprobrium, and I finally succumbed to my self-destructive instincts.

(Lydia, by the way, said she’s had a “few struggles” with the swimsuit competition, though of course she had to participate in it, and is excited to see it eliminated. Comes under the heading of “grin and bare it,” I guess. Ooooh, I can hear those teeth grinding all the way from the Michigan border to the Ohio line.)

Perhaps, I thought, a little historical perspective would be illuminating and also help me avoid some of the wrath of today’s social media outrage machine. And I discovered a couple of interesting things.

One, which I sort of already knew, was that Miss America started in 1921 as a publicity stunt to promote the business interests of Atlantic City. The swimsuit competitions weren’t just an integral part of the pageant – they were its raison d’etre. It was called “a bathing beauty review,” for Pete’s sake.

The other, which I’m embarrassed to say I was ignorant of, was the sordid role newspapers played in the stunt. In order to take the 1920 locals-only competition nationwide, Atlantic City officials asked newspapers, already known for beauty contests based on submitted photos, to sponsor local events to round up the contestants. The newspapers paid for the contestants’ wardrobes, and Atlantic City footed the bill for travel expenses.

So, please, let’s have a little humility from editorial writers inclined to wax poetic about the pageant’s enlightened decision to stop measuring women’s worth by the way they look.

If Miss America goes in the debit column of journalistic reputation, however, we should probably put the Tour de France on the credit side. The world’s most famous and successful bicycle race also started as a publicity stunt. The French newspaper L’Auto, losing a circulation war with Le Vélo, sponsored the first tour in 1913 and saw its readership increase more than sixfold.

Many newspaper stunts, I discovered, were unfortunately even more disreputable than Miss America, because they were based on out-and-out hoaxes. (Credit to Rupert Taylor’s wonderful article “A history of Newspaper Hoaxes to Boost Circulation.”)

In 1835, the New York Sun’s circulation exploded after a series of articles that a famous astronomer’s powerful new telescope had found evidence of life on the moon, including goats, bison and beaver.

In the 1850s, when the first transatlantic cables were being laid, the Kansas City Times reported (global warmists take note) that the cables were acting as giant electromagnets that were causing the Earth to be drawn inexorably toward the sun.

In 1890, the Chicago Tribune reported the astonishing story of a boy climbing an unsupported rope and disappearing at the top. The Tribune admitted four months later that it was a hoax, but “the Indian rope trick” by then had by taken on a life of its own that lasted for decades.

My favorite hoax, because of its sheer longevity, was H.L. Mencken’s history of the bathtub, written for the New York Evening Mail in 1917. The modern tub, he wrote, was invented in 1842 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and feared by Americans as a threat to health until President Millard Fillmore popularized it by installing one in the White House in 1851. Google it, and you will find in still cited as gospel in some quarters.
It seems both sadly ironic and ironically fitting that today newspapers are having an even greater struggle than the pageant they helped spawn in staying relevant and vital.

Perhaps they need a new circulation-boosting stunt.

I could suggest merely printing the news and allowing their readers to put it in perspective and discover the truth in it. But that seems like a far-fetched idea.
Wendy McElroy of the Independent Institute some time ago noted that Mencken’s bathtub hoax was “an act of merry contempt directed at journalists who blithely reported fiction as fact and at readers who were so gullible as to believe blatantly false reports without question.”

Sounds like something we could have read just yesterday.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at leoedits@yahoo.com.


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