An old newsroom witticism suggests that newspapers are called a medium because they are neither rare nor well done. While the media offers a convenient boogeyman for those who believe their narrative is the only one worth reporting, the truth is that a free press is one of the cornerstones of American democracy, enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Long before live-streaming social media reports and crawling news tickers plastered on the bottom of 24-hour cable news channel feeds, the world got its news from newspapers.
Greener's Law states, "Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel," a sentiment designed to convey the sheer power of publishing. Newspapers have brought down corrupt presidents, exposed malfeasance during wartime, and crushed the presumption of benevolence associated with powerful religious institutions. They've also connected generations of average people to the larger world around them and provided critical information the public wouldn't have otherwise had.
From World Series victories to epic naval battles, pop-culture revolutions to actual revolutions, the events that shape the world have long been told through newspaper articles—and the main point of entry to every article is the headline. Great headlines speak for themselves, and long before online clickbait bloggers rendered the headline more important than the actual article itself, carefully chosen words written in the active voice and printed in large, boldface type, compelled the reader to keep reading.
The day of the local newsboy shouting "Extra! Extra!" to passersby eager to gobble up the latest information is in the past, yet the classic newspaper continues to stain fingers every morning across the country and the world. Likewise, the stories editors select for front-page, above-the-fold, bold-type headline coverage continue to drive the news cycle.
Here's a look at the headlines that captured the moment, spread the word, and helped shape public opinion over the last 100 years.
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On Aug. 18, 1920, The San Francisco Call summed up the spirit of the Nineteenth Amendment with a single headline. More than 40 years after it was introduced in 1878, the amendment granted women's suffrage in one of the most significant expansions of the voting franchise in American history.
On June 10, 1921, The Black Dispatch of Oklahoma City reported on what would go down as one of the most significant instances of racial terror in American history: the Tulsa race riots. Perhaps more fittingly described by the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum as the Tulsa Race Massacre, the blaring headline reflected the fear and confusion felt in Oklahoma's black community when a massive and enraged white mob looted, burned, and destroyed the affluent African American town of Greenwood, killing hundreds along the way.
If you were reading the New York Herald on Nov. 10, 1922, you might have missed this small headline buried on page 11, but the seemingly insignificant article detailed one of the biggest moments in the history of science. Although physicist Albert Einstein was most famous for his theory of relativity, that work never earned him a Nobel Prize. What did, however, was his work explaining the science behind the photoelectric effect, which deals with the transfer of electricity through light. It is the science that drives today's solar-powered energy.
On Aug. 3, 1923, The Boston Post rolled out a blaring headline that reflected the shock of the nation at the sudden death of President Warren G. Harding. It's widely accepted now that Harding died of a heart attack, but at the time, public curiosity, misinformation, and rampant rumors fueled a whirlwind of speculation and conspiracy theories that would endure for decades.
Before there was O.J. there were Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, a pair of privileged, rich, successful young men who murdered a 14-year-old boy named Bobby Franks merely for the thrill and to see if they could pull it off. Dubbed the "crime of the century" in media outlets across the country, the story was a national sensation. Famed attorney Clarence Darrow was hired to plead their case, but Darrow proved less capable than O.J.'s dream team—the pair was convicted and sentenced to life, as reported by The Omaha Evening Bee on Sept. 10, 1924.
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On July 21, 1925, The Chicago Daily News reported on the outcome of the Scopes "monkey trial"—which it referred to as the "ape case"—chronicled in the 1960 movie "Inherit the Wind." A little more than 65 years after Charles Darwin published his Theory of Evolution in 1859, a Dayton, Tenn. science teacher named John Scopes was arrested, tried, and convicted for teaching evolution, which was against the law in Tennessee. The sensational trial pitted famed lawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan against each other in a contest that captivated the nation and highlighted an American religious divide that continues to this day.
By 1926, Southern Florida was booming, but the growing population was dangerously naive to the danger they faced from serious hurricanes in the bustling resort destination. That naivete was shattered when, without warning, a category 4 storm known as the Great Miami Hurricane tore through the Caribbean and crashed into southern Florida, killing hundreds. The lack of hurricane knowledge compelled many to head out of their shelters when the eye of the storm passed over the region because they wrongly believed that the storm was over. Like so many papers during the catastrophe, the San Francisco Chronicle relied on early, unconfirmed reports that exaggerated the death toll.
On May 22, 1927, the Chicago Sunday Tribune printed news of one of the greatest accomplishments in aviation history. On May 20, famed pilot Charles Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field in Long Island in the Spirit of St. Louis. About 33.5 hours and 3,600 miles later, he landed safely in Paris after completing the first solo, nonstop trans-Atlantic flight in world history.
A little more than a year after Charles Lindbergh raised the bar for aviators everywhere, Amelia Earhart earned international headlines of her own when she became the first woman in history to cross the Atlantic Ocean in an airplane. On June 18, 1928, the Wisconsin News summed up the event with a headline that would likely be chided as condescending in modern times.
The Great Depression started on Oct. 24, 1929, when panic selling led to a major stock market crash on what is now known as Black Thursday. By Monday, the market had dropped another 13% and suffered roughly the same losses the next day, known as Black Monday and Black Tuesday. The roaring '20s were over, and across the water from Wall Street in the borough of Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle cooked up a headline that summarized the darkening national mood.
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On Friday, March 14, a headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune summed up the wonderment of the world, which had just learned it had another, albeit very distant, neighbor. That neighbor was tiny, remote, and frozen Pluto, an object that astronomers had been hunting for a quarter-century. Little was known about Pluto other than that the orb existed at the fringes of our Solar System. Early reports suggested the planet-not-planet was bigger than Earth—or even Jupiter.
By 1931, the country was gripped in the throes of the Great Depression, but in New York City, engineers and builders had scraped the sky. The Saturday, May 28 edition of The New York Times reported on the opening of the Empire State Building, then the tallest—and still one of the grandest and most iconic—building on Earth.
The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt signaled the start of one of the most transformative eras in American history. Elected on the promise of financial and social reform, FDR would go on to become the longest-serving president in history, the architect of the New Deal, the founder of America's social safety net, and the man who would lead the country out of the Great Depression and through World War II. On Nov. 9, the Greensboro Daily News reported on the excitement surrounding Roosevelt's landslide victory.
On Dec. 6, 1933, The New York Times summed up the national sentiment when it reported on the end of Prohibition. The failed experiment, which started in 1920, gave rise to a black market that spawned the most sophisticated and violent gangster culture in the world and cost countless lives and millions of dollars, all without denting the very real problem of alcoholism.
The financial catastrophe that was the Great Depression was magnified by the simultaneous environmental catastrophe of the Dust Bowl. Widespread drought and irresponsible farming practices turned millions of tons of once-fertile topsoil into dust, which was sent airborne in massive dust storms that blackened out the sky and buried entire farms across the Midwest. By 1934, the catastrophe was no longer regional as the winds carried hundreds of millions of tons of dust from the Great Plains all the way to the East Coast, blanketing New York City and Washington D.C. In between was Bethlehem, Pa., where the Centre Daily Times reported on the darkening skies on May 11, 1934.
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On June 20, 1935, The Atlanta Georgian reported on the passage of what just might be the most important piece of legislation ever passed in American history: the Social Security Act. The cornerstone of FDR's reform package, Social Security offered Americans something no generation had ever experienced before—a guarantee. Prior to 1935, providing for the elderly was left to communities, charities, churches, and families. Social Security would take contributions from taxes to establish a fund to provide relief for Americans who had passed their income-earning years—it remains the bedrock of America's social safety net.
By 1936, storm clouds were brewing over Europe, where fascism, authoritarianism, and anti-Semitism were fueling a lurch toward global conflict, already evident in the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. The Olympic Games that year offered a respite—even though they were held in Berlin under the watchful eye of none other than Adolf Hitler—which The News-Chronicle reported with a bland, but telling headline. That year, an African American man named Jesse Owens won four gold medals and struck a blow not only against racism in his own country, but against Hitler's ignorant insistence that his Aryan athletes were representatives of the so-called master race.
The phrase "Oh, the humanity!" was seared into the American consciousness on May 6, 1937, when the Hindenburg, a German Zeppelin airship, exploded over Lakehurst, N.J. It's still unclear what exactly doomed the massive Hindenburg, which was about the size of the Titanic, but its destruction signaled the end of the era of the rigid passenger airship. The New York Daily News was among the first to report on the disaster, which would soon dominate headlines and newsreels across the world.
On Sept. 30, 1938, the Daily Express printed one of the most misguided and short-sighted headlines in history when it ran a single word in boldface, all-caps type: "PEACE." The headline was supposed to be a summary of the disastrous Munich Agreement, the most significant and regrettable appeasement in a series of Allied capitulations to Adolf Hitler, which emboldened the Nazi dictator to pursue his goal of world domination. A year later, a more fitting headline would sum up the real consequences of the Munich agreement and other weak-kneed Allied appeasements.
On Sept. 1, in a 9 a.m. extra edition, the Los Angeles Times reported on the end of the so-called peace forged by the Munich Agreement a year earlier. The headline's subheads told the tale:
"German troops invade Poland." "Nazis bomb Warsaw." World War II, the greatest catastrophe in human history, had begun.
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In 1940, the war in the East still felt far away to many in Western Europe, but that false sense of security was shattered on June 14. The New York World-Telegram echoed the shock felt across the Western world when what had been an unthinkable event unfolded in real time. After just six weeks of fighting, France fell to Nazi Germany and Hitler's forces occupied Paris.
Dec. 7, 1941, is, in the words of President Roosevelt, a date which will live in infamy. That day, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killing 2,300 Americans and destroying much of the Pacific Fleet. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin 1st Extra edition trumpeted the news, which it led with the exclamation "War!" The editor was right—neutrality was no longer an option for the United States, which was now a central player in what had become a global war.
The Americans at Pearl Harbor weren't the only victims of the Japanese attack. On March 24, 1942, The New York Times reported on the start of one of the most shameful eras in American history, the forced internment of Japanese-Americans, many of whom fought for America in World War I and had never even been to Japan. Guilty of nothing other than being born the wrong race—unlike the legions of German- and Italian-Americans who openly supported Mussolini and Hitler—more than 127,000 American citizens were presumed to be loyal to the enemy without any evidence presented to support that claim.
Before 1943, Hitler and his marauding Nazi troops seemed invincible. The tide turned, however, with the most epic fight in the history of the world: the Battle of Stalingrad. On Feb. 1, the Daily Mail reported on the end of the mayhem, which pitted 2 million troops against each other in the largest and bloodiest conflict in history, which consisted of ferocious fighting during a brutal Russian winter in a starving city devastated by warfare and filled with stranded civilians. When the dust settled, the Germans had suffered a crushing defeat, and the Nazis would remain on the defensive for the rest of World War II.
On June 6, 1944—four years after the fall of Paris—The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on another invasion of France, this time by the country's allies on the beaches of Normandy. Known as D-Day, Normandy was the largest seaborne invasion in history. The Allies suffered heavy losses but eventually prevailed, liberating France from Nazi occupation and establishing a beachhead in mainland Europe for an eventual march on Germany.
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On Aug. 6, 1945, the United States war machine unleashed a secret weapon it had been developing for years when a B-29 bomber called the Enola Gay dropped a single, oddly shaped bomb called Little Boy over Hiroshima, Japan. Little Boy was a 9,700-pound uranium bomb, the first of its kind ever dropped in war—an event the New York Daily News reported on Aug. 7. Shortly after, another bomb, Fat Boy, would fall on Nagasaki, forcing Japan to surrender. World War II was over, but the nuclear age had just begun.
As the full scope of the Nazi's crimes began to come to light, some of Hitler's most senior henchmen were put on trial at the Nuremberg tribunals, dubbed by the media as "the greatest trial in history." A dozen of the worst Nazi criminals were sentenced to die by hanging, but the most senior of them all, Hermann Göring, committed suicide in a final act of defiance just hours before he was set to be hanged, a fact the Washington Daily News couldn't have known when it ran this headline.
On April 11, 1947, The New York Times used an unfortunate choice of verbs to report a monumental event both for America's pastime and America itself. The Brooklyn Dodgers integrated baseball when the team signed Jackie Robinson, a Hall of Famer who will forever be known as the man who broke the color barrier.
In 1948, The Palestine Post reported on one of the most controversial and consequential events in world history, the founding of Israel. Scattered across the world for centuries, brutalized, persecuted, and nearly wiped from the Earth by the Nazis, the world's Jews now had a homeland of their own. However, there were already hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs living in that homeland, and they either fled, were killed, or were forcibly removed to make way for the thousands—and then millions—of future Israelis who would flock there. The issue remains among the most contentious in world politics, and the region remains among the most volatile and violent in the world.
On March 18, 1949, The Detroit News reported on a pact that would, less than a month later, lead to the creation of a new world order: the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The organization was formed in response to World War II as a mutual-defense alliance by North America and European allies. If the next Hitler attacked any one of them, the pact members promised, the others would be compelled to come to that country's defense.
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A scant five years after the end of World War II, the New York Herald Tribune was reporting on yet another far-away conflict that would soon draw millions of American troops into its vortex. With fascism defeated, America's communist friends had turned into foes. The expansion of communism and America's obsession with preventing it would be the justification for war in Korea—a war to which a formal end has yet to be declared.
On April 6, 1951, The New York Times reported on the outcome of a trial that embodied the early days of the Cold War and the mentality of 1950s Red Scare America. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted and sentenced to die for passing America's most closely guarded nuclear secrets to the Soviets, who prosecutors alleged developed a bomb of their own with help from the Rosenberg's information. Nearly 20 years later the trial remains controversial, with many believing that it wasn't actual evidence, but the Rosenberg's affiliation with socialist and communist groups that led to their convictions. They were executed by electric chair two years later.
In 1952, the Truman era ended, McCarthyism was raging full force and the post-war baby boom economy was roaring. The man who embodied it all was Dwight D. Eisenhower, a hero general of World War II, who was, as The Des Moines Register pointed out, elected in a landslide.
On April 12, 1953, the New York Journal-American proved that newspapers don't only deliver bad news. Since the first epidemic in 1894, the crippling and highly contagious polio virus had been paralyzing children and terrorizing their parents—it's hard to imagine that by the mid-1950s there was a mother in America who didn't think of polio every time her children got sick. Then, Americans began hearing about a medical researcher named Jonas Salk who had been experimenting with a cure. The country's optimism proved warranted in 1953 when Salk successfully tested his experimental vaccine on himself and his own family.
In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision smashed a giant crack into the wall of segregation that civil rights activists had been chipping away at since the end of Reconstruction. On May 17, The Topeka State Journal reported on the decision, which signaled the beginning of the end for racial segregation and the Jim Crow era—but it would also trigger a new and vicious wave of racial violence.
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In the summer of 1955, A 14-year-old Chicago teenager named Emmett Till was brutally murdered while visiting family in Mississippi in response to a perceived insult to a white woman. Unlike the thousands of lynchings and acts of terrorism that went unanswered in previous decades, Till's murder caused public outcry—as reflected in The Chicago Defender headline—in part because of the determination of his mother to publicize his death with an open-casket funeral that put his mutilated corpse on display for the world to see. It was a defining moment and year for the Civil Rights movement—three days after Till's body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, the Montgomery bus boycott began in the wake of the Rosa Parks incident.
In 1956, The Daily Mirror reported on the Suez Canal crisis, a dramatic series of events that ignited the tinder box that was the Middle East in the late 1950s. Israel invaded Egypt in response to President Gamal Abdel Nasser's nationalization of the strategically critical Suez Canal. Although hostilities ended that same year, yet another world war seemed possible as France and Britain joined the fray, while Russia postured as if it were poised to do the same.
On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union emerged as the most technologically advanced nation in the world when it successfully launched Sputnik 1, the first satellite to orbit the Earth. The event, documented here by the Wilmington Morning News, triggered panic in the United States and much of the West, as Russia shocked the world with how far ahead it was in terms of technological prowess, and more importantly, by proving that it could now land its intercontinental ballistic missiles anywhere on Earth. The moment would lead to the creation of NASA and signal the start of the Space Race.
By 1958, Elvis Presley was the King, but he was also a private. Patriotic, pre-Vietnam America swooned over the news of Elvis joining the Army, particularly the fact that the King opted for the regular service of a common soldier as opposed to a cushier gig as an entertainer or recruitment model. On March 27, the San Antonio Express informed Presley's throngs of admirers that the King would soon be stationed at Fort Hood.
Havana had long been a Caribbean playground for the world's rich, famous, and elite. As the New York Daily News reported on Jan. 1, 1959, however, all that changed when Cuba's corrupt, U.S.-backed leader, Fulgencio Batista, quickly and unexpectedly abdicated power on New Year's Eve 1958 and fled the country. Cuba was now in control of communist forces led by Fidel Castro. A new chapter in Cold War history had begun, one that was dangerous, volatile—and 90 miles from American soil.
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After using his youth and good looks to his advantage during the world's first televised presidential debate, John F. Kennedy was elected president, as reported on Nov. 9 by the San Jose Mercury, in one of the closest elections in U.S. history. A symbol of youthful vigor in a changing world, JFK was the youngest president in history and the first Catholic president ever elected.
In 1961, Newsday was one of the many outlets to report that "rebel" forces had invaded Cuba. Those rebels were a CIA-backed paramilitary organization executing a plan developed during the Eisenhower administration. The strategy banked on Cuban locals joining the uprising against Castro. They did not. The Bay of Pigs Invasion, as it was called, was an unmitigated disaster that served as a stinging humiliation for JFK while elevating Fidel Castro to hero status in Cuba.
Marilyn Monroe was arguably the biggest movie star of all time and perhaps the most enduring sex symbol in history. In 1962, the troubled icon was found dead from an overdose. The news shocked the world, launched countless conspiracy theories based on her cozy connections with the likes of JFK and Joe DiMaggio, and signaled an end to the idealistic innocence of the 1950s. The Los Angeles Times was among the first to report on the death of the American pinup icon.
If you were alive on Nov. 22, 1963, chances are good you remember where you were when you heard that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The Dallas Morning News reported on the world-changing event, which shattered America's sense of security and signaled the start of one of the most turbulent eras in the country's history.
In the decades leading up to 1964, there was no shortage of news articles about invasions involving Britain, but this time, the invaders landed not with guns and tanks, but with guitars and mop-top haircuts. The National Record News used the term Beatlemania to describe the so-called British Invasion of English rock-and-roll giants who would forever change American music and culture. The world had officially met John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
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A year after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fitchburg Sentinel of Massachusetts reported on what would come to be known as Bloody Sunday. Civil rights activists marching from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in pursuit of voting rights were confronted and brutalized on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by armored police wielding clubs, dogs, tear gas, and bull whips. National TV news reporters beamed the dramatic images to televisions across America, and the event galvanized both politicians and regular citizens to finally take a stand against the situation in the South. A few months later, Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The bombing an oil depot is fairly run-of-the-mill news during wartime, but the events reported by the Raleigh Register on Dec. 10, 1966, were anything but. It was the first time U.S. forces bombed the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, and as the bombs fell, so, too, did any hopes for a quick resolution to the growing war in Vietnam.
By 1967, tensions in the Middle East were dangerously high, and Israel and its Arab neighbors once again found themselves embroiled in a bloody and controversial war. Although they were outnumbered and surrounded, Israeli forces proved ferocious and effective. The Jewish state quickly prevailed in what came to be known as the Six-Day War. The three-word headline on the June 5, 1967 edition of the Chicago Tribune left little to the imagination as to the nature of the conflict, which resulted in Israel expanding its territory and establishing itself as a true world power.
Arguably the most consequential year in post-World War II history, 1968 seemed to deliver a new Earth-shattering headline every week. The one that defined the hopes, losses, turmoil, and violence of the year most completely, however, ran on April 5 in The Washington Post. A gunman had murdered Dr. Martin Luther King. Almost exactly two months later, similar headlines would tell the same tale about Robert Kennedy.
The shocking Sputnik launch more than a decade earlier had galvanized America to concentrate its wealth, military might, manufacturing prowess, and best and brightest minds into winning the Space Race. The New York Times reported on July 21, 1969, that those efforts had come to fruition as two human beings named Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon while a captivated world watched in real time. If the Soviets weren't sure what the moment signified, the astronauts planted an American flag before returning home.
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College campuses represented the heart and soul of the anti-war protest movement, and the students who staged those protests became the bane of Richard Nixon's administration. On May 5, 1970, readers of the Los Angeles Times learned that the day before, soldiers of the Ohio National Guard had opened fire with live ammunition into a crowd of protestors at Kent State University, killing four students and wounding nine others. While the war raged in Vietnam, American troops had killed American civilians on American soil.
By 1971, much of the country no longer blindly trusted its government and other major institutions the way it had a decade earlier. For many, that cynicism was cemented with the release of the Pentagon Papers, a series of leaked classified documents that revealed a pattern of intentional deception perpetrated by several consecutive presidential administrations and organized at the highest levels of government. On July 1, 1971, The Washington Post headline informed the world that a landmark Supreme Court case gave The New York Times and The Washington Post the right to print the material without fear of government retribution. President Nixon demonized the media as unpatriotic, a sentiment that remains central to conservative orthodoxy today.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics offered the world an escape and distraction from disturbing global events. In 1972 in a different German city, the Olympic Games became one. The Sun's headline that year referred to the kidnapping, torture, and murder of 11 Israeli athletes and a West German police officer by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics. The conflict in the Middle East was no longer contained to the Middle East, and terrorism was now a global export.
Abortion is probably the most divisive and emotional issue in American politics and has been for nearly a half century. In 1973, headlines like this one in the New York Daily News informed America that the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Jane Roe, an unwed mother who filed suit after seeking an abortion in Texas, which was a felony in that state and many others. The Roe v. Wade ruling determined that abortion bans violate a woman's First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights to privacy and personal choice.
By 1974, the Watergate scandal had consumed Richard Nixon's presidency and The Washington Post had become his arch nemesis. The paper, however, emerged victorious when it published two simple, yet Earth-shattering words on Aug. 9. Nixon resigned in disgrace after realizing he no longer had the political support in Congress to avoid impeachment and removal, which by that point were all but certain. No president before or since has ever done the same.
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In 1975, America's misadventure in Vietnam finally came to an end with a sad and chaotic scene in the South Vietnamese capital city of Saigon, a moment the New York Daily News summed up with a single word. The Americans abandoned the city, along with most of its terrified residents, to the approaching caravans of North Vietnamese communist forces. Scenes of impromptu airlifts, helicopters being dumped over the sides of aircraft carriers, and frantic civilians begging for evacuation from the U.S. Embassy were seared into the American mind as symbols of the consequences of misplaced military force.
In 1976, The Guardian reported on worrisome happenings in a remote and obscure country that would likely have been unknown to most Americans were it not a neighbor of Vietnam. The year before, a radical communist political group called the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and immediately instituted draconian measures designed to empty the cities and create a utopian collective agrarian society. All citizens suffered, but urbanites, professionals, intellectuals, and other perceived enemies of the state were specifically targeted. Displacement, torture, starvation, disease, forced labor, and executions resulted in the deaths of up to 3 million people—as many as 1 in 4 Cambodians—in a reign of genocidal terror portrayed in the 1984 movie "The Killing Fields."
In 1977, the Chicago Sun-Times used just two words to announce the election of Jimmy Carter. The Democrat was elected largely in response to Watergate, which forced the resignation of Richard Nixon and installed Gerald Ford as president after Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, was forced from office on unrelated charges. Ford wasn't implicated in the scandal, but he did pardon Nixon, and the Republican brand was tainted.
A little less than a decade after the infamous Manson Family killings introduced America to the concept of murderous cults, the New York Daily News reported on another episode of West Coast counterculture gone wrong—one that gave rise to the phrase "drink the Kool-Aid." In the largest incident of mass suicide in American history, 900 people died after the followers of messianic cult leader Jim Jones drank—and forced their own children to drink—poisoned fruit punch in their South American jungle refuge.
On Feb. 15, 1979, The New York Times reported on an event that forever changed American foreign policy and still reverberates to this day. Misguided American foreign policy in Iran collided with an uprising of Islamic fundamentalism when followers of Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the American Embassy, took 52 American hostages, and held them for 444 days.
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On Dec. 8, 1980, peace activist, counterculture hero, and music icon John Lennon was shot to death in New York City. The Daily Mirror's headline called Lennon a hero, which he was to his throngs of fans, many of whom continue to this day to flock to his Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park on the anniversary of his death.
In 1981, medical professionals were beginning to notice a pattern of deaths among gay men who were succumbing to an otherwise extremely rare cancer called Kaposi's sarcoma. Although the disease had not yet been named or identified, it was the dawn of the AIDS crisis, one of the most terrifying and destructive pandemics in modern world history. The New York Times' headline topped the first article ever written about the frightening and perplexing disease.
In 1982, America was in a panic over a string of deaths that would be traced to Tylenol capsules intentionally laced with deadly cyanide poison. The Daily Herald reported as the death toll rose to five, but seven would die in total, and several others would fall victim to copycat poisonings. The shockingly random crime, which has still never been solved, triggered waves of consumer-protection regulations and voluntary corporate changes, including tamper-evident packaging.
On Oct. 23, 1983, Middle Eastern terrorism was once again dominating the headlines, like this one written by The New York Times. That day, a suicide bomber detonated a truck bomb that killed 307 people, including 241 Americans, at a U.S. Marines barrack in Beirut. Earlier in the year, another terrorist killed 63 people with a bomb at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, making the Lebanese city a worldwide symbol of Middle Eastern Islamic terrorism, which was now openly targeting U.S. interests worldwide.
In 1984, the Daily Mail reported on a widespread drought and famine in Ethiopia, which resulted in a seemingly endless stream of heartbreaking images that galvanized global sympathy and support. The next year, Live Aid launched a series of charity concerts for famine relief that drew the biggest acts in music.
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By 1985, the threat of Middle Eastern terrorism never seemed far off, but that year, The Plain Dealer reported on a particularly gruesome event. Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Achille Lauro passenger cruise ship and murdered Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound, 69-year-old Jewish-American man whom the terrorists threw overboard. Three years later in 1983, Libyan terrorists bombed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
This Chicago Tribune headline summed up the sentiment in America when the Challenger space shuttle exploded shortly after takeoff. The shuttle's crew included a teacher named Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first civilian in space. McAuliffe's presence among the crew made the launch a widely followed media event, with nearly 1 in 5 Americans watching the event live, including legions of schoolchildren.
By 1987, a decades-long decline in urban America relegated vast swaths of the country's biggest cities to wastelands of crime, poverty, blight, and fear, much of which was fueled by the drug trade. One drug, however, stood out among them all. Cheap, powerful, and readily available, the arrival of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s resulted in a surge of social ills, including violence and family breakdown as well as a shift in drug policy toward police militarization and crushing prison sentences for even minor offenses. The New York Times headline was written about a neighborhood in the borough of Queens, but similar stories were replayed daily in every city in America.
In 1988, the Soviet Union began withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan after a decade of brutal conflict. The New York Times compared the saga, which bled Soviet resources while stoking massive upheaval at home, to America's war in Vietnam. Perhaps more consequentially, Russia's failure in Afghanistan hastened the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Berlin Wall, erected in 1961 at the height of the Cold War, was the physical embodiment of the political division between the East and the West, the United States and the Soviet Union. Two of the most famous presidential speeches of the Cold War—"Ich bin ein Berliner" by John F. Kennedy and "Tear Down This Wall" by Ronald Reagan—were made there. Although the wall was a symbolic representation of an ideological divide, it was also a fortified concrete barrier manned by guards with guns ordered to shoot anyone trying to escape the clutches of the Eastern Bloc for the comparative freedom of the West. In 1989, both the symbolism and the concrete came tumbling down when the Berlin Wall fell, as reported in this one-word exclamation headline by the New York Daily News.
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In 1990, The Dallas Morning News reported on new trouble in a region that had become synonymous with violence, terrorism, political instability, and religious fanaticism—the Middle East. This time, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein—a U.S. ally during the Iran-Iraq War—invaded neighboring Kuwait, a tiny, oil-rich nation that had friendly ties with the United States. In a move with consequences that continue to reverberate today, the United States would organize an impressive global alliance to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait in a war that lasted just 100 hours, but would ultimately leave Hussein in power.
In 1991, the world saw irrefutable video evidence of the kind of police brutality that poor minority communities had been clamoring about for generations when a bystander recorded four Los Angeles Police officers ruthlessly beating motorist Rodney King after a car chase. The officers were indicted, as reported in this headline by The New York Times, but were acquitted a year later. The verdict sparked the 1992 L.A. Riots, a nearly weeklong orgy of violence, mayhem, looting, and arson that ended with 63 deaths and $1 billion in property damage.
On Nov. 4, 1992, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported on the ascent of one of the state's native sons to the Oval Office. Former Gov. Bill Clinton had been elected president, relegating George H.W. Bush to a single term in office and closing the book on 12 years of Republican White House domination.
On Feb. 27, a New York Daily News headline summed up the events of the day before, when Muslim terrorists detonated a truck bomb beneath the World Trade Center, a juicy target for both its sheer size and symbolic representation of America's wealth and global influence. The terrorists killed six people, but fell short of their goal to topple one World Trade Center tower over onto the other. Organized by Ramzi Yousef, the nephew of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the bombing revealed that an organized network of bold and sophisticated Middle Eastern terrorists was traveling freely to and from the United States and operating out of American mosques. It was a harbinger of things to come.
On June 17, 1994, America watched with wonder as O.J. Simpson—an amicable football hero, comedic actor, and television personality—led Los Angeles police on a low-speed chase in a now-famous white Bronco. After his surrender, which the New York Daily News reflected in its front-page headline, the world was immersed in an avalanche of media coverage detailing the scandalous details of the gruesome double murder he was accused of committing. The case had everything headline writers dream of: celebrity, race, wealth, sports, sex, adultery, police misconduct, and murder. In October 1995, O.J. would be acquitted in the so-called trial of the century.
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On April 19, 1995, terrorism came to Middle America with the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City. The mastermind was not a Middle Eastern Muslim with an unfamiliar-sounding name, but a white, Christian military veteran named Timothy McVeigh. Radicalized into America's growing right-wing, anti-government militia movement, McVeigh was executed for planting the bomb which killed 168 people, including 19 children. The Daily Oklahoman led with this succinct headline the morning following the bombing.
In 1996, global debate about the ethics of biological science was ignited when Roslin Institute scientists cloned a large, sophisticated, intelligent animal: a sheep named Dolly. The Sun responded with a brilliant headline that duplicated itself on the front page.
New York Daily News pulled no punches when the paper reported news that would become one of the most widely publicized events in history: the death of Princess Diana. In the early morning hours of Aug. 31, 1997, the beloved so-called People's Princess and her boyfriend were killed when their intoxicated driver crashed their Mercedes-Benz in Paris. The world mourned, and 2.5 billion people tuned in to watch her funeral.
Although this headline is taken from The New York Times, headlines consisting of the same two words graced the front pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, The Columbus Dispatch, and countless other major newspapers around the country in 1998. After a long-running scandal surrounding a salacious affair with 22-year-old intern Monica Lewinsky came crashing down on the White House, Bill Clinton joined Andrew Johnson as the only other president ever impeached in American history. He was acquitted by the Senate two months later.
In a parody of an old science-fiction movie, a 1999 Weekly World News headline conveyed the world's trepidation over the coming turn of the millennium. The headline referred to Y2K, a worldwide digital calamity that never was. The panic was based on the idea that computers were programmed to process four-digit years as two-digit codes to save memory space. When those two digits became "00" instead of "98" or "99," the world's computer networks and all the information they contained were supposed to simultaneously crash, but they never did, and Jan. 1, 2000 was a day like any other.
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In 2000, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in the closest and most controversial election in modern history. Although Bush lost the popular vote, Electoral College rules meant that the contest would go to whoever won Florida, where Bush was ahead by a razor-thin margin of just a few hundred votes. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court voted to stop a recount that was still being conducted, awarding Bush the presidency which made him and President George H.W. Bush the only father-son presidential duo since the time of the Adams' at the dawn of the Republic. The Los Angeles Times delivered the news with this direct, poignant headline.
On Sept. 12, 2001, a crude but effective headline from The San Francisco Examiner summed up the national sentiment in the wake of the events from the day before. On Sept. 12, America woke up to a new reality that would shape world events through the present and divide modern American history into the time before that day and the time after. Just like with the JFK assassination a generation before, virtually every American would forever remember where they were on Sept. 11, 2001.
On Jan. 31, 2002, The Economist examined George W. Bush's State of the Union address from two nights earlier. The article's headline was complemented with a prophetic subhead: "America is set on a brave but hazardous course." The statement was made in reference to Bush's debut of a phrase that hearkened back to Ronald Reagan's labeling of the Soviet Union as the "Evil Empire." In his speech, Bush declared that Iran, North Korea, and Iraq represented an "axis of evil" and that the countries were arming themselves with weapons of mass destruction, a phrase that would soon become a rallying cry for preemptive war.
On March 21, 2003, a Los Angeles Times headline detailed the simple truth of the events of the day. Using what proved to be dubious and cherry-picked intelligence, the Bush administration—and its bipartisan enablers in Congress—ordered the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The mission was carried out under the guise of preventing an imminent attack from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which it did not possess, and that Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, which he was not.
On May 3, 2004, a New York Times piece examined the fallout from a series of shocking photos of American troops torturing, humiliating, and terrorizing Iraqi prisoners in one of Saddam Hussein's most notorious torture chambers: Abu Ghraib prison. By that time, Hussein had been captured, but national sentiment had begun to sour on the war as the search for weapons of mass destruction proved fruitless, President Bush's "mission accomplished" declaration proved premature, and growing popular resistance to the invasion among Iraqis made the Bush administration's liberator narrative appear naive. The nightmare at Abu Ghraib, as the Times called it, would be a turning point for American antiwar sentiment.
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2005 was a record-breaking year for hurricanes, and the third major storm of the season would prove to be one of the costliest and deadliest natural disasters in American history. Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, devastating the region in general and New Orleans in particular as biblical flooding swamped the region when the area's flawed and dated levee systems failed. The Times-Picayune headline summed up the desperation of the people trapped in the deadly aftermath, which was exacerbated by an impotent, delayed, and disorganized official response, particularly at the federal level.
A long and dreary chapter in Middle East history ended on Dec. 30, 2006, with the execution of Saddam Hussein, which video footage widely viewed on the internet revealed to be more of a lynching. U.S. forces handed the ruthless Iraqi dictator over to his own enraged countrymen to be hanged for crimes he committed over a 25-year reign of terror, which The Sunday Mail reported taking place at the traditional hanging time of dawn. Saddam Hussein's reign was over, but the war in the country he long terrorized would continue to rage on.
In 2006, Democrats walloped their Republican opponents and gained control of both the House and Senate in the critical midterm elections. George W. Bush now had to contend with a Congress controlled by the opposition party, but a far more monumental event had taken place in the mix. In 2007, Calif. Rep. Nancy Pelosi was chosen as the first female Speaker of the House, as reported by The New York Times. The phrase "Madam Speaker" was now part of the American lexicon.
On Sept. 15, 2008, an alarming Wall Street Journal headline documented the shift of a growing financial downturn into full-scale crisis when the housing market collapsed and the Great Recession swept America and the world. Lax lending practices, a lack of oversight and regulation, and widespread corporate malfeasance led to double-digit unemployment rates, a collapse in home prices, the evaporation of more than half the stock market's value, and the disappearance of nearly $15 trillion in household wealth. It was the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
On Jan. 21, 2009, a Washington Post headline used just two words to summarize the seismic shift in American culture and history that had just taken place. Barack Obama—who would not have been allowed to eat lunch next to white people in much of the country less than half a century before—was inaugurated as president of the United States. A black man was in the White House serving in the highest position in the land.
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In April 2010, the world watched as a flood of oil gushed nonstop, day and night, from an underwater rupture in what was the Deepwater Horizon. The enormous offshore oil rig was located in the Gulf of Mexico when a catastrophic failure caused a massive explosion and a raging, inextinguishable fire that eventually sunk the rig. The result was the largest oil spill in U.S. history and, as reported by the Press-Register of Southern Alabama, literal waves of oil.
Osama bin Laden achieved mythical status among the hunters who considered him a terrorist and his supporters who considered him a prophet. Not only did the 9/11 mastermind strike the greatest blow against the United States in history, but he managed to time and again give his pursuers the slip during a decade-long manhunt as the most wanted man on the planet. That all ended on May 2, 2011, when operators from the vaunted Seal Team 6 raided his secret compound in Pakistan and rendered the founder of al-Qaida, in the words of the St. Petersburg Times, dead.
By 2012, the world was learning about shadowy online whistleblower organizations that engaged in high-stakes games of informational warfare by intentionally leaking the deepest secrets of powerful world governments and officials. The biggest and best known of them all was Wikileaks, founded by a mysterious figure named Julian Assange, who Ecuador granted asylum in 2012 despite the protests of Great Britain, as reported here by the Daily Mail. Wikileaks would emerge as a major force in American and global politics as it exerted influence over presidential elections and steered the public's perception of massive government surveillance programs that would come to define the 2010s.
On April 15, 2015, a series of explosions rocked the Boston Marathon while the nation watched in horror as the news media played images of runners attacked near the finish line. A headline in The Boston Globe captured the public sentiment as authorities spent the next few days piecing together a picture of two brothers radicalized by fundamentalist Islam. An unprecedented manhunt unfolded on live TV as police pursued the brothers, who engaged them in a wild shootout and several escapes before one was killed and the other was captured.
In 2014, a grand jury failed to indict the police officer who killed an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., touching off sometimes-violent protests both in the poor Missouri town itself and across the country, as illustrated by this New York Post headline. The incident, as reported by the New York Post, caused outrage not only because it was yet another in a long line of police killings of black men that went unpunished, but because of the police response to civilian protests. The Black Lives Matter movement gained strength as the country debated the militarization of even the smallest American police forces and learned about the policy of policing for profit that was and is widespread in poor, minority communities.
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In 2015, the San Francisco Chronicle used two words to capture the sentiments of the paper's home city—long a bastion of gay culture—in response to the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision. The landmark civil rights case determined that states may not deny same-sex couples the right to get married. It was the capstone achievement of a movement that began with the Stonewall Riots nearly half a century earlier in 1969.
In 2016, Donald Trump stunned the American electorate and the entire world when he first defeated a robust and crowded field of Republican primary candidates and eventually, Democrat Hillary Clinton in the general election. A political outsider with a long and scandalous public life, Trump defied conventional wisdom and beat one of the most formidable political machines ever assembled. As The New York Times reported, Donald Trump was elected president despite—or perhaps because of—his refusal to conform to longstanding political norms and etiquettes.
Mass shootings have been a standard part of the American experience since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, with mass murders regularly taking place at schools, malls, movie theaters, offices, stores, nightclubs, and every other conceivable public space. The worst of them all at that point, however, took place on Oct. 1, 2017, when a gunman opened fire on a crowd of Las Vegas concertgoers from an elevated position with a rifle modified for automatic fire in an act the Miami Herald referred to as “pure evil.” The modification device, called a bump stock, was perfectly legal to buy and own.
From entertainers to media moguls, executives to military officers, hundreds of men learned through the #MeToo movement that women would no longer succumb to being commoditized perks of wealth and power, as they had been for time immemorial. The New York Times reported that the movement had felled more than 200 powerful men at the highest reaches of their industries—and nearly half had been replaced by women.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sept. 24 announced the House of Representatives was launching an official impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. That inquiry came on the heels of Robert Mueller's investigation into collusion with Russia in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential elections and obstruction of justice by Trump in regard to potential collusion. That investigation did not find sufficient evidence of collusion nor reach a determination about whether President Donald Trump committed obstruction of justice.
The impeachment inquiry was announced in light of a whistleblower complaint that President Trump, in a July 25 phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, abused his power by applying pressuring on Zelensky to investigate his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. The whistleblower further alleged White House officials tried to obscure records of that phone call.
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