J-School historian discovers scholarly treasure in Associated Press archives

J-School historian discovers scholarly treasure in Associated Press archives

By Gene Allen

When friends ask what I’m working on these days, I tell them it’s a biography of the man who essentially reorganized the international news system between 1925 and 1950—someone who broke up the European-dominated cartel that had controlled international news since the early days of the telegraph, and in the process spread the influence of AP’s journalism far beyond North America, paralleling the growth of U.S. economic, military and political influence during the 20th century.

“Wow!” they usually reply. “Who was this guy?”

The answer, of course, is Kent Cooper.

The biography, I hope, will make him, and the extraordinary events that accompanied his long tenure as General Manager and Executive Director of AP, much better known to general readers, the journalistic community and especially the growing corps of media and journalism historians. Yes, there will be footnotes, but the story of Cooper’s career, and AP’s remarkable growth and development during those years, is also a dramatic narrative, full of challenges, high-stakes negotiations, bitter rivalries, stunning successes—and failures too.

The stakes were always high: who would control the world’s news? What was the right way to cover it? How would print journalism handle the challenge of a disruptive new medium like radio? Who would be allowed to own, and thus profit from, news? These, of course, still remain powerful questions for journalists, and many present-day debates have been shaped by earlier versions of these controversies.

In the last year, I’ve spent several months combing through the rich and extensive  archival records documenting Cooper’s career that are housed in AP’s Corporate Archives. The Corporate Archives, staffed by Director Valerie Komor and Processing Archivist Francesca Pitaro, were formally established in 2003, but the collections only became available to researchers in 2005. For a historian like myself, working through raw material that hasn’t been closely studied is a major thrill, and Cooper’s papers have offered dozens of striking revelations throwing fresh light on disputed events and controversies.

When I began this project, I discovered that Cooper’s “Right to Know” campaign, which strongly criticized government control of news, originated in the last years of World War II and continued through the later 1940s. Since this was the period when the Cold War was taking shape, I expected to find that Cooper’s initiative operated in parallel with U.S. foreign policy, perhaps explicitly coordinated with the U.S. State Department.

Instead, the documents tell a much different story: under Cooper’s leadership, AP repeatedly fought off very public U.S. State Department demands to provide news for the Voice of America broadcasts. Cooper saw the VOA as government propaganda, and he strongly believed in keeping AP’s news out of that channel and keeping news organizations as independent as possible of governments both in the U.S. and internationally. The archival record challenges preconceptions and holds theory to the stern test of evidence. The result is a view of the world and of AP that, while confirming long-term structural changes such as growing U.S. influence in the 20th century, allows for complications, contradictions, mixed motives and unintended consequences.

(Reprinted from AP World 2012, no. 2.  To learn more about the Associated Press, visit www.ap.org )