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When George W Bush launched an illegal invasion of Iraq in a vain search for weapons of mass destruction, there was no shortage of cheerleaders in the US media.
The Guardian’s trenchant criticism of the war would have had little impact across the Atlantic were it not for the power of the internet to demolish national boundaries. As it was, Americans paid attention – in their millions.
“A host of political bloggers have pointed to the British media’s more sceptical coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war and wondered why American reporters can’t be more impertinent,” noted the Columbia Journalism Review in 2007. “These bloggers regularly link to stories in the Guardian, the Independent, and the Times, driving waves of US traffic to their websites.”
Suddenly, a third of the Guardian’s readers were in North America, seemingly attracted by its lack of deference to authority, its global outlook at a moment when many US newspapers were cutting costs and turning inward, and its informal tone and irreverent wit.
The breakthrough hinted at a potential to become a force in the US in ways that would have been unimaginable to the paper’s founders in Manchester 200 years ago.
It was not plain sailing. The Guardian lacked the financial muscle for an immediate and aggressive expansion into the US. An attempt to buy the website domain name guardian.com foundered when Guardian Industries, a company in Auburn Hills, Michigan, refused to sell.
Still, the news organisation’s free, open-access model and liberal values built a loyal audience, and its focus on the national security state, racial injustice, voting rights and environmental protections struck a chord.
Sidney Blumenthal, a former White House official who became familiar with the paper in the 1980s and continues to write for it, says: “The Guardian was within my conception of what journalism was and should be – and it was not like the New York Times. It was more stylish, it took more chances, it was more analytical.”
By the end of 2020, the website had a record 116 million unique US browsers, with a daily average of 5.8 million. It has never built a paywall, but after years of boom-bust cycles, reader contributions have turned it into a profitable business in the US.
But it has been a long and sometimes rocky road to get where it is today, and the paper has not always embodied the values that strike a chord with progressive Americans. For all the values it espouses today, the Guardian has sometimes found itself on the wrong side of history.
Two centuries of transatlantic reporting
The Manchester Guardian was founded in 1821 by the journalist John Edward Taylor, the son of a cotton merchant, with financial backing from cotton and textile traders – some of whom would almost certainly have traded with cotton plantations that used enslaved labour.
(Last year, as the Black Lives Matter movement forced a worldwide reckoning over historical injustices, the Scott Trust commissioned independent researchers to investigate any potential links between the Guardian and the transatlantic slave trade.)
As such, in the early decades, the paper often aligned its views with those of “big cotton”, repeatedly siding with mills and manufacturers against workers refusing to handle cotton picked by enslaved people during the American civil war.
The paper had always denounced slavery, but was unconvinced that victory for the north would end it. It ran hostile editorials about Abraham Lincoln, dismissing his time in office as “a series of acts abhorrent to every true notion of constitutional right and human liberty”.
As it had long supported self-determination movements around the world, it also believed that the south had every right to establish independence.
The Guardian of today took shape when Taylor’s nephew, CP Scott, took over in 1872 at the age of 25. Committed to social justice, his 57-year editorship transformed it into a standard-bearer for independent liberal journalism. Scott had a private meeting with Woodrow Wilson when the US president visited Manchester in 1918.
But news from the US was still sporadic. Years passed with no regular correspondent there at all. For the first half of the 20th century, the paper relied on busy American journalists already working for US titles, who were discouraged from filing too often because of the cost of cables.
It wasn’t until after the second world war that the Guardian really began to cover the US properly.
Alistair Cooke’s reporting on the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco helped land him a job as a full-time correspondent in New York. But in the 1960s, Cooke’s relationship with his counterpart in Washington, the Canadian Max Freedman, was so strained that they never spoke, and editorial planning had be done through the Manchester office more than 3,000 miles away.
Freedman, who worked from a room in the Washington Post office, quit the Guardian suddenly in 1963, leaving the biggest story of the decade to fall to Cooke.
He had been invited to cover John F Kennedy’s trip to Dallas, Texas, by a member of White House staff, but having taken 82 flights in just over two months, turned down the offer. Although this denied him the historic dateline, it allowed him to file faster than reporters on the spot who, 13 cars behind Kennedy, were taken to a separate location with no idea of what happened.
Cooke’s daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge, who was 14 at the time, recalls: “We were all discharged from school early and my memory of New York City is that there was no sound – that’s probably because there was so much going on in my head. When I walked into the apartment, it was the opposite of that: we had two televisions, which was unusual at the time, and late into the night I monitored two stations and Daddy had one in his study.
“I remember so clearly – the way one has important memories embedded in the brain – the phones ringing all the time. I have a vision of Daddy being in his bathrobe and it was maybe 10.30 at night and the phone rang and he stood there and screamed into the telephone: ‘We are doing the best we can!’”
Nearly five years later, Cooke was in the room when Kennedy’s brother, Bobby, was shot and killed in Los Angeles while running for president and filed a report from the scene. “He was completely stunned by the experience,” his daughter says. “He hadn’t taken his typewriter even and had to file copy on a piece of scratch paper.”
Hammering a typewriter in his 15th-floor apartment overlooking New York’s Central Park, Cooke would hold his position until 1972 on a salary of $19,000 a year, covering a vast range of topics while also making TV programmes and the BBC radio series Letter from America.
But he was challenged by the then Guardian editor, Alastair Hetherington, over whether he was giving too little coverage to race relations in the south. In the early 1960s the paper sent William Weatherby to cover the civil rights movement, and according to a New York Times obituary, he developed lifelong friendships with James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin and other major figures.
Guardian reporters covered the twists and turns of the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon in the 1970s. Michael White, Washington correspondent from 1984 to 1988, witnessed the re-election of Ronald Reagan and his second term at the White House.
“He had this knack of lighting up a room and you couldn’t dislike him because even when he was shot he made a joke,” says White, 75. “The difference between Reagan and [Donald] Trump was that Reagan appealed in important respects to the sunny side of human nature, and that’s quite important. You could get very cross and very scornful towards Reagan, but he was a hard man to hate.”
A day after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the paper’s front page carried the headline “A declaration of war” above a near-full-page photo of the twin towers in flames. A leader column urged the US to “keep cool”.
An even greater unilateralism, even a growing siege mentality, is to be avoided at all costs. It would be a victory for the terrorists. Likewise, American overreaction, especially of the military variety, must be guarded against. The temptation right now is to make someone pay. And pay … and pay … and pay. Take a deep breath, America. Keep cool. And keep control. Guardian leader, 12 September 2001
But there were moments of overreach. In 2004 the Guardian launched a campaign encouraging concerned non-American readers to lobby undecided voters in Clark County, Ohio, a swing state in the election between Bush and John Kerry. There was uproar over what many saw as foreign interference in American democracy long before disinformation was a twinkle in Vladimir Putin’s eye.
“Blimey,” wrote the then features editor, Ian Katz. “I think I have an idea as to how Dr Frankenstein felt. By the beginning of this week, a quixotic idea dreamed up last month in a north London pub had morphed into a global media phenomenon complete with transatlantic outrage, harrumphing over journalistic ethics, grave political predictions – and thousands of people from every corner of the planet writing personal, passionate letters to voters in a tiny American district few outside Ohio had heard of 10 days ago.”
In the end, Bush won Clark County by a bigger margin than he had in 2000, prompting speculation about a “Guardian effect” that backfired spectacularly. “Did Guardian turn Ohio to Bush?” pondered a BBC headline.
But by this time a paradigm shift was taking place: the internet changed everything.
By 2007 the Guardian’s online presence was pulling in about 5 milllion unique browsers a month in the US, prompting the launch of a dedicated US-based website. It was branded Guardian America, its headquarters were two blocks from the White House, and its founding editor, Michael Tomasky, was American.
“In 2007 the idea of a British newspaper trying to become an American media outlet was new and strange and something that people couldn’t quite wrap their heads around,” says Tomasky. “I would say that in two years, the world had changed enough that it was no longer strange to people, and the Guardian – in addition to the Independent and others – was an acknowledged and accepted part of the media landscape.”
In 2011, the site relaunched as Guardian US, this time from New York even as a succession of big scoops helped put it on the map. In 2010 it was among five newspapers worldwide to make public US diplomatic cables provided by Chelsea Manning, a US army intelligence analyst, to the whistleblower website WikiLeaks.
In 2013 it published documents leaked by Edward Snowden detailing mass surveillance by the National Security Agency, a story that dominated news cycles and boosted its profile immeasurably. The Guardian and Washington Post shared a Pulitzer prize for public service.
It also broke new ground by compiling a national database of people killed by police and telling the stories of more than 3,600 healthcare workers who died after contracting the coronavirus on the frontline.
Today the Guardian has offices in New York, Washington and Oakland, California, and further correspondents elsewhere: a team of more than a hundred editorial and commercial staff that dwarfs most other British newspaper operations in the US.
Its ever evolving insider-outsider viewpoint continues to resonate with readers such Debbie Twyman from Independence, Missouri. When she and her husband, Craig Whitney, a fellow teacher, taught civics and government, they set up a homespun website that included the Guardian in its list of reliable news sources.
Twyman says: “You guys have really stepped up your coverage of issues in the US and, in particular, you’ve followed politics so closely over the last few years. Sometimes you guys scoop US papers; sometimes you get there before they do.
“But sometimes you cover things that they aren’t even covering at all, and one of the reasons we put the Guardian link on our webpage is we want kids to have an international perspective. The Guardian’s a reliable, responsible, well-sourced newspaper. You’re trustworthy.”