Journalism and Morality

"Not defensively, but that the record may be straight, let me say that I did very little faking, although there was no special prejudice against it, so long as the fake wasn't libelous."
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I

For the hundredth time, savagely, I rang that doorbell. It was not my first visit, by any means, although there was no hope that the mistress of the household could be seen, for she had eloped several days before with a millionaire manufacturer of cosmetics; and as for her husband, he was under restraint in a private sanitarium. There was a grown daughter who was supposed to be in her mother's confidence, and I hoped to worm out of her the secret of the lovers' whereabouts. The newspaper I was working for was getting uneasy. It had printed the scandal with gusto but without provocation. There had been no court action, no street encounter between the two men; the millionaire had not even been expelled from his clubs. There was no legal privilege of publication. And as time wore on, the other newspapers not daring in the circumstances to say anything about the case, there had come to the office an acute feeling that unless the runaways were found there might be short shrift in a libel suit.

As I turned away from the door a telegraph messenger boy was wearily mounting the steps.

'There's nobody home,' I told him curtly, 'not even a servant.'

'You can sign for this, can't you?' he asked. 'Friend of the family.'

On the open book lie held out for my signature was a telegram addressed to the daughter of the house. It must surely be from her mother. I set down an assumed name, pocketed the message, and waited until the boy was out of sight.

It was evening and I was working for an afternoon newspaper, so I took my booty home. There, with a borrowed and heated hatpin, I opened the telegram—not very expertly, for I tore the flap. The message was dated from Tucson, and was an inquiry from the wife about the condition of the deserted husband. I had found the runaways.

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The anxiety behind this telegram did not at all concern me, nor was I concerned at having stolen it. As the child of God-fearing parents I think I may say I had a strict sense of private property rights: I would not have pilfered ten cents or ten dollars. But my conscience was wholly untroubled about the message, because I had done the conventional thing. I was living up to the standards of my fellows. Other reporters would have done as I did, confident of the approval of their superiors; and this was true of nearly all metropolitan newspapers twenty years ago, not merely of those which were denominated yellow. We used to hear of some that did not join in such practices, but they were notoriously stodgy, and suffered correspondingly in revenue. A comparison of the circulation and advertising statistics of the Boston Transcript as against the New York World, of the New York Evening Post of that day as against the Chicago Tribune, will illustrate my point.

Newspapers that were successful financially went after news aggressively, and on occasion made news, as my paper had done in the case of this illicit elopement.

I was exultant, not ashamed; and it was with repressed triumph that I laid the telegram on the city editor's desk the next morning, explaining in detail how I had come by it.

He heard me unmoved, gazing out over the 'local room.' Then he said hastily that he must go into the editorial conference, a daily formality, and would see me when he returned. He took the telegram with him. This impressed me as rather odd behavior, but what happened when he came back was really trying.

'You are aware,' he said severely, 'that you have committed a felony?'

I nodded. I was beginning to get angry.

'This newspaper cannot countenance such conduct,' he continued, 'and will make no use whatever of information obtained in that way. If I did not realize that you acted from overzeal I should be compelled to discharge you. As it is, you will be permitted to remain on the staff, on probation. Now, what are you going to do with this telegram?' His gravity relaxed; his manner implied a bantering reproach. 'Rough work,' he said. 'The flap's torn.'

'I'll paste it up,' I replied sullenly, 'and stick it under the door.'

'Don't do that,' he advised. 'Suppose we wait.'

I returned to my desk, and presently the Sunday editor, with a curious smile, handed me a receiving telegraph envelope, properly addressed. As he turned wordlessly away the city editor beckoned me, slipped the message into the fresh envelope, sealed it, and directed me, instead of returning it in person, to employ someone I could trust, and have him telephone me when the task was safely accomplished. The message was slow in coming. Once, when I emerged from a telephone booth after answering a personal call, the city editor summoned me impatiently. He leaned forward and whispered with the air of a conspirator: 'Have you removed the corpse from the premises?'

Although I was in a state of high moral indignation at the manner which my lawbreaking was being accepted, I was somewhat mollified at this tacit indication of fellow responsibility. After all, the city editor was a good scout. Presently I learned that the telegram had been put under the right door, and that my messenger, after ringing the bell, had escaped without being questioned, and I so reported. I was made to feel, somehow, that I was in quite good odor at the office.

That afternoon the paper printed on the first page a story from Tucson. The runaways were there, registered under an assumed name at the principal hotel. If 'no use whatever' had been made of the information in the stolen telegram, then some obscure reporter out West must have been blessed suddenly in clairvoyance. The couple, thus discovered, started at once toward home, and I was sent out to meet the train halfway. There was no suit for libel.

II

Thereafter I thought it proper to say nothing of such exploits at the office. I was expected to deliver the goods and no questions asked. There was the time, for instance, when I broke into a house to steal a photograph. We prized pictures highly in those days, although it was fifteen years before the advent of the illustrated tabloid.

I was reporting an unsavory will-case in an Illinois city, and the wife of a Baptist clergyman from a near-by town was disagreeably involved in it. She and her husband had fled to escape the notoriety, but her affidavit had been taken and was read in court with some letters. Two members of the pastor's church, one of them a deacon (a real-estate man named Taylor), had come to court that day, and they were vocally indignant. They had supposed, from the preacher's loyalty to his wife, that she was innocent. That night, after I had filed my story of the day's proceedings, I took a train for the near-by village, and called on Mr. Taylor. He told me all he knew about the pastor's wife, and rummaged the house in vain for a picture. When I pressed him to search further, hinting that publication would mortify the cuckold clergyman and his wife, the deacon had a sudden inspiration.

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