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.

'They stored their things in one of my cottages,' he said. 'I'll show you the place.'

He dressed, for it was long past twelve of a brilliant moonlit night, and took me to the cottage, which stood on a corner. Beside it was an unoccupied lot, but there were homes on each corner site, and all the houses were dark. My friend the deacon left me to my own devices.

The adventure seemed to me only mildly exciting. There was no danger that the deacon would prosecute me for housebreaking, and the owners of the personal property within would hardly dare come forward in any event. There was a possibility that some strolling village constable might nab me, or even take a pot shot at me, but it was remote.

In the shadow at the back of the house I discovered a broken windowpane, and effected an entrance without much trouble. I found myself in what seemed to be a narrow pantry, and the door into the adjoining room was not only locked but nailed. There was nothing to do but force it; so I put my foot against the opposite wall and shoved with all my might.

The door suddenly gave way like the crack o' doom. The noise it made in that empty house, in that silent night, startled and unnerved me. I crawled through the window and crouched fearfully in the black shadow. Nothing happened. After a little bit, reassured, I made my way back into the house and so into a front room, striking matches and shading them with my hands. On the sofa was an old suitcase, unlocked; and when I threw it open I discovered in the jumble some photographs. I took them to the shuttered window, to inspect them in a bar of moonlight which came through, and on top found the snapshot of a woman, astride a horse. Just what I wanted! At this moment of joy I happened to peer through the crack in the shutter, and my heart skipped a beat. The house across the street, which had been dark when I came, was lighted!

It may be that someone in the house had come home late, or was ill, but of course my instant thought was that the crashing of the door had waked the neighbors, and that probably they had telephoned for the police. I thrust the pictures hastily into an inner pocket and bolted through the house again; but after a painful wait I ventured to the railroad station and boarded a train without mishap.

Only one of the pictures was of any use, and I threw the others away. I wrote to the office that I had obtained the snapshot of the lady on horseback 'at considerable trouble'; and after it had gone through the art department, where the fuzziness was painted out, it loomed large on page one. Subsequently, for twenty-five dollars, I obtained from a photographer three posed pictures, as well as the address of the fugitive preacher and his wife. They were a good thousand miles away, in the Bay View Hotel at Biloxi, Mississippi, but my paper sent me in pursuit.

The Bay View Hotel was really a large boarding-house on the shell road, and it was filled. I took quarters near by. My first ruse, 'a message from Mr. Taylor,' failed. Probably they had heard of the deacon's personal apostasy. I wired my paper that a surprise attack had failed, and that I must settle down to a siege; but after three days of it I resorted to a new expedient—new to me. At the telegraph office I typed, on receiving blanks, a long message to the clergyman's wife, telling her I had come a thousand miles at great expense solely to put her defense before the world, but that now I was out of patience and was going back unless she telephoned me an invitation to interview her. The poor person, who had refused to answer the telephone, who had returned my notes unopened and had even declined to accept a special-delivery letter, could not resist her curiosity about the telegram. She read it; and although it had cost me only a tip to the messenger boy she seemed to think I must have made a lavish outlay on it. She telephoned, and I got the interview.

III

There will be those who think the preacher's wife was entitled to her hard-won and long-defended privacy; but personal privacy was no more sacred to the newspaper man of that day than the Golden Rule to a Hottentot. It is not sacred now, of course, but there is a difference in the motives for invasion, and a difference in the manner. The press has different standards of news, and would not pursue to such a distance persons of station so humble. If the clergyman's wife had been the daughter of a fashionable multimillionaire family, and her husband a celebrated jazz-composer, they could not have escaped. But the press of that day was merely incited to greater activity by any effort at escape; for it was a time when 'beats' were valued disproportionately and an effort to escape publicity mean that one newspaper might get something which the others would miss. The eagerness for a 'scoop' threw things out of perspective. And then the newspapers had shorter arms for the gathering of material; with a more limited supply they were forced to squeeze what they had more forcibly, and display it more enticingly.

Good reporters in that day were men with initiative and nerve, whose sensibilities were none too keen. The elder Bennett once said that newspapers sometimes required men to do things which a gentleman would n't like to do. It is difficult to know whether he, the pioneer yellow journalist of this country, was in an ironic mood, or merely was not clear in his mind as to what sort of deportment is prescribed for gentlemen. He had a great contempt for all reporters, although by falling in with his acute notions of what was interesting—by which he meant what was sensational—they helped heap up his millions. The financial success of the New York Herald, indeed, inspired that costly and spectacular war, more than a quarter of a century ago, in which William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, through the American and the World, fought for supremacy in fakery and thrills.

This warfare reverberated through the provinces, and affected profoundly the practices of all sizable newspapers there. It so happened that I drifted into reporting (most of the men who went into newspaper work in those days were just drifting; there was not even an opportunity to pause for meditation in a school of journalism) in the early part of this century, when emulation of Hearst-Pulitzer methods was most marked; and I had hardly begun to get the hang of the work before the paper that was paying me twelve dollars a week imported from New York, as managing editor, a man who knew the tricks of the trade. I was in an Indiana town working on a murder mystery at the time. Correspondents were there from Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Louisville, and so on; the Indianapolis Star, I remember, sent a squad of four men. That my paper had assigned a green recruit like myself showed it needed a New York managing editor. I was introduced to him over the long-distance telephone, and was told to whoop it up. There was no limit to my space; above all I must send photographs. More, my stuff was to be signed. The new managing editor assumed apparently that a seasoned man had been sent out on a mystery so compelling; and in New York an emergence from reportorial anonymity had already begun.

Highly stimulated by the importance suddenly attaching to my story, I worked night and day. A pretty schoolteacher had been found murdered, and the town had brought two detectives from a Chicago agency to help the local police to solve the mystery. These two, with the mayor and the chief of police, formed a court of inquiry, which examined witnesses endlessly, and gave out enigmatic or misleading statements to the reporters. All the correspondents thought it a futile and ridiculous performance. One of the Hearst men from Chicago sent his paper an interview with the mayor saying that the murderer would be behind the bars within twenty-four hours. It was a fake, and I was moved to competition. I wrote a yarn that a clock, given to the young woman by an admirer, had 'stopped at the fatal hour.' This was reprinted, without credit and without investigation, all over that part of the country.

The facts about the murder make a good story, but there is no space for them here. I believe I was the first to strike the right trail. The girl had been killed by one of the foremost citizens of the town, a professional man of means. My first action when I 'got a line' on this was to procure his photograph and send it to my paper; then I sneaked away from the other correspondents to Terre Haute, struck up an acquaintance with a trained nurse, and got certain corroborative evidence. In every respect I was conducting myself as a private detective, not as a reporter, and in this I was conforming to the pattern of my fellows. When I returned and laid my facts before the mayor, I asked that the man be arrested under conditions which would assure me of a beat. He said he would consult the Chicago detectives. He did, and the detectives consulted the suspect. No arrest was made, or ever has been made, so far as the guilty man is concerned. An innocent man was tried for the murder and acquitted, although the detectives had forced from him a false confession. By this time the newspapers thereabout knew the truth, and I am told it is now an open secret throughout Indiana; but I, vain of my detective work in connection with it, was downcast that we couldn't bring the murderer to book. The new managing editor consoled me.

'We'll keep the picture,' he said sagely, 'and if he does n't confess we can print the story when he dies. You can't libel a dead man.'

But when I last heard of the murderer he was still much alive, going about his business in the Indiana town as though nothing had happened. Thus one of my earliest experiences witnessed the failure of the press in a function which it particularly prided itself. In that day it constituted itself part of the police force of its community, no doubt on the ground that this was a public service. Great crime mysteries were often solved quite outside the official agencies. Nowadays newspapers take no such arduous interest in them, and it may be that more of them go unsolved.

IV

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. I was working, remember, not for newspapers in the Hearst chain, but for dailies that held high standing in their communities; and in the office of at least one of them there was an understanding that a man would be fired if he were caught faking. It so fell out that I was caught in the act by that very city editor. He sent me out with explicit instructions to get something new in the case of a man who had died of exposure in a city park, after a winter's night of revelry. I knew what the instructions meant. They meant making a mystery, preferably a murder mystery, out of the death. But at the hospital I could get no aid or encouragement, and the coroner declined firmly to reopen the case. If he had but agreed to it, I should have had all the elbowroom I needed for speculation, about a jealous rival or knock-out drops or what not. I did learn that the dead man had six grown brothers; and since I must have something new I wrote that all of them had gathered round the bier and sworn to their mother that they never again would touch a drop of intoxicants.

This happened in St. Louis, and the population of St. Louis, unfortunately for me, was largely German. If I had said that the brothers had sworn off all but beer, I might possibly have got by with it. I don't know. I do know that what was printed wounded them deeply, and tended to make them ridiculous in the eyes of their neighbors. All six of them stalked into the office and demanded a retraction from the city editor. He appeased them by killing my story. It had appeared in one edition; it appeared in no other.

The city editor said nothing about it to me. I had but obeyed orders as best I could.

That sort of faking, I believe, has gone quite by the board in the substantial daily press. I am not talking now about the picture papers, which are a law unto themselves, and which are in some ways comparable to the papers which startled a continent during the Hearst-Pulitzer war. It was soon found by the American, the World, and their imitators that faking did n't pay. For one thing, readers got so they did n't believe what they read. The era of fakery is partly responsible for the common saying that you can't believe what you see in the newspapers. But there was still another argument. Why employ men to cook up such feeble stuff when all over the world men and women were enacting dramas much more moving and convincing? With the multiplication of the agencies of news-gathering the excuse for faking disappeared. The pressure on the news columns became so great that it was a question, not of finding sensational stuff to print, nor of manufacturing it, but of selecting according to certain standards from the mass at hand.

In somewhat the same way the scoop was found not to pay dividends. There is no longer sharp competition between rival newspapers to anticipate one another in the presentation of news, simply because it doesn't pay. The triumph as a rule lasts only through one edition, and is forgotten in twenty-four hours. Other factors of much greater importance have entered into circulation, such as superior mechanical equipment, the employment of 'colyumists' and feature writers, prize contests and crossword puzzles. Even crusading, which was justified as a public service, has become passé. The Hearst-Pulitzer papers have come a long way since the days of their vivid competition; the Pulitzer papers—perhaps owing to the fact that they are now administered as an estate for the heirs—a little the farther. Excepting big headlines and a predilection for scandal, they have little in common with yellow journalism as they once exemplified it. They still crusade a little, out of habit, although they must know it is old-fashioned; but they do not fake, or break their necks to beat one another. When any newspaper nowadays deliberately distorts the facts, it is not to produce a sensation, but to serve some ulterior political or financial end. And since that kind of cheating is likely to be detected sooner or later, to the impairment of circulation and advertising, newspapers are chary of it. They depend for their revenue on popular favor, and the processes that make for their success are at least as democratic as the processes by which a man becomes President of these United States.

V

Underlying the changing standards and practices of the press is the mechanizing of the plant and the process of news-distribution. All the processes that go toward reducing the population of this country to an Arrow-collar level have worked their way with the newspaper, and are still at work. We see this in the editorial pages, where forthright expression of opinion has been subordinated to a recital of facts likely to be acceptable to a large circulation. Mechanical improvements have made possible larger circulations, and larger circulations have imposed a greater common denominator of taste to please. The capital investment is larger, and the policy more conservative. Nowhere is this more evident than in the news columns.

The good reporter in this year of grace differs widely from the good reporter in the first decade of the century. Individual exploits have gone out of journalism as they have gone out of war. Those that I have sketched here as fairly characteristic of the day's work—although, to be sure, some of them are high spots—are obsolescent, perhaps quite obsolete. When the spur to get a scoop ceased to be felt, reporters began to work in groups instead of singly, against one another. If there are several ends of a story to be covered, the work is apportioned among them, and they get together later to share what they have gathered. If a celebrity is to be interviewed, it is done en masse. The technique of reporting is coöperative. There is no special initiative, because there is no real competition, in getting at the facts. And the facts, when written, must be in accord with a rigid formula. Everybody around a newspaper, excepting the sports writers, is pouring stuff into a mould.

The reporter of pugilism, horseracing, or tennis has a quite exceptional latitude. He is encouraged to express himself in ways little short of bizarre. The inhibitions and restrictions that fetter the news reporter do not affect him except perhaps in rare instances, when sporadic efforts are made to lace the sporting page within the corsets of the formula prevailing elsewhere. I do not know why these efforts have been unsuccessful. It is an interesting question. I do know that in this one department of your paper you will find a free run of slang and a racy expression of personal opinion; and it may be worth noting as something more than a coincidence that our Heywood Brouns and our Ring Lardners are recruited from the sporting staffs of newspapers. No graduate from the local room may expect, unless he works a near-miracle of self-expression, to receive any training for the kind of writing those fellows do.

There is a crop of writers, the Will Irwins and Samuel Hopkins Adamses and Ray Stannard Bakers, who came out of the news departments, but they emerged before the present rigidity of standardization set in. They are graduates of the old Sun, which stimulated reporting with a flavor and a difference, and which has now joined the melancholy array of gravestones in Mr. Munsey's cemetery. It may be set down with a good deal of certitude that present-day news-reporting will never make a good writer of any man or woman. Persons with the making of writers in them may pause for a moment in the local room, not for the training, but for the closer look at life it affords. They do pause there sometimes, but not for long. If they linger, it is at their peril.

Even the Supreme Court of the United States has now recognized that news is a commodity. At its best, news-writing may produce a lower order of literature, but I doubt it. I think that the speed and strict commercialism of the output must prevent that. Where is the 'controlled delirium' of the news room just before edition time, of which Julian Ralph used to tell us? Not even the sinking of a Titanic causes more than a ripple. The day's grist is gathered into the hopper, put through the mill, and comes out a standardized product; and about the process there is the precision, the good craftsmanship, and somewhat the quantity of Ford manufacture. The glamorous excitement and the pride of personal handiwork have gone out of it.

In one respect this is advantageous. News is graded and valued much more accurately than in the old days. If you will pick up your competing morning newspapers, and glance at their first pages, you will see that—without any prearrangement—they display the same news in their show-windows, with about the same emphasis. Although it is still impossible to define news satisfactorily, it is nevertheless possible to put it into a perspective, at any moment, which trained newspaper men will agree is the right perspective for that time and place. Its worth can be estimated as accurately as horsemen gauge the value of horseflesh.

On the reporter, however, the process of standardization has worked a hardship. I do not mean that he would be happier stealing telegrams and playing private detective, although he might. I do mean that his most valuable attributes, which formerly manifested themselves on occasion in such ways, tend now to atrophy. The establishment of a formula in composition makes him lazy. The lack of competition makes him flabby. He loses initiative, gets so he takes things for granted, ceases to inquire closely. He lacks that effective skepticism which goes to the root of things. He accepts listlessly the statements handed out to him by lawyers, well-meaning propagandists, and publicity agents.

Two instances have come under my observation recently which will serve to illustrate what I mean as regards press agents. The first was a speech by a famous railroad executive, delivered in New York City. In advance of the occasion a publicity bureau, calling itself a 'counselor in public relations,'—for this is the patter of the trade,—sent to the newspapers and to the news agencies a copy of the address, as it had been dictated to a stenographer. But when the railroad man found his audience responsive he departed, after the first few paragraphs, from the manuscript. He is noted for his sharp tongue, and he has pronounced opinions. The upshot was a much livelier and more interesting speech than he had intended to make. The reporters who were sent as a formality to the meeting, after verifying the fact that the speaker was there and was talking, went on their way with the prepared copy in their pockets; and the next morning no New York newspaper had the real news of the evening, although one of them printed the 'canned' speech in full.

The other instance was a news story about an industrial plant in which several deaths had occurred from poisoning. Rumors of this spread about New York, and one paper sent a man to investigate them. What he did was to apply for information to the publicity department of the plant, and he came back empty-handed, convinced that there was no story to be printed. Later another newspaper sent out a man who, it happened, was 'dated' in his reportorial training. He went first to the plant, and by inquiry on the spot got the facts. When finally he approached the publicity department and the officials of the corporation he had a list of deaths, compiled from the mortuary records, and what he got was a helpless admission that the story was true. It revealed an ugly condition, and it was news—rather than an instance of crusading—because a similar condition as revealed in other plants was the subject of widespread agitation; but the facts about this plant would never have become public property, in all probability, if the modern tendency in reporting had been followed.

This was a matter of news because it was under investigation by the Federal Government and the officials of two States; but when reports reached New York morning newspapers, during the investigations, of conditions in other plants, no reporter was sent out to investigate them. The conditions were described as similar to those under scrutiny, in that workers were dying, or had died, of poisoning; but they differed in that different poisons, not then under official investigation, were to blame. Why should a newspaper concerned mainly with circulation and advertising go out of its way to stir up this scandal, when it had in hand more scandal than it could print? To have done so would have been to undertake a crusade on its own initiative; and crusading, as we have noted, is passé.

Undoubtedly newspapers, in those days when they were quick on the trigger and crusaded on slight provocation, did grave injustice to individuals on many an occasion. They realized their power, and sometimes used it recklessly, sometimes for mere display. The present easy-going attitude is more comfortable for them and for their reporters, and certainly it is more comfortable for certain parts of the public. We have a politer daily journalism. It strives more earnestly to please, is more regardful of our wishes. Its morals are more urbane. Its temper is more flexible. It can see good in nearly anything.

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