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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.
ot 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 was n'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.
nderlying 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.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1926; Journalism and Morality - 26.06; Volume 137, No. 6; page 761-769.