Featured Archives

June 1914

Newspaper Morals: A Reply
by Ralph Pulitzer

The striking article in the March Atlantic by 'Mr. Henry L. Mencken, on 'Newspaper Morals' is so full of palpable facts supporting plausible fallacies that simple justice to press and 'proletariat' seems to render proper a few thoughts in answer to it.

Mr. Mencken's main facts, summarized, are as follows: that press and public often approach public questions too superficially and sentimentally; that the sense of proportion is too often lost in the heat of campaigns; that the truth is too often obscured by the intrusion of irrelevant personalities; and that after the intemperate extremes of reform waves there always come reactions into indifference to the evils but yesterday furiously fought.

Mr. Mencken's fallacies are: the supercilious assumption that these weaknesses are not matters of human temperament running up and down through a certain proportion of every division of society, but that, on the contrary, they are class affairs, never tainting the educated classes, but limited to 'the man in the street,' 'the rabble,' 'the mob'; that- apparently the emotionalizing of public questions by the press is to be censured in principle and sneered at in practice; that it means a deliberate truckling by the newspapers to the ignorant tastes of the masses when the press fights a public evil by attacking, with argument and indignation mingled, a man who personifies that evil, instead of opposing the general principle of that evil with a wholly passionless intellectualism.

A general fallacy which affects Mr. Mencken's whole article lies in criticizing as offenses against 'newspaper morals' those imperfections which, where they exist at all, could properly be criticized only under such criteria as suggested by 'Newspaper Intellectuals,' or 'Newspapers as the Exponents of Pure Reason.'

Mr. Menken first exposes and deprecates the 'aim' of the newspapers to 'knock somebody in the head every day,' 'to please the' crowd, to give-a good show, by first selecting a deserving victim and then putting him magnificently to the torture,' and even to fight 'constructive campaigns for good government in exactly the same Gothic, melodramatic way.'

Now 'muck-raking' rather than incense-burning is not a deliberate aim so much as a spontaneous instinct of the average newspaper. Nor is there anything either mysterious or reprehensible about this. The public, of all degrees, is more interested in hitting Wrong than in praising Right, because fortunately we are still in an optimistic state of society, where Right is taken for granted and Wrong contains the element of the unusual and abnormal. If the day shall ever come when papers will be able to 'expose' Right and regard Wrong as a foregone conclusion they will doubtless quickly reverse their treatment of the two. In an Ali Baba's cave it might be natural for a paper to discover some man's honesty; in a yoshiwara it might be reasonable for it to expatiate on some woman's virtue. But while honesty and virtue and rightness are assumed to be the normal condition of men and women and things in general, it does not seem either extraordinary or culpable that people and press should be more interested in the polemical than in the platitudinous; in blame than in painting the lily; in attack than in sending laudatory coals to Newcastle. It scarcely needs remark, however, that when the element of surprise is introduced by some deed of exceptional heroism or abnegation or inspiration, the newspapers are not slow in giving it publicity and praise.

Mr. Mencken finds it deplorable that 'a very definite limit is set not only upon the people's capacity for grasping intellectual concepts, but also upon their capacity for grasping moral concepts'; that, therefore, it is necessary 'to visualize their cause in some definite and defiant opponent... by translating all arguments for, a principle into rage against a man.' Far be it from me to deny that people and papers are too prone to get diverted from the pursuit of some principle by acrimonious personalities wholly ungermane to that principle. But the protest against this should not lead to unfair extremes in the opposite direction. If Mr. Mencken's ideal is a nation of philosophers calmly agreeing on the abstract desirability of honesty while serenely ignoring the specific picking of their own pockets, we have no ground for argument. But until we reach such a semi-imbecile Utopia it would seem to be no reflection on 'the people's' intellectual or moral concepts that they should refuse to excite themselves over any theoretical wrong until their attention is focused on some practical manifestation of it, in the concrete acts of some specific individual.

May I add, parenthetically, that, some papers and many acutely intellectual gentlemen find it far more convenient and comfortable to generalize virtuously than to particularize virtuously? Nor does it require merely moral or physical courage to reduce the safely general to the disagreeably personal. It requires no despicable amount of intellectual acumen as well.

Mr. Mencken next proceeds to 'assume here, as an axiom too obvious to be argued, that the chief appeal of a newspaper in all such holy causes is not at all to the educated and reflective minority of citizens, but to the ignorant and unreflective majority.' On the contrary, it is very far from being 'too obvious to be argued.' A great many persons of guaranteed education are sadly destitute of any reflectiveness whatsoever, while an appalling number of 'the ignorant' have the effrontery to be able to reflect very efficiently. This is apart from the fact that the general intelligence among many of the ignorant is matched only by the abysmal stupidity of many of the educated.

Thus it is that the decent paper makes its appeal on public questions to the numerically large body of reflective 'ignorance' and to the numerically small body of reflective education, leaving it to the demagogic papers, which are the exception at one end, to inflame the unreflective ignorant, and to the sycophantic papers at the other end to pander to the unreflective educated.

As to Mr. Mencken's charge that he knows of 'no subject, save perhaps baseball, on which-the average American newspaper discourses with unfailing sense and understanding,' I know of no subject at all, even including baseball, on which the most exceptionally gifted man in the world discourses with unfailing sense and understanding. But I do know this: that, considering the immense range of subjects which the American paper is called upon to discuss, and its meagre limits of time in which to prepare for such discussion, the failings of that paper in sense and understanding are probably rarer than would be those under the same conditions of Mr. Mencken's most fastidious selection.

'But,' Mr. Mencken continues, 'whenever the public journals presume to illuminate such a matter as municipal taxation, for example, or the extension of local transportation facilities, or the punishment of public or private criminals, or the control of public-service corporations, or the vision of city charters, the chief effect of their effort is to introduce into it a host of extraneous issues, most of them wholly emotional, and so they continue to make it unintelligible to all earnest seekers after truth.' Here again it is all a matter of point of view. If Mr. Mencken's earnest seekers after truth wish to evolve ideological schemes of municipal taxation, or supramundane extensions of transportation facilities, or transcendental control of public-service corporations, or academic revisions of city charters, then, indeed, the newspaper discussions of these questions would be bewildering to these visionary workers in the realms of pure reason.  For the newspapers 'presume' to regard these questions, not as theoretical problems, to be solved under theoretical conditions, on theoretical populations, to theoretical perfection, but as workable projects for a workaday world, in which the most beautiful abstract reasoning must stand the test of flesh-and-blood conditions; they regard emotional issues as so far, indeed, from being extraneous that the human nature of the humblest men and women must be weighed in the balance against the nicest syllogisms of the precisest logic. And this is nothing that Mr. Mencken need condescend to apologize for so long as 'newspaper morals' are under discussion. For it must be obvious that the honest exposition and analysis of public questions from, a human' as well as a scientific point of view is a higher moral service to the community, than an exclusively scientific, wholly unsympathetic search after truth by those who regard populations as mere subjects for the demonstration of principles.

It is precisely the honorable perogative of newspapers not only to clarify but to vivify, to galvanize dead hypotheses into living questions, to make the educated and the ignorant alike feel that public questions should interest and stir all good citizens and not merely engross social philosophers and political theorists.

But here let me avoid joining Mr. Mencken in the pitfall of generalizations, by drawing a sharp distinction between the great run of decent papers which do honestly emotionalize public questions and the relatively few papers which unscrupulously hystericalize these questions.

Mr. Mencken is entirely correct when he admits that this emotionalizing brings these problems down to a 'man's comprehension, and, what is more important, within' the range of his active sympathies.' But he again shows a very unfortunate class arrogance when he identifies this man as 'the man in the street.' If Mr. Mencken searched earnestly enough after truth, he would find this man to be about as extensively the man at the ticker, the man in the motor-car, the man at the operating table, the man in the pulpit. In the same vein he continues that the only papers which discuss good government unemotionally ‘are diligently avoided by the mob.' If Mr. Mencken only included with his proletariat the mob of stockbrokers and doctors and engineers and lawyers and college graduates generally, who refuse to read these logical and unemotional discussions, he would unfortunately be quite right. It would be a beautiful thing indeed if we had with us to-day one hundred millions of 'earnest seekers after truth,' all busily engaged in discussing 'good government in the abstract,' 'logically and unemotionally.' If they were only thus dispassionately busied, it is quite true that things would not be as at present, when 'they are always ready for a man hunt and their favorite quarry is a man of politics. If no such prey is at hand, they will turn to wealthy debauchees, to fallen Sunday-school superintendents, to money barons, to white-slave traders.' In those halcyon times the one hundred million calm abstractionists would discuss the influence of Beaumont and Fletcher on bosses, or, failing this, the ultimate effect of wealth on eroticism, the obscure relations between proselyting and decadence, or the effect of the white-slave traffic on the gold reserve.

But in our present unregenerate epoch Mr. Mencken is quite right in holding that it is generally the specific evils of government or society that bring about reform waves, which in turn crystallize themselves into general principles. It is a shockingly practical process, I admit, but then we are a shockingly practical people, who prefer sordid results to inspired theories. And at that we are not in such bad company. For in no country in the world is there such a thing as a 'revealed' civilization. On the contrary, civilization has always been for the most part purely empirical, and progress will ever remain so.

There is, therefore, cause not for shame but for pride when a newspaper reveals some specific iniquity, and by not merely expounding its isolated character to the public intelligence, but also by interpreting its general menace to the public imagination and bringing home its inherent evil to the public conscience, arouses that public to social legislation, criminal prosecution or political reform.

Mr. Mencken next assaults once more his unfortunate 'man in the street' by declaring that 'it is always as a game, of course, that the man in the street views moral endeavor .... His interest in it is almost always a sporting interest.' On the contrary, here at last we have a case where a class distinction can fairly be drawn. 'The man in the street' is a naïve man who takes his melodrama seriously, who believes robustly in blacks and whites without subtilizing them into intermediate shades, for whom villains and heroes really exist. He is the last person on earth to view the moral endeavor of a political or social campaign as a game. It is the supercilious class, with its sophistication and attendant cynicism, to whom such campaigns tend to take on he aspect of sporting events and games of skill.

But there is no need to go into the details of Mr. Mencken's theory as to the depraved nature of popular participation in political reform. Its gist is contained in his truly shocking statement that the war on the Tweed ring and its extirpation was to the 'plain people' nothing but 'sport royal'! Any one who can take one of the most inspiring civic victories in the history, not alone of a city but of a nation, and degrade the spirit that brought it about to the level of the cockpit or the bull ring, supplies an argument that needs no reinforcing against his prejudices on this whole subject.

Mr. Mencken justly deplores the reactions which follow upon reform successes, but unjustly concentrates the blame on the fickleness of 'the rabble.’ This evil is not a matter of mob-psychology but of unstable human nature, high and low. These revulsions and reactions are the shame, impartially, of all classes of our communities. They permeate the educated atmosphere of fastidious clubs as extensively as they do the ignorant miasma of vulgar saloons. If they induce the 'ignorant and unreflective' plebeian to sit in his shirt-sleeves with his legs up, resting his feet on election day instead of doing his duty at the polls, do they not equally congest the golf links with 'earnest seekers after truth' busily engaged in sacrificing ballots to Bogeys?

I wholly agree with Mr. Mencken's strictures on the public morality which holds it to be a relevant defense for a ballot-box stuffer 'that he is kind to his little children.' The sentimentalism which so frequently perverts a proper public conception of public morality is sickening. But here again the indictment should be against average human nature, educated or ignorant, and not against the 'man in the street' as a class and alone. To this man the fact that the ballot-box stuffer is kind to his little children may carry more weight than to the man of education and culture. To the latter the fact that some monopoly-breeding, law-defying, legislation-bribing, rail-' road-wrecking gentleman is kind to his fellow citizens by donating to them picture galleries and free libraries may carry more weight than to the former. Is not the one just as much as the other 'ready to let feeling triumph over every idea of abstract justice'?

Again, with Mr. Mencken's prescription for making a successful newspaper crusade there can be no quarrel, save that here once more he suggests, by referring to the newspaper as a 'mob-master,' that these methods are exclusively applicable to the same longsuffering 'man in the street.' These methods on which Mr. Mencken elaborates are the rather obvious ones used by every lawyer, clergyman, statesman, or publicist the world over who has a forensic fight to make and win against some public evil - accusation, iteration, cumulation, and climax. If these methods are used by 'mob-masters,' they are equally used by snob-servants, and incidentally by the great mass of honest newspapers which are neither the one thing nor the other.

At the end of his article, having set up a man of straw which he found it impossible to knock down, Mr. Mencken patronizingly pats it on the back: -

'The newspaper must adapt its pleading to its client's moral limitations, just as the trial lawyer must, adapt his pleading to the jury's limitations. Neither may like the job, but both must face it to gain a larger end. And that end is a worthy one in the newspaper's case quite as often as in the lawyer's, and perhaps far oftener. The art of leading the vulgar in itself does no discredit to its practitioner. Lincoln practised it unashamed and so did Webster, Clay, and Henry.'

Alas for this well-intentioned effort at amends! It is impossible to agree with Mr. Mencken even here when he praises press and public with such faint damnation.

A decent newspaper does not and must not adapt its pleadings to its clients' moral limitations. Intellectual limitations? Yes. It is restricted by a line beyond which intelligence and education alike would be at sea, and only specialists and experts would understand. But moral limitations? No. The paper in this regard is less like the lawyer and more like the judge. A judge can properly adapt his charge in simplicity of form to the intellectual limitations of the jury, but it will scarcely be contended that he may adapt his charge in its substance to the moral limitations of the jury. No more can any self-respecting paper palter with what it believes to be the right and the truth because of any moral limitations in its constituency. Demagogic papers may do it. Class-catering papers may do it. But the decent press which lies between does not thus stultify itself.

And now to Mr. Mencken's condescending conclusion: -

'Our most serious problems, it must be plain, have been solved orgiastically and to the tune of deafening newspaper urging and clamor. But is the net result evil? ... I doubt it... The way of ethical progress is not straight…But if we thus move onward and upward by leaps and bounces, it is certainly better than not moving at all. Each time, perhaps, we slip back, but each time we stop at a higher level.'

Why, then, sweepingly reflect on the morals of the press, if by humanizing abstract principles, emotionalizing academic doctrines, personifying general theories, it has accomplished this progress? Granted that in the heat of the battle it fails to handle the cold conceptions of austere philosophers with proper scientific etiquette. Granted that it makes blunders in technical statements that to the preciosity of the specialists seem inexcusable. Granted that that it mixes its science and its sentiment in a manner to shock the gentlemen of disembodied intellects. Granted that the press has many more such intellectual peccadilloes on its conscience.

But if the press does these things honestly, it does them morally, and does not need to excuse them by their results, even though these results are in very truth infinitely more precious to humanity than could be those obtained by the chill endeavors of what Mr. Mencken himself, with the perfect accuracy of would-be irony, describes as ‘a Camorra of Utopian and dehumanized reformers.’

Vol. 113, No. 6, pp. 773–778