The Press and Foreign News

PARADOXES are almost as wearisome as their condescending expounders; yet it is in a form very like a paradox that I must state my little thesis. It is, that the American press does not present and discuss or provoke the discussion of foreign news so intelligently as in the days when it had almost no foreign news at all. The laborious process of building up what may be called the major premise of a paradox may in this case be cut short, — all the starts and gasps of feigned astonishment. What! have we not our regular and special foreign dispatches by the column, — deadly if not parallel ? What! do not our twenty-five million readers discourse sagely and in unison of the Dreyfus case, and dispassionately though pityingly point out Buffer’s blunders ? Yes, yes, let us admit it, — anything to save time. I who write have suffered ; I have had my German waiter patiently explain to me : “ Dis Peekhart, sehen sie, he hat de whole ting in his het, ant he dat Mercier did eggspose schrecklich.” You have doubtless had to sit silent under a wayfaring man’s correction of the strategy of the English generals. All that is agreed. Foreign news is hugely printed, hugely read, hugely gossiped over ; but you will remember I started off by saying “ intelligently,” and that is the point to which we must stick.

Begin by grubbing for a moment among the roots of American journalism. Time was when even our domestic news was foreign. The Pennsylvania Packet or the New Jersey Gazette took note only of what part of the earth’s surface the editor’s eye could cover, and of men’s sayings that his ear could hear. Virginia and Ohio were remoter from him than Kerguelen Land or Kumassi from us. And how did he get news from the far-off regions south of the Potomac or west of the Alleghany ? By private letters. As choice morsels, he now and then offered his readers extracts from “ a letter recently received from a former resident of this city now living in Virginia ; ” or “ a part of a letter to a friend written by a gentleman visiting the Falls of the Ohio.” The modern newspaper, with its whirlwind ways, would laugh at such leisurely newsgathering. But have we not lost something in losing it ? Consider the vivid impressions which the Jerseyman for the first time in Virginia would get. All that was novel or peculiar, all that was picturesque or striking, minute differences and tendencies, varying forms of civic and social life, would make his letters home a mine of interest and suggestiveness. By localizing the reporting of news, we have robbed the reporter of this comparative standard. The Virginianity of Virginia is lost upon the Virginian ; it takes the Yankee or the Quaker to appreciate it. The indurated resident at the Falls of the Ohio would see nothing but commonplace in what would excite the liveliest curiosity of a tourist from the Falls of the Passaic.

But the jump to news - carrying by lightning instead of by letters has not only taken away the fresh mind of the observer, and put matter of fact in place of piquancy. It has thrown everything out of perspective. On this point I may reinforce myself, and again save time by quoting what Lowell said shortly after the American press had consolidated its telegraphic facilities in the collection of domestic news : —

“ Great events are perhaps not more common than they used to be, but a vastly greater number of trivial incidents are now recorded, and this dust of time gets in our eyes. The telegraph strips history of everything down to the bare fact, but it does not observe the true proportions of things, and we must make an effort to recover them. In brevity and cynicism it is a mechanical Tacitus ... as impartial a leveler as death. . . . In artless irony the telegraph is unequaled among the satirists of this generation. But this shorthand diarist confounds all distinctions of great and little, and roils the memory with minute particles of what is oddly enough called intelligence.”

Now my plaint is that the cable has played just this havoc with foreign news. It has gradually killed off good foreign correspondents, as the domestic telegraph disposed of their fellows at home, and left none except those of the mechanical, copyist order. In ordinary times, it reduces the daily bread of foreign intelligence to an undifferentiated pulp. Then, when some great event looms large on the international horizon, we get huge masses of undigested information (mostly misinformation) and opinion flung at our heads. These sensational affairs usually burst on us unannounced. Their obscure but unmistakable beginnings had not been observed by the press agents set to skim the foreign newspapers for the daily dispatch to American journals. So the crisis is upon us before we know it, and the floods of hysterical cablegrams suddenly overcome us, though not to our special wonder, so used have we become to this jerky, staccato way of serving up foreign news. The cable, as a transmitter of news, is for all the world like a phonograph, repeating in metallic and unexpressive tones the jumble of big and little poured into it, its monotony varied only by occasional outbursts of unintelligible frenzy, the drone suddenly giving way to full orchestra.

The trouble is that the saving of labor in this matter of obtaining foreign news has made newspapers and their readers think that pains and brains may as easily be saved. When an editor had to work to get and present intelligence from abroad, he made it, in the act, more worthy the name of intelligence, and more worthy presenting. Go back to pre-cable days, — as far, if you please, as the Greek Revolution. The American public of the twenties was as flaming with sympathy for the Greek as at any time since for Cuban or Boer. And you have only to skim the pages of Niles’s Register to see what a surprising amount of real news about the struggle between Greece and Turkey, and what intelligent editorial discussion of the contest, was given to newspaper readers in those days of small things in American journalism. As much direct correspondence was had as could possibly be secured. Dr. S. G. Howe could probably hold his own in real knowledge and insight with any of the jaunty breed of latter-day war correspondents. And the foreign press was then drained of its significance, as I am sure it is in no newspaper office to-day. With the modern editor, everything has been, or has appeared to be, exhausted by the cable. He reads his foreign newspapers with languid and inattentive eye. But two generations ago the arrival of a foreign mail was a challenge. The keenest wits and most eager interest applied themselves to catching up with the progress of the world over seas, since the record was closed two or three weeks before. There was therefore such an absorbed scrutiny of the arriving foreign exchanges — French and German and Italian as well as English — as we have no motive for nowadays, with all the juice sucked out for us in advance by the submarine telegraph. The result was an ordered and intelligent presentation. By the test of mere space, the American press treated the war between Greece and Turkey in 1897 in a way to make the starveling columns devoted to the epic struggle of 1821-27 seem a pitiful absurdity, — a page to a line, ten thousand words against an epigram. But I seriously doubt if the superior subscriber of three years ago got his money’s worth, and learned what it was all about, so unmistakably as did the despised reader of seventy-five years ago.

Foreign correspondence, especially foreign political correspondence, has been reduced by the cable to a humble and vanishing rôle. If there is a foreign political correspondent whose letters to an American newspaper are anything better than vain repetitions, I must confess with shame that I do not know who he is, or where his letters are printed. Art correspondence, letters of travel, sketches of foreign life, literary gossip from abroad, — of all that we have plenty ; but the political correspondent has ceased to be, or else lags superfluous as either a perfunctory reproducer of foreign newspapers, — the primeurs of which had already been cabled, — or else an irresponsible discoverer of mare’s nests. I am not blaming the poor fellow. He is doing the best he can with his occupation really gone. It is no longer possible for him to report political news ; every last scrap of it has been remorselessly clicked under the estranging sea. The modern international world has become, as Lord Dufferin said in Paris, a huge whispering gallery, round which the telegraph sends reverberating the lightest murmur of statesmen. No unconsidered trifle remains for the correspondent to snap up and send by mail. He can only tiresomely repeat what we already know. And as for political secrets, the deep designs of statecraft, the patient tracing of political consequence back to causes, and the philosophic forecast of future results from present forces, — who, outside cabinets or privy councils, can longer be expected to purvey these things for us? The men who know will not tell, and the men who tell (under those amusing but thin-worn disguises of “ the highest authority,” “ one whose name, if I could reveal it,” etc.) evidently do not know.

The daily drip of foreign news in our press dispatches lulls us into a false security of knowledge. We read so much about events abroad that we think we know the whole story. Now a cocksure pupil is the most difficult of all to teach. Even if we had longer a Bayard Taylor to give to an American newspaper his minute and instructed view of many lands across the sea, his old audience would have escaped him. The Atlantic cable has sophisticated us. We are too high and mighty to be taught the reality of things, satiated with their telegraphed appearances as we are ; and our lurking ignorance, of which we are but dimly conscious, we are ashamed to confess. An American traveling in Europe in the early part of the century frankly presumed ignorance in his correspondents at home, and in consequence wrote the most delightful letters, packed with information, a very feast for curiosity. Now he takes for granted that we know all, and nothing is explained. Our understanding is not insulted with familiar details, it is simply left empty.

With all the boasted facilities and fullness of our foreign news, it often completely misses the milk in the cocoanut. The young lions of the cable who roar and seek their meat in the newspaper sometimes let the juiciest bit escape them. The result is an unnecessary surprise and confusion in the minds of their readers. The Jameson Raid, for example, broke on the American world like a bolt from the blue. Causeless and absolutely without premonition it seemed to come. Yet the open secret lay in the London Times for several days before the raid came off. That fraudulent letter to Jameson — the cooked-up cry of the women and children in Johannesburg — was printed, with all its telltale significance full on its face. The Poet Laureate was spurred by it to a poem, for which he afterwards made a handsome apology; but the correspondents of the American press passed it by in blissful innocence. Even an extract from it would have prepared us for what was coming; but, no, we were suddenly set floundering with Jameson’s troopers on the way from Pitsani to Pretoria, without an inkling of how we got there. Even in that masterpiece of foreign reporting — the Dreyfus trial — there were terrible lacunæ, hiatuses that left the brain reeling. You wondered at several points of the case if the French mind were dethroned, or if it was simply you who had gone crazy ; but when you got your full stenographic reports in the Paris Figaro, you saw that the lucid account which made all clear had been hopelessly muddled in telegraphic transmission to this country.

My remedy ? Lord bless you, I have n’t any. I think there is none. We cannot reel up our submarine cables. We cut them as a war measure, but it would not be allowed in the interest of mere intelligence, though it might promote it. Yet if there is no remedy, there is a resource. Years ago, Lord Salisbury, when he was plain Lord Robert Cecil, said of “ the foreign intelligence ” in newspapers, that readers understood very little of it, and that “ it did not carry real instruction to the mind.” That is the correct point of view, — as true now as then. No matter how much you multiply and diffuse half-knowledge, you cannot convert it into knowledge. “ God knows what a fact’s worth,” cries Browning, and the facts of foreign political life are very successful in eluding the cablegrams. Resort must still be had, as of yore, to the memoirs and the monographs ; to letters and diaries; to histories of contemporary events out of which the chaff of newspaperdom has been blown ; to travel and correspondence, — all bound together and based upon as wide a reading as possible of the facts of yesterday which explain the facts of to-day. It is because the ready and copious telegrams lure us into neglecting the true sources of information that I think, as I said at the beginning, that our current-printing and discussion of foreign news convey, for the mass of readers, less real instruction to the mind than was to be had, in slower but surer ways, in the days before the cable opened the line of least resistance along the Atlantic ooze.

Rollo Ogden.