Personality in Journalism

A TIME-HONORED distinction is drawn between two of the most conspicuous daily papers in New York — that the one renders vice attractive in the morning, and the other virtue unattractive at night. With each of these papers, in the form known to the present generation of readers, the name and the work of an eminent journalist have been associated. So strongly did these two men impress themselves upon their respective journals that, though it is now ten years since Mr. Dana’s death and five since Mr. Godkin’s, their personalities may still be felt in every issue of the Sun and Evening Post. It is a happy coincidence that their biographies1 appear almost simultaneously. The books have a value far beyond their illumination of the rival charms and repulsions of vice and virtue. They enable one to consider with some seriousness the uses and the scope of personality in journalism.

Mr. Dana’s biographer quotes an utterance of his in reply to those who were lamenting thirty-five years ago that “the day for personal journalism is gone by, and that impersonal journalism will take its place.”

“Whenever, in the newspaper profession,” said the Sun, “a man rises up who is original, strong, and bold enough to make his opinions a matter of consequence to the public, there will be personal journalism; and whenever newspapers are conducted only by commonplace individuals whose views are of no consequence to anybody, there will be nothing but impersonal journalism.

“And this is the essence of the whole question.”

From the beginning to the end of his life, Dana could never have been classed with the “commonplace individuals.” The career which his biography presents is that of an idealist developing into an opportunist. The book does not, probably because it cannot, explain all the steps in such a development. The studious country boy, whose eyes would not carry the burden of discursive reading which he imposed upon them while a student at Harvard, drifted naturally into the Brook Farm experiment. It was another natural step from this association to an intimate relation with Greeley and the Tribune, to which he rendered valuable editorial service. Through this work his abilities won the recognition which made him, during the Civil War, “the eyes of the government,”— a special field correspondent of the War Department, — and Assistant Secretary of War. Nothing could have given him a more thorough training as an observer and reporter upon men and momentous actions than this experience. He carried into it an optimism, a philosophic temper, an independent judgment, which he brought out augmented. Because General Wilson’s relations with Dana were those of a fellow-servant of the Union during the war, he has been led to lay upon the war period an emphasis which to many readers will seem out of proportion with the scantier measure of detail devoted to his work in the Sun. Yet the very fullness of the record gives definiteness to the personality which Mr. Dana brought to his final editorial task, and withal exhibits the man at his best.

The journalist whose work expresses his personality must, of all men, come out into the open, and bear the brunt of his independence. This is a quality which deserves all the praise it gets, yet the moment a man of independent spirit does something radically different from what is expected of his kind, his motives fall under suspicion. After all, he may merely be carrying his independence to conclusions which to him are logical. The independent journalist is just as sure to displease some of his readers as to please others. Certainly there were many whom Mr. Dana displeased, many who regarded his variations of party and personal allegiance as the sign of all that was unworthy.

The “cleverness” of the Sun under his guidance was a commonplace of public estimation; so too was its “wickedness.” The proof was found in such perversities as its preference for Butler to Cleveland as a presidential candidate, its hostility to Cleveland as president, its other animosities which time has shown to be mistaken, its alignment in critical periods in the local politics of New York with the forces which have abundantly justified their reputation as those of evil. The charity of a later day should at least plead for the opportunist of positive views that his independence is bound to land him on many sides, some of which must be wrong.

The personality of an editor may express itself almost as fully in the news as in the editorial columns of his paper. As manager and editor, Mr. Dana signed the prospectus of the new Sun when he took charge of it in 1868. Two sentences from this statement of the paper’s policy set a standard which he well maintained and fixed: —

“It will study clearness, condensation, point, and will endeavor to present its daily photograph of the whole world’s doings in the most luminous and lively manner.

“It will not take as long to read the Sun as to read the London Times or Webster’s Dictionary, but when you have read it, you will know about all that has happened in both hemispheres.”

The fulfillment of these prophecies has made the Sun the special delight of the male sex, and the model, often imperfectly copied, for the presentation of news in many other journals. This in itself has been no mean achievement. Add to it the vigorous and clarifying manner of the editorial page, which has always made people read and regard it even when the substance has been foreign to their sympathies, and the Sun stands forth as the journalistic embodiment of just such a man as the biography of Dana presents: penetrating, humorous, intense, a warm friend and a spirited foe, one who kept to the end some hold upon the idealistic standards of his youth, yet found that many existing conditions had better be supported than overthrown. When the idealist turns opportunist, he may well become a little cynical, and lend himself to cynicism in others. But he has probably made up his mind with his eyes open that in this world of ours the man who is content to choose between two evils that which appears to him the lesser may contribute more to human progress than he who rejects them both. Such at least is his justification in his own eyes, and his presumable honesty with himself must be weighed in any true accounting for his character.

It was personality of another sort which Mr. Godkin expressed through the Nation and Eveniny Post. Compromise bore no part in it. The standards of youth grew even sterner with age. The “really critical spirit” which the Nation promised at its foundation in 1865 to bring to its discussions, was conspicuously the spirit of Mr. Godkin. His work as the field correspondent of a London paper during the Crimean War and the war between our own states gave his pen as invaluable a bit of training as Dana’s was receiving from his more specialized experience. The careful student of affairs in wartime, when all the powers of government are in undisguised use, often qualifies himself for the best criticism of government in peace. Certainly the newspaper letters reproduced by Mr. Ogden are notable for their clear vision and forcible expression. Through this work Mr. Godkin acquired early a habit of relating effects to causes, embodied in men, and of witholding no censure which seemed to him deserved. It was this very rigor of thought and utterance which enabled Lowell at a later day to define the Nation as “a most valuable breakwater against the tepid wish-wash of incompetence which pours through the American press.”

Mr. Godkin did not win without a hard struggle the place which he and his paper came to hold. Before embarking in his undertaking he wrote in a letter to his friend, F. L. Olmsted, “I have not got the literary temperament, and, in fact, in so far as I have ever done any work well, it has been due rather to bodily activity than anything else. ... I am not popular in my manners and could never become so.” He continues even further the catalogue of his disabilities. When his work began, there were not wanting those to whom his Irish birth and English training seemed utterly to disqualify him as an American journalist. Neither he nor these objectors could realize that the value of such a service as the Nation has rendered lies in the very fact that such a personality as Mr. Godkin’s was vigorously behind it.

It is not the millions, but at most the few thousands, to whom the “really critical spirit” makes its appeal. It has been reserved for our own day to show what can be achieved by personality in journalism, when conspicuous ability is devoted to ends antipodal to those which the Nation proposed for itself. By these new methods the successful journalist becomes a “captain of industry,” acquires that summum bonum, circulation, and with it a vast uncritical following of hungry sheep who somehow imagine themselves fed by the rank mists they draw. Over against such rewards must be set those which Mr. Godkin’s career won for him — the inward testimony of a good conscience, with no reproach of compromise when occasion came for a choice between what seemed to the chooser clearly right and merely expedient; the outward recognition and approval of those who are hardest to satisfy and therefore best worth satisfying. Perhaps the highest token of this approval was the urgent offer to Mr. Godkin, only five years after the establishment of the Nation, to occupy a chair of history in Harvard College. His friends, according to their natural bent, looked upon it as a greater and a smaller opportunity for service than that which his continuance with the Nation would afford. It is significant of his own point of view that, after a careful weighing of the matter, he decided to remain where he was. To the less tangible rewards were added, in due time, those of the successful business enterprise which the Nation seems to have become even before its merging with the Evening Post in 1881.

There is one reward which is denied to the possessor of the “really critical spirit,” developed as highly as Mr. Godkin’s was. That is the satisfaction of seeing—or thinking one sees—some of the improvements for which one has been working in the world. The temper of Mr. Godkin’s view of the American situation in his later years is so well illustrated by a passage from one of his letters at the time of Cleveland’s Venezuela message that its quotation is justified: “The situation seems to me this: an immense democracy, mostly ignorant, and completely secluded from foreign influences and without any knowledge of other states of society, with great contempt for history and experience, finds itself in possession of enormous power and is eager to use it in brutal fashion against any one who comes along, without knowing how to do it, and is therefore constantly on the brink of some frightful catastrophe like that which overtook France in 1870. The spectacle of our financial condition and legislation during the last twenty years, the general silliness and credulity begotten by the newspapers, the ferocious optimism exacted of all teachers and preachers, and the general belief that we are a peculiar or chosen people to whom the experience of other people is of no use, make a pretty dismal picture, and, I confess, rather reconcile me to the fact that my career is drawing to a close. I know how many things may be pointed out as signs of genuine progress, but they are not in the field of government.”

The observer with any endowment whatever of the critical spirit must admit that there is truth enough and to spare in this arraignment — which, by the way, does not confine itself to “the field of government.” Yet will not the most candid critic protest that such a deliverance — and the state of mind from which it springs — lacks the illumination of the whole truth, and that the dangers of a “ferocious optimism” may often be pretty evenly balanced by those of a ferocious pessimism ?

Of course he will; and just as surely a consideration of the whole truth will lead him to remember that the clock of affairs is kept going by a pendulum which swings just as far in one direction as in the other. All the more because the ferocious optimists exist, are the men like Godkin and the journals like the Nation needed. An implicit following of their leadership, a constant adoption of the critical attitude, may not be the shortest cut to progressive action. But it is an immensely valuable corrective. The fear of the Post is the beginning of a certain sort of wisdom. It breeds in public servants and writers a wholesome dread of insincerity, if for no other reason than that this particular weakness is pretty sure to be exposed. It acts at the same time as a positive stimulus to honest thought and action. This is what the personality of Mr. Godkin especially contributed to the journalism of his time.

The side of Mr. Godkin’s personality which had no public expression is delightfully revealed in the letters which Mr. Ogden has brought together. The critical faculty doubtless had its exercise in the first establishment of personal relations. But when his affections were once engaged, their warmth and tenacity had a Celtic quality which gives the picture of them a peculiar charm. The tenderness of his domestic relations shines with a special clearness through the records of his sore bereavements. His friendships with women of notable understanding and sympathy might have supplied a delightful chapter by themselves, if the editor’s arrangement of his admirable material had not — from the topical as from the chronological point of view — so nearly approached the chaotic. From a letter to one of these feminine friends a characteristic passage must be taken: “As far as I can see, the great interests of civilization in this country are being left pretty much to the women. The men have thrown themselves pretty much into money-making. You have no idea how they shirk everything which interferes with this, how cowardly they have grown about everything which threatens pecuniary loss. It is the women who are caring for the things which most distinguish civilized men from savages. ... I do not know what the future of our modern civilization is to be. But I stumble where I firmly trod. I do not think things are going well with us in spite of our railroads and bridges. Among the male sex something is wanting, something tremendous.”

Yet there were friendships with men which bore importantly upon Mr. Godkin’s life, both private and public. The two which most conspicuously combined these bearings were those with Professor Charles Eliot Norton and with Mr. Wendell Phillips Garrison. In so far as Mr. Godkin’s life is the history of the Nation, these names are inseparable from it. In the story of the beginnings of the paper, it is well to have on permanent record the fact that of the hundred thousand dollars raised for the undertaking fifty thousand came from Boston — and that “Norton rallied the Boston friends.” It is well to find Mr. Godkin writing to Mr. Norton at the end of the first year of his editorship, “If the paper succeeds I shall always ascribe it to you, as without your support and encouragement I do not think I should have been able to endure to the end.” Fifteen years later, in 1881, when Mr. Godkin was considering the offer of the Post to purchase the Nation, he wrote again to Mr. Norton, “You had so much to do with starting the Nation, and, I may say, its existence is so largely due to the support and encouragement which you gave me in its early days, that I shall be exceedingly sorry if its latter end should in any way be disappointing to you.” These are but two from many testimonies to a close and generously reciprocal relation.

Toward Mr. Garrison, for his support in the conduct of the Nation, as for Mr. Norton’s in its origin, there was the same hearty spirit of recognition. Again and again Mr. Godkin expressed it, perhaps most forcibly at the time of the centenary of the Post, when he wrote to Mr. Garrison about the reported speeches, “The dearest thing I recall in it all, is my thirty years’ association with you. You have been to me, in it all, the kindest and most devoted friend.” No one would have been quicker than Mr. Godkin to feel that the true history of the Nation should include as full a recognition of Mr. Garrison’s service, in the capacity of literary editor, as of his own. When Mr. Garrison died, only a few months ago, an extraordinary chorus of appreciation rose from the host of contributors, in all parts of the country, with whom it was his function to deal. Between them and Mr. Garrison, as the Nation itself has said, “there existed a peculiar, almost a family, feeling. He watched over them with an interest and pride wellnigh of kinship. The relation was, to him, less editorial than paternal.” Of his relation with Mr. Godkin we read, “With unbounded admiration and loyalty for his chief, Mr. Garrison brought to his assistance a nice scholarship, a patient scrutiny, a calm judgment, and a noble sympathy.”

The unobtrusive, unfaltering work of such a man as Mr. Garrison, known to his fraternity much more than to the public, must be, wherever and whenever it is done, one of the most reassuring expressions of personality in journalism.

That it can be joined, to the satisfaction of the two fellow-workers and to the general advantage, with the labors of such a man as Mr. Godkin, yields fresh hope for the power of strong personal forces in the journalistic profession. “The day for personal journalism,” in the sense of the term as it might have been applied to Horace Greeley or Thurlow Weed, may be going — or gone. But while such an example of happy coöperation as that of Mr. Godkin and Mr. Garrison is fresh in memory, we need not despair of its repetition. There is, however, one condition precedent to it — and that is the adoption of the journalistic career by men of the highest type in native character and cultivated ability. When all such men choose other pursuits, a barren time in journalism will indeed be imminent.

  1. The Life of Charles A. Dana. By JAMES HARRISON WILSON, LL. D., Late MajorGeneral, U. S. V. New York and London : Harper & Brothers. 1907.
  2. Life and Letters of Edwin Lawrence Godkin. Edited by Rollo Ogden. Two volumes. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1907.