Is an Honest Newspaper Possible?

CAN a newspaper tell its readers the plain, unflattering truth and pay its way ? All the truth they are entitled to know, that is; for a good many things occur which are none of the public’s business, and these a newspaper cannot discuss without grossly infringing private rights. It seems a large statement to make, and six years ago it would not have been true, but there are the most hopeful indications that we have now a sufficient public thirst for truth to guarantee a market for such a newspaper.

A newspaper is a business enterprise. In view of the cost of paper and the size of each issue, tending to grow larger, every copy is printed at a loss. A onecent newspaper costs six mills for paper alone. In other words, the newspaper cannot live without its advertisers. It would be unfair to say that there are no independent journals in the United States; there are many; but it must always be remembered that the advertisers exercise an enormous power which only the very strongest can refuse to recognize.

If a newspaper has such a circulation that complete publicity can be secured only by advertising in its columns, whatever its editorial policy may be, the question is solved. Nevertheless, within the past three years the department stores have combined to modify the policy of at least three New York daily newspapers. One of the most extreme and professedly independent of these newspapers, always taking the noisiest and most popular line, with the utmost expressed deference to labor unions, withdrew its attack upon the traction companies during the time of the Subway strike, on the threatened loss of its department-store advertising. It has never dared to criticise such a store for dismissing employees who attempted to form a union. In other words, this paper is not independent, and in the last analysis is governed by its advertisers.

But suppose a paper with an exhaustive news-service, which should publish editorials sound economically, attractive in form, easily read and understood by the man in the street, treating all classes fairly, with always a single eye on that true liberty which can be secured only by eternal vigilance. A glance at some half-dozen representative daily papers of New York will illustrate what is wanted, by the mere process of elimination; while the comparison will broaden the point of view. It should always be premised that a newspaper possesses a soul of its own, something more than the aggregate result of all the work of all the men who work on its staff. The paper’s tradition alone will modify the product of any man who writes for it, save only one whose personality is so dominant as to give the paper something of his own character, like Greeley with the Tribune, or Bowles with the Springfield Republican.

A typical New York newspaper, taken from a number lying before me as I write, has at least the potentiality of being a very good morning daily. Its foreign news is exceptionally ample, and apparently well handled at the sending end. It is, however, very badly edited, giving every indication that the news here is consigned to the hands of some one who has not had the indispensable preparation of residence and work abroad. There is obvious inability to translate European thought into American terms. The home news is fairly well handled, but not better than that of the paper’s competitors. The editorial policy is eminently fair. It is considerate to adversaries, chary of personalities, and evidently inspired by definite and fairly sound economic principles. What is lacking, both in the news and editorial departments, is the note of authority. The main editorials and the feeble financial article are all futile argument. They might do tolerably well if there were some single directing mind to coördinate each separate editorial writer’s work, but apparently there is nothing of the kind. The consequence is that the editorials, like the foreign cables, look as if they had been put in with a shovel. The editorials have one distinct merit, however, which will be worth considering further on. They are mercifully short.

Another specimen, which may be pronounced without hesitation by far the most interesting of the morning dailies, bristles with accreted peculiarities of its own. The news is handled with the single idea of making it thoroughly readable, and, moreover, readable by exacting critics. Some of the reporting is of a very high quality indeed. The reader lays down the paper with an almost guilty feeling that he has wasted his time over a column and a half of brilliant nonsense about an event with a news-value of ten lines. The most striking vice of the editorials at first glance is that they are altogether too long. This remark applies to the financial article, good as it is, and carrying, as the rest of the paper does, the indispensable note of authority. The paper unfortunately mars itself by its persistence in a bad tradition. It has acquired enmities throughout its existence, and apparently when once acquired these are never for a moment forgotten. Most public men require the personal method at some time in their career, but this treatment should be done in the interest of the public question in hand, and not weakened by any trace of personal malice. The example before us, however, cannot speak of any one of scores of public men without a sneer. The result is a cheaply cynical tone, much beneath the dignity of a newspaper which, from a literary point of view, is inferior to few published in the English language. One consequence of this prejudice is that the just suffer with the unjust. The reformer, who is often a humbug and usually a bore, is condemned unheard because some of his kind are always in line for the pillory.

In point of honesty of purpose and high ideal, one of the evening newspapers occupies a position of its own. It is most conscientiously edited, and appeals strongly to what unfortunately must ever be a limited intellectual class. Its contributors take their work very seriously, which is as it should be. They take themselves very seriously also, which is bad policy anywhere, and almost suicidal in a city where the sense of humor has become a vice. Nevertheless the economics and ethics of the editorial page are admirable. Here again the editorials are too long, while the tendency to preach is frequently apparent. It is not an unnatural result, but it is scarcely calculated to sell the newspaper.

Fortunately the machine newspaper is passing out of existence, and the one specimen left lives upon its once great reputation. Its home news is not badly done, and is often presented in a more readable way than that of some of its competitors. Its foreign correspondence is sometimes above the usual news-service of that kind, is attractively written, and up to a very fair standard of newsvalue. Its editorial page is simply the endorsement of the policy of one party machine. There is not an editorial in it from year’s end to year’s end which anybody would feel obliged to read. There is, moreover, the vice of taking a column or more to present an attenuated thought in a commonplace fashion. The still graver sin is the presence in the news columns of matter which would only appear among the advertisements of an independent newspaper, if it appeared at all. The financial page is beneath contempt.

Much more dangerous, because much more widely read, is the last remaining specimen of uncompromising “ yellow.” Its news is extremely poor. It consists of the bare Associated Press service warmed up into cheaply sensational forms; with a minimum of special reporting, presented with the maximum of splash. Noisy methods in fact are used to such an extent that the thing becomes one continuous shriek. Every item of news is accompanied by its own yell, with such a resultant confusion of noise that nothing really makes itself heard. The editorials are occasionally able, and almost always utterly without scruple or principle. The appeal to class hatred, the anti-British sentiment of the Irish, the anti-capitalist sentiment of the labor-unionist, the hatred of the orderly administration of justice, always latent in the ignorant and discontented, all these are used in a way which would dis grace the most rabid Parisian political journal, without a tithe of the French paper’s literary merit. The comic department is made much of, and the cartoons, while quite as unscrupulous as the rest of the paper, are often true and constantly amusing.

That such a condition as this is not hopeless is shown by the career of a morning issue formerly of the same yellow type, but now in a very fair way to reform. Its news is really well handled, and is moreover condensed wdthout losing its readable qualities. The editorials also come nearer the ideal than those of other newspapers of a more pretentious character. There has been a tendency to lengthen them lately, which is to be regretted, and the editorial attitude on Wall Street is not merely a serious mistake in policy, but shows an abounding ignorance of economics in which only the proprietor of the paper could possibly afford to indulge. Still the production as a whole is good, and in a fair way to become better.

A last example is also the best-handled business proposition in the New York newspaper group. The one object in fact is to sell the paper. The news is displayed to considerable advantage. It is collected with expenditure and enterprise. The shipping news is unequaled anywhere. The whole is set out in a form which the most ignorant can understand, and it has some qualities occasionally which are by no means despicable. It is in the editing that the chief vice lies. The whole paper is an appeal to an essentially ignorant class, because that class will buy more papers and will consequently warrant more advertising. This is the respectable competitor of the yellow journal. It writes down to the level of selfsatisfied ignorance, deliberately and for the money in it. Its editorial page is a flabby, popularity-hunting appeal, without conviction or dignity. The editorials are not worth the name. They convey the impression that the writer is trying to say exactly what he has been told to say, irrespective of his own beliefs, and is moreover so afraid of breaking his instructions that he does not dare even to use vigorous English. It need hardly be said that the paper will cater to any fad likely to secure popularity, while posing always as the ideal family newspaper. There has been a compulsory alignment to decency in the advertising department lately, but some of the advertisements, notably those of swindling stock-tipsters, are a disgrace to a self-respecting newspaper.

What is the broad lesson to be drawn from these concrete examples? What is the one general deduction from all these particulars ? It is that no newspaper of the New York group (and we have taken the half-dozen with any pretense to wide popular appeal) unites the two indispensable qualities of popularity and authority. Here we have heard at least one voice crying in the wilderness, one smothered under a blanket of self-conscious rectitude, one choked with childish spite and petulance, one crying out an old man’s perversity, and two crying a message from the devil or no message at all. But our newspaper must have real technical merit. It must make itself widely heard. It must speak as one with authority, putting certain axiomatic principles of economics and morals as assumed and sealed, written forever on the two tables of stone.

The newspaper-reading public is largely of newspaper creation. People read the newspaper for what they expect to find in it. Even up to the time of the life-insurance revelations, everybody was fairly contented with the editorial certainty that we were the wisest, richest, most powerful, most intelligent, most prosperous, best governed, and greatest people on the face of the earth. Provided the national vanity was tickled, and the occasional absolutely necessary pill was sugar-coated, public opinion was satisfied.

It is exactly this sort of stuff which has made the present problem so important and so difficult. Except for obvious party purposes, it is only recently that newspapers have begun to point out the ex treme extravagance and incompetence of our triple form of government, municipal, state, and federal. Our inability to enforce the laws we make is only a little less ridiculous than some of the laws themselves. We have begun to find this out, and at present the wisest, richest, et cetera, is engaged in the dignified occupation of thumping the table because it has bumped its childish head against it.

There is nothing which is not instantly and statistically demonstrable in the statement, that, so far as the great majority of our voting population is concerned, the only teacher in America to-day is the newspaper. In our census returns, something like sixty per cent of the population makes no statement as to its religious opinions, or denies the possession of them altogether. The average man is in fact not a regular attendant at church, and certainly not in such degree that he can depend upon his religious instructors for guidance in right principles.

What our colleges are asked to do is to turn out young men who can start out to earn money as soon as possible. We lack leisure for that refined and satisfying scholarship to which we owe most of what is best in our literature. A glance at the ethics of our legal profession, at its endless abuses, its premium on dishonesty, and its hopeless inefficiency in the respect which makes delay a denial of justice, will disclose the object of a great part of our so-called higher education. We demand something “ practical ” from our colleges, and we translate the word in the universal term of dollars and cents.

And yet we have a people to deal with who are thirsting for the truth. Any man with a message can obtain a hearing. It is not the people’s fault if he is often more ignorant than they are, and merely a little noisier. They want to learn. They can be approached in mass in various ways. One way is the public meeting. Another is the popular newspaper.

I say popular advisedly, because we live in a country where we decide all questions, however abstruse and technical, by counting noses. It is our constitutional privilege, and if we have adopted a system which regards the nose as more important than the brain behind it, the only problem is how to make the best of our materials. We have to remember that we are dealing with a voting population which, in the fundamentals of logical reasoning, knowledge of constitutional law, and strict training in ethics, is about as ignorant as could well be imagined in a country with any compulsory system of education at all.

This is of course an extremely unpopular thing to say, and often the newspaper editor, instead of saying it, must content himself with paying general compliments. If his proprietors do not choose to face facts, he does his full duty in avoiding friction.

In the past ten years nature has blessed our soil abundantly. We have won the cheap glory of the Spanish war. We have seen an enormous increase in opportunities for investment, and especially in speculative projects. Up to the last few months we have had excellent wages, with regular work made possible in almost all callings. These, and many other considerations like them, have tended to develop the worst and most dangerous case of national swelled head known in history.

The reasoning that because something happened first it was the cause of what happened afterwards, is used with cumulative effect in giving us a good conceit of ourselves. It is superficially good editorial policy to ascribe all our blessings to the result of our combined wisdom and common sense. We are therefore told, with a frequency which is becoming almost cloying, that we licked the Spanish because such wonderful people as we are could lick anybody. In the same diplomatically shallow way, we are told that our wasteful methods of exacting everything from the soil and putting as little as possible back, are wise, in view of the illimitable resources of a country which we have not only inhabited but, presumably, created.

Short-sighted friends of the editor warn him not to tell the people the truth about themselves. The American people are sensitive to criticism. If an intelligent foreigner comes here, the first thing we ask him is what he thinks of America. We ask for a criticism, but we want and expect a compliment. If he does not at once give us more of the windy diet we are accustomed to, we say what we think of him. We draw the just inference that he is jealous of our superior merits. We even make our one unanswerable, but ill-bred, retort to a criticism we have asked for: we say that if he thinks there is anything better elsewhere, he had better return to his own country.

And yet the people want to be told the truth, and God knows they never needed it so much. We may accuse certain magazines of muck-raking. It is a popular phrase with a large number of people who never heard of the second part of the Pilgrim’s Progress; who think the Man with the Muck-rake appears in the first part, and who do not know in the least what the parable signifies. And yet, with all their excesses, these magazines are doing very tangible good. They are not shouting for mob rule; they are asking for the enforcement of the law. We have carried disobedience to law, civil, criminal, religious, and moral, to a fine point of perfection.

Yet we must not tell the every-day American citizen that he is alternately hysterical and criminally indifferent. One of his teachers out in Oregon proposes that there should be a “ referendum,” or popular vote, as a last appeal from the decisions of the highest courts in the country. This is to say that, after a question has been decided by the trained jurist, weighing the most delicate points of equity, constitutionality, common law, and abstract justice, there must be an appeal to a voting mob, not one member of which would be fitted to pass upon the case at all. The reasoning is logical. Public opinion can settle simple little questions like national currency or banking. Why not leave matters of this kind in the same safe hands? It is the expedient of a well-known cycle of newspapers published from New York, in San Francisco, Chicago, and elsewhere. The man whose opinion would not be taken on the problem of whitewashing his neighbor’s back fence is told inferentially what a clever fellow he is, and how adequate is his intelligence for the settlement of every question, however difficult.

One most important gain up the line of intelligence and independence in the past ten years has been so broad that it almost escapes notice. The newspapers are largely responsible, but as the process has been to some extent unconscious, they need not receive too much credit. Less than ten years ago, what was called “ party regularity ” was the standard for voters. Exceptions were called mugwumps, sore-heads, cranks, and anything else, to indicate a person who arrogantly persisted in doing his own thinking. The ideal in fact was the voter who “ cast his first vote for Lincoln ” and had voted the straight Republican ticket, irrespective of its composition, in every election, federal, state, and municipal, since 1860. It was the Democrat with a like idea of his responsibilities as a citizen who did more to establish Tammany Hall than all the floaters who ever colonized the East Side.

Of course such a voter was exactly what the corrupt party boss wanted, but it is only in the past decade that teaching has borne fruit in those great protectors of the public pocket, the independent newspaper and the split ballot. It might almost be said that, where party regularity was the rule, there is now but one out-and-out machine newspaper remaining in New York. The rest are no doubt broadly of one camp or another. But there are plenty of Republicans the Press does not like, and it says so; and the Times does not hesitate to tell its readers to vote for Hughes in preference to an undesirable Democrat.

Here is an admirable evidence of the public demand for the truth, and of the growth of that demand in the past few years. No doubt the exposures in the magazines have helped, but it is the independent voter who is killing the bosses. They are paralyzed when they are no longer in a position to “ deliver the goods.” The old “ party-regularity ” voter ensured that one boss or the other would stay in power. After that, it was only a matter of a simple and corrupt deal between the two bosses.

It should be plain that what the public wants is an independent newspaper. The reader will tolerate, and like, any amount of teaching tactfully and modestly offered. He will not be preached at or bullied. It is really rather a matter of directing public thought up right lines than of indicating new and experimental policies. The newspaper, indeed, should be critical rather than constructive. Our constitution provides for three distinct functions of government, — legislative, judicial, and executive; and it is the duty of what is correctly called, in England, the fourth estate of the realm, to provide the fourth necessity, healthy criticism for all three.

It follows that a newspaper may criticise a verdict or a decision of the courts, but must not meddle with the proper and lawful handling of a case on trial. In this respect nothing could do more good than a term of imprisonment for the next editor who constitutes his readers a jury on a criminal case pending before the courts, and publishes their verdict on his paper’s evidence. Can one imagine anything that would more surely defeat the ends of justice? In the same way, the newspaper should watch where corrupt legislation can be defeated, in order to drag it out into that dry light where the air is always too strong for its lungs. The legislators must do the rest, and it is the business of the newspaper to hold them to their duty.

In like manner, the fullest publicity is one of the most valuable checks upon the acts of any executive officer. We know that the balance was most delicately adjusted by the framers of the Constitution, and in this department there is a continual tendency to usurp the functions of the other two. Nothing could be better for political morals than the way in which newspapers have emphasized the correct attitude of Governor Hughes in confining himself strictly to his business, holding the other departments of our constitutional government strictly responsible for theirs.

Here, then, is what the public wants: a newspaper which treats its reader not as a child or a sage, neither as a hero nor as a fool, but as a person of natural good instincts and average intelligence, amenable to reason, and one to be taught tactfully to stand upon his own feet, rather than to take his principles ready-made from his teacher. What an ideal! A paper which gives the senator and the shop-girl what they both want to read and are the better for reading. A comic cut, if its moral lesson is true, is an editorial with the blessing of God.

Only millionaires can start newspapers. It is perhaps the best of all ways to avoid dying rich. It should be possible, however, to take a newspaper of standing, and remodel it gradually up these lines. The market for excellence is inexhaustible, and this country is plainly beginning to see the sterling market-value of common honesty. Allied with brains and common sense, it is the mainspring of moral progress.