The Case for the Newspapers

“An experience of many years has taught me that the standard of honesty, in the editorial department of newspapers at any rate, will compare favorably with that in any profession in the world.”

This is an age of specialists, but it is still true that everybody thinks he knows how to run a newspaper. Most people engaged in that somewhat arduous occupation find technical knowledge useful; but it is difficult to convince the layman that it is in any way necessary. Criticism, in fact, has come to such a stage that we are seriously asked to believe, that Greeley, Raymond, Bowles, and other giants of their day, did not merely write trenchant editorials with a strong personal complexion, but succeeded in offering a more thorough and honest presentation of news than the newspapers afford to-day.

Employment on a newspaper usually implies at least an elementary sense of humor. I do not believe that it would be possible to find a real newspaper man who would be willing to accept the preposterous task of apologizing for the twenty-two thousand daily newspapers of the United States. Like other established institutions, they have acquired habits which no sensible man would attempt to defend. They tend to acquire bad habits from various sources, and perhaps get the worst of them from their readers. It may be true in some cases, though it is certainly untrue as a general rule, that the newspaper is edited to suit the wishes of the advertisers. It is at least edited to suit the wishes of the reader. Without readers the paper has no advertising to sell; and if Professor Ross and other non-professional critics had any broad knowledge or experience of newspaper practice, they would know that the reader is deadly quick to detect dishonesty. In other words, no newspaper can be permanently successful, even as an advertising medium, without a high percentage of honesty, both in its editorial columns and in the presentation of its news.

This is said with full recognition of the practice of certain notorious journals, which print unsavory details on the front page, and an editorial defense of public decency in some other part of the paper. But let us understand what we mean by “success.” There may be money in printing garbage, but a self-respecting man does not regard production such as these as successful, in any true sense of the word. There is a public which demands spicy details of the private life of notorious persons, and certain newspapers openly cater to that vicious appetite, for the money in it. People whose taste might really be offended are sufficiently warned. There is little deception about the matter. It is even a question of good taste rather than of morals. Such newspapers are certainly not numerous or in any sense representative. Their shrieking sensationalism does not off-set their lack of real influence.

Nobody knows better than the practical and experienced newspaper man that there is a sordid side to his work. A newspaper, after all, is put together by a number of fallible human beings made up of littlenesses and spite as well as of the more sterling qualities. News will appear, or will be ignored, for reasons which the outsider would call totally inadequate. The time for choice is appallingly limited. The decision on the relative importance of the news, on the degree of truth attaching to the report, on the advisability of suppression in the public interest, on the law of libel, possible injury to inoffensive persons, the innocent circulation of something which may have to be taken back on better and fuller information—all these things, and many more, have to be weighed, and the decision upon them has to be instantaneous. The editor will make plenty of mistakes, but, with a full appreciation of the justice of some complaints, they will be for the most part honest mistakes. An experience of many years has taught me that the standard of honesty, in the editorial department of newspapers at any rate, will compare favorably with that in any profession in the world.

What looks to the layman like a suitable subject for wide publicity will not have the same appearance to the experienced newspaper man. At a time of crisis in Wall Street, when an important firm had already suspended, I was strongly pressed by sincere and responsible people to deal editorially with other private institutions doing a class of business which in this case had proved dangerous. I was reproached for lacking courage, and even accused of considering the advertising of the banking houses concerned. Had any such discussion been published at that time, there need be no hesitation in saying that the result would have been several important failures of entirely solvent houses within twenty-four hours, and of such magnitude as quite possibly to have caused serious financial embarrassment. No doubt some readers would have liked to know all about the private business of these concerns. It takes courage to tell the reader that plenty of things happen every day which are none of his business.

Let us take another instance. A financier of prominence, who had also held high political office, died not many years ago. He was operated upon for appendicitis by one of the first surgeons of the day, in the presence of two others, with the usual number of nurses. In spite of this, it was asserted in common gossip, and mysteriously hinted in magazines and weekly reviews, that he had been slain by another financier of almost equal prominence, in a sordid dispute over a woman. This story, adorned with the fullest detail was hawked about to half the newspapers in New York. Its falsity was demonstrated by conscientious research; but a large section of the public still believes that there was some way in which the unsavory story could have been hushed up. There was and is no such way. If the story is true, and it is to the public interest to publish it, some newspapers will certainly do so, and that paper which does not, injuries itself without helping anybody.

Here are two incidents, and they could be multiplied many times. The object here is not to whitewash the newspaper press. All that is intended is to show that, upon the whole, the public gets the news it is entitled to, and that when all temptations are considered, it owes an enormous debt to the newspapers for the suppression of what could only have done a great deal of harm. There is a wide field for reform in the newspaper press, but the charge that, taken as a whole, it does not give the news, is untenable. There is not a working journalist of any experience at all, who cannot tell stories by the score of attempts to suppress news by the offer of bribes and by the exercise of personal influence, all of which have resulted merely in securing a greater publicity.

Before we pass to the consideration of the ownership of newspapers, let us make one point clear—if only for the sake of those who quote Greeley and the other great editors of the past so glibly. An editor’s duty consists in something more than writing editorials. Every item in a newspaper has to be edited, and the honesty of the paper will show just as much in the news columns as it will on the editorial page. Plenty of instances could be offered of a poor distribution of strength in that respect—where the presentation of news is well done in spite of a weak editorial policy, or where the editorial page is clean and convincing, with the rest of the paper open to grave criticism. It is on this line that newspaper men with a proper respect for their own honor and the dignity of their calling will make their reforms. Certainly the reforms will have to be made from the inside, if they are to be of any use at all. These are times when everybody is reforming everybody else; but a newspaper reformed b its readers or by a self-elected committee of college professors, is something which my imagination fails to grasp.

Somebody must own the newspaper, and it requires relatively large capital to run it, although in this connection also there is a good deal of exaggeration. The usual form of ownership is by a corporation dominated by an individual. If that individual has any sense at all he will let his editors alone, after indicating in general outline what he thinks the policy of the paper should be. If he is himself an experienced newspaper man, so much the better. He will know that the men who are worth their salt have always been encouraged to work with a free hand, and, having indicated the results he wants, he will leave them to obtain them in their own way. This is the custom on any good newspaper, and the policy is abandoned only at the expense of serious changes in the editorial staff. There is no workman in the world more independent than the newspaper man who really knows his business. Even if he were disposed to do dirty work for his proprietors, he would be ineffective, for the reason that he could not get good men to work under him.

It is not strictly true that the business department of a newspaper is less honest than the news department, even though a great many newspaper men do say so. There is always a certain amount of jealousy between the wo departments, not because one department is less honest than the other, but because their points of view are different. The business manager knows well enough that the salaries must be paid, to say nothing of the mere cost of paper and the other expenses, and it would be hard to convince him of the policy of estranging advertisers from sheer altruism. His idea is really to treat the advertiser decently without compromising the paper. He is certainly the weakest point in the position, for the reason that he has not that specially developed conscience which is essential to successful editorial work. It must be remembered that a newspaper is not a public institution, but a private enterprise: its proprietor has no right to publish what is not so, or to ask anything of the same kind from his staff. He is entitled to say what shall not appear in his own paper. It is a matter between himself and the public. He has no monopoly of news, and if the reader does not like it, he is at liberty to buy some other paper.

This is not to say that a newspaper proprietor has a right to adopt toward the public an attitude once ascribed to Commodore Vanderbilt. Newspapers have serious responsibilities as well as rights. They have something of a public character, even if they are privately owned. It is possible to deceive by silence as well as by speech, and no newspaper is entitled to adopt a policy of silence where actual injury is caused thereby. Everything turns up the newspaper proprietor’s conscience. There is really only one kind of honesty, but sensitiveness of conscience varies with the individual. There are plenty of newspaper proprietors who are sincerely conscientious; there are others who would repudiate the charge of dishonesty with just indignation. Many preserve their self-respect and od or leave undone things which the highest type would not tolerate. There are some who are dishonest, and unfortunately some are astute enough to conduct their newspaper dishonestly, while still maintaining a fair show of consideration for the public interest. The same degrees of comparison could be made in every profession all over the world, but the reader may not unfairly claim that the public quality of a newspaper should call for a special standard of probity.

Dishonesty in the newspaper press is far more common in the small country organ than it is in the large city dailies. In the country, the literary end and the scientific presentation of news are secondary to the urgent need of making a living. The newspaper is a business proposition all through, and in far too many cases a very sordid proposition at that. Advertising is its breath of life, and it plays the cheapest kind of politics to get what is absolutely necessary for its support. And yet it is from districts served by just such newspapers that the daily press of the great cities receives the severest criticism. Hundreds of small newspapers are controlled frankly and openly by corrupt party machines. This is accepted as a matter of course in rural and semi-rural districts, which still hold the mysterious belief that in some way, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, the standard of morality in the country is higher than it is in the towns.

Taking up in greater detail the actual operation of a newspaper, it may be said at once that no reporter could use his office for his own pocket and hold his position long enough to make it worth while. The result in America is a not overpaid class which will compare favorably with the corresponding grades in the newspaper business of any part of the world. Higher up is the editorial staff, and if news is to be grabbed for the purpose of deception, or suppressed in public or private interest, it is here that the operation must be done. The news editors cannot for any appreciable length of time print what is not true, or suppress what is, without the knowledge of the directing editorial mind, to say nothing of the proprietor. A dishonest city editor without a dishonest managing editor is unthinkable to anybody who knows the working of a newspaper. Everything that is being done is done in black and white, and the responsibility for every line in the paper can be instantly placed. Even the editor-in-chief has small opportunities for dishonesty, and could not for any length of time deceive his proprietors; while he would in the mean time earn the contempt of his subordinates; and this, to any newspaper man with his profession sincerely at heart, is a fearful price to pay for a mere pecuniary advantage.

This puts the responsibility squarely up to the proprietors of the newspaper. Stockholders may be corrupt and contented, willing to accept a profit from the real controlling interest without asking questions; but in every case some single mind is really responsible. No syndicate could possibly conduct a newspaper successfully. We talk about the days of personal control having departed with the great editors of the past. As a matter of fact, personal control was never so great or so direct, and the corporate form of ownership makes no difference in this respect. Criticism on this question has been anything but constructive; and because I wish to point out how I think newspapers can be improved, I will say now that I see no reason why the combination the combination of an honest proprietor and an editor with the brains of a Raymond or a Greeley, is not possible. With all due respect to my profession, I cannot help expressing the opinion that we may easily find the honesty before we find the brains.

If, as Herbert Spencer says, the people get the government they deserve, they probably get the newspapers they deserve also. People who like large headlines and pretentious names signed to very indifferent articles can buy that sort of a paper; while those of us who prefer the editorial page of the New York Evening Post or the Boston Transcript, can get as high a standard of newspaper production as any reasonable man need want. There will never come a time when the majority of the people of this or any country will prefer a Post editorial to one of Arthur Brisbane’s articles in the Hearst American. Mr. Brisbane’s production is in a sense predigested. It is easy to understand and generally amusing to read. It suits an average intelligence, which is still one that no man can afford to despise. A great part of the world is too busy with its ordinary avocations to find time or inclination for the intellectual effort involved in digesting a newspaper editorial of a more subtle type. The newspaper must cater to all classes, and the great editor of the future will be some one who can combine the soundness of one class of editorial with the brilliance of the other.

Demonstrating that personality still controls the newspaper, I have no hesitation in saying that the endowed newspaper is an impossibility. An editor generally responsible to an individual private control may have his troubles. Responsibility to a philanthropic public committee of amateurs would be a condition so intolerable that it is difficult to imagine any competent editor accepting it. Interested interference can be bad enough; well-meant but ill-informed meddling would render a consistent editorial policy an impossibility. By the time the amateur committee had succeeded in securing consideration for all its fads and fancies, one thing would most certainly have happened: the public would have ceased to buy the paper. You may lead the reader gently along to your fount of knowledge by judicious handling, but you cannot make him drink if he does not choose to do so. This is where the endowed newspaper would go to pieces. Competent editorial work requires experience, knowledge, education, independence, memory, technical ability, critical taste the literary facility born of years of arduous training, and a capacity for instant judgment to an extent not exceeded in any other profession. Successful management of a newspaper without these qualities in some degree, is as impossible as the navigation of a ship by somebody ignorant of trigonometry and seamanship.

It is one thing to charge that many newspapers have been guilty of bad judgment, or even dishonesty, in the presentation of news, and quite another to say that the condition is universal or even general. So far as the cases of unfair practice instanced in a previous Atlantic article by Professor Ross1 are concerned, any newspaper man of experience could oblige him with further material of the same character. What that writer entirely fails to prove is his main contention, that the public does not get the news. No newspaper can afford to ignore news which contemporaries print, and any practical man knows how difficult it would be to organize an effective conspiracy of silence. The public is protected in the best possible way by the most rigorous competition.

There is not, and never will be, a trade-union among newspaper-writers. There is a strong espirit de corps, and a sort of freemasonry, both here and abroad, which does much to keep up the standard of newspaper honor. It is of incalculable service to the public, but there are good and bad in all professions. There are altogether too many people who call themselves ‘journalists’ with no very sound reason. It is the undisciplined irregular of this character who is responsible for a good deal of mischief. The real newspaper-writer is a professional and an expert. He is as thoroughly qualified as any other professional man. The training and knowledge he requires is probably not less than that of the competent lawyer or physician; while the rewards of success are upon the whole smaller. He cannot do dirty work without earning the contempt of his fellows, and I have not come across instances, in either the general or the financial field, of the unscrupulous newspaper-writer who has remained for any length of time in the business. For a season he may succeed in publishing what is not so, but in the end he always reaches a stage where he cannot get his matter into print on any conditions whatever.

There is need for a clearer popular understanding of the true functions of a newspaper. These are the collection of news, the presentation of news, and the analysis of news. To be correctly presented, news must be edited; while an editorial which has not a direct bearing upon passing events is merely an essay, and not an editorial at all. To these indispensable functions, a newspaper may most properly add literary and artistic features. Beyond this it has no business to go. Such an outrage upon public decency as the trial of a notorious prisoner, — when the case is still pending before the court, — by the vote of the readers of a paper, should be made a criminal offense. It would be properly punished as contempt of court in other countries. I will even say that I seriously doubt whether detective work should form any part of the duties of a reporter. This may sound very unprogressive, but a newspaper can cooperate with the public in seeing that police duty is efficiently done by the persons duly appointed for the purpose.

There is much to reform and it is hard to see how to go about it. The condition is a moral one, and any improvement, to be effective, must be achieved, not by means of public agitation or even of legislation, but through the better instincts of those responsible for what is published in the newspapers. The condition is a hopeful one. We are apt to forget that all that has been said against the press, and more, would have applied much more generally in the days of Greeley, Raymond, Bowles, or the elder Bennett. News in those days was presented in a careless, sensational, and unscientific manner. It was grossly garbled. In many cases the public interview was an unpardonable offense. Men of the highest station and the greatest probity were deliberately misquoted, and often represented as expressing views which they could not conceivably have held. Remembering that it is in the editing of the news that the chief stumbling-block lies, it can be said by any one old enough to recall the practical working of newspapers a quarter of a century ago, or even later, that a degree of license was tolerated then which would be impossible to-day.

This is not to say that there were not honorable exceptions. Then, as now, the New York Evening Post would not modify its news or its editorial comment for the sake of any advertiser, however large. Even then there was a percentage of honesty sufficient to keep the whole body sweet. The growth in this respect in the past decade has been remarkable, and particularly along lines where the public would not very readily recognize the change. Financial journalism presents a wide field for dishonesty, and yet it is surprisingly clean. It compares most favorably with similar work in London, where in the past few years we have seen a scandalous exposure of what corruption can do in this department of newspaper work. We are over-fond of washing our dirty linen in public, but perhaps we are not quite so black as we like to paint ourselves. A newspaper would fall to pieces of its own rottenness if it habitually practiced the deceptions which are quoted against the press as a whole. The individual may suffer from disease from time to time, but the ordinary condition of living at all presupposes an overwhelming percentage of healthy tissue.

There is nothing like publicity to keep the body politic clean. It is not public opinion, but the ceaseless industry of the newspapers, which has forced upon public-service corporations of all sorts that publicity which is doing so much to extinguish graft and inefficiency. The railroad report of fifteen years ago was an insult to public intelligence compared with the figures and facts which the railroad must give to-day. It was the newspaper instinct for news which brought this condition about. It would have been a long time before the public could have so protected itself without the assistance of the ubiquitous reporter. Doubtless there is plenty of corruption in corporate and political life now, but the press has done more to suppress it by dragging it out into the light of day than has any other single agency in the country. It was not the magazines which compelled the politicians at Albany to clean house. No considerations of valuable financial advertising prevented the freest publication of the facts about the life-insurance companies; and, indeed, there is good reason to say that it was largely newspaper investigation which enabled counsel to bring many of those facts to light.

Not only is it to the interest of the newspaper to give the news, but it is bound to do so as a condition of its existence. If it does not do so, no editorial page, however attractive, can keep it alive. Advertisers are well informed as to the real circulation and the influence of a newspaper. No paper can oblige the advertiser in the corrupt way suggested, unless it has first a following willing to buy what he has to sell. In the long run, public opinion is a fair test. The combination of honesty and efficiency will sell a newspaper, and it will continue to sell it when sensational and dishonest methods have ceased to secure their end. No single newspaper comes up to the ideal of what a paper should be. Many are working towards that ideal; and the fact that the brutal amenities of the journalism of thirty years ago would not be tolerated to-day, is fair evidence that we are improving, even if we do not boast great editors who are also proprietors of their newspapers.

There is no reason why a paper should not be efficient and useful, a great organ owing allegiance to no restricted party, even without a great personality for its editor. But something more than mere honesty is required, though that is indispensable. It is not sufficient that the proprietor shall have a great deal of money, and the editor be correspondingly endowed with brains, unless the two can combine effectively. Two instances where the proprietor has been able to finance a large daily paper, and presumably to buy the best editorial talent in the market, may be adduced, in order to show the necessity for the highest technical knowledge in the conduct of a newspaper.

Some years ago, one of the wealthiest and most powerful of our magazine proprietors bought a New York daily newspaper. That paper had been a very profitable property. Its original proprietor had retired in comfort after establishing a special connection of a most useful kind. The circulation as on the East Side. The readers were largely the Tammany Hall element, but there was a most respectable Catholic following, and the paper also was popular with the Jewish element. Its sporting news was a feature, and its readers demanded that sort of news rather fully. It reported at length local and religious gatherings which would not receive more than a few lines of notice in any of the other dailies. Its editorial policy suited its readers, and it was careful not to write over their heads. Altogether it was a good and useful production, and a great deal more scrupulous about publishing anything which would really shock the rather scrupulous morals of its denominational readers than many more widely known sheets. The publisher, after buying the paper, decided that its readers did not know what was good for them. He cut out the local reports, and especially those which had appealed to the Irish Catholic element. The editorials were a good deal more pretentious, but the sporting news was much less accurate and full. Judged by what we may call the magazine standard, the newspaper was a more refined and impressive production. The trouble was that it did not give its readers what they wanted. There were plenty of other newspapers appealing to people of fine literary taste, if the East Side reader had wanted to buy them. The result as the loss of an amount sufficient to buy the control of a newspaper of the first class, and the destruction of a property which might have continued valuable and useful.

It will be seen here that the combination of money and editorial ability was not everything, and that the public also had something to say in the matter.

Here is another instance. One of the most powerful financial interests in the country decided that it was not being fairly treated by the newspapers. Criticism among the more radical prints was of a most aggressive and searching character; while the record of the interest in question had been such that conservative newspapers did not choose to take up the cudgels in its defense even when it was in the right, fearing that a censorious world would immediately assume that such support had been bought. This interest, therefore, bought the control of a daily financial and commercial newspaper. They put it in the hands of a competent editor with good general and financial experience, and apparently they had an organ ready to their hand which could give the fullest publicity to their side of any question. What was the consequence? The public declined to buy the paper. Besides the loss on the transaction, presumably a matter of small moment to people of large wealth, the paper absolutely failed in the object for which it was acquired. Its subscribers rapidly transferred their allegiance to a competitor, owned by two brothers well known to be irreproachably honest, and competent to manage their own paper, even if their financial resources were moderate, judged by what the popular mind thinks necessary to conduct a newspaper.

Newspapers controlled by special interests are scarcely ever money-making propositions. It is not quite so easy to humbug the public as it looks, and it is impossible to fool the general reader for any length of time. Where the reader is really humbugged is in cases where he is a willing party to the fraud. A newspaper works up, by artificial means, a crusade of some sort. It may be three-cent fares, or anti-vivisection, or cheap gas, or anything that looks likely to get the crowd interested. To the expert, the creaking of the machinery is clearly audible; but numbers of well-meaning persons join in a movement which is never really disinterested, which is no factor in any reform that may come from a natural development of public opinion, but which is simply intended to swell circulation under the influence of popular excitement. The policy, so far as the newspaper is concerned, is of very questionable value. The dodge has been worked to death, and a big circulation, of a kind to convince incredulous advertisers, cannot be worked up by means of a few hysterical letters from ‘constant readers,’ genuine or concocted. Even when there is some temporary success, the collapse of the ‘boom’ is followed by a slump, and each succeeding agitation has to be more violent because of the increasing difficulty in arousing public interest. If the reader is humbugged in this way, he has only himself to thank.

Public taste has been educated (by the newspapers) to demand a better quality both in editorial comment and in news-matter. It is a mistake to suppose that people no longer read editorials. They read them gladly if they are attractively written. There is not the least need for shallow sensationalism. There is plenty of demand for the intelligent discussion of current events in their relation to the unchanging principles of public and private morals. In this connection, there is in many newspapers a regrettable absence of that systematic training for the young writer which was insisted upon by some of our greatest pressmen. The late Samuel Bowles began his day with a copy of the Springfield Republican before him, on which was marked the writer of every item, however obscure. With each of his staff, every day so far as was possible, he discussed his work, pointing out its good and bad qualities with infinite patience and insight. A dozen men, now an honor to the newspaper profession, might be named who learned their business in that severe school. It was a kind of ‘third degree’ that few men would voluntarily undergo; but no man with the experience ever regretted the salutary discipline he went through.

It is men from such schools as this who are pulling up the standard for the rest. The public may be very sure that these editors are not imposed upon by ‘write-ups’ and ‘reading-notices.’ The interested suppression of the truth or suggestion of falsehood could not long survive such scrutiny. These are not men to allow themselves to be made the instruments of a dishonest proprietor. The efficient newspaper man commands his price as readily as any other worker in the market. There come occasions when his honor requires that he shall sacrifice position and pay. He retains the respect of his fellows, and he has a calling at his fingers’ ends which will keep him. There is at least no class that has been less tainted by the modern haste to get rich. Newspaper salaries are not large, and the prizes are few; but the honesty of the newspaper-writer, thank God! is still not measurable in terms of dollars and cents.

  1. “The Suppression of Important News,” in the Atlantic for March, 1910.