History of Journalism in the United States

by George Henry Payne. New York; D. Appleton & Co. 1920. 12mo, xx+453 pp.
MR. PAYNE tells the story of the coördinated development of democracy and journalism in this country, from the days of Benjamin Harris, who established in Boston in 1690 Publick Occurranees, the first newspaper issued on this continent, to the time of our own Mr. Hearst. The book contains of necessity so much about the political leaders and the important public events of the past two hundred years that it might almost be called a historical sketch of the United States from the Colonial period.
It is a matter of common knowledge that the press has exerted a powerful influence wherever free government and free speech have flourished, but there are indications that, at least in this country, it does not carry as much weight as it once did. Some students of current affairs believe that the disappearance of personal journalism has lessened theprestigeof the‘fourth estate,’ as a whole, and given the news columns, what is widely admitted, more influence than the editorial page.
Mr. Watterson, the last of our great editors, said recently that personal journalism could not be escaped. Mr. Dana wrote years ago: ’Whenever, in the newspaper profession, 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 benothing but impersonal journalism.’ In spite of Mr. Watterson’s prediction—perhaps in justification of Mr. Dana’s — personal journalism hardly exists to-day.
The changed conditions are probably due in part to the growing theory among modern newspaper editors that their proper function is the distribution of news. The journal of 1920 is often, either frankly or disingenuously, a money-making enterprise and not a guide of conduct. Whether this latter-day doctrine is as sound as the earlier one, that every editor had a mission in the world, is a question which would lead to lengths of discussion quite beyond the present limits.
Mr. Payne’s dictum that ‘journalism is the only profession where prejudice, like versatility, may be an asset’ will not be generally accepted. Versatility is helpful in most callings; open-mindedness and freedom from prejudice are essential in journalism, if for no other reason, because the newspaper writer is practically unanswerable before his own audience. His readers rely, consciously or unconsciously, on the sheet which is left at their doorstep every morning or evening. The newspaper editor and reporter, therefore, have a responsibility so great that they should be the most unprejudiced and most judicial of men.
It is unfortunate that the publication of this book was not delayed for a few weeks. The author could then have recorded that apotheosis of the American newspaper man — the nomination of two editors by the Republicans and Democrats for the Presidency of the United States. Regardless of the moment of publication the book presents a mass of significant fact in a field hitherto but scantily tilled.
J. D. M.
In response to requests from many librarians, the reviews printed each month in this department of the magazine will be reprinted separately in pamphlet form. Copies may be had by any librarian, without charge, on application to the Atlantic Monthly, 8 Arlington St., Boston.