Some Newspapers and Newspapermen

by Oswald Garrison Villard, Litt.D., LL.D. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1923. 12mo. Illustrated. xii+345 pp. $2.50.
WHAT constitutes an ‘ideal newspaper’? Unanswered — and perhaps unanswerable — question! What constitutes bad journalism? Mr. Villard provides a textbook, enriched by evidence selected with care, determination, and that passion for proof which excludes evidence undesired. Mr. Villard speaks from a seat of potential authority. His service from 1897 to 1918 as managing editor, editorial writer, and president of the New York Evening Post; and his service as editor of The Nation, entitle him to express his opinions. He has done so. Mr. Villard paints a gloomy picture. He does not undertake to provide a formula by which a newspaper may rise to the heights of perfection, ethically understood, and at the same time be self-supporting. That is not the purpose of his present volume; he seeks here to picture what he has seen — much evil, and a little good.
In his preface he notes the progress of the press; it is, in his eyes, a rake’s progress only.
‘While nothing has been set down in malice,’writes the author, he ‘must admit a bias.’ This he presents as the bias of one who, looking upon journalism, ‘cannot witness its rapid decadence without sharp pain.’ Many will sympathize with a bias of this sort, yet many too will feel that he has recorded this ‘decadence’ with much gusto. Who now will write a companion—or contrasting—volume from the bias of one who sees evidences of some gain in journalism, despite obvious evils?
‘Newspapermen,’ says the author, ‘are like sheep.’ Newspapermen are human beings, whose kinship to sheep is an old discovery. ‘Any definite worth-while survey of the rise and fall of American journalism,’ he says, must apply the test of ‘the ethical measuring stick.’ Yet good men differ as to the stick and its application. ‘Independence’ is an elusive term. Does all championship of ‘the established order’ come from the insincere? Is there no independent thought but that which counsels radical change? We are in a large and rather miscellaneous world, and there is a bewildering welter of opinions and beliefs; and a large proportion of it all is sincere — even though it hits us hard.
Mr. Villard considers the good points of the New York Times, but is more zestful in enumerating what he regards as its bad ones. Mr. Hearst. he cudgels with high enthusiasm. The New York World is praised for liberalism; yet ‘it does not begin to approximate what it ought to be.’ Mr. Munsey’s dailies are ‘conventional and insular.’ The Yiddish Vorwaerts wins unstinted praise: ‘the most interesting, the most challenging, of New York’s daily papers.’ Boston is ‘a journalistic poor-farm.’ It has no bright blossoms. The Monitor, ‘a Christian Daily,’is ‘absolutely clean, dignified, honest’; yet unexalted. The Suns of Baltimore are better: ‘journalistic resurrections.’ The Philadelphia Ledger is ‘a muffed opportunity.’ Washington, the national capital, is ‘without a thunderer.’ So it goes, through Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Louisville. The Bennetts, father and son, of the New York Herald were ‘the most remarkable newspapermen this country has ever produced’; and they are dead. Edwin L. Godkin is praised generously: ‘the greatest of our editorial writers.’ William Lloyd Garrison had a moral leadership of which ‘the need in the press was never greater than to-day.’
Well —a gloomy, depressing book; but not to be tossed aside. There is ripe thought in it. It is not quite as independent in thought as its author means it to be. He is a rigid partisan of nonpartisanship, a persecutor of those who persecute, a dismal prophet. Yet no one seeking the progress and enlightenment of American journalism can read his volume without being glad it has been written — only it is not to be swallowed at a gulp.