Thoughts on Newspapers
Unawed by influence and unbribed by gain.
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The Press, Sir, is the one light of civilization that remains to stay the flood of subversive doctrines that have become, Sir, a veritable conflagration of poison, gnawing with its wolfish fangs at the cornerstones of the Constitution.
FOR CANDIDATE CONGRESS
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A PRESS press is essential to a democracy. Without it democracy is impossible. The American press has done and still is doing great service to the American people. But a free press, like every other free thing, is free to prostitute itself. And unfortunately at times it does.
To portray the newspaper we shall have to enlarge our canvas and get a picture of American life as a whole. For, after all, the press is only one factor of modern life, only one cog in the machinery of what we are pleased to call civilization. It can be understood and evaluated only in its reciprocal relations to other cogs in the Big Machine. Civilization is so complex; its various institutions are so intimately interwoven that no one of them can be studied in isolation. Absolute ‘selfdetermination’ for a social institution is as impossible as for a people or for an individual. This is especially true in America, where we most nearly approach democracy. We are ruled by our Zeitgeist — the Spirit of our Time.
So a picture of modern journalism must be painted against its background, with a full understanding that the press has had its share in developing and making possible the conditions which exist to-day. Admittedly we have lived in a crassly materialistic age, and the press, as we see it, is the child of that age. It may be that the Prophet Jeremiah, or a reincarnated Savonarola, or a John Calvin could run a newspaper to-day, but I doubt it. I fear he would have to find some other medium of denunciation. One of the most notable prophets of profit, Calvin Coolidge, said, ‘The business of America is Business,’ and again, ‘ Civilization follows profits.’ He was quite right. A civilization founded on profits can persist only if profits persist. Publishing is an intricate and precarious business, and it is no accident that the newspapers of America have gravitated into the hands of business men, who think in terms of business and are wholly and heartily in sympathy with the objectives and ethics of business.
In sketching the background against which we must judge newspapers let me begin with the words of the brilliant United States Senator from Kansas, John J. Ingalls, as they appeared in the New York World nearly fifty years ago.
In April 1890, the World published a twenty-column interview with the Senator. In the course of a three-hour talk he said: —
With the possible exception of the two terms of Washington, there has not been an absolutely fair, free and impartial expression of the deliberate will of the people in any presidential election since the foundation of the government. I doubt if there ever will be. Patronage will allure the ambitious, force will coerce the timid, demagogism will gull the credidous, fraud will rob the weak, money will buy the mercenary.
The purification of politics is an iridescent dream. Government is force. Politics is a battle for supremacy. Parties are the armies. The decalogue and the Golden Rule have no place in a political campaign. The object is success. To defeat the antagonist and expel the party in power is the purpose. The Republicans and Democrats are as irreconcilably opposed to each other as were Grant and Lee in the Wilderness. They use ballots instead of guns, but the struggle is as unrelenting and desperate and the results sought for the same. In war it is lawful to deceive the adversary, to hire Hessians, to purchase mercenaries, to mutilate, to kill, to destroy. The commander who lost a battle through the activity of his moral nature would be the derision and jest of history. This modern cant about the corruption of politics is fatiguing in the extreme. It proceeds from the tea-custards and syllabub and dilettanteism, the frivolous and desultory sentimentalism of epicenes.
Was Senator Ingalls right? The Mugwumps who were clamoring for Civil Service reform were properly indignant, and even the Stalwarts thought there was no occasion for such frankness on John J.’s part; but the interview on the whole was a fairly accurate expression of the political philosophy of America in the 1880’s. And of its business philosophy as well! The purification of business was not even a dream, iridescent or otherwise. It could n’t be thought of. Not until fifteen or twenty years later did students of affairs begin to discover that it is business — always business — which stands in the way of cleaner politics and decency in government.
Many things have happened since 1890. The populists had their little day in Kansas. The Agrarian Movement swept the West and subsided, but left an indelible mark upon our political structure. . . . Grover Cleveland regained the Presidency, only to find that he had a Congress on his hands. . . . The Peerless Leader, Bryan, and the Holy Cause of 16-to-l, went up like a rocket and fizzled out into ridiculous sputtering sparks of fundamentalism. . . . The Pullman strike sent Eugene Debs to prison. . . . Mark Hanna made McKinley President, and fireeating Joe Foraker, aided by William Randolph Hearst and other Yellows, drove McKinley into a pitiful war with decrepit Spain, while the Chicago packers waxed fat upon the embalmed beef with which they killed our soldiers. . . . The Direct-Primary Election system was adopted. . . . The public-bedamned policy of railway magnates led to regulatory measures in the nation and the several states. . . . The capital of Kansas was removed from the Copeland Hotel, and the government of Kansas was taken from the exclusive control of the general attorneys of Kansas railroads. . . . Big Business was born. . . . The Muckrakers exposed the shame of the cities, in an attempt to arouse an indifferent public to the corruption, bribery, and graft rampant in every metropolitan city in America. Little spasms of reform were discernible, but as a rule the respectables elected to displace the crooks were so inefficient that the cities were soon glad to turn back municipal control to the very thieves who had been deposed. . . . The boss-busters upset the applecart in Kansas. . . . Theodore Roosevelt discovered Malefactors of Great Wealth, swung the Big Stick, and proclaimed the Square Deal. . . . The Bull Moose made their stand at Armageddon, indirectly elevating to the Presidency of the United States a Princeton College professor, the most learned scholar, the greatest egotist, and probably the most idealistic man who has ever occupied the White House. The New Freedom was his slogan. He was reëlected because he ‘kept us out of war,’ and then he plunged us into the holy crusade to make the world safe for democracy. . . . Profiteers preyed upon their country and prayed to their god that the war would be protracted. . . . The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted. . . . The War-to-endWar finished, the iniquitous Treaty of Versailles signed, an inscrutable Providence, aided and abetted by practical politicians who knew exactly what they were doing, and Big Business, which knew exactly what it wanted, inflicted the weak and pliant Harding upon a careless, unprotesting nation. . . . Then came the boom days of the 1920’s, and the Captains of Industry who had ruled the American people since the Civil War were compelled to hand over the sceptre to bankers and financiers of the Morgan, Mitchell, Harriman, Baker, Insull type. . . . The World War was succeeded by a world-wide economic war, infinitely more cruel and devastating. . . . Warren Gamaliel Harding, driven to his death by doublecrossing jackals, was succeeded by the complacent Calvin, and the boom went on. . . . Mass production flooded the country with commodities. ... A New Era had dawned, with poverty about to be abolished. . . . There was the wildest extravagance in public expenditures, with taxes mounting higher and ever higher. ... So little regard was paid to public expenditures that we spent for education alone within one billion dollars as much as we spent upon automobiles. . . . Dividends on stocks, interest paid on bonds, net profits of banks, increased 216 per cent in four years — eight billion dollars. . . . Veterans and alleged veterans of the World War raided the United States Treasury. . . . Calvin chooses not to run, and the Great Engineer steps into the Presidency, at a time when wise men already see the handwriting on the wall. . . . Herbert Hoover, of whom it may be said, as was said of Henry III of France: ‘Qu’il estait une fort gentile Prince; mais son reigne advenu en une fort mauvais temps’ . . . The world staggered under a load of unpayable debts. . . . Bootlegging became one of the nation’s chief industries. . . . Gangsters robbed, killed, kidnapped, and, through the connivance of corrupt courts and unscrupulous lawyers, walked the streets unmolested and unafraid.And
then, the gamblers of high finance blew the fool’s bladder to the bursting point and the bubble exploded. . . . The descent into Purgatory was easy and rapid, but a patient people hoped for the best and looked for a miracle to happen. ... It did n’t happen. . . . Ten million men and women were unemployed; slowly starving, or, more hateful still, living upon charity. And they were told to have faith in God and in America: ‘We will come out of this as we came out of Valley Forge.’ . . . In the fall of 1932, not because of what had happened, not because of what was said in the campaign, but solely because the people wanted a change, they elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt President, and a New Deal was in order. . . . We slipped off the Gold Standard, and a bank moratorium was declared, and the revolution of 1933 was under way — and is still waging; a legacy which I fear we oldsters will dump into the hands of the youngsters. . . . And may God have mercy on them!
Against this historic background the virtues and faults of newspapers stand out clearly. Newspapers are very human institutions. Some are corruptible and will sell whatever influence they may have for a price. There are newspapers which are so situated in regard to banks, to public utilities, or to other business interests, that they cannot call their souls their own. There are newspapers which perilously skirt blackmail in their relations with the commercial world. But remember that there are bankers who are crooks, lawyers who are shysters, clergymen who are hypocrites, business men who are racketeers, politicians who are demagogues, and pots who call the kettle black.
We must realize that there are all sorts of men in the publishing business, all sorts of newspapers, all sorts of policies and ideals. The newspaper, in its technique and content, is a reflection of the ideas and ideals of the man or men who own it. William Randolph Hearst could hardly publish a newspaper that would appeal to the readers of the New York Times.
An integral part of the newspaper is advertising. Is it wasteful? Is it overenthusiastic? Is it as misleading as a political speech? But advertising is the lifeblood, nay, the very heart of the competitive system of distribution. You cannot eliminate advertising without killing the system, and we had best not say anything against the competitive system unless we have very good connections, indeed, with Moscow.
Do advertisers dictate to editors and publishers? Very seldom. It is not advertisers who exert important influence on journalism so much as the great and holy cause of better and bigger business. In good times and bad, Business must be served, and the press must — well, ‘coöperate’ is the word we use.
Journalism in America is not at a particularly low ebb as compared with other American institutions. We have only to look at the rest of the world, outside of Great Britain and America, to see to what depths journalism can fall. The newspapers of America do not wield the influence they might. They are not the leaders they could and should be, but the press in the main is relatively free. There are editors with high ideals and there are publishers who appreciate their great responsibilities.