Notes on American Newspapers

I

FROM my earliest childhood I was conditioned to American newspapers. As far back as I can remember, I see myself waiting around impatiently every Sunday morning to be allowed to enter my grandmother’s room because, as head of a numerous family, she had first call on the Paris edition of the New York Herald, and experience had taught me that it was wise to get hold of the comic section directly at the source, so to speak, — that is, on my grandmother’s breakfast tray, — before it got lost on its way to other breakfast trays all over the house.

Needless to say, I was not interested in any ot her part of the Herald, but in so far as a small French boy can be subject to the influence of the press, there is no doubt that the adventures of Buster Brown, of Alphonse and Gaston, and of Little Nemo made more impression on me than my Bible storybook or the Fables of La Fontaine.

Later on I began to read the more serious parts of the Paris Herald, and still later on, alas, during the so-called boom years, the financial page. But it is only since I have come to live here that I have realized that there is the same difference between an American newspaper printed in Paris and one published in New York as there is between a Continental American and one living in the United States.

In fact, it is as difficult to understand a real American newspaper as it is to understand America itself, and although I am professionally obliged to devote a great part of my waking hours to it I am not quite sure, after five years of practice, that I have really mastered the art of newspaper reading in this country. Because it is an art indeed, and one which calls for as much discrimination, careful planning, and luck as diamond cutting or trout fishing.

Americans who visit France either tell disturbing stories about the corruption of the French press or are thoroughly amused by something which seems to them rather quaint and amateurish. A French paper, with its eight to twelve pages; its apparent indifference to the sacred value of hot news; its habit of putting on the front page a story about Louis XI with a big headline and on page five or seven, in very small type, the most disquieting announcement of impending revolution; the personal manner in which events are reported, and, above all, the disrespectful treatment of advertisements — all these Gallic idiosyncrasies baffle the American and he never ceases to wonder how the French reader, whom he believes to be normally intelligent and curious, can possibly content himself with something which is at once as light, as evanescent, and perhaps as deceitful, as a soufflé surprise.

The answer to this is that reading a French newspaper also requires an education, and I should be glad to answer any question on the subject, but the purpose of these notes is the American press and I will deal with that for the moment.

II

To begin with, there is the physical aspect of an American newspaper.

I am writing this on a Sunday afternoon. The room in which I write presents a typical scene of American home life. First the chambermaid, and then my wife, and finally I myself have tried to reëstablish some semblance of order in the chaos which prevailed in this room this morning. We have not fought in vain. The 110 pages of the Daily News have been recaptured and placed on the bookshelf, more or less out of reach of my two-year-old son. The magazine section of this altogether colorful publication, which I read last night in bed and which was under the bed during the night and the best part of the morning, is now safely pinned down between the gray and red telephone books. I cannot throw it away yet because I think I remember seeing a feature story in this section which I may want to look over, although I cannot recall just now what it was about.

The twelve sections of the New York Times (214 pages) have been piled up on the table after several roundups. Their position is not secure because when the baby comes back from the park he may feel that he wants to look them over once more to make quite sure that, as the New York Times proudly asserts, none of these twelve sections is a funny one. Besides, I must read carefully about thirty articles which I just had time to glance at this morning. There is also the ever-present danger that someone will want to look up the radio programmes or the shipping news. My wife has not even nibbled at the book reviews and the classified ads. The Herald Tribune is in the baby’s room complete, with the exception of the page on which is the crossword puzzle. This my wife has already hidden for future consideration during the rest of the week.

On the whole, and although the day will soon be gone, the family has not even started on its great weekly chore of reading the Sunday papers. The chances are that it never will, and that to-morrow morning when the Monday papers are there and the maid says, pointing at these piles of pulp, ‘Sir, may I throw those away?’ I shall say, ‘Yes,’ with a confused sense of despair and muffled guilt.

III

It is a strange thing that the American people, who enjoy a world-wide reputation for being eminently proficient in inventing devices which will save time and useless fatigue, have developed a form of newspaper which is by far the one that requires, on the part of the reader, the greatest personal effort, ingenuity, and fortitude. This does not mean that American newspapers are not good. In fact I believe that, judged by the standards of journalism all over the world, they rate very high — at least the best of them. But the fact remains that as a practical means of information they seem to be unduly hampered by their faithfulness to certain outworn formulas and by a lack of recognition of the tempo and temper of their public.

The problem of journalism is not limited to the selling of newspapers. It also includes the question of making the public read what it buys. When someone tells me, ‘I read the Times, or the World Telegram, or the Evening Journal,’ what he actually means is that he buys the paper every day and that under very favorable circumstances (on a twenty-four-hour railroad journey, for instance, or when sick in bed) he does read perhaps ten per cent of what is printed on each page.

Of course, everybody cannot be interested in everything. I for one will never read about baseball, especially since I have found out that the Giants are not gigantic and that the Cardinals are not princes of the Church. But even then, even if you limit yourself to the subjects which interest you personally, the obstacles that are put in your way create an impression of curious weariness.

One of these obstacles is the method of presenting the news. Herein perhaps lies the greatest difference between an American and a French newspaper.

Let us suppose that one of the dictators — and I don’t care which — is murdered to-morrow. This, in France, will probably be front-page stuff, in spite of Louis XI, and the story will run something like this: ‘It was one of these exquisite autumn days. The sun was sinking slowly behind the purple mountains. Its last rays were caressing (ses demiers rayons caressaient) the shining helmets of the mounted guards surrounding the car of t he man who for so many years has been the idol of his countrymen. No one could imagine that this man, who, at that moment, was smiling and bowing to an ecstatic crowd, would in a very few seconds take his place in the Elysian Fields. But human destiny, etc. . . . History has been made and undone many times in such a way, and, as Pascal said apropos of Cleopatra’s nose, etc. . . . Suddenly a shot was heard. A man whose eyes were shining like those of a panther . . .’

In other words, the French newspaper writer will lead you up dramatically to the climax in such a way that when you get there your pulse will be up around 120.

His American confrere, on the other hand, will knock you out cold in the first paragraph, thus: ‘Dictator Blank was fatally shot at 5.16 P.M. by an assassin while driving through the main thoroughfare of Zed. His assailant, who gave his name as Enrico Levinsky, 213 Brutus Avenue, was taken into custody by the police.’

From then on the story will have a tendency to repeat itself with slight variations, incidental details being added here and there as the columns unwind, like a string of sausages. This method of mechanical amplification has obvious advantages, especially for the editor. With a pair of scissors he can cut the story at any point, because, provided he leaves the headlines and the first paragraph, everything worth knowing will be there.

The French reporter tells a story; the American covers it. One must choose the details and present them in such a way that a definite impression will be created; the other is asked to collect the greatest possible number of facts as if he were assembling the material for an article in an encyclopædia. Both methods have their advantages and their inconveniences, but I will venture to say that the American system produces an impression of dullness which is sometimes very disheartening.

I know that the justification usually given for this method is that journalism is not, and should not be confused with, literature. This may be a wise rule, although it has never been quite convincing to me. Various experiments which are being made by American editors, such as those of the New York Times with their admirable Sunday summaries of the events of the week, prove that there is a tendency to escape from the sacred formula of the sausage string.

The French newspapers are usually blamed for allow ing the editorial policy of the paper to throw its reflection on the presentation of the news. This, in American journalism, is considered the worst possible offense and a deadly sin against the God of Objectivity. But is this ideal attainable?

Some time ago President Roosevelt pointed out that partisanship had a tendency to make itself felt by devious means which he seemed to feel were worse than frank misstatements. He alluded to the headlines which can emphasize or tone down an event. He spoke of the omission of unpleasant news. The President — he admits it himself — is an idealist, and I am afraid that his criticism will not be heeded.

The truth is that nobody, not even a newspaper man, can possibly be impartial. It is not human, and the only result which is achieved by the most honest efforts in this direction is platitude. Besides, is not the cult of journalistic objectivity founded on a misunderstanding? Is there not a distinction to be made between prejudice and interpretation?

I remember a discussion I had with the publisher of an important news magazine. ‘We believe in facts,’ he said to me. ‘Our whole policy is based on the accurate, complete, and, if necessary, crude presentation of facts and nothing else but facts.’

I argued that there were many categories of facts, and that to treat them all as birds of a feather, which could be caught on the wing and served side by side without any dressing, was really a waste of time. That Joe Louis knocked out Sharkey is a fact sufficient unto itself, but when it comes to informing the public as to the issues of a political campaign or the developments of a civil war in Spain or elsewhere, it will do no good at all merely to record facts, because what the readers ask for is interpretation and comment. In other words, there is a whole class of facts which are of less value than the analysis of these facts.

I he proof that this is so can be seen in the extraordinary prestige enjoyed by the columnists, by certain foreign correspondents, and in general by whoever on an American newspaper is in a position to sign his name, and who, to everybody’s knowledge, is giving his own opinion.

This development of the personal aspect of American journalism strikes all foreigners. It fills the gap left open by the scarcity of newspapers exclusively devoted to the expression of political opinion such as exist in France in vast numbers. It serves to break the uniformity of straight information, which, in spite of all good arguments that can be made in its favor, may become a selfdefeating enterprise when other means of disseminating news, such as the radio, make further progress.

Of course I do not suggest that Walter Lippmann, General Hugh Johnson, or Dorothy Thompson should be invited to report shipwrecks, murders in Hollywood, and dancing marathons; but I think it would be much more interesting if the ordinary news reporter were given a little more leeway, if he were not held down to rigid formulas, and if he had a chance to show his individual talent.

In these paradoxical United States, where the movie public likes to know that the usher who tears his ticket at the door of Radio City Music Hall is called Mr. Smith, and that he rides in an elevator piloted by Mr. O’Flaherty, I feel that such an instinctive sentiment of revolt against the anonymity of our dreary mechanical age should be encouraged. Quite frankly, I would often and willingly be left in ignorance of half of the details of what happened to know a little more about the private opinion of the witness.

IV

The front page of an American newspaper is a beautiful sight. Neat and well-tempered in the high-class sheets, boisterous and flamboyant in the others, it is as engaging to the avid reader as the sight of the open sea to the born sailor. It is exhilarating and full of promise. It is appealing and pure. Breezy headlines tell you of the prevailing winds, and when you have set sail and run along these vast expanses of paper and ink, guided and reassured by the subtitles which, like tinkling bell buoys, chart out your course, you experience a great sense of expectancy and adventure.

But woe to the foolish navigator who, forgetful of the treachery of these seas, ties up his rudder and trusts these happy beginnings! Suddenly the whole front page turns black before his eyes. With a dull thud he has struck bottom: ‘Continued on page 37.’

Anguish takes possession of his soul and his mind becomes a blur. It is not the first time that this has happened to him. He has met with such crashes before, but he has never hardened himself to the shock.

He knows too well what page 37 will look like — the ordeals of navigation in the Sargasso Sea of advertising. When he gets there, temptation and ambush will surround him on all sides. It is not for his good that he has been lured to page 37, but because the sirens and the sharks have bet on the chance that he is no Ulysses, but just a sucker.

Personally, I often refuse to turn to page 37. I prefer to ignore the end of the story and to start on another on the front page. I resent this feeling of being trapped. I like to think of myself as consistent, man enough not to be sidetracked into building a ‘New Dream Home’ for $3798 or buying a cake of soap because it is good for the skin of the Quintuplets, when all I want to know is Mr. Hitler’s latest contribution to the peace of the world or Mr. Landon’s to the reëlection of Mr. Roosevelt.

V

I know that to touch on the sacred institution of advertising in America is nothing short of sacrilegious. I know too that French editors turn green with envy when they see the amount of advertisement that their American confreres are able to push down the throat of the docile public under the guise of informing it of what is going on in the world.

On the other hand, the primitive condition of advertising in France is a constant source of amazement to the American visitor. When he is told that, if it is so, it is because the French do not believe in advertising, he remains skeptical or feels sorry for the French. Such an admission, he thinks, only demonstrates the backwardness of an antique race or a lack of initiative on the part of those who are responsible for its enlightenment. It is a shameful fact — but a fact — that the French do believe that they could continue to live even if they never read another line of advertising in their papers. They actually imagine that, left to their own devices, they would still be able to eat, drink, sleep, wash, dress, travel, and amuse themselves.

I am quite aware that such a conception is deplorable, especially viewed from America, where the arts of advertising and publicity, compared with the other manifestations of human activity, are held in such high esteem, not to say reverence. One is inspired with a sense of awe at the realization that if to-morrow, by some unspeakable magic, all advertising were taken out of the newspapers a large portion of the American civilization would probably collapse. The immediate results of such an event would make the worst days of the depression look like a lost Paradise. Think of this great nation suddenly giving up washing their teeth, removing useless hair, or sleeping on mattresses because nobody would be there any more to tell them why and how they should do those things. . . . Perhaps they would die en masse, poisoned by acids and germs, or starve because they had forgotten that this strange-looking fruit with no name stamped on it is nevertheless an orange, and that something made out of flour, but which does not have the taste and the consistency of a sanitary poultice wrapped up in Cellophane, can still be considered as a loaf of bread.

Luckily, thanks to the national faith in pragmatism, which teaches us that when a thing works it is not only good but moral, there is no danger of such a calamity ever striking America. The principles of advertising are as firmly established as those embodied in the Constitution.

Still, and in spite of my pragmatic respect for things being the way they are, I candidly confess that if a dictator came along and reduced drastically by decree the acreage planted in the American dailies and magazines by the advertisers I should not mind very much.

It may be that I like newspapers and that I do not like advertising. On the other hand, I know people who would not dream of buying a newspaper except for the advertising.

The newspaper man is supposed to tell the truth. The advertiser is implicitly excused if he does not. Both work through the same medium and are completely interdependent for their mutual subsistence. It is a strange paradox, an unholy alliance, but, as is so often the case in life, the irregularity of the situation has ceased to worry any but the overpunctilious.

I am not one of those, I hope, and besides I have not intended to write a thesis on the monumental subject of reforming the press. Any newspaper man who would think of such an undertaking should be fired. The real motive of these remarks is that it is sometimes less exhausting, on a Sunday afternoon in New York, to write about the newspapers than to read them.