by LOUIS M. LYONS
NOWHERE in the metropolitan press was it front-page news when a distinguished commission reported that the press is endangering its own freedom. In countless newspapers the report of the Commission on Freedom of the Press, A Free and Responsible Press (University of Chicago Press), went unnoticed, though it was made available in concise summary by all three press services. Even many large city papers carried nothing on it, and it appeared in others only in columns by Walter Lippmann or Marquis Childs.
No other institution could have been criticized by as distinguished a group as Chancellor Hutchins’s commission without having the indictment land on the front page. The lack of news the press found in this report is itself news of interest to those of us who have been buying papers all these years under the illusion that the newspapers cover the news. It is, incidentally, one of the central points of the report on the freedom of the press that there’s an unhealthy absence of self-criticism in our newspapers.
No newspaper carried the full text. The New York Times carried a competent summary in three and one-half columns on page 24. The Christian Science Monitor gave up a full page to a digest of the report. These were among the few papers that gave readers, in the headline, a chance to realize that here was something they might want to read.
Most headlines ran only some variation of “Freedom of the Press in Danger.” It sounded like the familiar cry of the publishers that somebody is after them. A reader must have been immune to boredom if he read below such a worn-out wolf cry. I have a whole bale of papers collected by a friend who alerted his exchange room for me. The same headline over the same AP story on approximately the same page 24 runs monotonously through the Detroit. Free Press, Washington Star, Wilkes-Barre Record, and Tampa Tribune,
Yet the little Spartanburg Herald could spell out “Press Must Be Responsible, Commission Finds.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer headline was “Press Held Endangering Its Own Freedom by Abusing It.” That’s correct. That’s what the man said. But try and find it in nine tenths of the papers.
It is always unsafe to say of anything that it was not in a given newspaper. There are enough obscure places for items to lurk under the ads on the back pages to defeat the most painstaking searcher. Or if might have run in the early upcountry edition and been dropped from the later more important ones — as they handled this story in Minneapolis. But it is safe to say that in any of the Boston papers except the Christian Science Monitor it would have taken an assiduous search to discover any news about the most thorough and competent examination of the press they ever had a chance to print. The WilkesBarre Record had staff enough to handle it. The Newark News wrote its own story. The Scranton Tribune gave its readers more service on this news than the Boston Post or Boston Traveler, which gave their readers nothing. The Boston Herald had no news on it, but two days later ran an editorialpage article brushing it. off, by John Crider, editor of the Herald. That was the only thing written on the subject in Boston outside the Monitor. The Boston Globe would have had nothing on it at all if Walter Lippmann hadn’t happened to base his column that day on one point in the report.
The extraordinary number of major newspapers that left all responsibility in the matter to syndicated columnists, chiefly Lippmann and Childs, is a noteworthy commentary itself on the responsibility of the press. This was not true of the Louisville Courier-Journal, where editor-owner Barry Bingham wrote the paper’s appraisal of the report under his own name. It was not true of the Christian Science Monitor, which had a signed article and editorial besides a page of news. The New York Herald Tribune ran editorial, book column, and news story on it. The New York Times, besides daily editorial and news, made it the lead topic of its Sunday book section in an article by editorial writer R. L. Duffus. The Washington Post, while carrying both Lippmann and Childs on the report, had its own story and editorial. The San Francisco Chronicle made it a prominent news story; the Portland Oregonian, its lead editorial. These and maybe one or two more call the roll of papers that took it in stride as news to report and discuss.
Some editorials were fatuous. Said the Nashville Banner: “The very fact that the press gives prominence and liberal space to their indictments of it refutes at least some of the charges.” Huh, liberal space!
The Asheville Times carried three inches of the AP report under the head “Freedom of the Press Held in Peril,” and so edited the story that it contained no slightest suggestion that the peril is found within the press itself. The Asheville Citizen carried no news of the press report. (It ran the Marquis Childs column which happened to be on it.) But next day when the radio report of the same commission came out, the Citizen had half a column to devote to the criticism of the rival medium.
Approximately the maximum coverage outside the metropolitan press was that of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with a column-and-a-half AP story under a two-column head on page 10, and the Childs column. I haven’t found any trace of the report in any Hearst paper.
The treatment of the report in the trade paper of the press, Editor and Publisher, was really something. They spent ten pages on it. The biggest type on their first page is given to the exultant discovery that the report failed to charge advertiser control of newspapers but did make that charge of radio. (R. L. Duffus in the New York Times observed that the finding of owner bias in the newspapers is a more serious charge.) They carry a full news summary of the report. Then come four articles of refutation. One is a blast by Frank Tripp, general manager of the Gannett papers, which is so hysterical as to leave no doubt as to one outfit the shoe fitted. Another is described as an answer to the “monopolist charge,” by the editor of the Elkhart Truth, evidently a wellintentioned paper; and if I never heard of it, that is no fault of its forthright editor. But if Editor and Publisher meant us to think they had to go to a place as small as Elkhart to find a local news monopoly, let us also mention Kansas City, Providence, Minneapolis, Springfield, Worcester, Manchester, Rochester, Camden, Trenton, Toledo, Omaha, Duluth, Des Moines, Richmond, Louisville, Galveston.
Wilbur Forrest, president of t he American Society of Newspaper Editors and himself attached to the publisher’s office of the New York Herald Tribune, says he’s going to try to get the ASNE to reply to “loosely drawn attacks on the American press.” He sees the commission under influences “long designed to undermine the public confidence in the press.” “Are we to sit quietly by and permit people who have very little knowledge of the workings of newspaper publishing or editing to preach so-called reformation blindly and without the slightest responsibility?” Not if Mr. Forrest knows it. “There will be editors who will not agree with me,” he concedes.
Evidently, and one of them must be in his own office, the editor of the Herald Tribune’s editorial page, which warned the press that the substance of the report “is one which neither press nor radio nor motion pictures can afford to shrug off’ as professorial whimsy.” The vice-president of the ASNE, Erwin Canham, must be another who disagrees with Mr. Forrest, for the Christian Science Monitor, of which Mr. Canham is editor, says of the report, “This is a most thoughtful, penetrating, inclusive study of the great mediums of communication in the United States. We hope American newspapers will not bristle at all this excellent advice from without. We hope they will augment it with self-criticism and self-improvement.”
The New York Times, whose editors are eligible to Mr. Forrest’s society, concluded its appraisal of the report by saying, “We welcome the study made by the commission. We applaud the title of this report. Freedom and responsibility must always be linked together.”Mr. Forrest is an interesting example of a professional defender of an institution. He makes one think of Doctor Fishbein.
One mustn’t omit Colonel McCormick’s Chicago Tribune. Its headline tells its story. “A Free Press (Hitler Style) Sought for U.S. Totalitarians Tell How It Can be Done.” The Chicago Tribune exists to prove that the incredible is actual and always with us.
The Chicago Sun editorialized that the Tribune’s “news” account “is itself a pretty conclusive documentation of the commission’s charge of bias and irresponsibility in the press.” Then it proceeds to document more and equally striking news-twisting in the same issue of the Tribune, and to observe, “Now do you see what Doctor Hutchins’ commission was talking about?”
This example illustrates also the internal crit icism of the press that the commission says is needed. I think Chicago is about the only place where you’ll find it.