Lazy Journalism

Is an assortment of Press Association news stories from distant and often foreign sources a proper substitute for local notes? If so. JOHN GOULD argues from his years of experience as proprietor of the Lisbon Falls, Maine, Enterprise, the smaller newspapers will lose their identity and become carbon copies of one another. The carbon becomes all the fainter when the “news" proves to be an unquestioning paraphrasing of a publicity handout.



IN RECENT years the of our great Free Press have held frequent conventions with a prevailing wail. The managing editors of the Associated Press recently finished one in Philadelphia. “A press is not free,” declared V. M. Newton, Jr., managing editor of the Tampa Tnbune, ”if the politician deprives it of the right of printing the facts of government.”

I have long held a fanciful conjecture that a press is not free if it subscribes to the press associations — a notion I expect will stir up animosity and which I have kept to myself until now. Not that I wish to impugn the hallowed reputation of the wire services alone; I hope to impugn with equal diligence feature syndicates, most foreign correspondents, nearly all our editors and publishers, and in general the modern breed of journalist.

I think it’s a shame to jump on the poor, selfseeking politician and blame him for suppressing news, undermining the First Amendment, and clipping the wings of the soaring eagle. Within the journalistic profession, AP and all, are mitigating and contributing factors which should be acknowledged. Anybody knows, from the earliest tribal organization, what a politician will do if you give him a chance, and up to a certain historical moment you could tell what a journalist would do. That historical moment coincides somewhat with the rise and amalgamation of the news circuit; and while politicians ran true to form, the journalist became beset with confusion. The guided missive, the professional publicity handout, for one thing, became legal tender, one link in a fetter; and if Mr. Newton, casting his stone, is without journalistic sin himself I shall be agreeably astonished.

This is a topic of magnitude, and a discerning professor of journalism could spend semesters on the nuances. The principal problem in expatiating helpfully lies in the modern loss of definitions. The definitions belong to an earlier day. One grievous change came when journalists assumed that a galley of type was, willy-nilly, equivalent to a galley of reading matter. The old editor who, in my youth, handed back a story about a broken arm and said, “Which arm, and was he right-handed?” is largely’ gone. ‘This editor knew what would give the item universal appeal. Against that deep and penetrating wisdom of an old editor we now have the false theory of equality" of intellect, and in a unionized culture two men at adjoining desks are said to “do the same work.” Such idiocy is accepted axiomatically, recalling the man who said he believed in infant baptism because he’d seen it done. The press, encumbered thus, is careless about discernment and discrimination, and while columns are filled, nobody much bothers to ask, “ Wit h what ?”

As copy provider, the wire services have grown great while local editing tapered off. If you study the rise of the “bobtailed” story you can see the change. The bobtailed story is one which tells you the Iowa corn crop is TOG per cent of the five-year average. The AP, as the foremost service, has become as Caesar’s wife; and all over the country, editors feel this is good enough for them if the AP sends it. The next morning readers are “informed" that the Iowa corn crop is 106 per cent of the five-year average. Probably not a single editor on the whole circuit said, “Now, wait a minute — let’s convert this to bushels, or cereal prices, or something intelligible to my readers.”

Editors who capably guide their local stall’s in covering tires and accidents will take AP bobtails without a flicker. You can find them in any paper. A million gallons of beer dumped in the Sacramento River. Why? Nobody tells us. A truckload of rotten eggs tipped on an innocent passing motorist. Nobody backtracks to learn why rotten eggs are moved by the truckload, or what an innocent passing motorist says when he is thus honored. When Miss Lucy tried to get into college, the miles of dispassionate copy ticked off by the wire services astutely avoided the crux of the yarn: that an organized, subsidized, professionally promoted campaign was as big an issue as her personal desire for culture. You can look it up. Where was the editor who said, “Hold on, let’s not bobtail this — we’ve got paying customers.”

When the government handout became standard procedure the bobtailed story took on a halo. The “prepared release” met the reporter more than halfway and gave him something to print without necessarily giving him any information. There arose the “White House Spokesman” and similar double-talkers. Taxpayers support thousands of hired tub-thumpers whose purpose is to infiltrate the American press with artfully contrived bobtailed stories designed to deceive. I was in Washington once on pure frivolity and went with some newspaper friends to hear a Jenner Committee spokesman. “Then you mean so-and-so,” said a reporter. “Now, I didn’t say that,” said the spokesman. Free of entangling restraint, and being amused, I lifted a rebel voice and said, “Look, Buster, you just like “Tar Baby, you ain’t say miffin’.”The great American press could only stand there and be insulted by this gibberish from a public servant who was selling them invisible cloth, and they took his evasions and made “news" from them! Front page, too.

It should be a function of the press to explain and interpret — to report. But the prepared releases get printed. When Boston University proudly announced that its school of journalism would now operate under the department of “Public Relations,” I suppose the bobtailed publicity release gained academic stature and came of age. Any paper which ever printed a government handout should think again before it belabors the politician who withholds news.

Some years ago the editor of the Bath, Maine, Daily Times, Harry Webber, decided to give up his expensive afternoon telegraph loop from the AP, and arranged instead to be telephoned by the AP each noontime with the ten leading stories of the day. His stenographer took them in shorthand and transcribed them. He had a small paper and relied mostly on local news, but he liked a few wire stories to give his front page some headlines. And Harry noticed, from day to day, that two, three — as many as seven—of these AP lead stories were nothing but mimeographed handouts he had received in the mail that morning. Being a wise and good editor, Harry had filed them in his wastebasket, but now they were coming to him again with the august approbation of the world’s greatest news-gathering organization! Now, y ou can’t blame that on the politicians.

In all fairness, we might ask where the wire service editors were when vital statistics were eliminated. While the American press was blithely picking up prepared releases and transfusing them into the lifeblood of journalism, the politicians yanked the public record from under them. Vital statistics, by the very term, are in the public domain. From earliest town meeting days they were scrupulously kept so that people could know the facts. But in an artfully conducted invasion of the rights of the people and of the press our federal government in Washington successfully eliminated vital statistics in state after slate. It was done by the welfare boys because they didn’t want any body checking. They worked through town and city clerk associations, which in turn went to legislative hearings and pressured the laws. They sold the clerks on the idea of lofty dignity, holding that the sanctity of the archives should not be violated by just anybody. Busybodies, particularly newspapers, they argued, should not have access to such secrets to embarrass unwed mothers and their hapless chicks. Nobody pointed out that newspapers don’t print such details, and would get their pants sued off if they did; so with scarcely any notice at all the laws went sailing through. Where were the liberty-loving editors then? Which one of them sent a lawyer to court with his principles afire? You, can even find managing editors today who believe a reporter can still go to city hall and look up the birth records. Yammering at politicians in Washington is big stuff, but putting a local town clerk in his place is silly’.


Now, all this goes together. Long ago editors built their own fires and split their own wood and kept their fingers on the local pulse. Once in a while, if a paper got big, it would send a man off to write stories from far places, but they were written for the home town in home-town terms. Then the invention of the wire service gave a new dimension, with excitement over a novelty, and editors began to think a story was good just because it came from a long ways off. The technique of relating such stories to immediate readerships was neglected and then lost. And now the wire services are so all-fired important in the American newspaper scene that nobody can think in any other terms. Everybody concedes that the AP is so important that nobody smirks, or even smiles, when the AP itself, in convention assembled, openly admits that it doesn’t know what to do about politicians who withhold news!

It is a fundamental psychological truism that a man’s interests lie within himself. Me, first. His interests radiate from his own periphery in lessening degrees. This is the basic fact on which journalism, and all writing, is predicated. General Taylor told his editors at the Boston Globe to print the name of each subscriber at least once every two years the simplest and most inexpensive way of catering to the customer. This was not a joke or a gesture of bonhomie: it was good business and sound publishing. The perfect paper would probably print all the names in its territory every day, but such perfection is impossible. The next best thing is to come reasonably close to everybody as often as possible — and while everybody doesn’t break an arm every day, at least write the item so that it applies indirectly to any reader who has or has not an arm, broken or whole. It’s as simple as that, except that the variables are complex and call for talent, knowledge, work, and constant devotion to purpose. And above all else a paper needs a readership so carefully nurtured that a loyalty sets in, and a solid, perhaps paternal, authority accrues which makes people believe in the paper and look to it for leadership, information, amusement, and — not the least — news.

What modern journalism needs most of all is a workable distinction between local and nonlocal material. Localness can be arrived at variously. The little back-country weekly prints items about, a new heifer calf at the Small farm, or how Grandpa Bleaker is better after a bad back. Any editor who laughs at these items (and editors do) is a fool, for they are the digested essence of true news. When Ernie Pyle began writing war news American journalism was amazed. The war he fought was right smack at home, because he used the heifercalf and bad-back technique — although probably nobody over called it such. War news is not necessarily foreign correspondence; Ernie Pyle can be readable and the Secretary of Defense not. Editors who consider Walter Winchell a big-shot Broadway columnist need to realize that he is actually one of the best small-town item writers in the business; his births, marriages, deaths, gossip are exactly what rural weekly editors have lived on these many years. So how do you tell if something is local or foreign, regional or national?

One fellow, hearing my exegesis extempore on this phenomenon of reasoning, spoke as follows; “If this is true, the national news magazine would be impossible.” Editors today will think like this and never come to the great truth that a national news magazine is one of our best examples of localized reporting. Time and Newsweek are edited to the exclusion of millions of readers. They do not saturate a given area, as daily papers do, or try to. Their readership is selected, and it takes the great mass of 160 million Americans to produce readers enough to make up their circulation. If they relied on a single subdivision, such as Greater Boston or Greater Cleveland, where would they be? In short, they have aimed at relatively few, although numerically a large number, and have established that readership by adhering to their own style. They subscribe to the Associated Press too, but how often do they print the exact wording of the AP dispatch? The localness of such reading material may be more easily seen if you switch the consideration to something like the Cotton and Wool Reporter, and look at a national publication which has a single readership interest. They print only what can be woven in.

The Associated Press has within its organization a kind of denial of its own system. As stories proceed from point of origin to regional loops they are rewritten, cut down or enlarged, and tailored for local use. Theoretically, an editor has the right to query the AP over and beyond the routine dispatch if a special interest lies in his area. In practice, ibis isn’t done much; for if it were, the AP would collapse with internal confusion — every editor would be yelling for an exclusive coverage. When the Brinks robbery came off, how many editors called back to AP with the obvious query, “ How come an expressman has so much dough?” All over the United States there were uninformed readers who had never heard of Brinks and didn’t know about the contract hauling of big money. When, months after the robbery, the Saturday Evening Post ran an article on Brinks Express, countless Americans said, “There, I’ve been wondering about that.” So, while the AP shows that it respects regional differences of interest, the thing fails to come off mostly through indifference in the local editorial sanctum.

The false presumption that a story about Xasser. originated on the Nile, is per se news because it concerns the security of the world and may cause most of us to die sooner than we ought may have its absurdity demonstrated by the coincident competition, back in somebody’s home town, of a basketball game. That doesn’t mean Nasser is unimportant in the field of information. It means that if Nasser is that important, he must be presented to home-town readerships in competitive terms. He’s got to show up at least as big as basketball. When the AP ticks out the evening’s dispatch from the Nile, and strings of papers are made from telegraphic typesetters, all alike and none different, what chance has Nusser got? But if Kansas City can relate him to pork and grain, Boston to shipping and finances, and Lisbon Falls to woolen textiles, you’ve got a Nasser who means something.

It doesn’t do much good nowadays to look at the little back-country dailies and weeklies to see howlocal news is covered. The little papers, their convictions dissipated, now try to look like the big papers. When you see a banner headline on the Crossroads Conner announcing a new fund drive by the Bed Cross, you are correct in supposing that rural journalism is also confused.

1 would suggest that Mr. Newton of the Tampa Tribune, instead of making speeches, roll up his sleeves and go to work. What good will a speech do? Editors will cheer a little, and politicians will smile. W hill has become of our great journalistic fraternity that it needs laws to protect it from lawmakers? I surest Mr. New ton send a re|ortcr lo city hall and look up the mayor’s birth certificate. Maybe the mayor is under age. Then, w lien I he reporter comes back and says vital statistics are closed to the press, he can undertake reform right in Tampa. And when he comes out of court with Freedom of t lie Press secure and intact in his old home town, he’ll feel a good deal better than a speech in Philadelphia ever made him. And the horrid pols in Washington will seem faraway and that much less important. And I’ll bet him a free editorial on mince pie that once all the local papers of this great nation mow their own lawns the Washington threat will dissolve. Just as soon as member editors get, once more, close enough to their readers to carry some weight, the AP will have less trouble getting through to the real news. The AP may even begin using it.

And if I should lose this bet, which I doubt, I’ll wager further that my editorial on “Mince Pie As a Secret Weapon” will draw more mail than any other single pout ideation in the Tampa Tribune in ten years. Everybody eats. I wish wo had an editor somewhere who would startle the AP by inquiring some dull evening if Nasser does. Or is this information withheld?