What Makes News

American editor and author now residing in London, T. S. MATTHEWS is a most discerning and experienced journalist. He began his career as proofreader and make-up man for the NEW REPUBLIC. In 1929 he was offered the book editorship of TIME; he eventually became managing editor, and after twenty years retired to do free-lance writing. These findings of his will appear in his new book, THE SUGAR PILL, to be published by Victor Gollancz of London.


THE main business of the press, supposedly, is news, as the main business of banks is money. It might surprise the public to discover how incurious many bankers are about the real nature of money and how unclear they are about it. In just the same way, and perhaps to a greater extent, most journalists are incurious about the real nature of news and just as unclear about it.

Perhaps the neatest as well as the most generally accepted definition of news is “what happened yesterday.” I remember once toting up the front-page news stories in a good provincial newspaper in America. Of the eleven stories on the page, seven had not happened at all. Some of the speculations about the future, and there were many, might have come true, but so far they were just speculations. If news is what happened yesterday, the newspapers print an awful lot of phony news.

Most of the world’s “news” is manufactured by the press itself: interviews with important men, reports on grave situations, press conferences, press investigations, political surveys, “informed speculation.” An amusing example of manufactured news appeared last winter in the New York Herald Tribune’s Paris edition. On February 6, 1957, the main headline on the front page read: “Dulles Believes Israel, Egypt Will Obey Resolutions of UN” and the following day the main headline was: “Eisenhower Believes Israel Will Withdraw.” For two days the biggest news the paper could find was what an official said he thought!

Most “hard news” falls into the press’s lap like meteorites or manna from heaven: murder and suicide, rape, war, pestilence, famine, catastrophes of all kinds. This bad news is the best news to the press: it is not only exciting to read but it comes ready-made. Mongers of sensational news, like the London Daily Mirror, admitting that the supply of this sort of news is unsteady, meet the daily demand for sensation in two ways: by dressing up small news to look big and by ballyhooing daily features. There is no essential difference between the inevitable screaming front-page headline of the Mirror and the “running story” of a diplomatic conference from Reuter’s News Agency. Both are manufactured news. They are said to have happened big; actually, they either didn’t happen at all or they only happened a little.

Some of the more exacting followers of C. P. Scott, the famous editor of the Manchester Guardian, still insist that their paper deals in sacredly regarded facts. That is probably true in spots, although they conveniently overlook the other spots in the paper that are profanely opinionated rather than sacredly factual. A large part of the British and American press has in effcct abandoned the pretense of dealing exclusively with facts or the pretense that their source is invariably as pure as the Pierian spring. A great many newspapers, for example, make no bones about printing gossip. They still, officially at least, exclude rumor (except from the gossip columns or unless it can be attributed to a “hitherto unimpeachable source,” when it rises from “rumor” to “speculation” or “inside information”).

Actually, news includes a great deal of rumor. A journalist friend of mine, on assignment in Central America, once had occasion to hire a “stringer” (a local correspondent) in a small town there. Since there was no newspaper in the town, the most likely candidate was one of the few English-speaking inhabitants who seemed to know his way around. He was duly hired and his duties explained to him. A few days later my friend looked up the new stringer to see how he was getting on. As yet he had found nothing to report, but he had prepared himself for any emergency by buying a large notebook which he had divided into two sections; the first was headed “Rumors,” the second “False Rumors.”

Claud Cockburn, once a prized London Times correspondent, during the last war put out a brilliant weekly news sheet that was read by the small number of people who constituted “everybody” in London. His views on the nature of news were also unorthodox:

I went about saying that rumours were just as important, just as significant, just as — in the last analysis — “valid” as “facts.”

This shocked people horribly, although if you pressed them and asked whether it was not true that ninety percent of “information received" by such serious persons as Ambassadors and Chiefs of Police really consists in significant rumours and rumours which can be interpreted by the person who knows enough rumours, they were usually bound to admit that this is indeed the case. . . . Unless one is God, how on earth can one tell truth from rumour in less than perhaps fifty years? And fifty years is too long to wait if one is in the business of issuing a weekly newspaper.

Cockburn was honest enough—or cynical enough, if you prefer — to include rumor in his definition of news. Few editors would agree with him without wincing, but whatever they may say, their practice follows his precept. The only journalists who are consistently successful in keeping rumor and gossip out of the news are the Communists. The Communist press, an avowed instrument of government, is dedicated to the proposition that facts equal propaganda equals truth. The facts are chosen, the propaganda ordered, and the truth announced. It’s much simpler than with us. And the Russians have a great contempt for the confusions of the Western press, which all stem from this inadmissible search for news. News in Russia is issued as a valuable, state-controlled ration.

When Ilya Ehrenbourg, one of the dark stars of Communist journalism, visited the United States a few years ago, he was much bothered by reporters who pried into what he considered irrelevant personal questions. The one that moved him to most sardonic mirth was whether a suit he was having made at a New York tailor’s was to have trousers with a buttoned fly or with a zipper. There, he said triumphantly, you have a picture of the Western press, which concerns itself with gossip: buttons or zipper, that is all it cares to know about. In the doctrinaire Communist view, our free press makes too little distinction between public news (which is the press’s only business) and private news (which is none of its business). Moreover, say the Communists, nobody but they knows what news is fit to publish, or what news really is.

Our answer to this is apt to be, “The truth shall make you free” — by which we mean that if everybody talks continuously at the top of his lungs, somebody from time to time will probably say something true, somebody else may hear it, and it may have some good effect, by and large. Nevertheless, we have an uneasy suspicion that there should be some distinction between public and private news, and that the press doesn’t make the distinction clear — no doubt because of the general confusion about what news really is. Public or private, the news must affect our individual lives, it must be translatable into our personal terms, before we will pay attention to it. Even the news in Russian papers, which couldn’t be more public, can be so translated, I should imagine. Everything Pravda or Izvestia publishes means some action or threat of action by the government; the trick is to figure out, “How is that going to affect me?” We read the newspapers that way in time of war, when all governments are gray. In peacetime, public news for most of us is just something to quack about, and it rolls off our backs; the news that really concerns us comes by word of mouth or by mail. The opening door, the doctor’s verdict, the expected letter, the telegram that says “death” or “life”: each of these is the kind of news that comes home to us. Perhaps it is the only real news there is.

Nevertheless, we feel that there should be bigger news than this, and the press continually assures us that indeed there is. The press keeps on telling it, in big headlines; big good news and big bad news. The big good news is mainly manufactured, not so much because the press is sanguine by nature as because it is committed to the encouraging notion of progress. The big bad news is what has actually happened. When our candidate is elected or the war ends, we may call the news both big and good; but what will it be called by the people who voted for the other man, or who lost the war? No, really good news, in the public sense, is either incredible or beyond our understanding. And yet we crave it, its absence seems wrong, we want it to be.

The press, which is as human as the rest of us, shares this craving and gropes for big good news — however incredible or beyond our understanding. When the New York Times printed the text of Einstein’s theory, it was in this mystical and groping spirit. It’s rather like the poem in which Thomas Hardy said that if someone asked him on Christmas Eve to come with him to the stable to see the oxen kneel before the Christ child, he would go along, “Hoping it might be so.” The hope was that Einstein had found a large piece of truth even if nobody, or almost nobody, could understand it; and in that hope the New York Times editor was willing to bow his uncomprehending head and take the whole congregation of the Times to their knees with him.

In less than two generations science has become untranslatable, and its speculations about the world come to us more and more faintly. The news that it sends back to us (with the press as messenger) often seems contradictory of earlier bulletins; the gist of it comes across as a progressive disillusionment with accepted facts and an immense widening and deepening of the unknowable. But this is depressing and therefore unacceptable to our optimistic habit of mind — as if, with all our advantages, we were just catching up with Socrates. So the press continues to hail every scientific “discovery” (the substitution of a new theory for an abandoned one) as if it were real news, big news, and good news. And the public, official view of science’s search for knowledge is one of untiring hope and faith. In private, however, there is skepticism and doubt, and not just among illiterate peasants, either.

The only big news, private and public, that human beings are really concerned about is news of life and death. There has been no new news on either subject for some time nearly 2000 years, in fact. The Resurrection was tremendous good news, if true; the best news ever reported. But though it has been told wherever Christian missionaries have gone, and a large proportion of the earth’s population must have heard it, it is still widely disbelieved or believed only in a poetic or mystical sense, as an honorable thought or an incomprehensible symbol.

The press is only a reflection of the world it reports, and, like the world, it is quite unable to recognize or accept really good news — a saint for the ages, a lasting hero, a revelation of permanent truth: it can only exaggerate or minimize, ignore, misreport, or doubt, just like the rest of us. Big bad news it can’t miss; big good news it never sees, though it pretends a lot of little good news is big, and manufactures all the big good news it can. What keeps the press going is mainly snippets: some news, much gossip, loads of rumors &emddash; not to speak of all the features, extras, special acts, and entertaining etceteras.

THE biggest piece of claptrap about the press is that it deals exclusively, or even mainly, with news. And the next biggest piece of claptrap is that the press has enormous power. This delusion is persistent and widespread. It is taken for granted by the public-at-large, who arc apt to be impressed by anything that is said three times; it is continually advertised by the press itself; and it is cherished by press lords, some of whom, at least, should know better.

In what way is the press supposed to be so powerful? The general notion is that the press can form, control, or at least strongly influence public opinion. Can it really do any of these things? Hugh Cudlipp, editorial director of the London Daily Mirror, and a man who should know something about the effect of newspapers on public opinion, doesn’t share this general notion about their power. He thinks newspapers can echo and stimulate a wave of popular feeling, but that’s all: “A newspaper may successfully accelerate but never reverse the popular attitude which common sense has commended to the public.” In short, it can jump aboard the bandwagon, once the bandwagon is under way, and exhort others to jump aboard too; but it can’t start the bandwagon rolling or change its direction once it has started.

Like other habit-forming pills, the press can stimulate or depress, but it cannot cure. It can fan fear and hatred of another nation when the fear and hatred are there waiting to be fanned, but it cannot make peace. William Randolph Hearst, in his day the biggest of American press tycoons, deliberately used his papers to embroil the United States with Spain in 1898. In the process of fomenting war fever, he sent correspondents to Cuba, then in halfhearted revolt against Spain, to get propaganda photographs and inflammatory stories. When one of them protested that he could lind no suitable photographs, Hearst cabled him in a fury: “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

As more and more people have painful reason to know, the press has a nasty kind of power, the same kind of power a bully has: that of hurting somebody smaller and weaker than himself. An individual’s only defense against the press is the law of libel, but considerable harm and much pain can be caused without going so far as to commit an actionable libel. Journalists themselves generally have a horror of being interviewed, “written up,” or even noticed by the press; they know too well from their own experience how inept and cruel a distortion the result is likely to be—even in photographs—which, in the lying phrase, “cannot lie.” They can be made to lie (for example, to holster a point of propaganda, as Northcliffe was one of the first to discover. When he was using the Daily Mail to try to get Asquith out as Prime Minister and Lloyd George in, he once issued this order: “Get a smiling picture of Lloyd George, and underneath put the caption ‘Do It Now,’ and get the worst possible picture of Asquith and label it ‘Wait and See.’ ” Since Northcliffe’s day this technique has been developed much further). In spite of the reluctance of picture editors to admit it, the camera can also distort. In the office where I worked there used to be a saying: “The camera distorts. The TV camera distorts absolutely.”

Nine times out of ten, ineptness is to blame rather than conscious cruelty; but there is always that tenth case. And a blundering friendly hand can be as heavy as an unfriendly fist. The press is often like a clumsy giant who gives you a pat on the back and knocks the wind out of you, if he doesn’t cause internal injuries. I remember once coming upon an elderly professor from my university who had just been “written up” by the paper I worked on. When he saw me, tears came into his eyes, and he said: “What have I done to them? What have I done to deserve this?” He was deeply wounded by the article and regarded it as an extremely unkind caricature. Knowing that it had been written by one of his former students who liked and admired the professor, I tried to reassure him that it was at least kindly meant. I don’t think I succeeded.

The press has a negative power — to titillate, alarm, enrage, amuse, humiliate, annoy, even to drive a person out of his community or his job. But of the positive power to which it pretends and of which the press lords dream — to make and break governments, to swing an election, to stop a war or start a revolution — there is no tangible evidence. Its vaunted might is a gigantic spoof. Professor David Mitrany, speaking in 1932 on “The Press and International Relations,” put the case with delicate irony: “There is no need to spend time in an attempt to show how great is the influence of the press. It is greater in certain fields than in others. It is greater, one could say, in any field in which the knowledge and interest of the man in the street is lesser. For in that case the reading public is apt to think that the press speaks with the voice of Authority; while the authorities are apt to assume that the press is speaking with the voice of the People. . . .”

Everyone has heard of the “power of the press”; no one has seen it. The greatest believers in this exaggerated power and the loudest promoters of it are, naturally, the press lords themselves. One of the most deluded of these, not even excepting Northcliffc or Beaverbrook, was Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune (still emblazoned with his modest motto, “ The world’s greatest newspaper”). McCormick and, of course, his paper were always in bitter opposition to the Roosevelt Democrats as well as to the liberal element in his own Republican Party. A story used to be told about the Chicago Tribune, no doubt apocryphal but in essence true: that one of the janitors in the Tribune building always bet against any political candidate the paper supported, and gave odds to boot; and that he found this side line so profitable that he was able to buy two sizable apartment houses. The men in the street are better able than the press lords to judge the power of the press; in spite of all the kowtowing and brass bands, they can see that the Emperor has no clothes on.

During the twenty years (1932—1952) of Democratic Party government in America under Roosevelt and Truman, something like 85 per cent of the American press was owned or controlled by Republicans: the majority of American newspaper readers were being continually exhorted to vote Republican but continued to vote Democrat. The people in Chicago who bought the Tribune didn’t buy it to find out how to cast their votes: they bought it in spite of its advice and its bias, because on the whole they liked its personality and found it entertaining.

Does this seem to argue a too shrewd, calm, and sensible attitude on the part of the ordinary newspaper reader? The press is generally appreciated by the public for what it is rather than for what it pretends to be: they don’t feel it as a power in their lives but as a perquisite in their working day.