More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"Tabloid Law" (August 1972)
A report from the chaotic fringes of the First Amendment, where publicity collides with privacy and the check-out line leads to the courtroom. By Alex Beam
"Why Americans Hate the Media" (February 1996)
Why has the media establishment become so unpopular? Perhaps the public has good reason to think that the media's self-aggrandizement gets in the way of solving the country's real problems. By James Fallows
"Green Days and Photojournalism, and the Old Man in the Room" (August 1972)
At Life, in the halcyon days, an apprentice reporter could encounter Henry Luce in his private elevator, and wind up with Margaret Bourke-White on assignment in the jungle. By Michael J. Arlen
"Notes on the New Journalism" (May 1972)
The New Journalist is in the end less a journalist than an impresario. Tom Wolfe presents ... Phil Spector! Norman Mailer presents ... the Moon Shot! By Michael J. Arlen
From Atlantic Unbound:
Interviews: "Writing on the Wall" (August 26, 1997)
A multimedia interview with Hunter S. Thompson, scourge of presidents, the press, and the politically correct.
The Atlantic Monthly | June 1926
Journalism and Morality
"Other reporters would have done as I did, confident of the approval of their superiors; and this was true of nearly all metropolitan newspapers twenty years ago, not merely of those which were denominated yellow"
by Silas Bent
or the hundredth time, savagely, I rang that doorbell. It was not my first visit, by any means, although there was no hope that the mistress of the household could be seen, for she had eloped several days before with a millionaire manufacturer of cosmetics; and as for her husband, he was under restraint in a private sanitarium. There was a grown daughter who was supposed to be in her mother's confidence, and I hoped to worm out of her the secret of the lovers' whereabouts. The newspaper I was working for was getting uneasy. It had printed the scandal with gusto but without provocation. There had been no court action, no street encounter between the two men; the millionaire had not even been expelled from his clubs. There was no legal privilege of publication. And as time wore on, the other newspapers not daring in the circumstances to say anything about the case, there had come to the office an acute feeling that unless the runaways were found there might be short shrift in a libel suit.
As I turned away from the door a telegraph messenger boy was wearily mounting the steps.
'There's nobody home,' I told him curtly, 'not even a servant.'
'You can sign for this, can't you?' he asked. 'Friend of the family.'
On the open book lie held out for my signature was a telegram addressed to the daughter of the house. It must surely be from her mother. I set down an assumed name, pocketed the message, and waited until the boy was out of sight.
It was evening and I was working for an afternoon newspaper, so I took my booty home. There, with a borrowed and heated hatpin, I opened the telegram—not very expertly, for I tore the flap. The message was dated from Tucson, and was an inquiry from the wife about the condition of the deserted husband. I had found the runaways.
The anxiety behind this telegram did not at all concern me, nor was I concerned at having stolen it. As the child of God-fearing parents I think I may say I had a strict sense of private property rights: I would not have pilfered ten cents or ten dollars. But my conscience was wholly untroubled about the message, because I had done the conventional thing. I was living up to the standards of my fellows. Other reporters would have done as I did, confident of the approval of their superiors; and this was true of nearly all metropolitan newspapers twenty years ago, not merely of those which were denominated yellow. We used to hear of some that did not join in such practices, but they were notoriously stodgy, and suffered correspondingly in revenue. A comparison of the circulation and advertising statistics of the Boston Transcript as against the New York World, of the New York Evening Post of that day as against the Chicago Tribune, will illustrate my point.
Newspapers that were successful financially went after news aggressively, and on occasion made news, as my paper had done in the case of this illicit elopement.
I was exultant, not ashamed; and it was with repressed triumph that I laid the telegram on the city editor's desk the next morning, explaining in detail how I had come by it.
He heard me unmoved, gazing out over the 'local room.' Then he said hastily that he must go into the editorial conference, a daily formality, and would see me when he returned. He took the telegram with him. This impressed me as rather odd behavior, but what happened when he came back was really trying.
'You are aware,' he said severely, 'that you have committed a felony?'
I nodded. I was beginning to get angry.
'This newspaper cannot countenance such conduct,' he continued, 'and will make no use whatever of information obtained in that way. If I did not realize that you acted from overzeal I should be compelled to discharge you. As it is, you will be permitted to remain on the staff, on probation. Now, what are you going to do with this telegram?' His gravity relaxed; his manner implied a bantering reproach. 'Rough work,' he said. 'The flap's torn.'
'I'll paste it up,' I replied sullenly, 'and stick it under the door.'
'Don't do that,' he advised. 'Suppose we wait.'
I returned to my desk, and presently the Sunday editor, with a curious smile, handed me a receiving telegraph envelope, properly addressed. As he turned wordlessly away the city editor beckoned me, slipped the message into the fresh envelope, sealed it, and directed me, instead of returning it in person, to employ someone I could trust, and have him telephone me when the task was safely accomplished. The message was slow in coming. Once, when I emerged from a telephone booth after answering a personal call, the city editor summoned me impatiently. He leaned forward and whispered with the air of a conspirator: 'Have you removed the corpse from the premises?'
Although I was in a state of high moral indignation at the manner which my lawbreaking was being accepted, I was somewhat mollified at this tacit indication of fellow responsibility. After all, the city editor was a good scout. Presently I learned that the telegram had been put under the right door, and that my messenger, after ringing the bell, had escaped without being questioned, and I so reported. I was made to feel, somehow, that I was in quite good odor at the office.
That afternoon the paper printed on the first page a story from Tucson. The runaways were there, registered under an assumed name at the principal hotel. If 'no use whatever' had been made of the information in the stolen telegram, then some obscure reporter out West must have been blessed suddenly in clairvoyance. The couple, thus discovered, started at once toward home, and I was sent out to meet the train halfway. There was no suit for libel.
hereafter I thought it proper to say nothing of such exploits at the office. I was expected to deliver the goods and no questions asked. There was the time, for instance, when I broke into a house to steal a photograph. We prized pictures highly in those days, although it was fifteen years before the advent of the illustrated tabloid.
I was reporting an unsavory will-case in an Illinois city, and the wife of a Baptist clergyman from a near-by town was disagreeably involved in it. She and her husband had fled to escape the notoriety, but her affidavit had been taken and was read in court with some letters. Two members of the pastor's church, one of them a deacon (a real-estate man named Taylor), had come to court that day, and they were vocally indignant. They had supposed, from the preacher's loyalty to his wife, that she was innocent. That night, after I had filed my story of the day's proceedings, I took a train for the near-by village, and called on Mr. Taylor. He told me all he knew about the pastor's wife, and rummaged the house in vain for a picture. When I pressed him to search further, hinting that publication would mortify the cuckold clergyman and his wife, the deacon had a sudden inspiration.
'They stored their things in one of my cottages,' he said. 'I'll show you the place.'
He dressed, for it was long past twelve of a brilliant moonlit night, and took me to the cottage, which stood on a corner. Beside it was an unoccupied lot, but there were homes on each corner site, and all the houses were dark. My friend the deacon left me to my own devices.
The adventure seemed to me only mildly exciting. There was no danger that the deacon would prosecute me for housebreaking, and the owners of the personal property within would hardly dare come forward in any event. There was a possibility that some strolling village constable might nab me, or even take a pot shot at me, but it was remote.
In the shadow at the back of the house I discovered a broken windowpane, and effected an entrance without much trouble. I found myself in what seemed to be a narrow pantry, and the door into the adjoining room was not only locked but nailed. There was nothing to do but force it; so I put my foot against the opposite wall and shoved with all my might.
The door suddenly gave way like the crack o' doom. The noise it made in that empty house, in that silent night, startled and unnerved me. I crawled through the window and crouched fearfully in the black shadow. Nothing happened. After a little bit, reassured, I made my way back into the house and so into a front room, striking matches and shading them with my hands. On the sofa was an old suitcase, unlocked; and when I threw it open I discovered in the jumble some photographs. I took them to the shuttered window, to inspect them in a bar of moonlight which came through, and on top found the snapshot of a woman, astride a horse. Just what I wanted! At this moment of joy I happened to peer through the crack in the shutter, and my heart skipped a beat. The house across the street, which had been dark when I came, was lighted!
It may be that someone in the house had come home late, or was ill, but of course my instant thought was that the crashing of the door had waked the neighbors, and that probably they had telephoned for the police. I thrust the pictures hastily into an inner pocket and bolted through the house again; but after a painful wait I ventured to the railroad station and boarded a train without mishap.
Only one of the pictures was of any use, and I threw the others away. I wrote to the office that I had obtained the snapshot of the lady on horseback 'at considerable trouble'; and after it had gone through the art department, where the fuzziness was painted out, it loomed large on page one. Subsequently, for twenty-five dollars, I obtained from a photographer three posed pictures, as well as the address of the fugitive preacher and his wife. They were a good thousand miles away, in the Bay View Hotel at Biloxi, Mississippi, but my paper sent me in pursuit.
The Bay View Hotel was really a large boarding-house on the shell road, and it was filled. I took quarters near by. My first ruse, 'a message from Mr. Taylor,' failed. Probably they had heard of the deacon's personal apostasy. I wired my paper that a surprise attack had failed, and that I must settle down to a siege; but after three days of it I resorted to a new expedient—new to me. At the telegraph office I typed, on receiving blanks, a long message to the clergyman's wife, telling her I had come a thousand miles at great expense solely to put her defense before the world, but that now I was out of patience and was going back unless she telephoned me an invitation to interview her. The poor person, who had refused to answer the telephone, who had returned my notes unopened and had even declined to accept a special-delivery letter, could not resist her curiosity about the telegram. She read it; and although it had cost me only a tip to the messenger boy she seemed to think I must have made a lavish outlay on it. She telephoned, and I got the interview.
here will be those who think the preacher's wife was entitled to her hard-won and long-defended privacy; but personal privacy was no more sacred to the newspaper man of that day than the Golden Rule to a Hottentot. It is not sacred now, of course, but there is a difference in the motives for invasion, and a difference in the manner. The press has different standards of news, and would not pursue to such a distance persons of station so humble. If the clergyman's wife had been the daughter of a fashionable multimillionaire family, and her husband a celebrated jazz-composer, they could not have escaped. But the press of that day was merely incited to greater activity by any effort at escape; for it was a time when 'beats' were valued disproportionately and an effort to escape publicity mean that one newspaper might get something which the others would miss. The eagerness for a 'scoop' threw things out of perspective. And then the newspapers had shorter arms for the gathering of material; with a more limited supply they were forced to squeeze what they had more forcibly, and display it more enticingly.
Good reporters in that day were men with initiative and nerve, whose sensibilities were none too keen. The elder Bennett once said that newspapers sometimes required men to do things which a gentleman would n't like to do. It is difficult to know whether he, the pioneer yellow journalist of this country, was in an ironic mood, or merely was not clear in his mind as to what sort of deportment is prescribed for gentlemen. He had a great contempt for all reporters, although by falling in with his acute notions of what was interesting—by which he meant what was sensational—they helped heap up his millions. The financial success of the New York Herald, indeed, inspired that costly and spectacular war, more than a quarter of a century ago, in which William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, through the American and the World, fought for supremacy in fakery and thrills.
This warfare reverberated through the provinces, and affected profoundly the practices of all sizable newspapers there. It so happened that I drifted into reporting (most of the men who went into newspaper work in those days were just drifting; there was not even an opportunity to pause for meditation in a school of journalism) in the early part of this century, when emulation of Hearst-Pulitzer methods was most marked; and I had hardly begun to get the hang of the work before the paper that was paying me twelve dollars a week imported from New York, as managing editor, a man who knew the tricks of the trade. I was in an Indiana town working on a murder mystery at the time. Correspondents were there from Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Louisville, and so on; the Indianapolis Star, I remember, sent a squad of four men. That my paper had assigned a green recruit like myself showed it needed a New York managing editor. I was introduced to him over the long-distance telephone, and was told to whoop it up. There was no limit to my space; above all I must send photographs. More, my stuff was to be signed. The new managing editor assumed apparently that a seasoned man had been sent out on a mystery so compelling; and in New York an emergence from reportorial anonymity had already begun.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1926; Journalism and Morality - 26.06; Volume 137, No. 6; page 761-769.