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Commercialism and Journalism Part 2

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The great book-publis.h.i.+ng firms are about the only cla.s.s of advertisers I know of who do not directly or indirectly seem to object to have their wares d.a.m.ned in the editorial pages. Whether they have attained more than other men to the Christian ideal of turning the other cheek; whether they think that n.o.body pays any attention to a scathing book-review, or whether they hold that the "best seller" is the offspring of hostile criticism, I do not know. But again and again we denounce books in our literary department that the publishers pay good money to praise in the advertising pages of the same issue. I know of only one prominent publis.h.i.+ng firm which is an exception to this rule in that it sometimes attempts to influence the reviews of its books by means of its patronage.

But with the small book-houses this happy relations.h.i.+p does not always exist. It would surprise you to know how many of them badger and threaten us. Some, I understand, have a rule not to advertise where their books are not indiscriminately puffed. It is a poor Maxim, however, that won't shoot both ways; for I am sorry to report that some papers adopt the equally bad rule of not reviewing the books of these firms who do not keep an advertising account with them.

I once dined at a public banquet where the guests were both whites and negroes, and made some harmless and well-meaning remarks. A Philadelphia advertiser subsequently said he would never do business with a paper that employed such an editor.

Last year an insurance company withdrew its advertising from the columns of a great weekly because it repeated a disagreeable truth about one of its directors.

Recently San Francisco has gone through one of the most important struggles for civic betterment ever waged in an American city. The whole nation stood at attention. The issue was clear and unequivocal.

The story of how San Francisco was redeeming her fair name, as every newspaper man knows, was sensational enough to be featured day by day on the front pages of every great paper in the land. The Eastern dailies started in bravely enough, but soon cut down their reports until they became so meagre and inadequate as to cause people in the East to surmise that some influence hostile to the prosecution had poisoned the sources of their information.

The Archbold letters, given to the press by Mr. Hearst in the late campaign, are further examples of commercialism in journalism. How the Standard Oil Company sent its certificates of deposit and giant subscriptions to sundry editors and public-opinion promoters, and how a member of Congress from the great state of Pennsylvania actually suggested to Mr. Archbold that it might be a good plan to obtain "a permanent and healthy control" of that very fountain-head of publicity,--the a.s.sociated Press,--these sinister transactions and suggestions have been so fully discussed as to need no further comment from me.

From the standpoint of journalistic ethics, the only thing more reprehensible than selling your opinions is offering them for sale.

This is editorial prost.i.tution. The mere getting out of winter-resort numbers, automobile numbers, financial numbers, and Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition numbers is not at all to be condemned, though the motive may be commercial, as the swollen advertising pages in such special numbers attest.

But what shall we suspect when a paper which claims a million readers devotes a long editorial to praising a poor play, and then in a subsequent issue there appears a full-page advertis.e.m.e.nt of that play?

What does it mean when not a single Denver paper publishes a line about three nefarious telephone bills before the Colorado Legislature? And what shall we think of a certain daily whose editor recently told me that there was on his desk a list three feet long of names of prominent people who were not to be mentioned in his paper either favorably or unfavorably?

But direct bribe-giving and bribe-taking are, as I have said, very rare. Such a procedure is too crude. If you should get up some palpable advertis.e.m.e.nt disguised as news, and send it around to the leading papers asking them to put it in as reading matter, and send you the bill, expecting them to swallow the bait, you would be disappointed. It is more likely to be done in another way. A financier invites an editor to go with him on a cruise in his private yacht to the West Indies, or offers to let him in on the ground floor in some commercial undertaking. Then, after the editor is under obligations, favors are asked and the editor is enmeshed.

Although I have said much about the sordid side of journalism, and the temptations that we editors have to meet in one form or another, I do not want you to think that the profession or trade of journalism offers no scope for the highest moral and intellectual attainments. I have dwelt thus long on the seamy side of our profession because there is a seamy side, and I believe it does good occasionally to discuss it with frankness. The first step in correcting an evil is to acknowledge its existence. Were the t.i.tle of this lecture "Journalism and Progress," or "The Leaders.h.i.+p of the Press," I could have told a far different and rosier, though a no less true story.

But, as I approach my conclusion, let me give you some more pleasing examples of the better side of "Commercialism and Journalism."

George Jones, the late owner of the New York "Times," when that paper made its historic fight against the Tweed Ring, was offered five million dollars by "Slippery d.i.c.k" Connolly, one of the gang, and an officer of the city government, if he would sell the "Times," which was then not worth over a million. Mr. Jones said afterwards, "The devil will never make a higher bid for me than that." Yet he declined the bribe without a tremor. A certain religious weekly lost a hundred thousand dollars for refusing to take patent-medicine advertis.e.m.e.nts--probably ten times what the paper was worth. "Everybody's Magazine," and many others of its cla.s.s, refuse every kind of questionable advertising.

Many editors and publishers scrupulously eschew politics, lest obligations be incurred that might limit their opportunities for public service. Some will not even accept dinner invitations when the motive is known to be the expectation of a _quid pro quo_.

Perhaps one of the few disagreeable things a conscientious editor cannot hope to avoid is the necessity of denouncing his personal friends. Yet this must be done again and again. Indeed, there are thousands of editors to-day who will not hesitate a moment to espouse the unpopular cause, though they know it will endanger their advertising receipts and subscription list.

"The Independent," for instance, could undoubtedly build up a great circulation in the South among white people if we could only cease expressing our disapproval of the way they mistreat their colored brothers. But we consider it a duty to champion a race, who, through no fault of their own, have been placed among us, and whom few papers, statesmen, or philanthropists feel called upon to treat as friends.

There is a limit, of course, to the length to which a paper can go in defying its const.i.tuency, whether advertisers or subscribers.

Manifestly a paper cannot be published without their support. But there are times when an editor must defy them, even if it spells ruin to himself and bankruptcy to the paper. It is rarely necessary, however, to go to such an extremity as suicide. The rule would seem to be--and I think it can be defended on all ethical grounds--that under no circ.u.mstances should an editor tell what he knows to be false, or urge measures he believes to be harmful. This is a far different thing from telling all the truth all of the time, or urging all the measures he regards as good for mankind in season and out. That is the att.i.tude of the irreconcilable, and the irreconcilable is as ineffectual in journalism as he is in church or state. Thus "The Ladies' Home Journal"

has not as yet taken any part in furthering the great woman's suffrage movement which is sweeping over the world, and which ought to, but nevertheless does not, interest most American women. From Mr. Bok's point of view this policy of silence is quite right, and the only one doubtless consistent with the great circulation of his magazine. A periodical which wants a million readers must adhere strictly to the conventions if it would keep up its reputation as a safe guide for the mult.i.tude. This may not be the ideal form of leaders.h.i.+p, but it is common sense, which is, perhaps, more to be desired. "Ed" Howe, the editor of "The Atchison Globe," the paper which gets closer to the people than any other in America, evidently admires this theory of editing, for he confesses, "When perplexities beset me and troubles thicken, I stop and ask myself what would Edward Bok have me do, and then all my difficulties dissolve."

Despite the sinister influences that tend to limit the freedom of editors and taint the news, the efficiency, accuracy, and ability of the American press were never on such a high plane of excellence as they are to-day. The celerity with which news is gathered, written, transmitted, edited, published, and served on millions of breakfast-tables every morning in the year is one of the wonders of the age. When great events happen, especially of a dramatic nature, we see newspapers at their best. Witness the recent wreck of the steams.h.i.+p Republic. Only a few wireless dispatches were sent out by the heroic Binns during the first few hours, and yet every paper the next morning had columns about the disaster, all written without padding, inaccuracy, or disproportion. Also recall the way the press handled the recent Witla kidnaping case. Within twenty-four hours every newspaper reader in the United States was apprised of the crime in all its details, and in most cases the photograph of the little boy was reproduced.

It is the gathering of the less important news of the day, however, where reporting has deteriorated, and yellow journalism is largely responsible for this. Yellow journalism is a matter of typography and theatrics. The most sensational, and often the most unimportant, news is featured with big type, colored inks, diagrams, and ill.u.s.trations.

"A laugh or tear in every line" is the motto above the desk of the copy editor. The dotted line showing the route taken by the beautiful housemaid as she falls out of the tenth-story window to the street below adds a thrill of the yellow "write up." The two prime requisites for an ideal yellow newspaper, as that prince of yellow editors, Arthur Brisbane, once told me, are sport for the men and love for the women; and as the Hearst papers have secured their great circulation by putting in practice this discovery, we find the other papers are consciously or unconsciously copying them. A typographical revolution has thus been brought about, as well as a general deterioration of reporting. Even in papers of the highest character an over-indulgence in headlines is coming into vogue, while the reporter is allowed too often to treat the unimportant and most personal events in a picturesque or facetious way without regard to truthfulness. On a lecture trip West last winter, a reporter of one of the most respectable and influential papers in the country asked if I was going to attack anybody in my speech, or say anything that would "stir up the mud." When I said I hoped not, he replied that it would not be necessary for him to attend the lecture. "Just give me the t.i.tle, and the first and last sentences," said he, "and I'll write up an account of it at my desk in the office."

Sometimes, by this method of reporting, a serious injury is done to the individual. A reporter on the New York "Times" wrote up last winter a sensational account of the marriage of the head worker of the University Settlement on the East Side to a young leader of one of the girls' cla.s.ses. The marriage was performed by one of the officers of the Society of Ethical Culture, who are expressly authorized by the New York legislature to officiate on such occasions. And yet the reporter called the marriage an "ethical" one, putting the word "ethical" in quotation marks and also the word "Mrs.," to which the bride was morally and legally ent.i.tled, implying that the marriage was irregular, and indicated a tendency towards free love. Though many letters of protest were written to the "Times" about this, the "Times" made no editorial apology for a breach of journalistic ethics, which should have cost the reporter who wrote the article and probably the managing editor who pa.s.sed it their positions.

It is this lack of sense of the fitness of things that would make the average reporter scribble away for dear life, if, when the President's message on the tariff was being read in Congress, a large black cat had happened to walk up the aisle of the House and jumped on the back of Speaker Cannon. Such an occurrence, I venture to say, would have commanded more s.p.a.ce in the next morning's papers than any pearls cast before Congress by the President in his message.

The yellows, however, despite their "night special" editions issued before nine o'clock in the morning, their fake pictures and fake sensations, have come to stay. They serve yellow people. Formerly the ma.s.ses had to choose between such papers as "The Atlantic Monthly,"

"The Nation," the New York "Tribune," and nothing. No wonder they chose nothing. In the yellow press they now have their own champion,--a press that serves them, represents them, leads them, and exploits them, as Tammany Hall does its const.i.tuency. Of course they give it their suffrage. The hopeful thing is that yellow readers don't stay yellow always. When a man begins to read he is apt to think. When he begins to think there is no telling where he will end,--maybe by reading the London "Times" or the "Edinburgh Review." In New York the yellow papers, while they still have an enormous circulation, are losing their influence as a political and moral force. Evidently as soon as yellow people begin to use their wits they first apply them to the yellow journals.

The daily newspapers, however, both yellow and white, like natural monopolies, are public necessities. The people must have the news, and therefore, the predatory interests, whether political or financial, have been quick to get control of the people's necessity. "Read the comments on the Payne Tariff Bill," says the "Philadelphia North American" in its issue of March 20, "and every sane, well-informed American discounts the comment of the Boston papers regarding raw and unfinished materials that affect the factories of New England. Most of the Philadelphia criticism counts for no more than what New Orleans says of sugar, or Pittsburg of steel, or San Francisco of fruits, or Chicago of packing-house products. And it is common knowledge that what almost every big New York paper says is an echo of Wall Street."

The weeklies and monthlies, however, are not, like the dailies, necessities. They have to attract by their merits alone. They must at all hazards therefore retain the people's confidence in their integrity, enterprise, and leaders.h.i.+p. Whether this be the true explanation or not, there is at least no doubt that the moral power of the American periodical press has been transferred from the dailies to the monthlies and weeklies. The monthlies and weeklies have also the advantage of being national in circulation instead of local, and therefore less subject to local and personal influence. They are also preserved, bound or unbound, and not thrown away on the day of publication like the daily paper. At all events, the weeklies and monthlies have been the pioneers and prime movers in the great moral renaissance now dawning in America. Moral strife always brings out moral leaders. Where will you find in the daily press to-day twenty editors to compare with Richard Watson Gilder and Robert Underwood Johnson, of "The Century," Henry M. Alden and George Harvey, of "Harper's," Ray Stannard Baker and Ida M. Tarbell, of "The American,"

Lyman Abbott and Theodore Roosevelt, of "The Outlook," Walter Page, of "The World's Work," Albert Shaw, of the "Review of Reviews," Paul E.

More, of "The Nation," S. S. McClure, of "McClure's," Erman Ridgway, of "Everybody's," Bliss Perry, of "The Atlantic Monthly," Norman Hapgood, of "Collier's," Edward Bok, of "The Ladies' Home Journal," George H.

Lorimer, of the "Sat.u.r.day Evening Post," Robert M. La Follette, of "La Follette's," William J. Bryan, of "The Commoner," or Shailer Matthews, of "The World To-day"? These are the men--and there are more, too, I might name--who came forward with their touch upon the pulse of the nation when the day of the daily newspaper as a leader of enlightened public opinion had waned. As a Philadelphia daily has admitted, "A vacuum had been created. They filled it."

Let me quote from a recent editorial,[3] which seems to sum up this transformation most clearly:--

"The modern American magazines have now fallen heir to the power exerted formerly by pulpit, lyceum, parliamentary debates, and daily newspapers in the moulding of public opinion, the development of new issues, and dissemination of information bearing on current questions. The newspapers, while they have become more efficient as newspapers, that is, more timely, more comprehensive, more even-handed, more detailed, and, on the whole, more accurate, have relinquished, or at least subordinated, the purpose of their founders, which was generally to make people think with the editor and do what he wanted them to do. The editorials, once the most important feature of a daily paper, are rarely so now. They have become in many cases mere casual comment, in some have been altogether eliminated, in others so neutralized and inoffensive that a man who had bought a certain daily for a year might be puzzled if you asked him its political, religious, and sociological views. He would not be in doubt if asked what his favorite magazine was trying to accomplish in the world. Unless it is a mere periodical of amus.e.m.e.nt it is likely to have a definite purpose, even though it be nothing more than opposition to some other magazine. If a magazine attacks Mrs. Eddy, another gallantly rushes to her defense. If one gets to seeing things at night, the other becomes anti-spirituous. If the first acquires the muck-raking habit, the complementary organ publishes an 'Uplift Number' that oozes optimism from every paragraph. The modern editor does not sit in his easy-chair, writing essays and sorting over the ma.n.u.scripts that are sent in by his contributors. He goes hunting for things.

The magazine staff is coming to be a group of specialists of similar views, but diverse talents, who are a.s.signed to work up a particular subject, perhaps a year or two before anything is published, and who spend that time in travel and research among the printed and living sources of information."

[3] _The Independent_, Oct. 1, 1908.

Now my conclusion of the whole question under discussion is this: While commercialism is at present the greatest menace to the freedom of the press, just as it is to the freedom of the Church and the University, yet commercialism as it develops carries within itself the germ of its own destruction. For no sooner is its blighting influence felt and recognized than all the moral forces in the community are put in motion to accomplish its overthrow, and as the monthlies and weeklies have thrived by fighting commercialism, so it is reasonable to suppose that the dailies will regain their editorial influence when they adopt the same att.i.tude.

I know of only four ways to hasten the time when commercialism will cease to be a reproach to our papers.

First. The papers can devote themselves to getting so extensive a circulation that they can ignore the clamor of the advertisers. But this implies a certain truckling to popularity, and the best editors will chafe under such restrictions.

Second. The papers can become endowed. That others have thought of this before, Mr. Andrew Carnegie can doubtless testify. There would be many advantages, however, of having several great endowed papers in the country. The same arguments that favor endowed theatres or universities apply equally to papers. We need some papers that can say what ought to be said irrespective of anybody and everybody, and which can serve as examples to other papers not so fortunately circ.u.mstanced. But manifestly the periodical industry as a whole is much too large to be endowed, and the few papers that may be endowed by private capital, or by the Government, would have only a limited influence on the industry as a whole. Our government now publishes a weekly paper in Panama, which takes no advertis.e.m.e.nts, and is furnished free to every government employee on the Isthmus. It is a model paper in many respects, but manifestly its example is not apt to be followed extensively before the dawn of the Cooperative Commonwealth. It may be that the practice newspapers conducted by the schools of journalism connected with our great universities will raise the standard by making their chief object the publication of accurate and reliable news.

Third. The papers can combine in a sort of trust. Take the Theatrical Syndicate, for instance, whose theatres could not be kept open a week without newspaper publicity. The Theatrical Syndicate's policy seems to be to single out any paper that becomes too critical and give it an absent-advertis.e.m.e.nt treatment. At the present moment this medicine is being prescribed in several of our large cities. But let all the publishers form a publishers' trade union as it were, and whenever an advertis.e.m.e.nt is withdrawn, appoint a committee of investigation, and if the committee reports that the withdrawal of the advertis.e.m.e.nt was done for any improper reason, then let all the papers refuse to print an advertis.e.m.e.nt of the play, or allow their critics to mention it until the matter is satisfactorily adjusted. This would bring the advertisers to their knees in a moment.

The papers have the whip hand if they will only combine, but they are all so jealous of one another that probably any real combination is a long way off. Still there are indications of a gentleman's agreement in the air, for all other interests are combining and they will be forced to follow suit.

And what will the public do then, poor thing? A newspaper trust will certainly be as inimical to the public welfare as any other combination doing business in the fear of the Sherman law. Indeed it would be more dangerous, for a periodical trust would practically control the diffusion of intelligence, and that no self-respecting democracy would or should allow. But this is borrowing trouble from the future.

Fourth and last. We come back to the old, old remedy, which if sincerely applied would solve most all the ills of society. I refer to personal integrity, to character. Despite what may be said to the contrary, integrity is the only thing in the newspaper profession, as in life itself, that really counts.

The great journalists of the past, whatever their personal idiosyncrasies, have all been men of integrity; the great journalists of to-day are of the same sterling mould; and the journalistic giants of to-morrow--and the journalists of the future will be giants--must also be men of inflexible character.

There has never been a time in all history when so many and so important things were waiting to be done as to-day. The newest school of sociology tells us that the human race in its spiral progress onward and upward through sweat and blood, misery and strife, has at last reached the point where, emerging from the control of the blind forces of an inexorable environment, it is about to take its destiny into its own control and actually shape its future. From now on, evolution is to be a psychical rather than a physical process. The world is on the threshold of a new era. We see the first faint dawn of universal peace and of the brotherhood of man.

Fortunate that editor whose privilege it is to share in pointing out the way.

_The Riverside Press_ CAMBRIDGE Ma.s.sACHUSETTS U S A

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