Clement M. Hammond, “Then and Now” (1884)

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XIV.

“THE CONFESSIONS OF A JOURNALIST.”

Boston, March 21, 2085.

My Dear Louise:

In the old Capitol on Beacon Hill is now one of the finest libraries in the world and I spend two or three hours almost every day in reading from the most remarkable of the innumerable remarkable volumes. The room that once was the Hall of Representatives is now filled from floor to ceiling with cabinets containing books and pamphlets of the present century. In the room once the Senate chamber are books of the last two centuries, with those of the last largely predominating in numbers, and several of the small rooms are used for those of still older date. All books are classified, first, according to date of writing, and, second, according to subject-matter.

The volume that is just now attracting my attention is one published in 1902 and entitled “The Confessions of a Journalist.” The author’s name does not appear, but he introduces himself in the preface as follows:

“For the past thirty-five years I have made journalism my profession, and during that time have been connected in different ways, as reporter, correspondent, city editor, news editor, managing editor, editorial writer, and part proprietor, with many of the leading newspapers of the country. I have been one of the few that have been fortunate enough at sixty to be able to retire from active labors on the press, having amassed a fortune on which I can live comfortably and see my children well started on the journey of life.”

This, by way of introduction, attracted my attention. Books written by journalists I have always found peculiarly interesting, although I must confess seldom very instructive. Journalists know so well how to make insignificant matters entertaining and put things in such a bright, witty way, that it is usually a pleasure to read what they write. Their books are never dull, and it never requires deep thought to understand them. One can read page after page, beginning almost anywhere and leaving off at will, in a dreamy sort of way with the thinking powers at rest. The effect is not an excitement to mental exertion. When I wish to read myself to sleep, I have always been accustomed to take up some book written by a journalist. So, when I ran across this “Confession,” I decided that it would be a good thing to help me digest my dinners. You may judge whether or not I made a mistake from some of the extracts which I shall give you.

The first chapter is devoted to young men who are about to enter the profession, and pretends to give much wholesome advice. But read:

“Young man, you are eager to enter the field of journalism; you are eager to become an editor, perhaps a proprietor. You ask yourself, ‘Have I the talent and the education necessary to enable me to become a successful journalist?’ Are you superficial? This is the first qualification. No deep thinker, no keen reasoner has any place on a daily newspaper.

“Are you an accomplished liar? Or, to put it in a more delicate manner, are you an adept at watering or obscuring the truth? Can you make what you honestly believe to be the truth (provided you think deeply enough to honestly believe any thing) appear to be false, and what you know to be false (or what you would know to be false provided you gave it a thought) appear to be the truth? If you cannot, don’t enter journalism.

“Have you a ready pen for flattery or abuse as you may be commanded? If not, become a hod-carrier rather than a journalist.

“Do you believe in having principles and in supporting them? Go West on the plains, and devote your life to the occupation of a cowboy, but don’t become a journalist.

“Are you one who believes that right should stand ahead of gain? Go hang yourself and die innocent before you become connected with a newspaper.”

Such matter as this did not help me digest my dinner, but it awakened a curiosity that would be satisfied. If honest, right-minded, thinking men cannot make (or could not make, I should say now) successful journalists, then what? Farther on he tells, when he says:

“One who would attain the highest success in journalism as it is today and has been for many years, back as far at least as my memory serves me, must be a man of remarkably quick perception. This is the chief qualification. He must look upon a newspaper as merely a business enterprise, and making money must be his sole aim. This is as true of the most utterly unknown reporter as of the editor-in- chief, business manager, or proprietor. That paper is most successful which sells the most copies daily and has the best advertising patronage; that is, which declares the largest dividend each year. What paper is there that does not aim for this? What leading paper is there that would not support the devil if its management thought that by so doing its finances would be improved? What successful paper is there that would not print anything within the bounds of the law if by so doing more pennies would continue to drop into its till? What prominent paper is there that does not have a little or big list of names of which no unpleasant things must be said, never mind how big the lie told? If Mr. Jones advertises well, must not Mr. Jones be lied about if he happens to do anything about which the truth, if told, would injure him?

“Any man connected with a paper as reporter or editor may be called upon to lie (for twelve, twenty, fifty, or one hundred dollars per week, according to his ability) a dozen times a day, and also to swear that that lie is God’s truth. If he murmurs, he must resign.”

I am beginning to think that my journalist-author is not what he says he is, a retired successful journalist. I am afraid he has not been successful in the profession, and by this means vents his spleen upon those who have. I cannot believe that the great educators, the leaders of the people, the guardians of the liberties and rights of the people of your time are so corrupt; that their only object is gain. Is there, or rather was there, no high moral purpose in the journalism of the nineteenth century? I read on:

“For the most part our dailies are owned by stock companies, and surely no one can expect a philanthropic and moral sentiment to inspire a stock company! The business manager, who is usually the editor-in-chief, who dictates the policy and course of the paper, is paid a certain salary, and he is expected to make the paper earn enough to pay a handsome dividend. It is all business with him. Money is the only principle he sees. That is just and moral that pays best. If he owned the paper, he would do so and so, but it won’t pay, and it is his duty to make the enterprise pay. The managing editor must please the business manager or editor-in-chief. All the subordinates of the managing editor—news editors, city editor, dramatic editor, and all other editors and reporters—must please him and obey him. There must be no individual opinion of right and wrong. Right means profitable and wrong means profitless. ‘Is it for the good of the people that this be published?’ is never asked; ‘Is this just?’ is never asked; but simply, ‘Is it policy to print this?’ I am speaking always, unless I specify differently, of the large daily newspapers, ‘the great leaders of public opinion.”‘

When I had read this, I paused, and the thought went through my mind, “What if all this that he says be true! The people have the power to kill a corrupt newspaper in a few weeks, and can stop its influence at once by not buying it. The most successful papers are most successful because they sell the greatest number of copies,—that is, because they print matter that the people like to read. If the people like to read ‘watered truth,’ well and good; if they want to be flattered and abused, who cares?”

I had read but a few pages more when I found the author had anticipated my criticism and answered it in this manner:

“If you charge a journalist with gulling the public, he immediately answers that he gives the public what it wants; witness the success of his paper! It won’t do, he says, to print the truth; no daily could live and do it. The people desire to read exaggerations and flattering and abusing lies. They want the truth adulterated with what will make it pleasant to swallow. They quote this from Nathaniel Hawthorne (a good journalist must be good at quoting): ‘It must be a remarkably true man who can keep his own elevated conceptions of truth when the lower feelings of a multitude are assailing his natural sympathies, and who can speak out frankly the best there is in him when by adulterating it a little or a good deal he knows that he may make it ten times as acceptable to the audience.’

“What redress have the people? Stop buying the papers? But it is necessary that they should buy the papers. There are matters upon which they must keep informed.”

And so the book continues on to the end. Sometime I will talk with an editor of today, and give you his views of journalism.

Josephine.

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About Shawn P. Wilbur 2166 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.