Short Speech on Newspaper Barons and Autocrats

The owners and editors order, select and prepare all that appears, and they determine how it shall appear. The reader, however, has the last word. He accepts or rejects the final printed product.

When the reader-in-the-mass, or the “public,” bestows special favor upon any one sheet, other newspaper-makers usually imitate the successful competitor, assuming that the public has indicated its preference by acceptance of a particular style of newspaper.

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News, as obtained and written by reporters and correspondents, eventually reaches the desk of an editor. Several editors see each story before it appears in the newspaper. Some of the copy and all of the proofed reach the managing editor, and perhaps the owner or publisher as well.

In any case, a few men are deciding which of the news reports will be used, in view of the paper’s policy; or can be used, in view of the space available. The rest goes into the discard. Some of it may be important, but uninteresting.

Some of it may be true, important and interesting, but not in line with the policy of the paper. If not wholly discarded, it may be reduced to small space and used inconspicuously. Or there may not be space in a given edition or day’s issue for what would ordinarily be included.

In practice, the news selected for emphasis very often has to do with matters of local interest, even though it may be of no deep importance.

To make space, news from farther away may be sacrificed. Foreign news, especially, has been slighted, so that an intelligent understanding or interest in foreign affairs is very limited in most communities.

Throughout these pre-publication processes decisions are being made by editors. They are human, and often they are under pressure of time, so that they may make mistakes.

Perhaps they are possessed of certain preconceived ideas or prejudices, or are biased on some subjects, and ignorant on others.

Possibly an editor has had good training in history, or has read widely in that field, but is obliged to make a decision affecting a story about economic matters, with regrettable results. Perhaps he is timid about using some story because he knows that the owner of the paper, or some superior editor, has a prejudice which would be involved.

So an editor’s fears, stereotypes and mental gaps have an inevitable, even if subconscious, influence upon the writing, selection, editing, and display of news or other material.

To this extent, the reader is not getting straight facts. Somebody, several some bodies, stands in the light, or helps him to read the news as they want him to read it.

Good newspaper men do not willingly permit themselves prejudices. Intelligent and conscientious journalists make a special effort to be objective and impartial in handling the news. And, on the whole, they succeed very well.

They must, because their newspapers are read by all kinds of people, so that a departure from impartiality brings complaints from readers—and enough complaints react upon the editor in charge or upon the writers.

Impartiality itself brings complaints from prejudiced readers, who want the newspaper to accept their prejudices as fact. Extremists on both sides regard real impartiality as just cause for complaint. And unfortunately most editors, or others who have prejudices or “blind spots,” rarely recognize them as such.

The policy of a newspaper is dominated by the owner. In practice, he probably takes advice and counsel from trusted editors and assistants, but he also feels the pressure of others less disinterested.

If the paper is mortgaged, the bank or other mortgage-holder may bring pressure to influence the newspaper’s policy on some subject. If the owner has strong political ambitions, commitments, or partisanship, it may be reflected in his newspaper.

It has been common to believe that advertisers—especially large advertisers, such as department stores—have dictated successfully to the owners of newspapers, perhaps through their business offices, and undoubtedly such things have occurred, but less frequently than critics of the press have implied.

Although it is true that most newspapers try to give to their readers an honest and balanced picture of the world, so far as that is possible, there are newspapers in every country which represent special points of view, politically, economically, socially.

The current ideal is one of impartiality and objectivity, so that almost every newspaper tries to give such an impression. In practice, the same newspaper may have a good policy on one subject and a bad policy on another.

It must not be imagined that every story in every issue, even of a prejudiced newspaper, is given special color to underline a special purpose. Most stories are edited merely to make them more concise or to sharpen the point made by the writer.

It is only stories related to the newspaper’s particular sphere of interest, or stories especially sought, that receive such attention. Stories are selected or rejected as determined by those particular interests, and stories will be edited or headlined with deliberate intent to obtain a desired effect.

The desire may be to build up a community opinion on any one of many subjects, perhaps with entirely laudable purpose. It may be politics, temperance, economic or governmental theories, financial subjects, national defense, peace sentiment, labor matters, social questions, agricultural policies, et cetera.

Perhaps a newspaper will go so far as to conduct a “campaign” on a given subject, as for or against building a new city hall, entering the World Court, raising the tariff rates, obtaining better sanitation, reducing taxes, or something else.

Then news stories may be “slanted,” that is, written or edited with a nice consideration for the impression they will create.

Headlines are written with equal care, and they are supported with pictures, editorials, little “features,” and a considerable array of journalistic devices intended to capture attention and bolster sentiment as desired.

All of this is propaganda, no matter how laudable its purpose, unless it is preferred to call “laudable propaganda” by the more pleasing name of “education.” And, even then, who is to judge what is laudable?

Conspicuous under-attention toward, or disregard of a topic having public interest or importance is quite as likely to have a special effect as a great deal of attention. It has been said that “the power of the press is the suppress.”

Under-attention can have even more effect than over-attention, since the latter may weary readers without convincing them. Yet, one of the most subtle and effective journalistic devices to sway opinion is repetition—a constant hammering, or a gentle but repeated suggestion.

The theory is that this will produce its effect just as surely as drop after drop of water can wear away a rock. An idea, if repeated often enough, will implant itself in the mind of the casual reader, or even of the wary one, so that ultimately it will be accepted as a fact; perhaps even embraced by the reader as his own original idea.

Many a newspaper has had a “black list,” too, a private listing of persons whose names never were to be mentioned in its columns or only under certain conditions.

Usually this is because the individual has done something or said something personally displeasing to the owner of the paper; occasionally it is a calculated move to blot out a person’s reputation in the public memory.

By neglecting to report his speeches and refusing to mention his name a press association could go a long way toward sending a politician to oblivion, just as it could lift him from oblivion by the opposite method. Syndicates and individual newspapers possess equal power, upon a smaller scale.

This is the use of selection as a device to establish an opinion. So the New York Times, prior to 1920, selected news portraying Soviet Russia in an unfavorable light, which helped to establish anti-Communist sentiment in the United States.

The British press used similar tactics. In 1919 Prince Peter Kropotkin, reformer, geographer, and avowed anarchist, banished from his native Russia in 1886, and long resident in England, returned to Russia and, later, he reported what he thought of the Revolution and its results.

The Daily Herald, with Leftist opinions, printed all that he had said favorable to the Revolution; The Times, strongly Right in sentiment, printed all that he said unfavorable to the Revolution.

And nothing else, in either case Readers of the Daily Herald gained the impression that Kropotkin was favorable to the Revolution; readers of The Times were comforted to believe that he felt the Revolution had been a failure in its results. So, while pleasing their readers, the papers misled them.

It is within the power of newspaper owners to print what they wish. What they wish to print is the thing that accords with the sentiments of the moment, their own and their readers’.

Thus, when relations were good between Russia and Great Britain, economically speaking, the British newspapers made much of what they called the “Russian soul,” a beautiful and rather mystic thing compounded of the great art, music, dance, poetry and literature of that country.

It had been regretfully admitted, however, that the Russian Government was less admirable, so that when the Kerensky Revolution occurred it was hailed as further evidence of the “Russian soul” acting to improve matters, and it was compared to the French attack on the Bastille.

When the Lenin-Trotsky Revolution occurred, however, and the Communist system came to be regarded as holding a threat to the economic system, further reference to the “Russian soul” ceased, and Russia became a place inhabited by bestial, cruel and illiterate persons and their unfortunate victims. Needless to say, neither view was correct, but represented an emotional treatment of the news, entirely unbalanced.

Similarly, at the beginning of 1852, Napoleon III of France was the butt of an attack in the British press, and presently was one of the most hated men among British newspaper readers.

Then the German war threatened, the aid of France was desired, and by the end of 1852 Napoleon III had become—in the press—Britain’s “gallant ally.” The press attack was then diverted to Nicholas of Russia.

In the United States the Hearst newspapers are notorious for their shift of sentiment, and even adopt attitudes in one city that are opposed to their attitudes in places where it is expedient to take the other view.

On Oct. 7, 1929, the Hearst papers printed an editorial signed be William Randolph Hearst, in which he praised Ramsay MacDonald as a “great Prime Minister, and as a very valuable influence for the whole world.” This theme was developed. But, in the Hearst papers of March 29, 1930, Mr. Hearst signed another editorial, or open letter, in which he referred to Mr. MacDonald as “a sly, smooth and trickily diplomat,” because, so it was said, he was doing his “utmost to create a pacifist inferior-Navy sentiment in the United States” by “collaborating daily with half-caste American correspondents of international-minded newspapers, whose publishers wear the decorations of foreign governments for disloyalty to their own.”

Although the Hearst papers supported Franklin D. Roosevelt’s candidacy in the Presidential campaign and election in 1932, they presently turned against Roosevelt and all his works. Mr. Hearst specifically directed all of his papers, in any references to the “New Deal” to call it the “Raw Deal.”

Reiteration had helped damn the “World Court,” because the Hearst newspapers constantly referred to it as the “League Court,” so tying it to the League and all the iniquity Mr. Hearst had for so many years ascribed to that organization.

The Daily Mail, which also is opposed to the League of Nations and to British participation therein, in its issue of October 19, 1935, summarized a Reuter’s message from Pretoria reporting a speech about the League by General Jan Smuts.

The speech was mainly a tribute to the League for its unanimous condemnation of Italy’s aggression in Ethiopia, and an expression of gratitude that Britain had given the League its leadership in the matter.

The Daily Mail account of the address was headed: GEN. SMUTS AND THE LEAGUE, followed by a subhead, in quotation marks, “Scrap it if it menaces peace.” Those words were not to be found in the speech itself, as reported in the Daily Mail or in The Times, and the passages referring to the League in favorable terms were omitted by the Daily Mail.

Propaganda papers always have existed, but deliberate attempts to warp public opinion seldom have been outstandingly successful, and no paper indulging in such an attempt has been regarded as representing great journalism.

Newspapers have spoken for political parties, and when the party was popular the newspaper may have enjoyed a large circulation and considerable following among members of the party itself. But, even so, it never could be called a great newspaper because it was more in the nature of a political trade journal.

Similarly, there have been newspapers whose chief interest was religious news and views, particularly during the nineteenth century, but they, too, have been trade journals, rather than real newspapers.

But an influence more subtle and more important than direct attempts to make deliberate use of individual newspapers or even of the press as a whole to further special interests, political, financial or otherwise, has been the transformation of the newspaper from a profession to a business.

Once a newspaper was primarily an editorial product, consisting of news and editorial comment, with some miscellaneous features.

To-day it is primarily a business product, consisting of advertisements interlarded within news, editorials and features—increased in quantity and quality, but still incidental to the advertising from which the paper derives its chief income.

Whereas the newspaper once paid for itself out of circulation revenue, to-day the circulation revenue does not even pay for the white paper on which it is printed.

It would not be accurate to say that the editorial department has necessarily become subservient to the business department. And yet, newspaper-making has become a big business.

It is inevitable that it should be so, because the power of a newspaper as an advertising medium has become so clear that merchants and others who stand to benefit by a mass solicitation of trade are ready and willing to use its columns to convey their sales messages to all readers.

The growth of newspapers came largely from this advertising patronage and from the advertising patronage flow not only the costs of operations, but the profits.

Owners of newspapers, and managers and publishers, under these circumstances, began to be business men, rather than editorial men.

They regarded publishing a newspaper primarily as a business, to which business rules were to be applied, rather than as a service and a profession.

Great sums of money had to be invested to house a newspaper properly, to buy the necessary mechanical equipment, to pay the numerous employees required in the various departments, and to meet fixed charges and general overhead.

Large advertising patronage became necessary, and large circulations became prerequisite to large advertising patronage.

Mass appeal in the news was required to attract large circulation. Mass appeal meant excitement, struggle, suspense, humor, pathos, horror, thrills—elementary things reaching readers’ emotions rather than their minds.

Owners of newspapers, with their managers, publishers and chief editors, concerned with these matters, found themselves associating with other business men, also concerned with similar management problems.

In clubs, at play, in trade conferences they met them and came to hold common views. The result was that newspaper-making was transformed into a manufacturing industry, producing newspapers from its factory.

This has been the trend in the United States. It produced Frank Munsey, the Hearst chain of newspapers, and others.

It became apparent in Great Britain, producing, among others, Lord Northcliffe, Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Rothermere, Lord Burnham, Lord Camrose, Lord Astor, Lord Kelmsley, Lord Iliffe—the “press lords,” as they are called.

In Great Britain, these men and their editors, in most cases, are the products of a rigid class system and an educational routine, which, combined with their social relations, makes them narrow and close-bound in outlook and sympathies.

Then the trend was felt in lesser degree in Germany, producing Hugo Stinnes and later Dr. Alfred Hugenberg. It was felt in Japan, and in other countries, although not in all, and in varying degrees.

The business mentality grips and governs most of the press of the United States and of Great Britain. It is a factor of importance in determining what appears in the newspapers and in what way it appears.

Because they have great fortunes invested in the publishing properties, owners take every step to protect their investments and, while this is natural, the public often suffers.

Bismarck has been quoted as saying that the peace of Europe could be preserved by hanging a dozen editors. J. A. Spender, himself an editor, has remarked that about six proprietors and a score of writers formulated all important opinions expressed in the London metropolitan press.

Napoleon said that he feared four hostile newspapers more than ten thousand armed men. So the power of owners and editors is estimated for good or for bad, and it follows that the public welfare demands that these men should be possessed of honest motives, good intentions, and trained intelligence.

If newspapers can be no better than the men who make them, it also is true that newspapers can be no better than the persons who read them. Water cannot rise above its source, and newspapers can be no finer than readers are prepared to accept.

Once asked whether he thought the press of the United States ever would be censored, an astute editor replied, “Censorship of newspapers isn’t coming—it’s here, and always has been here in the form of opinions of subscribers.”

When a newspaper tries to present a fair picture of a controversial subject or situation, readers who hold a prejudice accuse it of disseminating propaganda, or at least favoring the opposite view.

If a newspaper honestly supports, editorially, either a liberal or a conservative outlook, those holding the contrary view abuse it unmercifully, and rarely even credit it with sincerity.

If a newspaper indulges in a bit of quiet humor now and then, in its editorial columns, trying to leave the lump of public affairs, its efforts almost invariably will be misunderstood by some readers, perhaps not many, but a vocal group, nonetheless.

It is this audience-response, very largely, that makes so many newspapers dull, standardized, heavy-witted and elemental in their handling of everything that matters.

With the exception, perhaps, of the arts and sciences, concerning which there is so little general understanding or interest that a few newspapers are able to present intelligent reports without much fear of challenge by readers whose prejudices have been outraged. In the reporting of sports, also, tradition permits considerable latitude.

Beyond that, it is difficult for the press to present a fair picture of any important subject because the facts themselves may be elusive and kaleidoscopic in character. They are difficult to obtain.

They are susceptible of varying, and equally logical, interpretations, as to meaning of importance. One fact may be offset by another of apparently equal weight. The whole pattern of facts often must be so simplified and condensed in presentation as to distort the exact truth at times.

And, finally, the public acceptance of a fact, or “near-fact,” is contingent upon how generally it is made known, regardless of its accuracy. A greater truth may go virtually unaccepted because it has no great circulation to spread it far and quickly.

It has been said that the public always is 25 years behind the facts in its thinking. So it will accept to-day things that were true a quarter of a century ago. But other circumstances have changed in the meantime, which makes what then was wisdom and truth no longer entirely applicable.

The public thought has been unable to change quickly enough to keep up with changes in actual conditions, and the result is that government practices and commercial or financial policies are out of point with the times, bringing on economic depressions and social unrest.

And when affairs change more rapidly, as in those very periods of crisis, public thought becomes increasingly confused in its effort to understand what is happening, and to make its adjustment. It is in such circumstances that dictators sometimes are welcomed.

Business and industry are organized to make their wishes and opinions felt in government and elsewhere. But because the public is an amorphous mass it can make its wishes felt only in a crude sort of way.

Even its elected representatives do not wholly represent it. Perhaps, in these circumstances, the press should do so, striving to protect the public interest wherever it is involved.

The difficulty, however, is that newspaper owners and editors, acting in all sincerity, but moved by sectional and personal prejudices, might not agree on what constituted the public interest, and so one newspaper would offset another, as it does to-day.

The public, furthermore, is preoccupied with its personal affairs, is inclined to see very little beyond the end of its own nose, and is only half educated.

The newspaper, fighting strenuously in the public interest, might earn only disapproval for being “radical” or “dull,” or for being “highbrow,” “pessimistic,” “fault-finding,” or even downright “dishonest.”

Editors and publishers have had enough of such disillusioning experiences to make them doubt the popularity of the truth in print.

It is a mistake, they have found, to be ahead of mass thinking on a subject, for not only does it do little discernible good, but it makes enemies and bores readers.

“We cannot reform the world single-handed,” they say, in effect. “If we tried we would so soon go out of business.

Then we could not accomplish even as much as we are able to do now. So we do the best we can, and hope that the public will be ready for better things in time.”

There is much justice in such a view. Until individual taste and understanding have been raised to a certain level by education and by the impact of events, the press will fall short of the ideal.

It is difficult to think of any newspaper in the world that is doing all it might to serve the public welfare.

Certain papers have, on occasion, done fine and courageous and praiseworthy things, but there never has been a newspaper which was able, consistently, to represent the public interest, above all others.

A conventional assumption by critics of the press is that all facts may be verified completely, and presented so convincingly and interestingly as to move even the most mentally blind and cloddish readers to act in their own best interests. In this belief, the critics delude themselves.

It is a generally accepted belief, too, those communities and nations are alike, which may not be true at all.

But, on the other hand, disillusioned publishers and editors assume that the public never will learn better.

This is an opinion that cannot be endorsed, because the battering of realities, combined with more and better educational training and reading, must eventually raise the standards of public thinking, as indeed it has in the past.

The press need not stand still, and the more far-seeing editors and publishers are constantly hoping that their public is ready for something better, and they test that hope at intervals.

It all comes back to the age-old question: “What is truth?” The press at present can answer only in so far as its limitations permit it to do so, and in proportion as the public is ready and willing to receive the answer.

If the press is doing less than it is capable of doing toward the advancement of civilization, the fault is not entirely its own.

Its shortcomings are many, but its potentialities are unlimited. It has organized an amazing system for the gathering and redistribution of information.

Its shackles, however, will not fall off, and its faults will not disappear, until the almighty reader rises in his majesty and demands an unobstructed news channel and a press made to fit higher ethical as well as technical standards.

That demand he can make effective by accepting the better journalism where he finds it, and so encouraging its growth and extension.

The press itself can do much more than it has done toward the attainment of the idea. But public education comes first. More persons must want to be well and truly informed. It is, above all, the Reader’s Choice.

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