The Brass Check

by Upton Sinclair

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Chapter 63 - The Mental Munitions Factory

A solution that comes at once to mind is state-owned or municipally owned newspapers: This is the orthodox Socialist solution, and is also being advocated by William Jennings Bryan. Fortunately, we do not have to take his theories, or anyone's theories; we have facts—the experience of Los Angeles with its public paper, the "Municipal News," which was an entire success. I inquire of the editor of the paper, Frank E. Wolfe, and he writes:

The "Municipal News"? There's a rich story buried there. It was established by an initiative ordinance, and had an ample appropriation. It was launched in the stream with engines going full steam ahead. Its success was instantaneous. Free distribution; immense circulation; choked with high-class, high-rate advertising; well edited, and it was clean and immensely popular. Otis said: "Every dollar that damned socialistic thing gets is a dollar out of the 'Times' till." Every publisher in the city re-echoed, and the fight was on. The chief thing that rankled, however, was the outgrowth of a clause in the ordinance, which gave to each political party polling a three per cent vote a column in each issue for whatsoever purpose it might be used. The Socialist Labor Party nosed out the Prohibitionists by a fluke. The Socialists had a big margin in the preceding elections, so the Reds had two columns, and they were quick to seize the opportunity for propaganda. The Goo-goos, who had always stoutly denied they were a political party, came forward and claimed space, and the merry war was on. Those two columns for Socialist propaganda were the real cause for the daily onslaught of 'the painted ladies of Broadway’ (newspaper district of Los Angeles). There were three morning and three evening papers. Six times a day they whined, barked, yelped and snapped at the heels of the "Municipal News." Never were more lies poured out from the mouths of these mothers of falsehood. The little, weakly whelps of the pornographic press took up the hue and cry, and Blanche, Sweetheart and Tray were on the trail. Advertisers were cajoled, browbeaten and blackmailed, until nearly all left the paper. The "News" was manned by a picked staff of the best newspapermen on the coast: It was clean, well edited, and gave both sides to all controversies—using the parallel column system. It covered the news of the municipality better than any paper had ever covered it. It was weak and ineffective editorially, for the policy was to print a newspaper. We did not indulge in a clothesline quarrel - did not fight back. The "News" died under the axe one year from its birth. They used the initiative to kill it. The rabble rallied to the cry, and we foresaw the end. The paper had attracted attention all over the English-reading world. Everywhere I have gone I have been asked about it, by people who never dreamed I had been an editor of the paper. Its death was a triumph for reaction, but its effect will not die. Some day the idea will prevail. Then I might want to go back into the "game."

City owned newspapers are part of the solution, but not the whole part. As a Socialist, I advocate public ownership of the instruments and means of production; but I do not rely entirely upon that method where intellectual matters are concerned. I would have the state make all the steel and coal and oil, the shoes and matches and sugar; I would have it do the distributing of newspapers, and perhaps even the printing; but for the editing of the newspapers I cast about for a method of control that allows free play to the development of initiative and the expression of personality.

In a free society the solution will be simple; there will be many groups and associations, publishing their own papers, and if you do not like the papers that these groups give you, you can form a group of your own. Being in receipt of the full product of your labor, you will have plenty of money, and will be surrounded by other free and independent individuals, also receiving the full product of their labor, and accustomed to combining for the expression of their ideas. The difference is that today the world's resources are in the hands of a class, and this class has a monopoly of self-expression. The problem of transferring such power to the people must be studied as the whole social problem, and not merely as the problem of the press.

Fortunately there are parts of America in which the people have kept at least a part of their economic independence, and have gone ahead to solve the problem of the "kept" press in true American fashion—that is, by organizing and starting honest newspapers for themselves. The editor of the "Nonpartisan Leader," Oliver S. Morris, has kindly written for me an account of the experiences of the Nonpartisan League, which I summarize as follows:

The League commenced organization work early in 1915 in North Dakota. By the summer of the next year it had forty thousand members, yet no newspaper in the state had given, even as news, a fair account of the League's purposes. Every daily paper in the state was filled with "gross misinformation and absurd lies." So the League started a little weekly paper of its own. With this single weekly, against the entire daily press of the state, it swept the primaries in June, 1916.

Then the League decided to have a daily paper. The "Courier-News" of Fargo had been for sale, but the owners would not sell to the League. The League went ahead to start a new paper, actually buying machinery and taking subscriptions; then the "Courier-News" decided to sell, and its circulation under League ownership now exceeds the total population of Fargo.

The League at present has weekly papers in seven states, with a total circulation of two hundred thousand, and another weekly, the "Non-partisan Leader," published in St. Paul, with a circulation of two hundred and fifty thousand. It is starting co-operative country weekly papers, supervising their editorial policy and furnishing them news and editorial service; over one hundred of these weekly papers are already going. There is another League daily in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and one at Nampa, Idaho. Finally, the League is going ahead on its biggest venture, the establishment of a daily in Minneapolis. This paper is to be capitalized at a million dollars, and the stock is being sold to farmer and labor organizations throughout the state. Says Mr. Morris: "Many wealthy professional and business men, disgusted with the controlled press, have purchased stock, and are warm boosters for the League publications." Also he says:

One of the chief results of the establishment of a League press is a different attitude on the part of many existing papers. With competition in the field, many publishers who have hitherto been biased and unfair have been forced to change their tactics. Few of these papers have gone over to the League side of political and economic questions, but they have been forced at least to print fair news reports on both sides of the question in their news columns, reserving their opposition to the movement for their editorial columns. That, of course, is fair enough. The menace of the controlled press in America is due to the fact that as a rule this press does not confine its arguments and opposition to the editorial columns, but uses the news columns for propaganda, and, failing to print the news, printing only a part of it, distorting it or actually lying, sways opinion through the news columns.

Such is the procedure in places where Americans are free. But what about our crowded cities, with their slum populations, speaking forty different languages, illiterate, unorganized, and dumb? Even in these cities there have been efforts made to start newspapers in the interest of the people. I know few more heroic stories than the twenty-year struggle to establish and maintain the "New York Call." It began as a weekly, "The Worker." Even that took endless campaigns of begging, and night labor of devoted men and women who earned their livings by daytime labor under the cruel capitalist grind. At last they managed to raise funds to start a daily, and then for ten years it was an endless struggle with debt and starvation. It was a lucky week when the "New York Call" had money enough to pay its printing force; the reporters and editors would sometimes have to wait for months. A good part of the space in the paper had to be devoted to ingenious begging.

The same attempt was made in Chicago, and their bad management and factional quarrels brought a disastrous failure. At the time of writing, there are Socialist dailies in Butte, in Seattle, and in Milwaukee, also a few foreign-language Socialist dailies. There are numerous weeklies and monthlies; but these, of course, do not take the place of newspapers, they are merely a way of pamphleteering. The people read falsehoods all week or all month, and then at last they get what portion of the truth the "Appeal to Reason" or the "Nation" or the "Liberator" or "Pearson's" can find room for. In the meantime the average newspaper reader has had his whole psychology made of lies, so that he cannot believe the truth when he sees it.

There are a few millionaires in America who have liberal tendencies. They have been willing to finance reform campaigns, and in great emergencies to give the facts to the people; they have been willing now and then to back radical magazines, and even to publish them. But - I state the fact, without trying to explain it - there has not yet appeared in America a millionaire willing to found and maintain a fighting daily paper for the abolition of exploitation. I have myself put the proposition before several rich men. I have even known of cases where promises were made, and plans drawn up. My friend Gaylord Wilshire intended to do it with the proceeds of his gold mine, but the gold mine has taken long to develop. I had hopes that Henry Ford would do it, when I read of his purchase of the "Dearborn Independent." I urged the matter upon him with all the eloquence I could muster; he said he meant to do it, but I have my fears. The trouble is his ignorance; he really does not know about the world in which he finds himself, and so far the intellectual value of the "Dearborn Independent" has been close to zero.

So our slum proletariat is left to feed upon the garbage of yellow journalism. Year by year the cost of living increases, and wages, if they move at all, move laggingly, and after desperate and embittered strife. In the midst of this strife the proletariat learns its lessons; it learns to know the clubs of policemen and the bayonets and machine-guns of soldiers; it learns to know capitalist politicians and capitalist judges; also it learns to know Capitalist Journalism! Wherever in America the workers organize and strike for a small portion of their rights, they come out of the experience with a bitter and abiding hatred of the press. I have shown you what happened in Colorado; in West Virginia; in Paterson, New Jersey; in Calumet, Michigan; in Bisbee, Arizona; in Seattle, Washington. I could show you the same thing happening in every industrial center in America.

The workers have come to realize the part that the newspapers play; they have come to know the newspapers as the crux of the argument, the key to the treasure-chamber. A modern newspaper, seen from the point of view of then workers, is a gigantic munitions-factory, in which the propertied class manufactures mental bombs and gas-shells for the annihilation of its enemies. And just as in war sometimes the strategy is determined by the location of great munitions-factories and depots, so the class struggle comes to center about newspaper offices. In every great city of Europe where the revolution took place, the first move of the rebels was to seize these offices, and the first move of the reactionaries was to get them back. We saw machine-guns mounted in the windows of newspaper-offices, sharpshooters firing from the roofs, soldiers in the streets replying with shrapnel. It is worth noting that wherever the revolutionists were able to take and hold the newspapers, they maintained their revolution; where the newspapers were retaken by the reactionaries, the revolution failed.

In Petrograd the "Little Gazette," organ of the "Black Hundreds," became the "Red Gazette," and has remained the "Red Gazette." The official military organ, the "Army and Fleet," became the "Red Army and Fleet." The "Will of Russia,” organ of Protopopov, last premier of the Tsar, became the "Pravda,” which means "Truth." In Berlin, on the other hand, the "Kreuz-Zeitung,” organ of black magic and reaction, became for a few days "Die Rothe Fahne," the "Red Flag"; but, alas, it went back to the "Kreuz-Zeitung" again!

Will it come this way in America? Shall we see mobs storming the offices of the "New York Times" and "World," the "Chicago Tribune," the "Los Angeles Times"? It depends entirely upon the extent to which these capitalist newspapers continue to infuriate the workers, and to suppress working-class propaganda with the help of subservient government officials. I personally am not calling for violent revolution; I still hope for the survival of the American system of government. But I point out to the owners and managers of our great capitalist news-organs the peril in which they place themselves, by their system of organized lying about the radical movement. It is not only the fury of resentment they awaken in the hearts of class-conscious workingmen and women; it is the condition of unstable equilibrium which they set up in society, by the mass of truth they suppress. Today every class-conscious workingman carries about with him as his leading thought, that if only he and his fellows could get possession of the means of news-distribution, could take the printing-offices and hold them for ten days, they could end forever the power of Capitalism, they could make safe the Co-operative Commonwealth in America.

I say ten days, and I do not speak loosely. Just imagine if the newspapers of America were to print the truth for ten days! The truth about poverty, and the causes of poverty; the truth about corruption in politics and in all branches of government, in Journalism, and throughout the business world; the truth about profiteering and exploitation, about the banking graft, the plundering of the railroads, the colossal gains of the Beef Trust and the Steel Trust and the Oil Trust and their hundreds of subsidiary organizations; the truth about conditions in industry, the suppression of labor-revolts and the corrupting of labor movements; above all, the truth about the possibilities of production by modern machinery, the fact that, by abolishing production for profit and substituting production for use, it would be possible to provide abundance for all by two or three hours' work a day! I say that if all this legitimate truth could be placed before the American people for ten successive days, instead of the mess of triviality, scandal, crime and sensation, doctored news and political dope, prejudiced editorials and sordid and vulgar advertisements ' upon which the American people are now feed I say that the world would be transformed, and Industrial Democracy would be safe. Most of our newspaper proprietors know this as well as I do; so, when they read of the seizing of newspaper offices in Europe, they experience cold chills, and one great newspaper in Chicago has already purchased half a dozen machine-guns and stored them away in its cellar!

For twenty years I have been a voice crying in the wilderness of industrial America; pleading for kindness to our laboring-classes, pleading for common honesty and truth-telling, so that we might choose our path wisely, and move by peaceful steps into the new industrial order. I have seen my pleas ignored and my influence destroyed, and now I see the stubborn pride and insane avarice of our money-masters driving us straight to the precipice of revolution. What shall I do? What can I do - save to cry out one last warning in this last fateful hour? The time is almost here - and ignorance, falsehood, cruelty, greed and lust of power were never stronger in the hearts of any ruling class in history than they are in those who constitute the Invisible Government of America today.


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