The Brass Check

by Upton Sinclair

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Chapter 64 - The Problem of the Reporter

One important line of attack upon Capitalist Journalism occurred to me some five years ago, after the Colorado coal-strike. I have saved this story, because it points so clearly the method I wish to advocate. You will find the story in "Harper's Weekly" for July 25, 1914; "Hearst-Made War News," by Isaac Russell.

You remember how Hearst "made” the war with Spain. Sixteen years later, in 1914, Hearst was busy "making" another war, this time with Mexico. President Wilson, trying to avoid war, had arranged for arbitration of the difficulty between Mexico and the United States by delegates from Argentine, Brazil and Chile. This was the Niagara Conference, and to it the "New York American” sent an honest reporter. It did this, not through oversight, but because the usual run of Hearst reporters had found themselves unable to get any information whatever. One Mexican delegate had taken the card of a Hearst reporter, torn it to pieces, and thrown the pieces into the reporter's face. The delegates for the United States refused to talk to the Hearst representatives, the other newspapermen refused to have anything to do with them. So the managing editor of the "New York American" selected Mr. Roscoe Conklin Mitchell, a man known to be honest.

Mr. Mitchell came to Niagara, and got the news - to the effect that all was going well at the conference. He sent a dispatch to that effect, and the "New York American" did not publish this dispatch. Day by day Mr. Mitchell sent dispatches, describing how all was going well at the conference; and the "American," which was determined that the Conference should fail, doctored these dispatches and wrote in false matter. Mr. Mitchell had to explain to the delegates and to the other reporters how he was being treated by his home office. On two occasions Mr. Mitchell forced the "American" to send up another man to write the kind of poisoned falsehoods it wanted; and on each occasion these men were forced to leave, because no one would have anything to do with them, they could get no information. Finally, in the midst of Mr. Mitchell's dispatches, the "New York American" inserted a grand and wonderful "scoop": "President Carranza's Confidential Message to the Mediators." Mr. Mitchell had sent no such dispatch, and upon inquiry he learned that the document was a fake; no such "confidential message" had been received from President Carranza. So Mr. Mitchell wired his resignation to the "New York American."

The managing editor of the "American” protested. "Please be good soldier and good boy," he telegraphed. Again he telegraphed: "Come home comfortably, be philosophical. Good soldiers are patient, even if superior officers make mistakes. Be resigned without resigning." When the news of Mitchell's resignation reached the other reporters, they formed an impromptu committee and rushed in automobiles to his hotel to congratulate him. The American delegates to the convention held a reception, during which the head of the delegation made to Mr. Mitchell a speech of congratulation. Summing up the story, Isaac Russell puts this question to you, the reader: Will you leave it to the men on the firing line, the reporters, to fight out alone the question of whether you are to receive accurate information concerning what is going on in the world? Or will you help to find means whereby both you and your agent, the reporter, may be less at the mercy of the unscrupulous publisher, who finds that lying and misrepresentation serve his personal ends?

Isaac Russell, you recall, was the reporter for the "New York Times" who had stood by me through the struggle over the Colorado coal-strike. This struggle was just over, and both Russell and I were sick and sore. Russell was fighting with his editors day by day—they objected to his having written this "Hearst-made War News," by the way, and took the first opportunity thereafter to get rid of him. Russell had word of an impending break between Amos Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt, and wrote it up. Gifford Pinchot, brother of Amos, made a furious denial, whereupon the "Times" fired Russell. But very soon afterwards Amos Pinchot broke with Theodore Roosevelt!

Russell and I talked over the problem of the reporter and the truth. Must a reporter be a cringing wretch, or else a man of honor in search of a job? Might not a reporter be a member of an honored profession, having its own standards, its sense of duty to the public? Obviously, the first trouble is that in his economic status the reporter is a sweated wage slave. If reporting is to become a profession, the reporters must organize, and have power to fix, not merely their wage scale, but also their ethical code. I wrote an article calling for a "reporters' union," and Russell began to agitate among New York newspapermen for this idea, which has now spread all over the country.

What would be the effect upon news writing of a reporters’ union? What assurance do we have that reporters would be better than owners? Well, in the first place, reporters are young men, and owners are nearly always old men; so in the newspaper-world you have what you have in the world of finance, of diplomacy, of politics and government—a "league of the old men," giving orders to the young men, holding the young men down. The old men own most of the property, the young men own little of the property; so control by old men is property control, while control by young men would be control by human beings.

I have met some newspaper reporters who were drunken scoundrels. I have met some who were as cruel and unscrupulous as the interests they served. But the majority of newspaper reporters are decent men, who hate the work they do, and would gladly do better if it were possible. I feel sure that very few of the falsehoods about Helicon Hall would have been published if the reporters who accepted our hospitality had been free to write what they really thought about us. I know that throughout our "Broadway demonstration” a majority of the reporters were on our side. They took us into their confidence about what was going on in their news¨ paper offices; they went out of their way to give us counsel.

Again and again they came to my wife, to plead that our mourning "stunt" was "petering-out,” and could we not think up some way to hold the attention of the public? Would not my wife at least rescind her request that they omit descriptions of that white military cape? After the last assault upon the street speakers in Tarrytown, it was a reporter who warned my wife that the situation was getting out of hand; the authorities would not listen to reason, there was going to be violence, and she had better persuade me to withdraw.

I have before me a letter from C. E. S. Wood, poet and lawyer:

You doubtless know more newspaper men than I do, but I know a great many fine fellows personally; themselves writhing in the detestable position of moral bandits, the disgrace of which they feel as keenly as any, and yet economic determinism keeps them there. They are in a trap. They are behind the bars, and as the thief said to Talleyrand, or some minister of France, "One must live." I know of no other profession that deliberately trains its neophytes to lying and dishonor, which makes it a part of the professional obligation to ruin man or woman by deliberate lies; which never honestly confesses a mistake, and never has the chivalry to praise an adversary.

And again, William Marion Reedy:

To one who has lived all his life in cities, to one who has spent most of his days and nights with the men who write the great daily papers of the cities, it is perfectly evident that ninety out of one hundred editorial writers on the press today are men who are in intellectual and sympathetic revolt against present-day conditions. You will find the average editorial writer a Socialist, and as for the reporter, he is most likely to be an Anarchist. The reason of this is plain enough. The men who make the newspapers are behind the scenes—they see the workings of the wires—they note the demagogy of politicians, they are familiar with the ramifications by which the public service corporations control the old parties down to the smallest offices, and even at times finance reform movements, which always stop at the election of some respectable figurehead or dummy, but never proceed to any attack upon the fundamental evils of our social and economic system. It is my firm belief that were it not for the capitalists at the head of the great daily newspapers, if it were possible for the men who write the news and the editorials of all the newspapers in the United States, to take absolute charge of their publications and print the news exactly as they see it, and write their views exactly as they feel them, for a space of three days, there would be such a revolution in the United States of America as would put that of France to shame. The only possible reason why this might not occur is that the editorial writers and. reporters actually believe in nothing—not even in the various remedies, rational or wild-eyed, which occasionally, in private, they proclaim.

And here is another letter, written by Ralph Bayes, for many years city editor of the "Los Angeles Record," and now laid up in a sanitarium with tuberculosis.

I wonder as you gallop gaily along the way, throwing rocks in gypsy-like abandon at the starched and frilled little children of privilege—I wonder whether you will give your readers just one glimpse of the tragedies that are the lives of the men hired by the system to do the work you condemn. It isn't merely that we journalists must prostitute our own minds and bodies in answer to the call of that inexorable tyrant, our collective belly. Every man who toils and sweats for a wage is perforce doing the same thing. The bitterness of our portion is this precisely; that we are hired poison-ers, whose lot it is to kill the things we love most. To kill them, not as bold buccaneers in a stand-up fight, but to slay them artfully, insidiously, with a half-true head-line or a part suppression of fact. In my ten years of experience on various sheets as reporter, editor and Associated Press representative, I have come to know the masses with whom I had to deal. Their intellects were the pawns with which I must learn to play the editorial game.

I knew for instance, sitting at my desk, just how many extra papers I could sell with a scare-line on a police scandal. I knew to how many men on the street the filthy details of some married woman’s shame would prove a lure to buy. And as I watched the circulation rise or fall, day by day, like a huge beating pulse, I became familiar, somewhat, with the mental processes of the average human animal. It was my tragedy, as it is the tragedy of the majority of my fellows, that this knowledge, acquired always at a tremendous cost of our life's energies, must be used not for the uplift, but for the further enslavement, the drugging of the minds of men. How many times have I sat at my desk, and in apparently heartless fashion, cut the big truth out of the stuff that honest reporters wrote? Sometimes there were other moments in my life, as in the lives of the rest of my kind, when there were opportunities for sly sabotage—when we thought by the ridiculous speciousness of our alleged facts, to make the pseudo-truths that we pretended to propound stand forth in their gaunt shamelessness for the things they actually were. Do you remember Harwood, of the "Los Angeles Times? If. I were only with you now, I could point out to you in that daily concatenation of lies, a few truths about things, peering covertly through the mass of corruption, and seeming almost to be holding their figurative noses in disgust. How we used to chuckle when he would succeed in passing a sly sentence—a word—over the sleepy night editor at the desk! Poor intellectual Pierrots that we were! Literary Pantaloons!

But out of the tragedy of my own experience, and out of the tragedies of the experiences of the fellows I have known, I can glimpse a great light ahead. For I'm an optimist, you see. I was talking the other day to the editor of one of the sheets that poison public opinion in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a thoroughly fine and likable chap, but I had always known him for an ultra-conservative—a kept man entirely. The conversation drifted to Russia, and to my utter astonishment he quite frankly, but confidentially, told me that he didn't believe a word of the dispatches put forth by the Associated Press—the Associated Press which hitherto had been Almighty God to him.

I glanced at him curiously, and then: "You're not a radical?" I said, dubiously. "I don't know what I am, he replied. "I've lost my perspective and I haven't anchored to any economic philosophy as yet, but sometimes my thoughts are so bitter that I'm afraid of them. I've just seen a man sent to jail for twenty days," he continued. "He had been in town but half an hour, and his only crime was that he couldn't obtain work and that he had run out of money. God," he said, "some day I may be that man. I feel his feelings now, and I must hide them or lose my job." Poor fellow, his wife is dying of tuberculosis, and he is almost distracted with the burden of his financial troubles.

It was just another journalistic tragedy I had seen, but joy burst in upon me as I listened to him talk. "Things aren’t so bad after all," I thought, "for the press, at least, isn’t any more rotten or venal than the rest of the system." In the editorial rooms of the country there are good fellows and true, sheer tired of the daily assassination in which they participate. Their fine delusions are spent. Their faith in the old is waning. And when the big day comes, I think you will find the press full ripe—riper perhaps than most of our institutions—for the change.

On page 149 I stated that the publisher of the "New York Times" gave a dinner to his staff, and my friend, Isaac Russell, corrected me, saying: "WE REPORTERS PAID FOR THAT DINNER." Now let me give you another glimpse into a reporter's soul:

I can understand it now. We were trying to get together in an association, but the big bosses always got in, and Mr. Ochs always came TO OUR DINNER, and always made the principal speech, and always dismissed the gathering after vaudeville stunts by "old vets." I remember that at that dinner I PAID, but sat away at the foot of a horseshoe table, and the BIG GUNS of the "Times" all sat around the center of the horse-shoe, and the big guns thundered and sent us away—me boiling, that we writers had to sit mute and dumb at our own dinner, and could never talk over our affairs—the bosses rushed so to every gathering we planned.

I wish you could print the menu card for that dinner—the illustration on the cover. I kept it as the most humiliating example I ever saw of the status of the news-writer The illustration showed Adolph S. Ochs as a man with his coat off wielding a big sledgehammer. He was knocking one of those machines where you send the ball away up in the air, and get a cigar if the bell rings at the top of the column. Well, a little figure stood behind the redoubtable plutocratic owner of the "Times." This little figure was labeled "THE STAFF."

"STAFF' WAS FLUNKEYING IT FOR OCHS—holding the great man's hat and coat, if you will—while he hit the circulation ball a wallop!


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