The Brass Check

by Upton Sinclair

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter 65 - The Press Set Free

Some years ago Allan Benson told me of his troubles as an honest journalist; I asked him, to repeat them for this book, and he answered:

I doubt if my experiences as a daily newspaper editor would serve your purpose. When I was a daily editor I edited. I printed what I pleased. If I could not do so, I resigned. I didn't resign with a bank account to fall back upon - I resigned broke.

I am sorry that I struck my friend Benson in an uncommunicative mood. It doesn't in the least interfere with my thesis to learn that some editors resign; it is plain enough to the dullest mind that it doesn’t help the public when an honest man resigns, and a rogue or a lickspittle takes his place.

I am not one of those narrow radicals who believe that the pocket-nerve of the workers is the only nerve, or even the principal nerve, by which they will be moved to action. I know that the conscience of newspapermen is struggling all the time. Now and then I come on a case of truth telling in a capitalist newspaper, which cannot be explained by any selfish, competitive motive. What does it mean? If you could go inside that office, you would find some man risking the bread that goes into his children's mouths, the shoes that go onto their feet, in order that the knavery of Capitalist Journalism may be a little less knavish; going to his boss and laying down the law: "I won't stand for that. If that goes in, I go out." As a rule, alas, he goes out—and this reduces the inclination of others to fight for honesty in the news.

One purpose of this book is to advocate a union of newspaper workers, so that they may make their demands as an organization, and not as helpless individuals. Events move fast these days; while I write, I learn that there is already a "News-Writers' Union" in Boston, and one in New Haven; there is one being formed in Omaha, one in Louisville, one in Seattle, one in San Francisco. In Louisville the "Courier-Journal" and "Times" served notice on their staff that joining the union would automatically constitute resignation.

In San Francisco, I am told by an editor of that city, the movement "was carried through swiftly and silently at the start, the evening papers being one hundred per cent organized, the morning papers about fifty per cent." Then the publishers got wind of it, and held a secret meeting in the St. Francis Hotel. "That fearless backer of organized labor and the rights of the working classes, to wit: William Randolph Hearst, preferred to carry out his great program of betterment without consulting his handmaidens and bondmen." The "Chronicle," the paper of "Mike" De Young, took the same stand; so—

Upon the morning after the meeting every man on both papers who had signed the charter roll of the proposed association was told to recant with bended knee, or to go forth and earn his bread with a pick and shovel. Some did and some did not—all honor to the latter… … It is certain that the publishers of the morning papers will fight to the last ditch.

My informant goes on to tell about his own position. You remember the immortal utterance of President Eliot of Harvard, that the true "American hero" of our time is the "scab." How does this true "American hero" feel about himself? Listen:

And I? Well, old man, I somewhat shamefully admit that I am at present guarding my bread and butter, and looking to the future with one eye on the boss’s and my own opportunities, and in my heart damning the conditions that make me an undoubted renegade. I am drawing a little better than forty per, am in the best of standing, being now and with the possibility of being its head shortly, and with certain advancement coming in both pay and rating. Now what the deuce? Shall I tell Polly to support us and get in on the big game, or shall I eat my bitter bread? ... I do know this - that there is going to be no present big success of the union movement, that whoever joins it too prominently is going to fight the owners for the rest of his life, and that the union can do me myself no good at all from any standpoint.

You will remember that in my story of the "Los Angeles Times" I mentioned a young reporter, Bob Harwood, who had told me of the "Times" knaveries. Harwood is now in San Francisco, where you may have another glimpse of him.

Bob told ‘em all to go to hell, and is now organizing actively. There is an addition coming to the Harwood family shortly. Why comment further?

And then, let us see what is happening on the other side of the continent. In New Haven the "News-Writers' Union" goes on strike, and while they are on strike, they publish a paper of their own! In Boston the "News-Writers' Union" declares a strike, and wins all demands. Incidentally they learn—if they do not know it already—that the newspapers of Boston do not publish the news! They do not publish the news about the News-Writers' strike; when the strike is settled, on the basis of recognition of the union, not a single Boston newspaper publishes the terms of the settlement!

In every union there is always a little group of radicals, occupied with pointing out to the men the social significance of their labor, the duty they owe to the working-class, and to society as a whole. So before long we shall see the News-Writers' Union of Boston taking up the task of forcing the Boston newspapers to print the truth. We shall see the News-Writers' Union taking up the question: Shall the "Boston Evening Transcript" permit its news-columns to be edited by the gas company, and by "Harvard Beer, 1,000 Pure"? We shall see the union at least bringing these facts to public attention, so that the "Transcript” can no longer pose as a respectable newspaper.

I quote one paragraph more from my San Francisco letter:

All three evening papers, I am told, are one hundred per cent organized; a charter is on the way from the I. T. U. and the movement has the full backing—or is promised the full backing—of the A. F. of L. and the local labor organizations. Just what that is worth is yet to be learned.

This man, you see, is groping his way. He doesn't know what the backing of organized labor is worth. But the newspapermen of Boston found out; they won because the typesetters and the pressmen stood by them. And the New York actors won because the musicians and the stagehands stood by them. And this is the biggest thing about the whole movement - the fact that workers of hand and brain are uniting and preparing to take possession of the world. One purpose of this book is to urge a hand-and-brain union in the newspaper field; to urge that the news-writers shall combine with the pressmen and type-setters and the truck men - one organization of all men and women who write, print and distribute news, to take control of their own labor, and see to it that the newspapers serve public interests and not private interests. What I ask at the very outset is a representative of the News-Writers' Union, acting as one of the copyreaders of every newspaper. This man will say, in the name of his organization: "That is a lie; it shall not go in. This news-item is colored to favor the railroad interests; it must be re-written. Tonight there is a mass meeting of labor to protest against intervention in Russia. That meeting is worth a column." Such demands of the copyreader will, if challenged, be brought before a committee of the workers of the paper - the workers both of hand and brain. If any demand is not complied with, the paper will not appear next day. Do you think that lying about the labor movement would continue under such conditions?

I recognize the rights of the general public in the determining of news. I should wish to see a government representative sitting in all councils where newspaper policy is laid down. The owner should be represented, so long as his ownership exists; but unless I misread the signs of the times, the days of the owner as owner are numbered in our industry. The owner may best be attended to by a government price-fixing board, which will set wages for newspaper work and prices of newspapers to the public at a point where interest, dividends and profits are wiped out. So the owner will become a worker like other workers; if he is competent and honest, he will stay as managing director; if he is incompetent and dishonest, he will go to digging ditches, under the eye of a thoroughly efficient boss.

Little by little the workers of all industrial nations are acquiring class-consciousness, and preparing themselves for the control of industry. In America they seem backward, but that is because America is a new country, and the vast majority of the workers have no idea how the cards are stacked against them. I have just been reading an account of the general strike in Seattle, the most significant labor revolt in our history, and I observe how painfully chivalrous the Seattle strikers were. Because they did not permit the capitalist papers of their city to be published, therefore they refrained from publishing their own paper! This was magnificent, but it was not war, and I venture to guess that since the Seattle strikers have had the capitalist newspapers, not merely of their city, but of all the rest of the world telling lies about them, they will be more practical next time, as practical as those they are opposing.

How all this works out, you may learn from the Syndicalist movement of Italy, only, of course, Capitalist Journalism has not allowed you to know anything about the Syndicalist movement of Italy! The glass-workers were beaten in a terrific strike, and they realized that they had to find a new weapon; they contributed their funds and bought a glass-factory, which they started upon a co-operative basis. When this factory had its product ready for sale, strikes were called on the other factories. By applying this method again and again, the union broke its rivals, and bought them out at a low price, and so before the war practically the entire glass-industry of Italy was in the hands of co-operative unions, and the glass-workers were getting the full value of their product.

The agricultural workers in Sicily were doing the same thing before the war. The strikers had been shot down by the soldiery, their own brothers and sons; they bought several estates and worked them cooperatively, and when harvest-time came there was labor for the co-operative estates, and there were strikes against the absentee landlords, who were spending their time in Paris and on the Riviera. So the landlords made haste to sell out, and the agricultural unions were rapidly taking possession of the land of Sicily.

The same methods were recently tried out in the newspaper field by strikers in the Argentine Republic; I quote from an account in the "Christian Science Monitor," a Boston newspaper which gives fair accounts of radical happenings abroad, and which may some day give fair accounts of radical happenings in America. The "Christian Science Monitor" is interviewing a United States embassy official, just returned from Buenos Aires:

An incident of the latter strike shows the unique control, as Mr. Barrett puts it, that they exercise over the newspapers. During the seventy-three days the port was closed, the only goods handled were shipments of newsprint. The newspapers represent the workers. If a paper dares to send to its composing room an item opposed to the interest of the labor element, the compositors probably will refuse to put it in type. If they do set it up and it appears, the paper can expect no more newsprint from the docks.

I hear the reader says: "These strikers don't represent the public; they represent themselves. You are only substituting one kind of class-interest for another." Ah, yes, dear reader of capitalist opinion! This at least you admit; the class represented by the strikers is vastly larger than that represented by the owners; we are that much nearer to democracy. But you demand one hundred per cent pure democracy dear reader of capitalist opinion!

Well, the workers offer you the way; they cheerfully permit all owners to become workers either of hand or brain and to receive their full share with all other workers of hand or brain; whereas, in the nature of the case, the owners do not welcome the workers as owners, and are doing all in their power to make sure that no one shall be owners but themselves. This is the fundamental and all-determining fact about the class struggle, and the reason why he who serves the interest of the workers is serving the interest of all society, and of the Cooperative Commonwealth, which is to be.

To the argument that the taking of power by the workers is the substitution of one kind of class tyranny by another kind of class tyranny, the answer, complete and final, is that there is no need of the capitalist class as a class and that the world will be a happier place for all men when the members of that class have become workers, either of hand or brain. When that has been done, there will be no classes, therefore no class tyranny, and no incentive to class lying. Thus, and thus only, shall we break the power of the capitalist press by breaking the power of capitalism. And so it is that I, an advocate of pure democracy, am interested in this story from the Argentine Republic, and tempted to cry to the American dockers, the American typographers, the American news writers: "Help! Help against the lying, kept press!"

And as I am reading the final proofs of this book, I hear the answer to my cry. I read the following in the "New York Times": Boston, Oct. 28. Pressmen employed by the Chappie Publishing Company, Ltd., on discovering in a cartoon in "Life” which is being printed here during the New York strike, what they considered a reflection on organized labor, suspended work and refused to return until the objectionable cartoon was taken out. The cartoon was eliminated, and the men returned to work.

The drawing depicts a room apparently meant to typify conditions existing in a city tenement district. The artist portrays a man beating his wife over the head with the leg of a chair. The woman is shown lying on the floor; the man has one knee on her body and one hand clutching her throat. A child about two years old is shown in bed watching the scene. Its face is expressive of horror. Another child, evidently a little older, is stretched on the floor, face downward. At the door is standing a patrolman in full uniform. He is talking with a captain of police, who has rushed on the scene with drawn revolver. The patrolman with hand upraised says: "It's all right, Captain, he's got a union card."

You may think my remedy drastic; but, honestly, do you think that any remedy could be too drastic for an infamy such as this?

Here, as everywhere, the salvation of the world rests upon you, the workers of hand and brain. I took up half this book telling how the capitalist press lied about one man; you said, perhaps, that I liked to be in the "limelight"; anyhow, I was only one writer-fellow, and it didn't matter to you what the newspapers did to a writer-fellow. But now I make my appeal for yourself, for your wives and your children. I have shown you how this knavish press turns the world against you; I have shown how it turns you against yourself, how it seduces you, poisons your mind, breaks your heart. You go on strike, and it plays upon your fears, it uses your hunger and want as weapons against you; it saps your strength, it eats out your soul, it smothers your thinking under mountain-loads of lies. You fall, and the chariot of Big Business rolls over you.

These men who own the world in which you struggle for life - what is it that they want? They want power, power to rule you. And what is it that you want? You want power to rule yourself. Between those two wants there is eternal and unending and irreconcilable war such is the class struggle, and whether you will or not, you take your part in it, and I take mine. I, a writer-fellow who wants to write the truth, appeal to you, the laboring fellows of hand and brain, who want to read the truth, who must read the truth, if civilization is not to perish. I cry to you: "Help! Help against the lying, kept press!"

I cry to you for the integrity of your calling, for the honor and dignity of Journalism. I cry to you that Journalism shall no longer be the thing described by Charles A. Dana, master-cynic of the "New York Sun," "buying white paper at two cents a pound and selling it at ten cents a pound." I cry to you that Journalism shall be a public ministry, and that you who labor in it shall be, not wage-slaves and henchmen of privilege, but servants of the general welfare, helping your fellow-men to understand life, and to conquer the evils in nature outside them, and in their own hearts. Why cannot the men and women of this great profession form a society with a common mind and a common interest and a common conscience, based upon the fact that they are all necessary, they have each, down to the humblest office-boy, their essential part in a great social service?

By the blindness and greed of ruling classes the people have been plunged into infinite misery; but that misery has its purpose in the scheme of nature. Something more than a century ago we saw the people driven by just such misery to grope their way into a new order of society; they threw off the chains of hereditary monarchy, and made themselves citizens of free republics. And now again we face such a crisis; only this time it is in the world of industry that we have to abolish hereditary rule, and to build an industrial commonwealth in which the equal rights of all men are recognized by law. Such is the task before us; go to it with joy and certainty playing your part in the making of the new world, in which there shall be neither slavery nor poverty, in which the natural sources of wealth belong to all men alike, and no one lives in idleness upon the labor of his fellows. That world lies just before you, and the gates to it are barred only by ignorance and prejudice, deliberately created and maintained by prostitute journalism.


Return to the The Brass Check Summary Return to the Upton Sinclair Library

© 2022