Liberty And News

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VOLUME i, Number i, of the first
American newspaper was pub-
lished in Boston on September 25, 1690.
It was called Publick Occurrences. The
second issue did not appear because the
Governor and Council suppressed it.
They found that Benjamin Harris, the
editor, had printed “reflections of a very
high nature.” 1 Even to-day some of his
reflections seem very high indeed. In
his prospectus he had written:

“That something may be done toward the
Curing, or at least the Charming of that,
Spirit of Lying, which prevails amongst us,
wherefore nothing shall be entered, but what

1 “History of American Journalism,” James Melvin
Lee, Hough ton Mifflin Co., 1917, p. 10.

Liberty and the News

we have reason to believe is true, repairing
to the best fountains for our Information.
And when there appears any material mis-
take in anything that is collected, it shall be
corrected in the next. Moreover, the Pub-
lisher of these Occurrences is willing to en-
gage, that whereas, there are many False
Reports, maliciously made, and spread
among us, if any well-minded person will be
at the pains to trace any such false Report,
so far as to find out and Convict the First
Raiser of it, he will in this Paper (unless
just Advice be given to the contrary) ex-
pose the Name of such Person, as A ma-
licious Raiser of a false Report. It is sup-
pos’d that none will dislike this Proposal,
but such as intend to be guilty of so villainous
a Crime.”


Everywhere to-day men are conscious
that somehow they must deal with ques-
tions more intricate than any that church
or school had prepared them to under-
stand. Increasingly they know that they
cannot understand them if the facts are

Journalism and the Higher Law

not quickly and steadily available. In-
creasingly they are baffled because the
facts are not available ; and they are won-
dering whether government by consent
can survive in a time when the manu-
facture of consent is an unregulated pri-
vate enterprise. For in an exact sense
the present crisis of western democracy
is a crisis in journalism.

I do not agree with those who think
that the sole cause is corruption. There
is plenty of corruption, to be sure,
moneyed control, caste pressure, finan-
cial and social bribery, ribbons, dinner
parties, clubs, petty politics. The specu-
lators in Russian rubles who lied on the
Paris Bourse about the capture of Petro-
grad are not the only example of their
species. And yet corruption does not ex-
plain the condition of modern journal-

Mr. Franklin P. Adams wrote re-

Liberty and the News

cently: “Now there is much pettiness
and almost incredible stupidity and ig-
norance in the so-called free press; but
it is the pettiness, etc., common to the
so-called human race a pettiness found
in musicians, steamfitters, landlords,
poets, and waiters. And when Miss
Lowell [who had made the usual aris-
tocratic complaint] speaks of the incur-
able desire in all American newspapers
to make fun of everything in season and
out, we quarrel again. There is an in-
curable desire in American newspapers
to take things much more seriously than
they deserve. Does Miss Lowell read
the ponderous news from Washington?
Does she read the society news? Does
she, we wonder, read the newspapers?”

Mr. Adams does read them, and when

he writes that the newspapers take things

much more seriously than they deserve,

he has, as the mayor’s wife remarked to


Journalism and the Higher Law

the queen, said a mouthful. Since theTl
war, especially, editors have come to be-
lieve that their highest duty is not to re-
port but to instruct, not to print news but
to save civilization, not to publish what
Benjamin Harris calls “the Circum-
stances of Publique Affairs, both abroad
and at home,” but to keep the nation on
the straight and narrow path. Like the \
Kings of England, they have elected
themselves Defenders of the Faith. “For
five years,” says Mr. Cobb of the New
York World, “there has been no free
play of public opinion in the world.
Confronted by the inexorable necessities
of war, governments conscripted public
opinion. . . . They goose-stepped it.
They taught it to stand at attention and
salute. … It sometimes seems that after
the armistice was signed, millions of
Americans must have taken a vow that
they would never again do any thinking

*erty and the News

for tfclljselves. They were willing to
die fcfriheir country, but not willing to
think m it.” That minority, which is
proudly prepared to think for it, and
not only prepared, but cocksure that it
alone knows how to think for it, has
adopted the theory that the public should
know what is good for it.

The work of reporters has thus be-


1 come confused with the work of preach-
ers, revivalists, prophets and agitators,
current theory of American news-
paperdom is that an abstraction like the
truth and a grace like fairness must be
sacrificed whenever anyone thinks the
necessities of civiUza,tion require the sac-

rifice! To Archbishop Whately’s dictum
that it matters greatly whether you put
truth in the first place or the second, the
candid expounder of modern journalism
would reply that he put truth second to
what he conceived to be the national in-

Journalism and the Higher Law

terestl Judged simply by their product,
men like Mr. Ochs or Viscount North-
cliffe believe that their respective na-
tions will perish and civilization decay
unless their idea of what is patriotic is
permitted to temper the curiosity of their

They believe that edification is more
important than veracity. They believej
it profoundly, violently, relentlessly.
They preen themselves upon it. To pa-
triotism, as they define it from day to
day, all other considerations must yield.
That is their pride. And yet what is
this but one more among myriad ex-
amples of the doctrine that the end justi-
fies the means. A more insidiously mis-
leading rule of conduct was, I believe,
never devised among men. It was a
plausible rule as long as men believed
that an omniscient and benevolent Provi-
dence taught them what end to seek.

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Liberty and the News

But now that men are critically aware
of how their purposes are special to their
age, their locality, their interests, and
their limited knowledge, it is blazing ar-
rogance to sacrifice hard-won standards
of credibility to some special purpose. It
is nothing but the doctrine that I want
what I want when I want it. Its monu-
ments are the Inquisition and the inva-
sion of Belgium. It is the reason given
for almost every act of unreason, the law
invoked whenever lawlessness justifies it-
self. At bottom it is nothing but the
anarchical nature of man imperiously
hacking its way through.

Just as the most poisonous form of
disorder is the mob incited from high
places, the most immoral act the immo-
rality of a government, sq the most de-
structive form of untruth is sophistry
and propaganda by those whose profes-
sion it is to report the news. The news

Journalism and the Higher Law

columns are common carriers. When

those who control them arrogate to them-
selves the right to determine by their
own consciences what shall be reported
and for what purpose, democracy is un-


workable.j Public opinion is blockaded.
For when a people can no longer confi-
dently repair ‘to the best fountains for
their information,’ then anyone’s guess
and anyone’s rumor, each man’s hope and
each man’s whim becomes the basis of
government. All that the sharpest critics
of democracy have alleged is true, if
there is no steady supply of trustworthy
and relevant news. Incompetence and
aimlessness, corruption and disloyalty,
panic and ultimate disaster, must come
to any people which is denied an assured
access to the facts. No one can manage
anything on pap. Neither can a people.j

Statesmen may devise policies; they
will end in futility, as so many have re-

* A \


Liberty and the News

cently ended, if the propagandists and
censors can put a painted screen where
there should be a window to the world.
Few episodes in recent history are more
poignant than that of the British Prime
Minister, sitting at the breakfast table
h that morning’s paper before him
protesting that he cannot do the sensible
thing in regard to Russia because a pow-
erful newspaper proprietor has drugged
the public. That incident is a photo-
graph of the supreme danger which con-
fronts popular government. All other
dangers are contingent upon it, for the
news is the chief source of the opinion
by which government now proceeds. So
long as there is interposed between the
ordinary citizen and the facts a news or-
ganization determining by entirely pri-
vate and unexamined standards, no mat-
ter how lofty, what he shall know, and
hence what he shall believe, no one will

Journalism and the Higher Law

be able to say that the substance of ***
democratic government is secure. The
theory of our constitution, says Mr. Jus-
tice Holmes, is that truth is the only
ground upon which men’s wishes safely
can be carried out. 1 In so far a$#thosel
who purvey the news make of their own
beliefs a higher law than truth, they are ”
attacking the foundations of our consti-
tutional system. There can be no higher
law in journalism than to tell the truth j
and shame the devil.

That I have few illusions as to the
difficulty of truthful reporting anyone
can see who reads these pages. If truth-
fulness were simply a matter of sincerity
the future would be rather simple. But
the modern news problem is not solely a
question of the newspaperman’s morals.
It is, as I have tried to show in what fol-

1 Supreme Court of the United States, No. 316, October
term, 1919, Jacob Abrams et al., Plaintiffs in Error vs.
the United States.


Liberty and the News

lows, the intricate result of a civiliza-
tion too extensive for any man’s personal
observation. As the problem is mani-
fold, so must be the remedy. There is
no panacea. But however puzzling the
matter may be, there are some things
that anyone may assert about it, and as-
sert without fear of contradiction. They
are that there is a problem of the news
which is of absolutely basic importance
to the survival of popular government,
and that the importance of that problem
is not vividly realized nor sufficiently

In a few generations it will seem lu-
dicrous to historians that a people pro-
fessing government by the will of the
people should have made no serious ef-
fort to guarantee the news without which
a governing opinion cannot exist. “Is it
possible,” they will ask, “that at the be-
ginning of the Twentieth Century na-

Journalism and the Higher Law

tions calling themselves democracies
were content to act on what happened to
drift across their doorsteps; that apart
from a few sporadic exposures and out-
cries they made no plans to bring these
common carriers under social control;
that they provided no genuine training
schools for the men upon whose sagacity
they were dependent; above all that their
political scientists went on year after
year writing and lecturing about govern-
ment without producing one, one single,
significant study of the process of public
opinion?” And then they will recall the
centuries in which the Church enjoyed
immunity from criticism, and perhaps
they will insist that the news structure of
secular society was not seriously exam-
ined for analogous reasons.

When they search into the personal
records they will find that among jour-
nalists, as among the clergy, institution-

Liberty and the News

alism had induced the usual prudence. I
have made no criticism in this book
which is not the shoptalk of reporters
and editors. But only rarely do news-
papermen take the general public into
their confidence. They will have to
sooner or later. It is not enough for
them to struggle against great odds, as
many of them are doing, wearing out
their souls to do a particular assignment
well. The philosophy of the work itself
needs to be discussed ; the news about the
news needs to be told. For the news
about the government of the news struc-
ture touches the center of all modern

They need not be much concerned if
leathery-minded individuals ask What
is Truth of all who plead for the effort
of truth in modern journalism. Jesting
Pilate asked the same question, and he
also would not stay for an answer. No

Journalism and the Higher Law

doubt an organon of news reporting must
wait upon the development of psychol-
ogy and political science. But resistance
to the inertias of the profession, heresy
to the institution, and the willingness to
be fired rather than write what you do
not believe, these wait on nothing but
personal courage. And without the as-
sistance which they will bring from
within the profession itself, democracy
through it will deal with the problem
somehow, will deal with it badly.

The essays which follow are an at-
tempt to describe the character of the
problem, and to indicate headings un-
der which it may be found useful to look
for remedies.

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