August 27, 2009
Ideals, Morals, and The Daily Newspaper: A Guest Editorial
FOR two centuries now if not longer the newspapers, rather than the preachers and reformers generally who preceded and still parallel them, have been elevating themselves to the roles of soothsayer, prophet, and guardians of all phases of virtue, honesty and the like, to say nothing of those shibboleths of the would-be intellectually dominant, "justice" and "truth." And the particular views of these papers have come to have an undue weight with those so moderately equipped intellectually as to look upon them as moral leaders. Experiments in government and phases of moral self-control, public and private, are there constantly advocated for the good of the other man, yet nearly always in accordance with the current bias or the direction of the interests of the paper. Yet back of these papers, and in spite of a public following which is supposed to regulate or control or suggest their policy and viewpoint, is always, or nearly so, an individual or group of individuals, possibly a self-interested organization (commercial, religious or otherwise) with perhaps no more intellectual grip on the social and spiritual complexities of the world than any other individual of average capacity and judgment, possibly not so much. Yet with the tremendous leverage of circulation, plus a serviceable and profitable and aggressive counting-room to help out, their moral and social pronunciamentos ridiculously enough become all but sacrosanct, irrefutable, colossal! Yet after all is said and done, here is nothing more than an individual, all too human perhaps, or if not that, a group represented by one individual possibly, seeking via this same lever (circulation) the special, particular things which he or it or they crave. And as a rule he or his group is truckling and hand-rubbing to that which he or it or they imagine the time requires, but seeking always circulation first, as though that were the be-all and end-all of all value, wisdom and duty.
And yet, in America at least, where will you find a citizen who does not to a marked extent reverence the opinions of his paper? The slavish manner in which in certain regions to this day the voters follow a paper and the manner in which the American press has successfully clouded issue after issue since America began the currency issue for one, the slavery issue for another, the tariff issue for a third, the trust issue for a fourth, the profiteering and European war issues at the present moment. And where will you find a newspaper not advertising passing panaceas that it knows cannot heal (I am not talking about patent medicines), or admitting that a satisfactory social solution for the woes of the millions cannot be found, or admitting frankly that human law is the wide spread net that it is, through which great and small alike skip briskly, chance and accident restraining some and releasing others? Only when the big skip through the lesion is greater. Or where will you find a newspaper that will freely admit that the Ten Commandments are not after all God-given law (do not think for a moment that they privately believe they are), or that they constitute anything more than a form of social agreement based for their validity on the will of the majority and not holding where men do not believe them to be true and not followed by any spiritually destructive consequences where men do not accept them to be spiritually true? Life pours through the reportorial, editorial and counting-rooms of the average newspaper pell-mell quite as it does elsewhere, only a little more so. Those at the head note well the secrecy, the self-interest, the "policy" running through all things, the struggles of all individuals and organizations to grow, usually at the expense of everything else; yet editorially, and at the very best, a balance or dependent equation between rival clashing interests rival, hungry, self-seeking hordes is all that is ever struck here, although this is all but invariably announced as the Sinaitic command of an all-wise, omnipotent, omnipresent intelligence, the newspaper editor or owner posing as its especial mouthpiece and forwarder! Is it not too ridiculous that so human and fallible or greedy and venal a thing as the average newspaper should set itself up to be a moral and at times even a religious arbiter of a community?
Yet where would be the circulation of the average paper if it did not so do? And where would it be if it attempted to practice what it preached, literally and for itself, as it so freely advises others to do? As all those well know who have anything to do with the organization or control of anything in life, newspapers included, the Beatitudes, as Christ laid them down in the Sermon on the Mount, are not workable and never have been practically. Yet where will you find a newspaper honestly so stating, or even whispering a serious doubt? On the contrary, is it not the absolute workability of these that has, hitherto at least, been most violently insisted upon, and by organizations which well know the pagan complexities of life and are in no way representative of even the faintest approach toward a beatific conception of anything? "Do not as I do but as I say." That only quiescence and decay could follow the enforcement of any such program as the Beatitudes or the fixed rules of justice, truth, etc., advocated by the average daily paper or any one else, is not only scientifically demonstrable by chemistry and physics but is a truism to the average, and even less than average, constructive and even newspaper mind. Nearly every one with any claim to intelligence or experience understands this, yet where will you find a newspaper or any other public medium of expression venturing on this simple truth? The average man is still in leading strings to various silly theories, religious or otherwise, fostered by self-interested groups, or to his hope of temporary human prosperity, and these are the things which still keep him in the wake of various sophisticated journals which cunningly play upon his illusions. Indeed he flees exact fact as though it were the plague. Blessed words or the sweet milk of romance and prevarication are the things which entertain and soothe him most. In other words think of this ridiculous and paradoxical fact! a creature invents a bugaboo and then kneels down and worships it. It forges chains for its so-called intellect, and then groans or rests content under their binding weight.
But (to continue this slight diatribe) imagine the staff of any newspaper even attempting to follow any rules save those which govern the survival of the fit, or failing to cast the Beatitudes out of doors when it comes to their special interests or the prosperity of the several functions which they perform! Editorially the Beatitudes prove profitable as texts for moral preachment and mass consumption, but in the counting-office or the gathering of news how different! And as for going two miles with a traveler when he had compelled you to go one, or turning the other cheek when the first had been smitten! These things do not fall within the realm of the practical and are therefore not in the purview of any newspaper organization except in the editorial or pulpiteering department, and that intended to catch the pennies of the religionists.
So daily we have the spectacle of pages that in one column misrepresent the motives of the social or political enemies of this or that particular newspaper organization, or that play up to the subtleties of vice or crime for their news or dramatic values, or that display to the eyes of the young and old alike all the misadventures and incalculable subterfuges of a treacherous universe, while in another column, constantly reiterated, appear the words right, justice, mercy, truth, tenderness, duty, etc., as representing a definite program for conduct for the other person always, easily followed and easily achieved by him. Yes, for the other person, outside of any given newspaper office, there are always God-given and immutable rules which spell peace and happiness for him, that are invariably to be practiced, if you will believe these same papers, by the majority, especially of their readers. And indeed these rules are by them persistently represented as the will and thought of a definite, definable God He who spoke from Sinai, or who walked to Calvary (quite different Gods, by the way!) to fly in the face of whom or which leads only to destruction. Yet all that is needed, as they well know, in so far as a reasonable guide to conduct is concerned (and all that we ever get, whether via the law or the average motivating impulses of man) is the perception and the fact of the
necessity for a certain equation or balance in all things, i.e., the Golden Rule, mystic heavens or hells and the clerical representatives of the same with their collections and false notions to the contrary notwithstanding. Yet where will you find a newspaper with sufficient courage to say so? Where? Is it not here that one should pause and inquire whether the newspapers, aside from their purely reportonal functions (which latter might well be vised under stricter libel, perjury and false witness laws than those prevailing at present), should receive so much as even a moment's serious consideration?
From: Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub; A Book of the Mystery and Wonder and Terror of Life (1920)
H. L. Mencken called the 20 essays in Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub "feeble." Even so, I believe, the relevance of "Ideals" to contemporary American journalism - newspapers, television, or Internet - is quite strong. Discuss.
"Dreiser and the Wonder and Mystery and Terror of the City" by Kiyohiko Murayama
Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub: A Book of the Mystery and Wonder and Terror of Life (Wikipedia)
"MR. DREISER TALKS OF MANY THINGS; WE NEED THE BUSINESS" (New York Times, April 11, 1920)
A Book of Prefaces by H. L. Mencken (see essay on Dreiser)
Photo Credit: University of Virginia Gallery of Writers