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[87]

Chapter 12: the next step in journalism

It is notorious that every one who does not edit a daily newspaper feels entitled to give advice to those who exercise that high function. The present writer, at any rate, has long held that a great revolution in journalism-or, at least, a great step in its evolution --must yet occur. Clearly the process of simply gathering the news, such as it is, has almost approached perfection; it seems impossible to carry it much further than the point which the metropolitan press has already attained. The next point attempted must certainly be that indicated by the old Scotch song,

But are ye sure the news is true?

It is inevitable that in time we should aim at quality as well as quantity; at accuracy as well as amount. The old rustic objurgation [88] in New England, “Yer don't know nothina, and what yer du know yer don't know sartin,” is no longer applicable in full. Nobody can now apply the first half to the daily press; but the last half is as applicable as ever. The larger the newspaper, the greater seems the deficiency on this point. It is not a question of wilful falsehood, which is perhaps rare, but we simply see an art which has reached a certain point, and is yet to be developed further.

I asked a very successful newspaper correspondent during the civil war why he found it necessary to describe himself as having personally witnessed two events which had happened at the same moment eight miles apart. He answered, very frankly, that such was the general rule of his profession, since it was found that nobody cared for second-hand information, and the public demanded that everything should be reported by an eye-witness. It is now many years since that incident, but the same rule appears yet to be maintained. In no other way, at least, can one account for the astounding minuteness and the marvellous inaccuracy of the information given. Any one who has occasion to look up a point of history through newspaper evidence will find that many things will forever remain absolutely [89] inscrutable from this very habit of correspondents. It is not merely that half a dozen persons will give wholly irreconcilable accounts of one event; that is to be expected, and if each would only say frankly that he was writing mere rumors, or the tales of “an intelligent eye-witness,” it might be possible to deal with them by making proper allowances; but since each claims to have personally seen the fact he describes, the case is hopeless. No system of averages will apply. If one correspondent describes a certain hero as dying at sunrise, and another pictures him as breathing his last just as the evening star shines out, you cannot adjust the matter by killing him at high noon. But this habit of vicarious description did not disappear with the civil war; it is just as prevalent to-day in times of peace.

Let any one compare the references to himself or herself in the newspapers-and who is so humble as not to appear sometimes in the society columns?-and it will become evident that they not only are often wide of the truth, but are often so diametrically opposite as to destroy each other. You are in the city and in the country on the same day; you have sailed for Europe and are driving in a fourhand [90] among the Berkshire Hills. A gentleman with whom I should be well acquainted used to carry in his pocket two scraps cut within a fortnight from two metropolitan newspapers, the one describing him as a man without a gray hair in his head, and the other as a man possessing a remarkably fine head of snow-white locks. Should his biography ever be written, it is a matter of chance which description will come into the record as the unimpeachable testimony of an eye-witness. Even as this is written, the present writer turns to a newspaper column of personals, and finds that he is just returning from a place which he has never visited to another place where he has no intention of going. So constant is this sort of thing that he can lay his hand on his heart and testify that, to the best of his knowledge and belief, the majority of statements that are made about him in the newspapers are not only erroneous as to details, but are made out of the whole cloth. On inquiry he finds it to be just the same with all his neighbors. The same witness already quoted receives frequently a cutting from different newspapers recently published, describing him as taking “a daily spin” on a tricycle to certain designated towns, with his [91] little daughter behind him, the fact being that neither of them has mounted a tricycle for years, nor did they ever visit in that way the towns specified.

Emerson somewhere describes a very shy man to whom it was always a pain that he must at any given moment be somewhere, but who was comforted by the thought of the inconceivable number of places where he was not. The present habit of the newspapers deprives us of all that innocent pleasure, since they may at any moment assign to us all these innumerable places at the same time. Cicero, who rejoiced that he was at a certain time so unimportant that he could mount his horse and ride a few miles out of Rome without anybody's noticing it, would lose all that privilege were he among us, for he would very likely be reported as on horseback, whether he was there or not. In one way this fictitious publicity, or publicity under fictitious circumstances, has its advantages, for if the newspapers sometimes report you to be where you would not have thought of going, they often do you the favor of recording you as present at some public function — a funeral, for instance --where you ought to be but are not. The friend already quoted tells me that this has [92] gradually begun to exert on him a demoralizing influence; if he attends on such an occasion, he avers, it is commonly left unmentioned; but if he fails to go, his name is apt to swell the list of persons present. Now, as on this semi-public occasion the great object is not to be there, but to be supposed to be there, the reporters secure for you that credit without exertion of your own.

The curious thing is that, no matter how irresponsible are the newspaper assertions about ourselves personally, we find it impossible not to put some faith in them when they relate to other people. Even when we know that we were not present, as reported, each of us assumes that everybody else was. We read the list of guests at some entertainment, and readily believe that all named as attending were actually there in the body, although we may have known a hundred instances where such lists were taken only from some hasty list, printed or written, of invited guests, some of whom might be at the time in Seattle or Venezuela. The cruel advantage of the reporter lies always in the intrinsic impressiveness of print, the product of an art which still retains something of the solemnity that belonged to it in the days when it was held to be magical. [93] It has its hold on the reporter himself, who often ends in not merely stoutly maintaining but actually believing his statement to be strictly true in all its parts as printed, although he knew well an hour ago in what a helterskelter way it was picked up. If these little black imps called types can thus beguile the very most experienced, how shall the ignorant escape? Their power is irresistible. You may contradict a printed statement never so often, yet nobody sees the disclaimer, and the wise soon outgrow the habit of correction. Erelong, perhaps, these despots of ours will grow humane from very mercy, and the journalist who ranks highest in his profession will not be he who presents the most facts, but the fewest falsehoods.

1896
[94] [95] [96]

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