W. T. Stead on American Journalism

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W. T. Stead on American Journalism

Extracted from, W. T. Stead, The Americanisation of the World or the Trend of the Twentieth Century, (1902) pp. 110-113

American journalism is a much more distinctive product than American literature. The American newspaper, thanks to the absence of paper duties and of advertisement taxes, became popular long before the English newspaper. Fifty years ago every American was reading a daily newspaper, whereas in England not one man in ten could afford the luxury. Hence, the popular journalism of the new country is really older than the popular journalism of the old. The cheap press with us is only forty years old. In America it is at least twice that age. The American newspaper from the first was racy of the soil, was close to its constituency, and represented far more faithfully than its English contemporaries the aspirations, the ideas, and the prejudices of the masses of the people. These characteristics it has preserved to this day.

The American newspaper is the mirror of the life of the American people. It partakes of all their characteristics, their virtues, and the vices of their virtues. It is as huge as the continent in which it is produced, and it is often as crude as the half-settled territories over which the American people sprawl. It is the fashion among English people, especially among those who know nothing about it, to sneer at American newspapers; but take them altogether, the American newspaper is distinctly ahead of its English contemporaries. To begin with, there is more of it, more news, more advertisements, more paper, more print. Life would be impossible in America to any American if he had to read the whole of his newspaper; but just as the people have wide and varied tastes, and the interests of the whole community have to be catered for, everything goes in, and no reader is expected to do more than assimilate just such portion of the mammoth sheet as meets his taste. Hence the busiest people in the world, who have less time for deliberate reading than any race, buy regularly morning and evening more printed matter than would fill a New Testament, and on Sundays would consider themselves defrauded if they did not have a bale of printed matter delivered at their doors almost equal in bulk to a family Bible. They do not read it all, any more than a cow eats all the grass of the meadow into which she is turned loose to graze. They browse over it, picking here and there such a tasty herbage as may suit their palates. In this way a newspaper comes to be almost like a Gazetteer or an Encyclopaedia. No one sits down and reads a dictionary from end to end. He dips into it. So Americans dip into their papers for what they want. Unfortunately newspapers, unlike dictionaries, are incapable of alphabetical classification. Hence arises the tendency which offends so many English readers, of exaggerated headings or scare-heads, as they are called in the slang of the profession. The readers of the Times, which rarely ventures upon a double heading, excepting on the outbreak of a war or the overturning of a dynasty, are unspeakably offended by finding the ordinary news set out with half-a-dozen headlines with staring capitals. But these headlines are almost indispensable as a guide to the contents of the paper, and as a corrective of the excessive smallness of the type in which American papers are printed. A man hurrying to business in a tramcar or railway can read the scare-heads without straining his eyesight, and by running his eyes along the tops of the columns, obtains not only a very fair idea of the contents of the paper, but also discovers what particular column it is necessary for him to read.

The scare-head is like the display in the show window in which the tradesman sets out his wares. The art of window-dressing is beginning to be acclimatised among us, and so is the art of scare-heading. Comparatively few English journalists have appreciated the fact that good journalism consists much more in the proper labelling and displaying of your goods than in the writing of leading articles. The intrinsic value of news is a quality which does not depend upon the editor, but the method of display and the setting of the diamond is that which affords scope for the editorial art.

American journalism, as compared with that of Great Britain, is more enterprising, more energetic, more extravagant, and more unscrupulous. The staider traditions of English newspapers restrain even the most reckless of pressmen within narrower limits than the broad field in which many American journalists are permitted to wander. The interview was a distinctively American invention, which has been acclimatised in this country, although with odd limitations. The Times, for instance, will never publish an interview with any person if it takes place on British soil, but if the same person is interviewed by one of its foreign correspondents and the interview is sent over the wires, it appears without question.

American newspapers differ endlessly. There are some that are almost as staid, not to say stodgy, as any paper published in Great Britain. There are others that go to the furthest extreme of vulgar sensationalism; but setting one off against the other, the American newspaper is much more varied in its contents than the journals of the Old World. They have more space, and they take much greater pains to serve up their news in a vivid, interesting manner. No doubt, American journalism has the faults of its qualities, and the perpetual straining after immediate effect is often indulged in with disastrous results to what an English journalist would regard as consistency and decorum. Whatever ministers most effectively to the mood of the moment is supplied hot and strong from the press, and if the mood of the moment changes, then the subject is dropped incontinently, as if it were a hot potato. There is nothing better in journalism than a good interview conscientiously reported by a capable journalist, but there is nothing worse than many of the abominable perversions and inventions which are often served up under that head. To make a story, to secure a “beat” of news, almost any manoeuvre is regarded as legitimate, with the result that in some papers the value of an interview is as much depreciated as were the assignats in the critical times of the French Revolution. Almost all the best dailies in America devote considerable space to illustrations and caricatures, while some of them in their Sunday editions produce coloured supplements for the amusement of children with which we have nothing to compare.

The British Empire is sadly lacking in capable caricaturists. Since Sir John Tenniel retired Mr. Gould is first of British caricaturists, and there are some on the staff of Punch who are worthy of the Tenniel tradition. Mr. Furniss is still with us, but has fallen far below the level of his best days. Mr. Ben. Gough is the most capable caricaturist whom Canada has produced, while the artists of the Sydney Bulletin and the Melbourne Punch produce work which is certainly not deficient in force and point. But there are many more American caricaturists of the first rank than the British. Judge and Puck have the advantage of producing their cartoons in colour, but the men on Life, to say nothing of those on the Journal and the World of New York, and the North American of Philadelphia, can be relied upon to turn out good work almost every day. One of the most capable cartoonists of the United States, is Mr. Bart of the Minneapolis Journal, while in Mr. P. J. Carter the Minneapolis Times possesses a very smart craftsman, Minneapolis having much more than its fair share of this particular kind of talent.

It is in the newspaper offices that the drive, bustle and intense strain of American life is preeminently centred, and the so-called “yellow” journals are those where the national characteristics find the freest scope and the widest range. Among “yellow” papers the Hearst papers stand easily conspicuous. Mr. Pullitzer founded this latter day journalism, and for a time reigned supreme in the New York Herald. His success provoked Mr. W. R. Hearst to enter the field, and by dint of lavish expenditure and great journalistic flaire he succeeded in building up a newspaper which is at once the wonder and the despair of its competitors. Mr. Hearst is still a young man, with command of unlimited capital, who has spanned the continent with his three papers, the New York Journal, the Chicago American, and the San Francisco Examiner. The style of all these journals is loud. There is no limit, save that of the typographer, to the eccentricity which they adopt for the purpose of displaying their news, and of calling attention to their wares. During the Cuban War, the Journal would sometimes come out with its front page consisting solely of about four or five lines in huge type, resembling nothing so much as the news bills of the London evening papers. But it is a great mistake to regard the New York Journal as a mere catch-penny news-sheet. It is a paper which has a very clearly defined creed, which it preaches with consistency and energy. It is true that the preaching friars who use it as their rostrum sometimes “ding the pulpit to blads,” but when you are addressing the cosmopolitan, polyglot, very busy millions of people to whom the Journal appeals, it is impossible to speak with the well-bred whisper of diplomacy. There is a difference, of course, between the diplomatic whisper and the megaphonic roar of the Journal, but the wise man looks more to the substance of what is said than the manner of its delivery.

Mr. Hearst’s famous definition of the difference between journalism that does things and the journalism that only chronicles them, is continually receiving fresh illustrations. In his own way he has grasped the idea, not perfectly but still resolutely, of government by journalism, and when experience and age have brought a little more steadiness Mr. Hearst may become the most powerful journalist in the world. He embodies and exaggerates all the distinctively American qualities of the later days. He is self-assertive, pushing, defiant, and determined at whatever cost to “get there” every time. It is a popular superstition among the respectable Americans that no one ever reads the Journal. “Its name, we never mention it; oh, no, ’tis never heard,” and Mr. Frederic Harrison, after making a prolonged tour in the United States, was able to assure the readers of the Nineteenth Century that during the whole of his travels he had never once met any person who ever saw or spoke of a yellow journal.

“Doth not Wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice? She standeth in the top of high places, by the way in the places of the paths. She crieth at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors. Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of man.” It is to be feared that a good many cultured people in the olden time, who dwelt in their studies or in their lecture-rooms, were as deaf to the voice of Wisdom thus publicly crying in the highways and byways of the city as Mr. Harrison was to the voice of yellow journalism. No one can understand America to-day, with all the sum of its turbulent activities, with its best and its worst, who closes his eyes to the so-called “yellow” journals.

One of the most recent exploits of the Hearst papers was to assist two young women in Chicago who, on behalf of the Teachers’ Federation, took legal action for the purpose of compelling the officials to make a fair assessment of property in Chicago. As the result of the support given to the teachers, property valued at £47,000,000 was added to the rateable value of the city of Chicago, which rendered it possible, without raising the rates, to add half a million to the revenue of the city. The Judge, in giving his decision on the question, declared that the Chicago American, in fighting the taxdodgers, had been fearless, and there was no question of its devotion to public honesty. As the Journal pleasantly remarked: “This is only one of a hundred instances in which the Hearst newspapers have stepped with spiked boots on the toes of thieving corporations. Hence you can begin to appreciate the extent of the animosity against them among the predatory classes.”

It maintained, not without reason, that many “respectable” persons, who foamed at the mouth at the mention of “yellow journalism” did so because they feared its fearlessness. The virulent fanatic hatred with which yellow journalism is regarded led Mr. Hearst to say: “What is the trouble then? It has nothing to do with morals, for the Journal, the American, and the Examiner are more scrupulous in regard to the character of the matter they print than any other papers of general circulation in their respective cities. It has nothing to do with politics, for these journals have set an example of fair and courteous treatment of political opponents, that has been gratefully recognised by the partisan leaders they have fought.” The real secret of the hatred is because they come down with spiked boots upon so many dishonest people’s toes. Another delusion is that the Hearst papers have no policy. On the contrary, they have maintained a very definite policy both in home and foreign affairs. Most of their demands in foreign affairs are now accepted by the nation, and are recognised as part and parcel of the policy of the United States. In home affairs they propounded at the beginning of the year 1901 the following seven-headed programme, which is worth while bearing in mind:-

(i) Election of senators by the people; (2) destruction of criminal trusts; (3) No protection for oppressive trusts; (4) The public ownership of public franchises; (5) a graduated income tax; (6) currency reform; (7) national, state, and municipal improvement of the public school system.

Here are politics, says the Journal, which look towards progress, and represent the truest Americanism.

There is some talk of Mr. Hearst starting a daily paper in London. There is plenty of room here for spiked boots that come down roughly upon the toes of evil-doers, and to-day we should welcome a vigorous, energetic newspaper of the Hearst kind, even if it did overdo the scarehead and the big type.