Pictures and Illustrations.
Anonymous Journalism and Its Effects.
(Published in "Belford's Magazine," October, 1889.)
In the evolution of the newspaper from the occasional news-letter of the seventeenth century to the great journal of to-day, the press has changed from a passive instrument, dependent upon and voicing only the sentiments of an individual, to a kind of self-conscious entity which is bigger than any individual; an entity which Frederick Knight Hunt, nearly forty years ago in England, called the Fourth Estate of the Realm.
The successive stages in this development may be generalized as, first, personal organs; second, party organs, and lastly, independent journals.
In the first two stages it was still an instrument depending upon the editor; but in the third it is an institution upon which the editor
152depends. When the paper was small the author of almost every article was known to the public. The editor had an interest in the paper, if he did not own it entirely. His name appeared at the head of its columns as its editor; and he wrote most, if not everything, that appeared in it. In fact, he held himself individually responsible for everything, and was personally known to nearly all who read the paper. There were exceptions, but I speak of the rule.
Thus when, near the close of the last century, the National Gazette persistently attacked Hamilton and the Federal party, the country turned to the editor, Philip Freneau. When Horace Greeley wrote most of the matter that went into the Morning Post and the Log Cabin, and when he subsequently founded and edited the New York Tribune, the public looked to Greeley. When Thurlow Weed published the Albany Evening Journal, its articles were accepted or rejected according to the confidence had in Weed.
So of the country newspapers of to-day; the personnel of the editors, who are generally also publishers and men-of-all-work, is known almost co-extensively with the circulation of their papers, and they are more influential in the community, as citizens, than are the writers on great city journals.
This consciousness of the editor, that his identity is fully known to the public, creates a sense of responsibility which, in time, strengthens and develops the man. If, in moving among his fellow-men, he feels that they know exactly what he has said and done, he will be more candid; he will learn to look men in the face; he will be more apt to stick to the truth and hold to what is right; he will be more ready to acknowledge his error when wrong; he will be more apt to keep within the range of the sympathy and good opinion of his fellowmen. Instead of being simply an editor, he will continue to be a man among men. The man will grow as well as the editor, and both will become greater than is possible where there is only a one-sided development.
Consequently we find that the earlier newspaper writers were prominent public characters. In fact, in the end they became greater in the public eye as men than as editors. The man outgrew the editor. Instead of his being lost in the newspaper, as is now the case, the newspaper was merged in the man. Being thus greater than the newspaper, he survived connection with it.
Horace Greeley was known to the whole American people as a great character. Even if the paper he founded were to go out of existence, the memory of Greeley could not.
Thurlow Weed became one of the most conspicuous and influential
153politicians in the United States — not as an editor, but as a man.
The paper was only the medium through which he expressed his thoughts. The giant could not hide behind his sword. How many newspaper editors are there to-day who hide — and successfully too — behind their papers?
In 1860 the majority of the men who were prominent in national affairs had been connected with newspapers. There are not so many now; and, as a rule, the newspaper editor who is in public life to-day is connected, not with the large city papers, except where he is a proprietor, but with some smaller paper which is known to voice only his sentiments.
What is said above applies equally to the great public men of the Old World who were newspaper editors. For whether fomenting a revolution in France, or defending libel prosecutions in England, they did not hide behind their papers, but, as a rule, stood erect "before all Israel and the sun;" and while their papers are forgotten, the men are not. But now every large newspaper is an institution which, in some instances, has more than fifty different persons who contribute regularly to its columns. All these write anonymously. The paper, the institution only, is seen and known. The name of the man claiming to be the legal owner or publisher may also be known; but the editors — the authors of the various articles, comments, criticisms, and statements — are not known, not even collectively; much less is it known who is the author of any particular article, statement, or comment. So far as the public and the persons directly affected by anything contained in the paper are concerned, it is all anonymous. Now, there is a universal contempt felt for the man who writes an anonymous letter and sends it through the mail; and, paradoxical as it may seem, no one expresses more contempt and indignation at the cowardice and want of manhood of the anonymous letter-writer than the average newspaper editor, who not only makes his living by anonymous writing, but who would not be willing to sign his name to one-half of the articles he publishes. The moral, or rather the immoral, effect of anonymous writing on the writer himself must be the same in all cases where he conceals his identity because of an unwillingness to be known as the author of the sentiments expressed, whether he publishes them in a newspaper or sends them through the mail. In each case there is a hiding — a standing behind a hedge and throwing missiles at people who may be traveling along the king's highway; in neither case will the act tend to develop strength of character, although he may write ably and say smart things.
When, therefore, the editor was, so to say, relieved of the moral
154responsibility which comes from having to look people in the face, feeling that they know what you have said; when an inducement was almost held out to him to be careless, or reckless, or to give play to his prejudices and vent to his spleen; when, in short, he was put in the position of hiding while throwing missiles, and kept in that attitude from one year's end to the other, then the period in which great characters were developed in the newspaper offices came to an end. At present we see only a great paper. The men — that is, the editorial writers — are neither seen nor known. They may be changed with almost the same facility as the type-setters, and, like the typesetters, they acquire no individuality by which they are known to the public. They are not even forgotten, because they are never known, although the proprietor may wield even greater influence than formerly.
The newspaper men of to-day have as much natural ability, as high aspirations, as much common honesty, and as strong an inclination to do right as had those of three-quarters of a century ago. In fact, it must be said of the rank and file of newspaper men, that it is doubtful whether any other calling contains so large a percentage of young men who possess, in the highest degree, the attributes necessary to achieve success and eminence in the world. As a rule, they are intelligent, industrious, tireless, plucky, practical, and ambitious, and, in moral character, will compare favorably with the devotees of any other profession; and if the conditions of newspaper-work were the same now as they were earlier in the century, the newspaper fraternity would develop more great men and furnish more great public characters than are furnished by any other class. But the blight — the weakening influence — of anonymous writing settles upon all, especially those connected with the large city papers; and, as a rule, they move along comparatively unknown, and die unhonored by the public, never establishing a reputation commensurate with their ability or with the great amount of work they do — an amount of work which, under more favorable conditions, would win them immortality.
It is true, there are a few newspaper writers in the United States who have become widely known, but they did not accomplish this by anonymous writing; on the contrary, their fame is in exact proportion to the extent to which they signed their names to their articles.
The effect of this anonymous writing is to give us what is practically an irresponsible press. To be sure, theoretically, the owner or publisher of the paper is responsible for everything that appears in it; but practically, as all the world knows, this amounts to but little. If the facts in a particular matter are carelessly or incorrectly stated,
155whereby a common citizen is injured, or if some one connected with the paper maliciously makes insinuations which set people to talking about, and thus ruin, the character of a private person, the owner of the paper is theoretically liable. But practically this amounts to nothing; for all the injured party can do is to commence a libel suit. After a year elapses this suit is brought to trial, when the tables are turned, as it were, and in order to see what damages, if any, should be given, the whole life of the complainant is overhauled; the worst construction possible is sought to be put upon everything he has done. Money and power, with all the agencies they control, combine to break him down; and if, after going through this ordeal, a verdict is rendered for the plaintiff, the case is carried to the higher courts and, as a rule, is reversed and sent back to be tried over. In most cases, after years of vexation and expense, the injured party gets nothing. If, however, in the end a judgment should be obtained, it will not pay for the vexation, the loss of time, and the expense occasioned by the suit. So that, as a rule, a libel suit is worse than a farce for the injured person. It is a remedy which kills the party using it and inflicts comparatively little injury on the defendant. The malicious, the mendacious, and the reckless have practically nothing to restrain them.
Roscoe Conkling once said: "A thief breaks into your house, steals your watch, and goes to Sing-Sing. The newspaper man breaks into the casket which contains your most precious treasure — your reputation — and goes unscathed before the law."
It may be said that publishing a newspaper is a business enterprise, and that self-interest will induce its owners to see to it that nothing but the truth is told. This looks plausible, but experience has shown that it is not true. There is scarcely an issue of a great city newspaper that does not contain an article which, either through an imperfect statement of facts, or an insinuation or false accusation, injures some private citizen, who practically has no remedy.
A writer in the North American Review recently said: "The newspaper usurps the functions of judge, jury, and executioner, and often adds to these the office of the police detective and prosecuting attorney. . . . The glass through which he (the newspaper man) peers is anything but a transparent medium. It becomes a lens that distorts and perverts the things behind it. The best men in journalism are not proof against the taint of its bad tendencies. The system is the criminal, and moulds its members. All that can be generalized is that honorable journalists, on the whole, try to practice the better
156side of the profession, and that the unprincipled avail themselves to the full of its dangerous powers."
Possibly, when all things are considered, it is best that libel suits should in many cases be abortive; otherwise a newspaper might be overwhelmed with libel suits based on trivial errors; or might be harassed by people who want to extort money. And it should be added that no measure calculated to harass or cripple the press can be tolerated. The press must not only remain free, but have all reasonable latitude. But the public is entitled to fair play, as well as the press; and it does not follow that because one remedy does not seem well suited to protect the public that therefore the public is not entitled to any protection. Would it be asking too much to require a signature to everything that appears in a newspaper, so that the public may always have some guaranty of good faith, and know who it is that is talking, and that when anything is said against a man it will not seem as if an irresponsible institution were attacking him in the dark?
In short, while discouraging any attempt to get money out of the newspaper man's pockets, is it asking too much to require him to do what all other men, except criminals, have to do, and that is, work in the light of day? — to stand up and be known and seen?
Of course some of the newspaper people will object — will pronounce it impossible — and, as usual, predict all sorts of calamities as the result of such a requirement. Especially will this be true of those who "avail themselves to the full of its dangerous powers." No class exercising a dangerous power or accustomed to an unrestricted license ever looked with favor on a proposition to restrict that license or power.
One of the leading dailies of Chicago, in discussing the proposition to require a signature to every article in a paper, said: "The power of the press is not a dangerous and unrestrained power; the freedom of the press, like the freedom of the winds, corrects and purifies, because it is free. A newspaper pays for its errors and blunders, and is subject to the great law of compensation as an individual is. It has created here in this country a higher law, to which it is itself subject and whose penalties it cannot escape. In this free land of ours it comes to pass that there is a public opinion — that sober, slow verdict of the people — that is over all of us; parties and syndicates, great statesmen and great newspapers as well, we all must bow to it, and because of its freedom we all do bow to it."
Here are the old arguments that have been repeated for centuries,
157every time that it was proposed to have the State interfere for the projection of the weak against the assaults of the strong.
First. "There is a higher law to punish wrongdoing, therefore leave hands off."
Now suppose a man with a club habitually secretes himself in a dark place and batters out the brains of every unsuspecting editor who may come that way. There is a higher law which will punish this man, but will the living editor be content with this assurance, or will he insist that at least an effort ought to be made to discover the identity of the man with the club?
Second. "It is not necessary to do anything; for an enlightened self-interest, open competition, a healthy public sentiment, and the knowledge of the fact that wrong-doing must be paid for and will sooner or later be punished are alone sufficient to regulate the whole matter."
Look at this a moment. Is there an instance in all human experience where it was found satisfactory to have the strong alone — whether good or bad — say how far they should go in dealing with the weak? If human selfishness always has gone to unreasonable lengths when it had a chance, why expect it to restrain itself in this case? As to public sentiment, in cases of attacks on or insinuations against individuals, the newspaper creates all the sentiment there is; hence this will not be restraining.
Further, is it not known now that wrong-doing must be paid for and will be punished? And if this knowledge has not been and is not now sufficient to protect private individuals, how can we expect it to do so in the future?
The fifth maxim for journalists, recently laid down by Mr. Dana, is: "Never attack the weak or the defenseless, either by argument, by invective, or by ridicule, unless there is some absolute public necessity for so doing."
Without inquiring why the absolutely defenseless should ever be attacked, and admitting that some journalists do not do so, I will ask:
How long will it take an unprincipled newspaper man — and there will be such till the millennium — who wanted a sensation to sell his paper, or who had a grudge against some individual — how long would it take him to make up his mind that the public necessity existed?
The trouble with all these arguments is that they rest on a wrong principle. One of the parties affected is not represented or given a hearing; whereas rules to regulate the conduct between individuals should be fixed with reference to the interests and by the voice of both, and not by the whim caprice, or arbitrary dictation of the stronger.
Years ago, when it was first proposed to subject the railroads to reasonable regulation, the railroad people and their friends scoffed at the idea. The most considerate of them argued: "Railroads are private enterprises, supported by private capital, with which the public has no right to interfere. Besides, they are subject to the laws of competition, which alone will give all the regulation necessary. Further, they are dependent on the public for support, and an intelligent self-interest will insure fair dealing with the public; any interference by the State must be disastrous," etc. And they asked:
"Can you run the railroads better than the experienced men who are now running them?"
But notwithstanding these arguments, the public felt that, while railroads were a necessity and must be protected, and while they ought not to be harassed by unreasonable interference, yet some measure of protection for the public was necessary; and the answer in regard to running a road was: "No, we don't claim to be able to run a road; we concede that you can do that better than we can, and we want you to do it; we simply insist on some measure of protection against the abuse of the power in your hands." As a result, measure after measure was passed, ending finally in the Interstate Law. At first these acts produced little effect, as is nearly always the case with new legislation; but at present they are beginning to be respected, and, what is more, the railroads now favor reasonable regulation.
There is no doubt that, if every person writing even a squib for a newspaper had to sign his name to it, there would be greater care taken to learn the facts and to state them correctly. Every writer would become more careful and read his articles over a second time before printing them, thus greatly improving the character of newspapers by making them more reliable, while, at the same time, it would be a protection to the private individual.
Certain it is that it would make all newspaper writers stand on their own merit with the public, and would enable those that have superior abilities to get credit for their work, which they do not get with the public under the present system of anonymous writing.
It is true that in 1850 a law was passed in France requiring a signature to every article in a newspaper, and that it did not produce any great results. But this signifies little under the circumstances, for it was enacted not as an independent measure conceived in a spirit of fairness, but as a part of an arbitrary system intended to harass and, so far as possible, crush the press. It went almost hand in hand with a heavy stamp tax, a government censor, and the dungeon. Requiring a signature only made it easier for the government to find
159the writer and put him into jail. Therefore it was natural that the whole newspaper fraternity should labor to defeat the law by the use of fictitious names, and in every other manner possible. In addition, it should be remembered that many of the most beneficial measures in the world's history were failures when first tried.
But here the conditions are different. Many newspaper men already admit the evil effects of impersonal journalism and urge a change in that regard. The Journalist of October 6, 1888, had a strong editorial advocating a signature to every article. Among other things it said: "Few men would be willing to send out statements over their own signatures which they knew to be untrue, a temptation which is very strong when the writer is hiding behind the cloak of anonymity. It would encourage better work. If a man is certain that a story is to be known as his work, he will take more care in the writing. Again, if a writer succeeds in making a reputation, the paper gains the additional eclat of having such a man in its employ. The best work is almost always done by men who sign. Sporadic cases of anonymous excellence are seen in every paper, but the men who sign are the men whose work is read, and who make an impression on the public mind. This is not altogether due to the fact that it is the work of men who are strong enough to force signature. It is partly because a man who signs feels that he is bound in duty to himself to keep up a certain average of excellence in his work. He is the proprietor of a ‘brand,’ and his goods must be kept up to sample, or the future value of his ‘brand’ is gone. The question of signature lies largely with the writers themselves. If there were a general insistence upon the matter, the papers would give in, and once the custom was adopted it would never be abandoned."
I will simply add that, as the better class of journalists are already in sympathy with the idea, we may safely assume that if a signature be required by law to every article — not for the purpose of enabling the government to imprison the writer, as in France, but simply to insure care and good faith on the part of the writer and fair play to the public — there will be but little opposition, and, instead of being crippled, the press will command more confidence and wield more influence for good than now; and editorial writers, instead of being unknown operatives, will establish a reputation equal to their labor and ability, while the private individual will feel that if he is to be attacked, it must be done in the light of day.