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- An Adventure With A Genius - 10/21 -
"Nothing but the editorial page."
"Why not? What's the matter with it?"
I explained that I was not interested in crime and disaster, to which The World devoted so much space, that I wanted more foreign news than The World found room for, and that I was offended by the big headlines, which compelled me to know things I didn't want to know.
"Go on," he said; "your views are not of any importance, but they're entertaining."
"Well," I continued, "I think The World was excellently described a few years ago in Life. There was a poem entitled, 'New York Newspaper Directory, Revised,' in which a verse was devoted to each of the big New York papers. I believe I can remember the one about The World, if you care to hear it, for I cut the poem out and have kept it among my clippings."
"Certainly, go ahead."
"A dual personality is this, Part yellow dog, part patriot and sage; When't comes to facts the rule is hit or miss, While none can beat its editorial page. Wise counsel here, wild yarns the other side, Page six its Jekyll and page one its Hyde; At the same time conservative and rash, The World supplies us good advice and trash."
"That's clever," said Mr. Pulitzer, "but it's absolute nonsense, except about the editorial page. Have you got the clipping with you? I would like to hear what that smart young man has got to say about the other papers."
I went to my cabin, got the poem, and read the whole of it to him--witty characterizations of The Evening Post, The Sun, The Journal, The Tribune, The Times and The Herald. As soon as I had finished reading, Mr. Pulitzer said:
"The man who wrote those verses had his prejudices, but he was clever. I'm glad you read them to me; always read me anything of that kind, anything that is bright and satirical. Now, I'm going to give you a lecture about newspapers, because I want you to understand my point of view. It does not matter whether you agree with it or not, but you have got to understand it if you are going to be of any use to me. But before I begin, you tell me what YOUR ideas are about running a newspaper for American readers."
I pleaded that I had never given the matter much thought, and that I had little to guide me, except my own preferences and the memory of an occasional discussion here and there at a club or in the smoking room of a Pullman. He insisted, however, and so I launched forth upon a discourse in regard to the functions, duties and responsibilities of an American newspaper, as I imagined they would appear to the average American reader.
The chief duty of a managing editor, I said, was to give his readers an interesting paper, and as an angler baits his hook, not with what HE likes, but with what the fish like, so the style of the newspaper should be adjusted to what the managing editor judged to be the public appetite.
A sub-stratum of truth should run through the news columns; but since a million-dollar fire is more exciting than a half-million-dollar fire, since a thousand deaths in an earthquake are more exciting than a hundred, no nice scrupulosity need be observed in checking the insurance inspector's figures or in counting the dead. What the public wanted was a good "story," and provided it got that there would be little disposition in any quarter to censure an arithmetical generosity which had been invoked in the service of the public's well-known demands.
So far as politics were concerned, it seemed to me that any newspaper could afford the strongest support to its views while printing the truth and nothing but the truth, if it exercised some discretion as to printing the WHOLE truth. The editorial, I added, might be regarded as a habit rather than as a guiding force. People no longer looked to the editorial columns for the formation of their opinions. They formed their judgment from a large stock of facts, near-facts and nowhere near-facts, and then bought a paper for the purpose of comfortable reassurance. I had no doubt that a newspaper run to suit my own taste--a combination of The World's editorial page with The Evening Post's news and make-up-- would lack the influence with which circulation alone can endow a paper, and would end in a bankruptcy highly creditable to its stockholders.
This somewhat cynical outburst brought down upon me an overwhelming torrent of protest from Mr. Pulitzer.
"My God!" he cried, "I would not have believed it possible that any one could show such a complete ignorance of American character, of the high sense of duty which in the main animates American journalism, of the foundations of integrity on which almost every successful paper in the United States has been founded. You do not know what it costs me to try and keep The World up to a high standard of accuracy--the money, the time, the thought, the praise, the blame, the constant watchfulness.
"I do not say that The World never makes a mistake in its news column; I wish I could say it. What I say is that there are not half a dozen papers in the United States which tamper with the news, which publish what they know to be false. But if I thought that I had done no better than that I would be ashamed to own a paper. It is not enough to refrain from publishing fake news, it is not enough to take ordinary care to avoid the mistakes which arise from the ignorance, the carelessness, the stupidity of one or more of the many men who handle the news before it gets into print; you have got to do much more than that; you have got to make every one connected with the paper--your editors, your reporters, your correspondents, your rewrite men, your proof-readers--believe that accuracy is to a newspaper what virtue is to a woman.
"When you go to New York ask any of the men in the dome to show you my instructions to them, my letters written from day to day, my cables; and you will see that accuracy, accuracy, accuracy, is the first, the most urgent, the most constant demand I have made on them.
"I do not say that The World is the only paper which takes extraordinary pains to be accurate; on the contrary, I think that almost every paper in America tries to be accurate. I will go further than that. There is not a paper of any importance published in French, German or English, whether it is printed in Europe or in America, which I have not studied for weeks or months, and some of them I have read steadily for a quarter of a century; and I tell you this, Mr. Ireland, after years of experience, after having comparisons made by the hundred, from time to time, of different versions of the same event, that the press of America as a whole has a higher standard of accuracy than the European press as a whole. I will go further than that. I will say that line for line the American newspapers actually ATTAIN a higher standard of news accuracy than the European newspapers; and I will go further than that and say that although there are in Europe a few newspapers, and they are chiefly English, which are as accurate as the best newspapers in America, there are no newspapers in America which are so habitually, so criminally stuffed with fake news as the worst of the European papers."
Mr. Pulitzer paused and asked me if there was a glass of water on the table--we were seated in his library--and after I had handed it to him and he had drained it nearly to the bottom at one gulp, he resumed his lecture. I give it in considerable detail, because it was the longest speech he ever addressed to me, because he subsequently made me write it out from memory and then read it to him, and because it was one of the few occasions during my intercourse with him on which I was persuaded beyond a doubt that he spoke with perfect frankness, without allowing his words to be influenced by any outside considerations.
"As a matter of fact," he continued, "the criticisms you hear about the American press are founded on a dislike for our headlines and for the prominence we give to crime, to corruption in office, and to sensational topics generally; the charge of inaccuracy is just thrown in to make it look worse. I do not believe that one person in a thousand who attacks the American press for being inaccurate has ever taken the trouble to investigate the facts.
"Now about this matter of sensationalism: a newspaper should be scrupulously accurate, it should be clean, it should avoid everything salacious or suggestive, everything that could offend good taste or lower the moral tone of its readers; but within these limits it is the duty of a newspaper to print the news. When I speak of good taste and of good moral tone I do not mean the kind of good taste which is offended by every reference to the unpleasant things of life, I do not mean the kind of morality which refuses to recognize the existence of immorality- -that type of moral hypocrite has done more to check the moral progress of humanity than all the immoral people put together--what I mean is the kind of good taste which demands that frankness should be linked with decency, the kind of moral tone which is braced and not relaxed when it is brought face to face with vice.
"Some people try and make you believe that a newspaper should not devote its space to long and dramatic accounts of murders, railroad wrecks, fires, lynchings, political corruption, embezzlements, frauds, graft, divorces, what you will. I tell you they are wrong, and I believe that if they thought the thing out they would see that they are wrong.
"We are a democracy, and there is only one way to get a democracy on its feet in the matter of its individual, its social, its municipal, its State, its National conduct, and that is by keeping the public informed about what is going on. There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy. Get these things out in the open, describe them, attack them, ridicule them in the press, and sooner or later public opinion will sweep them away.
"Publicity may not be the only thing that is needed, but it is the one thing without which all other agencies will fail. If a newspaper is to be of real service to the public it must have a big circulation, first because its news and its comment must reach the largest possible number of people, second, because circulation means advertising, and advertising means money, and money means independence. If I caught any man on The World suppressing news because one of our advertisers objected to having it printed I would dismiss him immediately; I wouldn't care who he was.
"What a newspaper needs in its news, in its headlines, and on its editorial page is terseness, humor, descriptive power, satire, originality, good literary style, clever condensation, and accuracy, accuracy, accuracy!"
Mr. Pulitzer made this confession of faith with the warmth generated by an unshakable faith. He spoke, as he always spoke when he was excited, with vigor, emphasis and ample gesture. When he came to an end and asked
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