An extra special item today; a 1932 essay by Robert Benchley on the state of the American press. A perceptive and thoughtful review from a gifted writer who was, we sometimes forget, a veteran of the fourth estate. This essay originally appeared in an obscure book titled “America as Americans See It” and to my knowledge, after an assiduous search, has not been reprinted since. (For that reason I’m assuming that it is in public domain.) Benchley is one of my favorite writers and I’m proud to present here a work all but lost in the mists of history.
by Robert Benchley
It takes not great perspicacity to detect and to complain of the standardization in American life. So many foreign and domestic commentators have pointed this feature out in exactly the same terms that the comment itself has become standardized and could be turned out by the thousands on little greeting-cards, all from the same type-form: “American life has become too standardized.”
This is a pity, for I would like to have invented the phrase myself for use in writing of American newspapers. Our Ford cars may be all alike, our horn-rimmed glasses may be all alike, and our musical comedies may be all alike, but they are a motley assortment of variegated odds-and-ends compared with the universal sameness of our newspapers. Which probably explains why our two leading political parties are indistinguishable from each other (Republicans are possibly more blond than Democrats, but, aside from that there is very little difference) and why the most popular newspaper in any given city in the United States is the one which carries the syndicated comic strip “The Gumps.”
I am speaking, of course, of the United States as a whole. The newspapers in New York City manage, by dint of rearranging type and using different comic strips, to maintain a show of individuality, although to a blind man who has to have his newspaper read aloud to him, even this would vanish. Then, too, there are exceptional papers, like the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Kansas City Star, the Boston Transcript or the Christian Science Monitor, which through the fostering of old standards or the maintenance of new ones, combined with distinctive make-up or editorial individuality, have managed to make themselves at least distinguishable from the general run of journals on a newspaper-rack. They are not all good newspapers, mind you, but they are at least different.
As a rule, however, a man from Buffalo, New York, who found himself by some unhappy circumstance in Los Angeles, California, could pick up a Los Angeles newspaper and read it through without noticing any difference between it and his hometown paper. There might be a momentary confusion at the difference in typography, but the news would be the same (except the local news which, in a strange city, he would skip anyway), the syndicated features would be the same and the editorials, while possibly not word for word identical, would certainly not throw him off the track by their originality. In some towns they would actually be the same editorials, shipped in matrix form to all newspapers subscribing to the same editorial service.
It is these great news services which feed the journals of the country which are responsible for a large part of this standardization. The Associated Press, which serves 1,250 papers, has representatives all over the world, besides practicing the incestuous feat of deriving news from within its own family. For the “A.P.” is something of a club, with limited membership, a non-money-making institution existing solely for the mutual propagation of news among its members and the cooperative gleaning of information throughout the world. It is supposed to be non-partisan, as its membership includes papers of both political parties, but, in times of what its sponsors consider national emergency, it has been known to exercise a certain paternal censorship in the matter of what news shall be sent out over the wire and what shall not.
The most successful rival to the Associated Press is the United Press, a frankly profit-making organization to which any paper may belong, even Associated Press members. Originally designed to serve the evening papers, it now goes wherever it is wanted and has acquired a membership equal to that of the “A.P.,” or over 1,200 papers. It is still primarily an evening paper service, however, and, as the evening papers in America are more in the nature of household magazines and cook-books, the “U.P.” dispenses more “human interest” material than its more dignified rival the “A.P.” (Of late, however, the Associated Press has begun to yield to the popular demand for “human interest” and is sending out more and more in a roguish and sentimental vein, a mood which ill becomes it.)
Thus we have the inspiring thought that on the same evening, throughout the broad land of America, readers of 1,200 newspapers are not only reading the same account of the current disarmament conference, but are in unison devouring the same story concerning the quaint way in which Chinese girls dress when their sisters are married or about the little dog in a French town who swam through the flooded area to rescue its master’s hat. Is it any wonder that America presents a united front to the world in matters of sentiment?
The two other services which carry news to the papers of the country are the International (Hearst) and the Scripps-Howard, both serving only those papers which belong to the chain owned by the distributing firms. This means that the papers in these chains get not only the same news dispatches but the same comic strips, the same recipes for cake, and.the same information concerning the care and treatment of the skin. The Scripps-Howard syndicate owns papers in 24 cities, and is the nearest thing to a liberal influence in American newspaperdom (the Socialist or Labor press is practically negligible and consists almost entirely of house-organs seen only by zealots). The Hearst syndicate extends to 18 cities, although in some cities are two Hearst papers, and one is strictly a personal Hearst influence, with Mr. Brisbane acting as spokesman and an occasional front page editorial signed “William Randolph Hearst.” The editorial policy of these papers depends on Mr. Hearst’s current whim and that it is loud but singularly impotent is shown by the fact that Mr. Hearst has never been able to get himself elected to any public offices. [actually Hearst was elected to the House of Representatives – Allan]
These four services, together with those syndicates which are devoted entirely to enlightening the country from coast to coast with stereotyped humorous articles, comic strips, gossip-columns, and sermons for daily spiritual needs, put the finishing touch on the standardization of the American press.
In New York City where, with a few exceptions, the only real newspapers in the country are published, there is still another factor which reduces news-gathering to a mechanical reaping and binding like the preparation of wheat. An organization called the City News Association serves the press of that town with a concise and factual account of almost every event of importance taking place within the city walls. A newspaper may send its own reporter out on the story or rewrite the City News account (which comes in over the ticker, like stock-market reports) to suit the individual tone of the journal itself, but, in case the reporter happens to be looking in the other direction when an important event takes place, or if there are no reporters handy to send out on the story, the City News may be relied upon to give the unembellished facts.
It will be seen, therefore, that a paper which is a member of the Associated Press, the United Press, and the City News Association really needs no reporters at all. In fact, one of the most famous of New York newspapers, founded by one of the great journalists of our history, was reported, during a low financial period a few years ago, to be existing almost entirely on its news services, with one or two reporters and the re-write men to give it what individuality it had. [I’m guessing the paper he’s referring to is the New York Sun – Allan]
With this great impersonal mass of machine-gathered news coming into a newspaper office, it will be understood why the reporter is becoming less and less important. And this degradation of the reporter is one of the most serious factors in weakening American journalism as a force while strengthening it as a business proposition. There is no class of American professional men of equal intelligence and ability, working every day regularly, who are as poorly paid or as badly treated as the newspaper reporters. The result of this is that eighty per cent of them consider their jobs only as stepping stones to opportunities in other lines where the financial remuneration will pay them for their apprenticeship. This attitude of mind on the part of the men who are getting out our newspapers does not make for the fostering of great journalists or the maintenance of an important journalism.
The sentimental side of newspaper life has been stressed in magazine fiction and reportorial legends until there is a general feeling, even among laymen, that the reporter’s life is a romantic and happy one. The bustle of the City Room, the clatter of the presses, and the smell of the ink, all have been played up in the memories of those once connected with it until “the Newspaper Game” has become something with as many tender associations as the Old Oaken Bucket or the Swanee River. The affectionate term “newspaper game,” however, is heard most often from the lips of those who were formerly engaged in it and who are now working for more money in other fields. There is a great deal of talk about how they wish they were back “in the Old Newspaper Game.” But you will notice that they never go back.
The youngest, or “cub,” reporters are usually just out of school and are looking for “experience.” Possibly the more sentimental have hopes of some day becoming a “star reporter” or maybe a great editor, but for the most part they are young men with an eye for the future in publicity-work, scenario-writing, short-story manufacture, or political “easy money.” The ideal progress for a newspaperman has recently been exemplified in the case of an ex-press-correspondent who became secretary to the President of the United States and then, as the next step up, was offered a job with a motion picture concern at three times his government salary. This is the reporter’s ideal march to a Heaven on Earth.
Occasionally you will find a young reporter who hopes eventually to be a columnist (with syndicate possibilities which would bring him in almost as much money as he would get in the movies) or even who has. God help him, an ambition to become a dramatic critic. For one of these reasons he is willing to stick to the grind and poverty of newspaper work at the bottom of the ladder. Thus inspired, he tries to attract attention by injecting what is known as “personality” into his style in reporting the drab events of the day. Fortunately, most of this “personality” touch is deleted by the disillusioned editors on the Copy Desk before it reaches the printed page, otherwise our newspapers would be quite unreadable. Too much of it is allowed to get by as it is.
The older reporters, if they have not become “special writers” who sign their own names to their copy (a distinction which is becoming less and less of an honor with its widespread distribution) or who are not on their way to the good newspaperman’s goal – political correspondence in Washington – are more grimly in earnest in their search for “something else.” They have tried short-stories “on the side” and perhaps failed. They have possibly dabbled in theatrical press-agent work and found it a broken reed. They are now rather bitterly hanging onto the jobs they have, with a weather-eye out for those openings which good newspapermen have so often slipped into: “public relations counsel” for a Wall Street firm or a public-service corporation (a “public relations counsel” is a press-agent who gets more than $15,000 a year), private secretary to some big man in public office, or, if Heaven is good, an offer to go to Hollywood and write for the movies. The chance of becoming a sub-editor on their own paper is not sufficient lure to keep their eyes away from the Great Outside. And why should it be? At best they can make only a small fraction of what they might make elsewhere, and even then they would be constantly under that sword of Damocles which hangs over all newspapermen, editors, and reporters alike, the danger of the paper being sold, or merged or discontinued, with a resultant dismissal of the entire staff with no more notice than one would give the man who comes to shovel snow from the sidewalk. Labor unions among professional men are not considered good form, but if ever a union was needed to protect its workers and to regulate their wages, a union of newspaper-workers is that one.
Of course, there are still reporters – and editors – who have been genuinely caught up by the spell of the work that they are doing and who would not, short of an exceptional offer, do anything else. There are also a few reporters who, like the late Mr. Lingle of Chicago, have found a way to eke out their pittance by commercializing their influence to the advantage of certain forces of evil who are willing to pay well for it. Mr. Lingle, however, found that this course of action did not pay in the end, as he was not allowed to live to enjoy the whole harvest of his duplicity. The general run of newspapermen is made up of honest, disillusioned, and for the most part thwarted writers who have a fine contempt for their bosses and for the public for which they write. [Jake Lingle was a Chicago Tribune reporter who got involved with that city’s gangsters; he was shot down in the street in 1930 – Allan]
This state of affairs has led to an almost complete elimination of competition among news-gatherers. The old-fashioned “scoop,” or exclusive story, is almost non-existent now in a large city, owing to the fact that the reporters are more interested in fair-play to each other than they are in furthering the interests of their respective papers. In the first place, even if a newspaper does secure an exclusive story which appears in its first edition, the other papers have picked it up by the time the late city editions have gone to press and the public knows nothing of any enterprise or delinquency in any one journal.
The reporters, knowing this, club together on a story, and, in the event of a riot or a parade or a fire, it is no uncommon sight to see the men from all the papers in the city getting together in a “huddle” before turning in their stories to check up on the statistics of the event, so that all accounts will agree and no one paper will come out with facts which diverge to any startling extent from the rest. A reporter who holds out on his colleagues and turns in a story with additional facts which he himself has secured, will find himself not only unpopular but unable, when he needs it, to get help from the men he has “scooped.” And anyway, why should he be particularly loyal to his own sheet? Is his own sheet loyal in any way to him?
The American newspaper, therefore, comes to us as a machine-made, stereotyped, efficient and, with few exceptions, entirely trustworthy, typographical arrangement of the news of the day. Its features, such as personal columns, comic strips, service departments, and sporting pages are its money-making assets, and the American newspaper is naturally out to make money. Its chief political influence on the public mind comes through its political cartoons, for the American public is not much given to reading editorials, and, even if it were, it would find little of distinction to read. The editorial writers of most of our newspapers are men of considerable intelligence, but they, too, have felt the deadening hand of the machine-made newspaper and the stuff that they turn out is, for the most part, colorless and uninspired and concerned with general matters such as tonsilitis and snow-removal. There are certain subjects, also, on which a firm editorial stand is taboo, varying, of course, with the individual papers, but when the Pope issued his encyclical on Chaste Marriage only one New York paper (the Times) commented on it editorially, in spite of the fact that it presented a rich vein for controversial writing. Religion is too dangerous a subject for editorial treatment and might affect the circulation.
There is one field of American journalism which might well be made the subject of a whole article-the tabloid, or picture-paper.
The tabloids are, however, not strictly newspapers in the sense that the Times or Herald Tribune are newspapers, as they make no attempt to cover any news which cannot be sensationalized or adapted to the camera’s uses. They are more in the nature of daily magazines, and very low-class magazines at that, and their standards of veracity and journalistic ethics are so low that they have established a class by themselves quite outside the pale of newspaperdom and magazine editing. Their popularity is enormous, as a large percentage of the reading public does not read but looks. And if they can buy a sheet every day which will give them something spicy or startling to look at, their contemplation of the world’s affairs is taken care of for the day. Some years ago the Chicago Tribune in an attempt to do something with its millions of dollars which might reduce its income tax to the Government, established the Daily News in New York with the frank intention of losing money on it [I’ve never heard this claim before – if it’s true it was a well-kept secret – Allan]. This tabloid, however, refused to lose money and became a veritable gold-mine for the Tribune, for it was exactly what hundreds of thousands of “readers” wanted.
Since then the Graphic and the Mirror have entered the field and have so far outstripped the News in sensationalism (although not in circulation) that the News is now comparatively respectable. Other large cities in the country have taken up this form of journalism and the public is now supplied with its full quota of murders, divorces, rapes, and gossip without having to take the trouble of looking through columns of international or civic news to find it. It is probably a bad sign of the state of the public mind, but what isn’t?
To return to the legitimate press of the country, which should be a great force in the molding of public opinion and the fostering of vital writing, and we find it a business proposition of increasing efficiency, given over to circulation schemes and the gathering of millions of lines of advertising, efficient but colorless in the presentation of news, generally artistic in typographical make-up (except for papers like those belonging to Mr. Hearst which are abominable hodge-podges of type-matter) and, in comparison with most French and many English papers, paragons of clear-cut and comprehensive journalism. The American press is also, for the most part, free from venal influence and increasingly unbiased in its news-writing. Of course, it is open to persuasion in the matter of running innocuous publicity furnished to it by the hundreds of publicity organizations which every day send out tons of “flimsy” marked “For release Monday, please,” and a big advertiser is usually a little more successful in “landing” a picture of his daughter in the rotogravure sections than an ordinary citizen would be. The Government, too, is favored with space in the news columns whenever it wants to disguise its propaganda under the head of “news.” But all this propaganda and publicity to which the papers lend their columns is generally harmless and designed “for the public’s good” and is usually detected by its unimportance and dullness as reading-matter. On the whole, we may say that the American press is free (with certain obeisances to the advertising department), honest according to its liglits, and wholly uninspired.
We are told that the day of personal journalism has gone, and that the great personal journalists like Greeley, Dana, and Bryant would be out of date if they were alive today. Perhaps this is true, but we have no way of knowing, for there are no great personal journalists alive today to act as test cases. And the reason that we have no great journalists is that the Newspaper Game has become the Newspaper Business, and, since Business has been adopted as the criterion, those who might have become great journalists have gone into business for themselves in other fields.