Side by side with the sinners of the rostrum, stand thesinners of the newspaper press. The case is clear, and needslittle remark or illustration. The profligacy of newspapers,wherever they exist, is a universal complaint; and, of allnewspaper presses, I never heard any one deny that the Americanis the worst. Of course, this depravity being, so generalthroughout the country, it must be occasioned by someoverpowering force of circumstances. The causes are various; andit is a testimony to the strength and purity of the democraticsentiment in the country, that the republic has not beenoverthrown by its newspapers.
While the population is so scattered as it now is, throughoutthe greater part of the Union, nothing is easier than to make thepeople know only one side of a question; few things are easierthan to keep from them altogrether the knowledge of anyparticular affair; and, worse than all, on them may easily bepracticed the discovery that lies may work their intended effect,before the truth can overtake them.
It is hard to tell which is worst; the wide diffusion ofthings that are not true, or the suppression of things that aretrue. It is no secret that some able personage at Washingtonwrites letters on the politics and politicians of the generalgovernment, and sends them to the remotest corners of the Union,to appear in their newspapers; after which, they are collected inthe administration newspaper at Washington, as testimonies ofpublic opinion in the respective districts where they appear. Itis no secret that the newspapers of the south keep out of theircolumns all information which might enlighten their readers, nearand afar, as to the real state of society at home. I can testifyto the remarkable events which occur in the southernStates, unnoticed by any press, and transpiring only throughaccident. Two men were burned alive, without trial, by thegentlemen of Mobile, just before my arrival there; and nonewspaper even alluded to the circumstance, till, many monthsafter, a brief and obscure paragraph, in a northern journal,treated it as a matter of hearsay.
It is no secret that the systematic abuse with which thenewspapers of one side assail every candidate coming forward onthe other, is the cause of many honourable men, who have a regardto their reputation, being deterred from entering public life;and of the people being thus deprived of some better servantsthan any they have. Though a faithful public servant should beable to endure all the consequences of faithful service, yetthere are many cases where men, undecided as to their choice ofpublic and private life, are fixed in favour of the latter bythis one circumstance. It is the one obstacle too much. A publicman in New England gave me the history of an editor of anewspaper, who began his professional course by making an avoweddistinction between telling lies in conversation and in anewspaper, where every body looks for them. Of course, he hassunk deeper and deeper in falsehood; but retribution has not yetovertaken him. My informant told me, that this editor has madesome thousands of dollars by his abuse of one man; and jocoselyproposed, that persons who are systematically railed at by anynewspaper, should lay claim to a proportion of the profitsarising out of the use of their names and characters.
The worst of it is, that the few exceptions to thisdepravity,--the few newspapers conducted by men of truth andsuperior intelligence, are not yet encouraged in proportion totheir merits. It is easy to see how a youth, going into thewilds, to set up a newspaper for the neighbouring villages,should meet with support, however vicious or crude his productionmay be; but it is discouraging to perceive how little preferenceis given, in the Atlantic cities, to the best journals over theworst. Still, there is a preference; and it appears to be on theincrease; and that increase, again, is in proportion to theintrepidity of the paper in discussing affairs as they arise.
There will be no great improvement in the literary characterof the American newspapers till the literature of the country hasimproved. Their moral character depends upon the moral taste ofthe people. This looks like a very severe censure. If it be so,the same censure applies elsewhere, and English morals must beheld accountable for the slanders and captiousness displayed inthe leading articles of British journals, and for thedisgustingly jocose tone of their police reports, where crimesare treated as entertainments, and misery as a jest. Whatever maybe the exterior causes of the Americans having been hithertoill-served in their newspapers, it is now certain that there arenone which may not be overpowered by a sound moral taste. Intheir country, the demand lies with the many. Whenever the manydemand truth and justice in their journals, and reject falsehoodand calumny, they will be served according to their desire.
This desire is beginning to awaken. Some months before I leftthe United States, a man of colour was burned alive, withouttrial, at St. Louis, in Missouri; a large assemblage of the"respectable" inhabitants of the city being present. Noone supposed that anybody out of the State of Missouri was anyfurther implicated with this deed, than as men have an interestin every outrage done to man. The interest which residents inother States had in this deed, was like that which an Englishmanhas in a man being racked in the Spanish Inquisition; or aFrenchman, in a Turk being bastinadoed at Constantinople. He isnot answerable for it, or implicated in it, as a fellowcitizen;and he speaks his humane reprobation as a fellow-man. CertainAmerican citizens, out of Missouri, contrived, however, toimplicate themselves in the responsibility for this awfuloutrage, which, one would have thought, any man would have beenthankful to avoid. The majority of newspaper editors madethemselves parties to the act, by refusing, from fear, toreprobate it. The state of the case was this, as described to meby some inhabitants of St. Louis. The gentlemen of the press inthat city dared not reprobate the outrage, for fear of theconsequences from the murderers. They merely announced the deed,as a thing to be regretted, and recommended that the veil ofoblivion should be drawn over the affair. Their hope was widelydifferent from their recommendation. They hoped that thenewspapers throughout the Union would raise such a chorus ofexecration as would annihilate the power of the executioners. Butthe newspapers of the Union were afraid to comment upon theaffair, because they saw that the St. Louis editors were afraid.The really respectable inhabitants of that disgraced city werethrown almost into despair by this dastardly silence, andbelieved all security of life and property in their State to beat an end. A few journals were honest enough to thunder the truthin the ears of the people; and the people awoke to perceive howtheir editors had involved themselves in this crime, by a virtualacquiescence,--like the unfaithful mastiff, if such a creaturethere be, which slinks away from its master's door, to allow apassage to a menacing thief. The influence of the will of theawakening people is already seen in the improved vigour in thetone of the newspapers against outrage. On occasion of the morerecent riots at Cincinnati, the editorial silence has been brokenby many voices.
There is a spirited newspaper at Louisville which has done itsduty well, on occasions when it required some courage to do it;informing the Cincinnati people of the meanness of their conductin repressing the expression of opinion, lest it should injurethe commerce between Ohio and Kenblcky; and also, justifying,Judge Shaw of Massachusetts, against the outcries of the South,for a judgment he lately gave in favour of the release of aslave, voluntarily carried into a free State. Two New Yorkpapers, the New York American and the Evening Post, have gainedthemselves honour by intrepidity of the same kind, and by thecomparative moderation and friendliness of their spirit. I hopethat there may be many more, and that their number may beperpetually on the increase.
The very best newspaper that I saw in the United States was asingle number of the Cleveland Whig, which I picked up at anhotel in the interior of Ohio. I had seen spirited extracts fromit in various newspapers. The whole of this particuiar number wasvaluable for the excellence of its Spirit, and for its goodsense. It had very irnportant, and some very painful subjectmatter,--instances of overbearing the law,--to treat of. It wasso done as nearly to beguile me, hungry traveller as I was, of mydinner, and of all thought of my journey.
One other remarkable paper lies before me: remarkable for itsprofessing to be conducted on principles of exact justice, andfor its accordance with its principles to a degree which hashardly been dreamed of in a publication of its kind. There issomething heroic in the enterprise, which inspires a strong hopeof its success. If the ability be but sufficient to sustainit,--of which there seems no reason to doubt,--there can be noquestion of its acceptableness. The just and gentle constructionof human actions, and the cheerful and trustful mood in surveyingnatural events, are more congeuial with the general mind, thancaptiousness anti distrust towards men, and despondency under thegovernment of God. Such men as the editor of the Boston Reformerare sure to command the sympathies of men, however theymay appear to run counter to the supposed tastes of newspaperreaders. The following notice to correspondents is a novelty inits place,--more striking than any announcements in the newscolumns.
"To correspondents.--Our paper is no vehicle of vulgarabuse, or spiteful attacks on persons or institutions. Our designis to avoid everything which appeals to or pleases any badpropensity in our nature. Doubtless there are a thousand pettyannoyances somewhat grievous to be borne; but we cannot go aboutto redress them. The best way is to forgive and forget them. Wecannot waste our strength on little matters. We know no way to dogood to man, to make society really better, but to suppress ouranger, keep our temper, show an elevated mind and a good heart.We must look for the good, not for the bad in men, and always putthe best construction we can on all their doings."--BostonReformer.
From Harriet Martineau, Society in America, VolumeI, Part I, Chapter III, Section II - "Newspapers."London: Saunders and Otley, 1837, pp. 146-154.
Forward to Society in America, Ch.III, Section III, - "Apathy in Citizenship."
Back to Society in America, ChapterIII, Section I- "Office."
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