It is now nearly eighty years since the morning of February 9, 1909, when I was hired for $3.50 a week - apologetically called "lunch money" - as a cub reporter on the Pittsburgh Leader. Apprenticeship under City Editor Houston Eagle and his assistant, Harold Thirlkeld, prepared me for the journey to New York, considered by Americans if not all Europeans the capital of world journalism, then London, Paris, the press department of General Pershing's army, a decade with the Chicago Tribune Foreign News Service with Berlin to Baghdad as my field, and then five decades of writing books and publishing magazine articles and a weekly newsletter, all in whole or part a criticism of the press.
Nineteen hundred and nine probably marked the peak of the great muckraking era, which was dominated by Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker and Will Irwin. Irwin in 1911 published the first series of articles in America criticizing, even exposing, the newspapers of his time. In 1920, Upton Sinclair, an outsider to journalism, wrote The Brass Check, the first book exposing the press. It was this book, plus a friendship with the author lasting many years, that influenced me and the books I wrote on the press, beginning in the 1930's.
The last years of that decade internationally witnessed one of the most outrageous newspaper campaigns of falsehood in modern history; it influenced the leaders of many governments, notably Britain, France and the United States, and it resulted in the destruction of the liberal, democratic Republic of Spain. Only one head of state of the time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had the courage, later, to admit his own error. For me that decade also witnessed the success of the major advertising agencies of Madison Avenue in destroying the integrity of the proposed first popular illustrated American weekly "one step left of center." It was to have had two press columns by me, one reporting suppressed news, one of press criticism; and it was to have supported liberal causes such as the Spanish Republic against Naziism and Fascism. But Madison Avenue said "No."
The failure of this magazine, of which I was the only "working" editor, was directly responsible for my starting the newsletter In fact in 1940, then totally boycotted by the media, now recognized as the first publication in America, probably in the world, devoted entirely to press criticism.
In 1950 In fact was red-baited to death by the McCarthyites, who rode top saddle in the nation's press in those days. The Senator had been exposed as a crook, but exposes by the Madison Capital Times, In fact, and liberal but small-circulation weeklies were ineffective. McCarthy, despite great press support, finally virtually defeated himself.
In the 1960s and notably in the 1970s, it seems to me, a change so gradual it escaped the notice of both its friends and critics at the time came over the great all-powerful American press, so that probably for the first time in the two-hundred-year history of the Republic it began to serve one of the Constitutional objectives for which the nation was founded - the general welfare of the American people. The name "Watergate" means many things to many people. For me it means not merely the work of two Washington Post investigative reporters in unearthing a scandal that destroyed (or should have destroyed) a crook who happened to be President, but the commitment of that paper as well as the influential New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and many others to the purpose for which all papers are supposedly dedicated, namely, to publish all the news.
Not that ideal utopian journalism has arrived. But we have come a long way from Will Irwin's 1920, ladies and gentlemen! Watergate is an imaginary pennant flying over an imaginary institution called "freedom of the press," a phrase that means, or should mean, not only the right of the owners to publish without government control or Moron Majority censorship, but the right of the buyer of a paper to read hitherto suppressed news, such as the Federal Trade Commission fraud orders against bad medicine, bad automobiles and cancer-causing cigarets.
"I am a firm believer in the people," said Mr. Lincoln; "if given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts."
This reporter believes that the time has come for him to conclude his job with a personal anecdotal-historical review of his past seventy-seven years - not another criticism of the press but the "human-interest story," sometimes the "inside" story, sometimes a correction of the falsifications of history-in-the-making as witnessed by the writer, sometimes just Mr. Lincoln's "real facts" about people who have made history, as well as the front page - the noted, the notorious and, unfortunately, encounters with at least three of the leading SOBs of our time.