Chapter 3 Ten Tests for a Free Press

“We must never tire of protesting,” wrote Romain Rolland recently in his protest against one of the many myths which circulate throughout the world and work against its welfare.

The newspapers is a dry sensitive organ. Its success or failure depends on the public; only rarely is there such a situation as in Chicago where many persons who have to buy either the Tribune or the Herald-Examiner have been heard to express their lack of confidence in both. In most cities people believe in the printed word, even when the type is the largest and the word far removed from the truth.

The failure of a free press in most countries is usually blamed on the readers. Every nation gets the government – and the press – it deserves. This is too facile a remark. The people deserve better in most governments and press.

Readers, in millions of cases, have no way of finding out whether their newspapers are fair or not, honest or distorted, truthful or colored. Intelligent readers frequently ask for means of testing the press.

The easiest way is to buy copies of newspapers for a week or so, study them carefully, and compare news and headlines. If the reader does this with a news item about a strike in which he is a participant, or a mass meeting where he was a speaker or a listener, or some event where bias and perversion for special motives may enter, he will be able within one hour to find out which is the honest, which the dishonest newspaper. (Let him not be guided by his own bias if possible.)

Beware of the newspaper which calls itself independent. Of the (say) ninety percent of the press which howled down the President in 1937 and 1938 a goodly portion called itself independent, or that hypocritical paradox, “independent Republican” or “independent Democratic.” There are less than a dozen independent newspapers in the whole country, and even that small number is dependent on advertisers and other things, and all these other things which revolve around money and profit make real independence impossible. No newspaper which is supporting one class of society is independent. And while William Allen White, who heads our editors, insists that our publishers are unconsciously class conscious, he admits they are class conscious. Class-conscious newspapers cannot be free newspapers.

If we accept that this feeling is still “unconscious,” then we can proceed with tests for the publishers which every reader can insist on:

1.) Give equal space to the political parties.
2.) Give some space to minority parties, at least space relative to their strength. (These two tests will put the majority of our press, which styles itself independent, on the spot.)
3.) Publish the Federal Trade Commission Reports. (These reports are not enough, but they do expose many of our greatest manufacturers of food, drink, clothing, tobacco, milk, etc., as fraudulent.)
4.) Tell the truth about cigarettes and automobiles, the two largest advertisers.
5.) Give the consumer a square deal. (Publish the same reports on consumers’ goods which only the liberal and left weeklies publish nowadays.)
6.) Reject organized pressure. (Inform the American Legion, the Catholic Church organizations, the business and advertising organizations, an all the other sacred cows, bulls and elephants of journalism, they will no longer influence the news. If all publishers in any one town agree on this, no losses can follow.)
7.) Publish the labor news. Give labor a square deal. (Everyone admits that the press has fallen down worse in the labor field than elsewhere.)
8.) Throw Mr. Hearst out. (The Associated Press accused Hearst of theft of the news. It won its case. But it did not throw him out. Neither did the A.N.P.A. No press organization can make any ethical claims so long as it has a Hearst around.)
9.) Stop defending child labor because of the few dollars you save on newsboys.
10.) Print both sides of a controversy. (The New York Daily News published both a “Presidential battle page” in the Roosevelt-Landon campaign and an “economic battle page” on labor. It offered them free, but only a few papers took them. No paper can claim to be free if it refuses to publish both sides.)

These are ten simple tests which come to me on the spur of the moment. Other newspapermen will think of better ones, no doubt.* But all of them look fair to me. If a paper announces itself as a Republican sheet and wants to publish nothing but Republican party news, that is fair and honest, but few newspapers so announce themselves. Not only the self-styled independent paper but any paper which claims it is a newspaper, must publish the news, and that is all that one can ask.

But if it claims it is a free paper it must give equal space to both sides.

I know that no newspaper in America will publish anything like Consumers Union’s Reports on foods, automobiles, cigarettes, but it is reprehensible of them to refuse

* The following tests for a free press have been suggested by newspapermen, editors, and school of journalism professors who have read this manuscript:
1. Defend public welfare instead of public utilities.
2. Publish the facts about radicals, “Reds,” etc. without Red baiting.
3. Discover the co-operative movement in America.
4. Run the advertisements of Consumers Union.
5. Stop publishing letters which agree with editorial policy only.

advertisements of the Union itself. This co-operative, non-profit seeking organization tests all consumers’ goods; its scientific reports are frequently at variance with the advertisements, and no one can challenge their truthfulness. The newspapers show their prostitution to advertisers every time they refuse a Consumers Union advertisement. The advertisements merely solicit membership in the organization. They do not distinguish between good and bad products. But the monthly report of the Union does list good and bad products thereby serving its members well, but offending the manufacturers of bad products who are also large advertisers.

If I were to be asked for one specific proof that the old-fashioned venality still persists in the press, and that the advertiser still dominates the newspaper business, I would offer the experiences of the foregoing organization in dealing with the business managers of newspapers and magazines.

The element of hypocrisy also enters the situation: in numerous cases the Union has requested the publications to place their refusal to carry its advertisements in writing. But the publications have refused to the organization documentary proof of their dirty work.

The excuses given by some of the great newspapers are strange and varied. One says it does not accept the “type” of advertisement, and another declares the ad is “controversial.” The Union advertisement is not an advertisement offering anything for sale; it is simply a notice that a non-profit making public service society seeks members, and these members are promised a scientifically truthful service about consumers’ goods.

Among the advertising managers who said by telephone they would not take the Union’s announcements and who refused to send written confirmation, the Union informs me are the New York News and the Philadelphia Record. On the other hand the Union has a frank (although oral) admission from a salesman from the magazine Esquire that that magazine “had received complaints from some of the liquor firms because Esquire had run a C. U. ad describing our liquor report. They threatened to withdraw their advertising if Esquire ran any more C.U. ads. “I recall that at the time I was associate editor of Ken, published by the Esquire company, I proposed to the advertising department it solicit C. U. for a page advertisement, which it did. The Union offered to pay the usual price of $900 for a page. But the ad did not appear because the salesman who rejoiced one day that he had landed the order, found out the next day that it would offend all the advertisers.

The Union ran full page advertisements in the New York Times in 1936 and the result was a tremendous growth in membership. But in February, 1937, the Times management held up an advertisement and questioned the competency of the Union’s laboratories. At a conference the non-profit making organization submitted its evidence, whereupon the Times representatives, although seemingly satisfied, suggested that an investigation be made by the Better Business Bureau. This bureau is an organization which is run by big business and advertisers and some of its officials make drugs, foods and commodities which have been criticized by Consumers Union. The proposition was ridiculous. It would be equivalent to have the ethical doctors of America investigated by the patent medicine makers. Finally the Times suggested it might run the advertising if prominent men would endorse the work. Senators, Representatives, college professors, writers, and others did so. But the Times still continues to play the game of straddling and evading.

Among the sixty publications which through sheer fear of losing money from other advertisers have refused the Union Advertising (in addition to those mentioned) are the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and dozens of magazines.

The Post has been “considering an ad for two years; on May 3, 1937, it wrote it was “not in a position to determine the accuracy of the Consumers’ Union reports” and would communicate when it had done so, and there the matter rests.

The Christian Science Monitor, which has a great record for throwing fake advertising for the very drugs, foods and commodities, which the Union also exposes, out of its columns, could not, however bring its integrity to the point of accepting the advertising for an organization which has a social and progressive policy and a social conscience. “It is not possible for us to give the reason for this decision,” it wrote.

A letter mailed in a Scripps-Howard envelope informed the Union that John Sorrels, executive editor, had sent instructions to all Scripps-Howard editors to kill C.U. press material. The Union complained to Roy Howard. It received a reply from Mr. Sorrells saying: We have not instructed Scripps-Howard ‘not to use C. U. material’…but we have from time to time cautioned our editors with regards to the use of handouts material from any of the various consumer bureaus…” In other words, the Scripps-Howard press uses thousands of columns of handouts from the automobile and other industries which advertise, but cautions its editors not to use press material which would benefit the consumers – perhaps at the expense of the advertisers.

Time after time Consumers Union has protested this boycott by the press in its own monthly reports. Frequently many among its 65,000 members have written to publishers and received no satisfaction. The New York Times, however, has adapted a form letter to deal with such protests. It reads:

The New York Times accepted the advertising of the firm you mention for many months. We suspended it when some of our executives raised the point that an important part of the company’s service comprised attacks on the products or services of other companies or industries. This the Times does not permit: So far no satisfactory basis has been found for renewing the advertising. – C. McD. Puckette.

This is the nearest to a confession that it is advertising agency pressure which is directing the policy of the newspapers. A better confession of this sinister business can be found in Editor & Publisher (August 6, 1938) where Edward Davenport, a merchandising expert, writes a tremendous attack on all consumers’ organizations. Since he cannot possibly say anything just or rational against them, he calls them names and “enemies of the American industrial system and social order.”

In a way this is true. Consumers’ organizations favor their members, the public, and expose such things that as excessive utility rates, fake advertising, shoddy goods, false bargains, poisonous patent medicines, and many useless an fraudulent companies and products which help put big publishers in the upper income tax brackets, and therefore maintain their social order.

I challenge any newspaper in America to publish the findings of Johns Hopkins University on the effects of cigarette smoking in shortening life and generally weakening the system.

I challenge all publishers to run a department on consumers’ goods written from the viewpoint of benefit for the readers instead of the advertiser.

I challenge any newspaper to omit all advertisements for drugs which the medical profession believes harmful.

As one way toward a better, if not a free press, I suggest that every newspaper reader demand that his publisher make the ten testes listed above.

The greatest cause for optimism in America is the result of the Hearst press, from New York to California. Stop buying Red-baiting papers. Stop patronizing colored, biased, perverted papers. And write to the editors. Never grow weary of protesting. In this sensitive business of dealing with the public which depends on faith and good, will, protest is a most effective weapon. Therefore protest.

And if that fails, boycott the corrupt newspaper. Support the honest newspaper just as strongly.

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