Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Bashing the Press; Reporting the News, or Making It?

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Bashing the Press; Reporting the News, or Making It?

Article excerpt

Opinion polls confirm that a vast majority of Americans holds the press in low repute. Only used-car salesmen and members of Congress enjoy less esteem by the public.

Apparently, press-bashing is America's second most popular indoor sport. Much of the general public, and the press as well, denigrates media.

H.L. Mencken, often quoted but little read by anyone these days, was an outstanding press basher. This legendary newsman and editor criticized the press, with particular contempt for editors and front-office people.

Pulitzer winner Edna Buchanan recently wrote a threefold credo for working news reporters: "Never trust an editor; never trust an editor; never trust an editor." Mencke's spirit lives on in that cynical advice. Much that he wrote remains relevant.

One problem Mencken identified is that journalists are victims of illusion. Members of the press, who see themselves as professionals, are no more than "hired hands," unable to control admission to the craft. Unlike medicine or law, journalism requires no certification or even, some argue, special education.

"Codes of ethics," Mencken observed, "are mere talk because these cannot be controlled until journalism becomes a profession."

Mencken was especially hard on his fellow practitioners. Most of the troubles of journalism, he wrote, are due to the "stupidity, cowardice and Philistinism" of the average newspaperman.

Mencken singled out the Washington press corps for its general "incompetence and quackery." He also attacked journalism trade journals for not focusing on press shortcomings, preferring to fill their pages with "bilge."

Another problem that he identified was "false news," the result of "stupid, sentimental and credulous" people doing work that results in "idiotic reporting."

The plain fact, he pointed out, is that most of the stuff printed emanates from press agents, with little checking to assure correctness.

The practice flourishes today; read Charles Osgood's essay on the "factoid." The public is still swamped with "balderdash" presented as "news."

An excellent example is the adswollen supplement for boat shows or auto shows, filled with bogus "news" supplied by press agents, presented as news without apology by virtually every newspaper.

One solution Mencken offered was to improve schools of journalism. He contended that most of these allow easy admission, give snap courses and are "refuges for students too stupid to tackle other professions." Most are simply trade schools, he wrote.

Before he left bashing journalism, Mencken took a swipe at the "so-called press club" in almost every city, where "anyone with the price of admission" is welcome. The "grafters and rascals" need to be purged by the "decent" newspeople, Mencken advised, before "anything can be said about codes of newspaper ethics." HLM's full comments, in Prejudices, Sixth Series, are still on target.

Of course, Mencken was neither alone nor unique. Other press critics holding sound credentials attacked their trade, often with venom. A. J. Liebling, more read today than Mencken perhaps, but quoted less, spent 18 years bashing the press for the New Yorker. Newspaper people recall Liebling with affection. Most of his fire, unlike Mencken's was directed toward management.

From time to time, he did identify woeful and biased reporting, but usually the miscreants were owners and publishers. Col. McCormick, William Randolph Hearst and John S. Knight, among other legendary figures, were favorite targets.

Everybody likes to blame the bosses. Even amiable William Allen White described Frank Munsey as having "the talent of a meatpacker" with "the morals of a money changer." These titans have departed; many of the practices remain.

Corporatins, looking at the bottom line, are now in charge. A few - Washington Post Co., the New York Times Co. …

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