« ZurückWeiter »
porters. And again, there are one or two of our most rising men at the bar who constantly contribute to newspapers, so openly that they sign their articles with either their names or their well-known initials. Is it unreasonable to conclude, from such a diversity of instances, that no able man would suffer in a professional point of view if he were to admit, without reserve, that he fills up the vacant hours of a young career by discussing questions of politics, of social science, or of law, in the columns of a newspaper? Is there not, rather, reason to believe that one who thus proves his capacity and his energy would only the more rapidly be recognized as worthy of employment in his peculiar profession?
Having thus briefly reviewed the feeble arguments commonly adduced in support of the system of anonymous journalism, it might fairly be insisted that, opposed as it is to our intuitive feelings and our general habits, the failure to defend it is equivalent to its condemnation. But the case does not need to stand on presumptions only, however legitimate. Not only is there no sufficient reason for anonymous writing, there are most forcible reasonings against it; and its renunciation, when that shall come, will not be the consequence of any mere sentiment, but of a distinct perception of its inherent evils
We were able to trace the futility of some of the allegations put forward in favor of anonymous public writers, by a mere examination of the real conditions under which it is exercised-so different from those suggested, or tacitly allowed to be imagined, by its supporters. We may now arrive at a perception of its substantial mischiefs by a consideration of the functions which journalism actually exercises, and of the way in which these are affected by the system of conducting it without personal responsibility.
Whatever it may have been in its origin, there can be no question that, now, the part played by newspapers, in so far as regards their original articles, is rather that of a judge than of an advocate. They do not profess merely to support one side, even when they are avowedly founded chiefly for such a purpose. They argue not with the air
of pleading, but with that of deciding. They do not merely state and support the propositions on their own side, and state and refute the propositions on the other side; they weigh, arbitrate, and determine between them. Their conclusions are couched in the form and language of impartial but authoritative judgments. Doubt is seldom admitted to hang round the question, and an air of absolute candor is flung over most positive decision. And as these discussions are put, so are they accepted. Nine-tenths of the readers of a daily paper accept its decisions as final. They think that the subject has been fully and fairly considered, and they give their minds no trouble to raise further difficulties. The judgment reads so smoothly, it looks so well balanced, it seems to review every point, and its conclusions appear such necessary deductions, from the way in which the arguments are set forth, and from the facts that are stated, that few, indeed, care to pick unpleasant holes in it to their own discomfort. In short, it is purposely framed as a judgment, and it is practically accepted as a judgment. And that this is so is proved by the fact that scarcely any one reads a paper on the other side, which he certainly would feel bound to do if he felt his own to be merely a partisan advocate, and not a fair arbiter.
But it is obvious that the whole value of this method depends on the question whether the facts are truly stated and the arguments fairly urged. If there is a defect in any of these steps, the conclusion is vitiated, and the public, which has relied on and accepted it, is misled. Now, it has been urged that we have sufficient guarantee for honesty in these particulars in the fact that it is the interest of the paper to be honest, since, if it is not so, and is found out, its credit will suffer, and its circulation fall off. It has, however, already been pointed out that such a general and indefinite consequence supplies but an inadequate motive for even the maintenance of average energy and care in those who are ordinarily honest and upright. But we have also to consider the very possible, and, indeed, not infrequent case, in which the conductors or contributors have a personal motive which interferes
with their average integrity and recognition of the ultimate interest of the journal itself. They are almost of necessity partisans, though they assume the air of impartiality. They write for a party. Party success is their success. To please their readers, to comfort them in defeat, to congratulate them in triumph, to encourage them to exertion, are the most immediate objects before their eyes. But these are very strong, almost irresistible, incentives to color the party case a little more favorably than facts warrant. Even men speaking under a sense of personal responsibility are apt in such cases to be unfair. In them it does at least no great harm, for they are known to be speaking as advocates, and they do not seek to disguise their predilections and their objects. But the journalist does disguise his object, even while he promotes it without any check of personal responsibility for the means he employs.
We must keep in mind also how the whole system may be, and is, thus made to work together to pervert facts and conclusions. The special correspondents of the paper are probably imbued with the same general bias as their employers, and, however high their character, they must inevitably slightly magnify what they approve, and slightly depreciate what they disapprove. On these reports, more or less tinged with color, independent correspondents may wish to comment. But however well informed such correspondents may be, it is the practice of many leading journals to admit no argument that makes against the line adopted by the paper. Here again, then, the public is allowed to see but one side. Finally, the matter may be made the subject of a leader, in which, again, even of the small bit of truth already allowed to appear, the favorable points are magnified, the unfavorable are left out of view. So, consciously or unconsciously, the profess edly impartial newspaper misrepresents, garbles, falsifies the evidence, and then judicially sums up, with all the dignity of strict impartiality, and with all the force due to its assumed representative character, and pronounces its decision against those whom it has predetermined to convict. If war had broken out between this country and the United
States, of which at one time we were in imminent peril; if there be yet in this country a war between capital and labor; how much of the peril has arisen from anonymous distortion of facts, and from the assumption of unauthorized persons to speak the thoughts of England, or of certain predominant classes. And how trifling would have been the danger or harm in either case, had these taunting lucubrations been signed, and had it been seen that, far from being the words of authority, they were only the outpourings of an obscure barrister or disappointed man of letters.
Let it be kept in mind also that it is not only isolated perversion of evidence, or direct falsehood of reasoning, that is encouraged by anonymous writing. There runs through the whole train of thought, into which the reader is beguiled by the semblance of judicial severity, a thread of unsound principle. Certain assertions are laid down as axioms, and on these the superstructure of argument is quite logically built. Certain theories of life, or morals, or political economy, are assumed, and then the convenient facts are applied to them, and then the desired conclusion becomes irresistible. This vitiating assumption may be such as, in writing about America, that democracies are always eager for foreign conquest, or perhaps that men of refinement can never find appreciation in popular governments; in writing of European politics, it may be that the sentiment of liberty is only the watchword of demagogues, and that the people care only for material comforts; in writing of England, it may be that every class seeks power only for its own objects, or that an organization for one object means an offensive alliance against every one else, and on every question. But whatever the assumption may be in the particular case, no proof is offered of it, no examination even of its terms and meaning is entered on; it is taken as a truth beyond dispute, and on this hollow ground a triumphant demonstration of the intended conclusion is built. Now it can certainly not be maintained that this fallacy is peculiar to anonymous writing. Begging the question is a form of false reasoning older than Aristotle. But this special form and method of begging the question is used by anony
mous journalists beyond all other men. This calm magisterial enunciation of doctrines which lift the argument over all its difficulties, or which supply analogies that seem of irresistible application, is a system which has never been so beautifully developed as in the oracular utterances of the daily press. The necessary brevity of their discussion helps the illusion, for it seems unreasonable to expect that every point of the argument should be demonstrated in so limited a space, and we are almost grateful to find some principle stated as one which everybody is understood to acquiesce in. And there are very few who, in their hasty perusal, can distinguish the unwarrantable assumption from that which is legitimate, and detect the original fallacy which makes the conclusion false. Yet here again, half the evil is done by the statement coming forth, not merely as the opinion of one man, but as the conviction of that lofty, secret, all-informed, and all-wise power which is assumed to direct and inspire every word that is written in a newspaper.
But to anticipate diminution of evil influence from such productions, if they bore their true authorship on their face, is to count perhaps less than half the good that would follow from avowed authorship. In the majority of cases such things would not be written. For the evil of anonymous journalism is perhaps most notable of all in the tendency to encourage a recklessness or carelessness which few would venture to display under their own names. The sense of shame, the love of applause, would both combine to make writers investigate more fully, and discuss more impartially, if they were made to feel an individual responsibility for what they say.
man would like to run the risk of encountering the laughter of his acquaintances for some gross blunder. No man would like to acquire the personal reputation of being a writer on whom readers could not depend. And few, it may be hoped, would like to be known openly as guilty of offences against good taste or literary morality. A newspaper, written anonymously, can dare all these risks, because its credit is supported by a thousand different circumstances, and it is a corporation without a conscience. But individual writers stand or fall by NEW SERIES, Vol. VI., No. 3.
their own credit, and for their own sakes they dare not indulge in aught that would diminish their good name and reputation.
This security for trustworthy writing would be enhanced by the objects and position of the writers. They would not merely gain or lose credit with the public by the exhibition of care and fidelity, or the reverse, but their own career would depend upon the character thus acquired. Writers for the press belong to it for the most part as a profession. Those who adopt that employment in addition to other professions, do so either for the pay, or from the wish to advance their own opinions. Now when a writer showed himself idle or prejudiced, not merely to the editor, who perhaps might not observe his errors, or might be biassed by the same prejudice, or might be influenced by private favor, but to the public, so that it came to be remarked that such a one's articles were not worth reading, because they could not be depended on, a much more serious result would follow to the writer himself. Marked out as an inferior man, an editor's favor could not support him, for no paper can take the risk of being known to be written by inferior hands. Each man's work thus standing by itself, and tried by itself, marked by the verdict of public opinion as either gold, silver, brass, or clay, it can hardly be doubted that each would use his best efforts to obtain for it the highest place-a place which, when not a single individual, or a coterie, deciding privately and having its own private ends in view, but the whole public, is the judge, will depend on the sterling value of the papers to which a writer's name is habitually attached.
Whoever doubts this need only turn his attention to the operation of the two systems in other branches of literature. Books that are worthless, or worse than worthless, do indeed appear without number. But their authors soon find, in the general indifference, a motive either to alter their style, or to cease to write. If they continue to write, they are not read, and so grow harmless. But when an author's name is known (no matter whether it is his real name or only a nom de plume, in either case it identifies him with his work), and he is accepted as a writer of weight, the public
looks to him, encourages him, and trusts him. Hence there is the strongest pos. sible motive to the author of a book to write carefully and honestly. And hence it follows that all our established authors are men whom we place great reliance on, having proved their title to it by testing their first works on their own merits. In a precisely similar way are the claims of the writers in our periodical literature tried and established. A man whose contributions are valueless may, so long as he is anonymous, hold his place by favor of editorial friendship, or to advance some cause which cannot attract more independent support. But a man who writes under his own name cannot keep his place unless the public has decided that he deserves it. And hence it follows that those who are thus known are all men and women of very high standing, as high in honor (wherever honor is an element in the credit given them) as in literary ability. And the increasing number of periodicals which admit, and of writers who adopt, the practice of signature, proves that the public approbation makes it a system advantageous to all parties.
There is no reason why the system should not be applied in newspapers. A name that was hitherto unknown would of course have to make its way by its own merits. The productions it was appended to would be at first read very critically. When they stated facts, the accuracy of statement would be examined, and the train of reasoning would be accepted only in so far as it might seem strictly just. If it appeared that the writer was either reckless or incompetent, readers would soon cease to glance at his articles, and in that case they would certainly soon cease to appear. But if he gained a just reputation for accuracy and ability, readers would, with equally unfailing instinct, turn to the writing which bore such a stamp.
We have already sufficient evidence, even in the columns of newspapers themselves, of the truth of such a law. How few read anonymous letters in the newspapers! But when a letter appears signed Goldwin Smith, Jacob Omnium, or S. G. O., every one turns to it because they know it will be worth reading, and often not all the prestige of the anonymous leaders can procure for them a
perusal before the letters attested by such well-known names or initials. Would men such as these lose in weight with the public if they wrote leaders instead of letters, and identified their work in the same way?
Nothing, indeed, would more tend to the encouragement and elevation of the literary profession, than such a mode of distinguishing and rewarding excellence and high principle. The consequence would be the growth of a race of writers who would make journalism their avowed business, and who, seeing themselves no longer condemned to obscurity, and to have their best thoughts attributed to the impersonality of a newspaper, or credited to some individual whom the public may wrongly guess to be the author, would vie with each other in aiming at public recognition by the noblest paths. For the public, after all, and in the long run, is not mean, nor false, nor even deliberately prejudiced. If it were, we might at once despair of society and human nature together. But, whatever its temporary aberrations, it seeks at last the true and the right; and it most values and most honors, not those who have pandered to its errors, or its baser sentiments, but those who have been faithful to the truth, and dared its momentary displeasure to recall it when it has gone astray. It is hard to over-estimate what might be the impulse given to uprightness and purity of public thought in this generation, if only our daily instructors had ever before them the sense that by their works would they personally be judged, that by conscientious energy they would win place and fame, that by falsehood or by truckling they would only win to themselves a momentary applause, soon to be extinguished in permanent contempt.
The gradual establishment of so high a standard of morality in journalism would permit, with little injury, the occasional and exceptional admission of anonymous writing, when there was peculiar reason for concealing the name. It might be that, in rare cases, to advocate a particular line of policy, or even to show interest in a particular subject, might be detrimental to an individual who was not a regular writer, but who might have valuable means of judging
upon some special topic of interest at the moment. In such cases an anonymous article might appear, as it does now, standing only on its own merits, and on the general credit of the journal. But it would bear more weight than it does now, by exactly so much as the credit of the paper had been raised, by the higher tone infused through adoption of the general system of personal and avowed responsibility.
The case of leading articles has hitherto been that which has been in our view. But the same principle applies to other departments of a newspaper. Who can doubt that the public would get much more correct information of foreign affairs if it had the names of the special correspondents, so as to be able to judge whether they had means of information? Half the ridiculous stories that affect the money market, and sometimes increase the chances of war, would perish before birth, the rest would die in laughter or contempt, if it were only known that the person who professes to communicate the secrets of despots or the resolutions of cabinets has only the gossip of a coffee-house for his source of information. On the other hand, those whose position secured them the means of obtaining really valuable intel ligence would be correspondingly appreciated. So, again, with regard to criticisms on music, or painting, or the drama. In these there is known to enter so much of personal favor or enmity that in truth the public nowadays pays very little attention to them. Newspaper authority can at the most induce us to look or to listen with a little more care, but a newspaper verdict neither makes nor condemns any artiste. But the system is scarcely the less objectionable because it has grown innocuous. It wounds if it cannot kill, it retards merit if it cannot repress it, it gives a momentary success if it cannot finally palm off incompetence for genius. To deliver us from this evil, and to substitute really valuable, because trustworthy, criticism, for that which is, at the best, only disregarded, the honest course of attesting opinions by names is indispensable. When the public knows that it is one artist's personal friend who criticises his and his rival's pictures; that it is the
husband of a musician, or the partner in a musical firm, that reports on concerts; that it is a writer of plays who gives his opinion on the conduct of managers and the abilities of actors, the general indifference would turn into active reprobation, and newspaper owners would be compelled, either to cease from filling their columns with false and unfair judgments, or to engage critics to whom no suspicion of partiality could. attach.
In the wider field of book criticism the same complaints are now made, and the same remedy is called for. Publishers, authors, and the public all lament that there is not a literary journal which is not infected to the core with favoritism. How can it be otherwise? A man gets his friend to review his book, and the motive of the review nowhere appears. A critic has a private pique, and the public knows nothing of the secret source of so much judicial acerbity. An editor writes books himself, and in reviewing other books he favors those issued by his own publishing-house, and says kind things of other authors whom he expects to say anonymous kind things of him in other reviews. No doubt it is impossible to segregate authors and critics into two distinct and unconnected classes. Nor is it either necessary or desirable that we should. Only let us have men owning what they do, and let us know in each case whether there have been any private motives suggesting either favor or hostility. There is no function so terrible as that of criticism. A man's book is part of his life, and a blow to it may be a cruel hurt to him. But the public needs protection, too, against what is evil, and aid in the appreciation of what is good. In the performance of these most weighty, yet most delicate duties, the critic needs all the support which can be afforded by every accumulated motive. It is not enough to warn him merely, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." There is need for the further warning, "A false witness shall not be unpunished, and he that speaketh lies shall not escape."
If now it be asked why, if acknowledged writing would be attended with so many advantages to authors and to