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The New York World: A Journal of Duality | The Nation

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The New York World: A Journal of Duality

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The New York World is Pulitzer's greatest prize.

About the Author

Oswald Garrison Villard
Oswald Garrison Villard (March 13, 1872-October 1, 1949) was a US journalist who wrote many articles for The Nation. He...

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A monument to Joseph Pulitzer the New York World unquestionably is. It is even more than that; it is really a monument to the idealism of the many men from Central Europe who came to America as to the promised land, so joyous at having turned their backs upon the falsities, the hypocrisies, the military autocracies of the Continent that they brought to America a devotion quite unsurpassed by any native born. Theirs was a far keener appreciation of the true principles of a democratic society and of the fundamentals of American idealism than is held by nine-tenths of the college graduates of today who claim admittance to the Sons of the Revolution. True, Mr. Pulitzer was not like three others who left their mark upon American journalism--Carl Schurz, Oswald Ottendorfer, and Henry Villard--a product of the Revolution of 1848. He belonged to a later generation of immigrants and did not cross the ocean as a result of that idealistic uprising which would have liberalized Germany and spared the world its greatest agony had it succeeded. But the fact is nevertheless that New York owes what is today perhaps its most liberal English-language daily to a simple Jewish-Hungarian immigrant of humblest origin, who came to this country friendless and unknown with so little money it is a question whether he would not have been excluded had the laws been what they are today. If men like Congressman Johnson, who are now so bent on excluding all aliens from America in pursuit of the narrow, selfish, nationalistic dogma of "America for those who are already here," could ever be brought to measure the contributions of some of the thousands who came penniless to these shores in foul-smelling steerage quarters, they would surely he shamed into something different. They would at least have to concede that the morning World is today one of the few remaining assets in the field of journalism in which Americans with ideals can take pride.

Yet it does not begin to approximate what it ought to and so easily could be-the Manchester Guardian of America. For this is responsible the fact that the World is and always has been a creature of compromise. Nothing could be finer than the vision of its purpose Joseph Pulitzer published when he purchased it in 1883, which it now daily carries under its "mast-head" on the editorial page:

An institution that should always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.

His platform, dubbed radical, demagogic, socialistic, and altogether upsetting (in the lack then of the easy epithet of "bolshevist"), called for the taxation of luxuries, inheritances, large incomes, monopolies, all the special privileges of corporations, as well as a tariff for revenue only, and the reform of the civil service-most of the taxation proposals are now law.

At the beginning of Mr. Pulitzer's ownership the World (which was originally founded as a one-cent religious daily!) planned to touch even lower depths of journalism than had the Herald under the elder James Gordon Bennett. Mr. Pulitzer played far more directly to the base passions of the multitude than Mr. Bennett, yet his was a moving vision of a great daily of the working masses among which he had himself toiled, suffered, and almost starved, until his feet reached the road to renown and to riches. It was by this appeal to the crowd that Mr. Pulitzer succeeded; like many another he deliberately stooped for success, and then, having achieved it, slowly put on garments of righteousness. I am old enough to remember that forty years ago in New York it was impossible to find the World in any refined home- it was regarded much as Hearst's Evening Journal is today. It was the World as well as the Journal which Mr. Godkin had in mind when he wrote in the Evening Post some twenty-four rears ago that "a yellow journal office is probably the nearest approach, in atmosphere, to hell existing in any Christian state, for in gambling houses, brothels, and even in brigands' caves there is a constant exhibition of fear of the police, which is in itself a sort of homage to morality or acknowledgment of its existence." If this language seems preposterously strong today it was pretty well justified at the time by the devilish work done both by the World and the Hearst press in bringing on the war with Spain. Then Mr. Pulitzer was willing to outdo Hearst in shameless and unwarranted sensationalism lest Hearst inflict on his papers irrevocable injury. That chapter in the World's history is not one to be read with satisfaction today by anyone connected with it.

But like Mr. Bennett's Herald, the World grew more conservative with time, because its permanence was established, because Mr. Pulitzer himself grew older, and because he and his family came to a social prominence in which a more sober appearance and less sensationalism in their chief newspaper had their merits. It is undoubtedly true also that the change lies in part in our own altered vision. A first page which horrified New York in 1880 would seem tame and commonplace today. As Pulitzer outdid Bennett so did Hearst's yellowness make the World's seem merely a sickly pallor. Nevertheless the World has been for decades under the spell of Mr. Pulitzer's constant admonition to his editors to hold its popular following. In modern slang, he wanted a "high-brow" editorial page embodied in a "low-brow" newspaper. This Pulitzer policy has long exerted an unfavorable influence upon the World and caused it to lose the great opportunity of becoming the newspaper of the thoughtful middle-classes which Mr. Oehs and his Times seized--to the community's loss, for the liberal editorial page of the World would accomplish great good in thousands of homes in which the dull reactions of the Times's editorial writers do harm. For decades, and long, long after the World was rich enough to buy the best of paper and ink, it kept to its poor ink and newsprint in craven fear lest, if it presented as clear and typographically handsome a front page as that of the Times or the Evening Post, the toiling masses who rush downtown on the East Side elevated railways or surge across the bridges would abandon it. Only within the last few years has the World slightly spruced up its appearance without as yet, however, so improving it as to become the formidable rival to the Times in the more influential quarters of the city it ought to be. One hesitates to put one's own opinions against those of the able business men who builded, with Mr. Pulitzer, the newspaper's success, yet I have a very strong feeling that as the Manchester Guardian has a large labor following, so the World could years ago have improved its appearance and yet held a labor constituency had it so desired, or had its editors and owners had the vision and the necessary courage. I am emboldened to believe that this is not a wholly mistaken theory of mine by the fact that the World is now turning in this very direction. It has not only improved the quality of its ink and paper; through the addition to its staff of Messrs. Walter Lippmann, F. P. Adams, and Heywood Braun it is reaching out for a new group of readers since those gentlemen, for all their merits, will not appeal to the masses. After all, the workers are best drawn to a daily like the World by a friendly, understanding, appreciative, and just editorial attitude toward the aspirations of labor. Even now, I think, the World could cut deeply into the Times's field; but the fear of circulation losses among the populace still keeps the management from bettering the paper other than slowly--too slowly for quick results. The insiders believe that they have exchanged about 90,000 new readers for a similar number of the old following lost. It is interesting to note that the circulation of the World was 382,087 on October 1 of this year; it was 395,495 in October, 1912, when the price was, however, only one cent instead of two. It sank to 346,289 in 1918.

This apparent duality of aim is everywhere in evidence. Alongside of excellent and worth-while reporting there are still occasional vulgarities, often lapses of omission, and much poor recording of events as in labor matters; alongside of admirable foreign correspondence, notably in the Sunday issue, appear crude and sensational articles bent on keeping up the large Sunday sales. The Times sells nearly 600,000 copies on Sunday without that abomination known as the "Sunday Comic"; the World sticks to its distinctly inferior supplements of this type. But the most striking illustration is, after all, its relationship to the other daily published under the same roof and owned by the same persons, which hides behind the reputation of the morning World. The Evening World is the black sheep of the family, about whose whereabouts and mode of life one does not inquire too carefully. Like others of questionable repute, this denizen of Park Row lives for the moment and the hour. It is of the earth earthy, although it, too, has been growing more respectable. It profits largely by its mode of life and it has even been rumored that the proceeds of its lack of high character have at times been of generous reinforcement to the purse of the more respectable member of the family.

So it is of the latter that one thinks when one talks of the New York World. When Senators and Congressmen rise, as they frequently do, to speak with admiration of the courage and outspokenness of the World they mean, of course, the morning edition. The Evening World rigidly continues the original Pulitzer policy of playing down to the lowest taste of the masses; the morning edition slowly but steadily worms itself into politest society and does so in part by calling to its service the pens of men like Frank A. Vanderlip, H. G. Wells, A. G. Gardiner, Joseph Caillaux, Andr Tardieu, George N. Barnes, and Maximilian Harden--though it carefully prefaces their articles with a disclaimer that their views are its own--and many another writer of world-wide fame. Indeed, the most reliable foreign correspondence is to be found in its columns. In the perusal of no other New York daily does one rest as safe in the belief that its correspondents are writing what they think, untrammeled either by editorial inhibitions or by subconscious consciousness of the paper's prejudices and policies. Like the Baltimore Sun, the World gave great attention to the reporting of the Washington Conference by many distinguished writers from all countries and all points of view--it brought over Mr. Wells. Yet it did not profit by this as much as it should have, again because of its appearance. It deliberately hides its own light under a bushel. The ordinary city reporting is probably as well if not better done on the World than on any other New York daily, but its editors have been known to bewail, quite as if they could not correct it if they would, the shocking decadence of the modern reporter. Best of all is the freedom of the news columns from control by advertisers, which is complete.

Independence is the World's stock in trade. To its honor be it said that it was the first to become, with the New York Evening Post and the Springfield Republican, really independent politically. That, too, was Joseph Pulitzer's policy, and right nobly has the paper clung to it despite its natural leanings to the Democratic Party. Its championship of Grover Cleveland, its espousal of the cause of Woodrow Wilson were of enormous benefit to those two Democratic Presidents--Mr. Cleveland almost directly attributed his first victory to its support. Its refusal to accept the specious and superficial Bryan went a long way to insure that gentleman's defeats. In the local politics of New York City it has never faltered in well-doing; yet after years of battling for reform it pays its share of the price the whole press pays for its loss of public confidence by seeing the candidates it and every other reputable newspaper opposes overwhelmingly elected and reelected. Despite Joseph Pulitzer's admonition to its editors "never to lack sympathy with the poor," despite the great hold it has had upon the laboring classes, the World has not escaped the wide criticism of New York's dailies that they are of the "kept press," and that they reflect primarily the views of the great capitalists. Yet it has waged some tremendous fights for the people against those capitalists.

It has at times, for instance, wanted to abate the Stock Exchange. It attacked its own hero, Grover Cleveland, in the matter of a national bond issue which he sold to the House of Morgan at a greater profit to them than was earned by all the bankers combined who floated the loans of the Civil War. It compelled him to convert the next issue into a popular one, thus giving the public a chance to subscribe and saving a high commission to the Government--there never was a secret bond issue after that. It has fought nobly against special privilege in the form of tariffs, subsidies, grabs, bonuses, and all sorts of raids upon the Treasury. It has not hesitated to oppose the Government in many of its overseas ventures such as the mad policy of Mr. Cleveland in the Venezuela matter. Nobody forgets like the American public and it forgets nothing so rapidly as a newspaper's good deeds. Indeed, the daily is usually judged every day afresh and a single stumble today will bring down a torrent of abuse no matter how white the record may have been for years before. So it is a fact that today the World does not stand so well as a champion of the people as it did two or three decades ago, and that it is the object of widespread suspicion among people who ought to be its friends and admirers. It has lost and not gained ground.

But blame for that is by no means wholly to be laid at the door of the public; the newspaper is itself at fault because its liberalism has had grave lapses, because it is not always consistent, and because it curiously lacks driving force in its efforts to ram home its views. The occasional inconsistency is doubtless partly due to the mechanics of the editorial page; it seems as if the editor on duty evenings were sometimes overruled the next day. Joseph Pulitzer in praising the alertness and promptness of expression of editorial opinion of the Evening Post once complained to me bitterly that he could not get his "editorial gentlemen" to write on events the day they occurred. In connection with its failure to win for its usually sound, wise, and admirably expressed views the attention and influence they deserve, it is to be noted that Henry Watterson did Mr. Frank I. Cobb, the World's chief editor, the disservice to characterize him as the greatest editorial writer of this generation. Comparisons are still odious, if only because they set people to measuring and judging. Clear, cool, able, forceful in the presentation of his views, excellent user of English, Mr. Cobb has never equaled Rollo Ogden at his best before the Great War gravely tarnished the latter's liberalism and he took his plunge into the dull senescence of the Times's editorial page. Then Mr. Ogden wrote with a passion for justice and righteousness which no one equaled after the retirement of his exemplar, Edwin L. Godkin. It was Mr. Ogden's fiery pen as much as any one's which made the McKinley Cabinet counsel one morning during the Spanish War whether it should not have the editors of the Evening Post and Springfield Republican indicted for treason; it was, his pen which with a single stroke punctured the dangerous Hearst boom for the Presidency in 1904. That particular quality of passion Mr. Cobb lacks; nor does he somehow use as effectively as might be the weapon of reiteration which was one of the deadliest in Mr. Godkin's arsenal. There is, in other words, often a failure to follow through the stroke.

Perhaps the point can best be illustrated by a really great editorial which Mr. Cobb published, double-leaded, in the World on December 5, 1920, entitled An Antiquated Machine. To it was devoted the entire editorial page of that issue; had it appeared in one of the weeklies which are called radical it would have been denounced as dangerously revolutionary. Had it been printed in the conservative Tribune or Times it would have created a national sensation. For it declared the truth that our Constitution is outworn, our scheme of government hopelessly antiquated and inefficient, our Congressional system as if planned to exclude the best minds of the country "except by accident." "The cold inexorable fact," Mr. Cobb wrote, is that "the Congressional system is no longer adequate to the political necessities of 105,000,000 people. The failure of government is largely the failure of that system, and until the legislative machinery is modernized the affairs of government are bound to go from bad to worse no matter what party is in power or what its policies or promises may be. An ox-cart cannot do the work of an automobile truck, and an ox-cart does not cease to be an ox-cart when it is incorporated into the Constitution of the United States." But Mr. Cobb did not stop there. "We talk much of representative government in the United States, but we have no representative government." The political, social, and economic conditions of 1920, he pointed out, "bear little relation to the political, the social, and the economic conditions of 1787, yet the American people are trying to make a governmental machine which was constructed under the conditions of 1787 function under the complex conditions of 1920 and are bitterly complaining because they do not get better results"--a sentiment which is as if lifted bodily from the creed of the wicked Nation. Then behold this dangerous iconoclasm:

During the first half of the nineteenth century the United States remained the model of all nations seeking self-government It is no longer the model. Of all the new republics that came into existence as a result of the Great War, not one of them has fashioned its machinery of government after that of the United States. All of them have adopted the British parliamentary system as adapted to the uses of a republic by the French. All of them have rejected congressional government in favor of parliamentary government. All of them have made their government directly and immediately responsible to the people whenever an issue arises about which the will of the majority is in doubt or in dispute. In consequence all these governments have become more democratic than that of the United States, more responsible to public opinion and more responsive to public opinion than that of the United States, and more closely in touch with the general political sentiment of the country than that of the United States.

Instead of remaining the leaders in the development of democratic institutions, the American people have lagged behind. They cling obstinately to most of the anachronisms of their Constitution although they are wholly indifferent to the great guaranties of human liberties embodied in the Bill of Rights. They retain a legislative system that time has made obsolete; but they have forgotten all about the principles of local self-government which was at the foundation of the republic, and they have equally forgotten all about the rights of the minority which are at the foundation of all freedom. While holding to the letter of their Constitution, they have so far perverted its spirit that the United States is now the one country among the great civilized nations in which the will of the people can never be definitely ascertained, in which it can never definitely be put into effect, and in which it can be successfully overruled whenever a political cabal is organized for that purpose.

Every intelligent American citizen knows that the machinery of government is breaking down. He knows that the public confidence in government is at the lowest ebb. He knows that government has ceased to function in harmony with either the political or economic necessities of the people, that it is rapidly becoming a thing apart from the actual life of the country and in a great degree indifferent to the life of the country. It is a huge, clumsy machine that requires a maximum of energy to produce a minimum of results, and those results are often worse than no results at all.

Surely so startling and revolutionary an editorial--the only one in more than two years to which the World devoted its entire editorial page in one issue--ought to have brought down on the World the wrath of 100 per cent patriots, of every one of the multitude of worshipers of things as they are. The society for the preservation of the constitution, whose headquarters are in Washington, ought to have solemnly resolved that the World was a traitor to its country. The American Legion ought to have risen in its wrath to point out the truth that if the World had published such an editorial during the war Mr. Cobb and Mr. Pulitzer would have gone to jail--many went for saying less. Wall Street ought to have removed all its financial advertising from the World, and the New York State Chamber of Commerce should at least have demanded that Mr. Cobb be fingerprinted. None of these things happened; indeed, so far as it was possible to ascertain without having subscribed to the clipping bureaus, the editorial attracted surprisingly little attention--do not editors read the Sunday World, or do they prefer to golf? Or is it due to the absence in the editorial of the passionate ring of the reformer who must be heard no matter what the price? Certain it only is that the Constitution and our legislative system did not rock as they should have. More seriously, how has the World followed up this magnificent beginning? Has it, after the manner of Joseph Pulitzer at the time of the secret bond deals, made itself known throughout the country as the ardent, flaming exponent of the growing demand that the strait-jacket of an outworn Constitution under which we live, and upon which our highest officials spit as and when they choose, shall be changed? On the contrary, I venture to assert that 98 per cent of the faithful readers of the World are unaware of its views on this subject; they have certainly not had it drilled into them day by day, or week by week, how grave the national emergency is which is set forth in that leader. No, the World is not living up to the great opportunity which here offers itself to make the public realize whither we are drifting, and to lead the country toward gradual reforms without which we shall some day have an overturn as far-reaching as the Russian.

But there is still another vital reason why the World does not lead as it once did. The World's editors were of those liberals who failed utterly to see that when liberalism strikes hands with war, liberalism withers if it does not die. The World supported Woodrow Wilson because he proclaimed in his "New Freedom" largely the World's own gospel of social and political reform. Today the progressive movement in America which looked so hopeful in the first three years of Wilson's Administration is flat on its back, every reform cause is checked when it is not dead. The "New Freedom" reads like a travesty today; or like a note out of the long dead past. It bears no relation whatever to current political action, and no one more than the World bewails the political reaction of the hour--a reaction which was as inevitable after the war as the following of night upon day and which it itself did its full share to create. Far-sighted editors truly steeped in democratic liberalism would have foreseen this; Mr. Pulitzer would certainly never have been taken in by such phrases as the "war to end war" and "making the world safe for democracy" and the rest of the war humbug whose falsity and hypocrisy have been and are hourly being demonstrated by every event from Paris to Mesopotamia. In vain in the sight of so experienced a bird would those nets have been spread.

But the World and Mr. Cobb differed but little from the ordinary run of dailies and editors. They were silent or mildly protested while liberalism was done to death; while every right that American citizens were guaranteed was trampled underfoot with the consent and approval of the great prophet of liberalism, Woodrow Wilson. During the greater part of the war the World ran with the herd and was as rabid and poisonous as the rest. Only long after the mischief was done and all danger to the protestant was over, when the new chains, not yet broken, had long been welded upon us in place of the "New Freedom," did Mr. Cobb speak-bravely, eloquently, ably, persuasively, effectively; But the World ought to have suffered for assenting to the eclipse of political independence, the muzzling of the press, the denial of the famed historic American right to one's conscience at any and all times, and it has suffered. Nor can it soon recover from this unpardonable lapse from the principles of its founder. How can the masses be expected to rise to a leader who falters and keeps silence when the enemy is most powerful and in control? To its blind faith, too, in its idol, Mr. Wilson, must be attributed some of the World's vagaries in regard to the League of Nations. It seems incredible that it really swallowed so many of the pro-League arguments because, democratic methods being its specialty, it ought to have resented most strongly the undemocratic character of the League. Last of all American newspapers should the World have given currency to the idea that, if we had entered the League, the whole history of the last three and a half years in Europe would have been different, that all would have gone as happily as a marriage bell. For that totally ignores European economic conditions and the fact that the infamous Treaty of Versailles is at the bottom of the present rapid collapse of Europe, and that the League is hopelessly woven into the texture of the treaty. Far more defensible is the contrary belief that if the United States were in the League, under a Harding and a Hughes, this country would have thrown its weight to the imperialists of Europe, especially to the French. Surely if Lloyd George could make no headway against the French policies there is little to make us believe that the United States could or would have.

A final illustration of the World's limping anti-imperialism is that after so bravely fighting against American conquest of the Philippines, it only recently discovered our bloody imperialism in Santo Domingo and Haiti. Yet the principle at stake and the menace to our own political and moral welfare are the same. One can only add again that the World limps far less than others, that it does often see some things where others are totally blind. But it is sad to see it using the alleged Kipling interview deliberately to arouse bitterness against England, and a worthless interview with the contemptible, brainless Ludendorff to increase ill-will in the United States against Germany and to play Germany and France off against each other again. This is treason to the old World. Can it be a deliberate policy of a recent accession to the managerial staff?

One word more: From all accounts there is much democracy in the World's inner organization. With this the modesty and self-effacement of the Pulitzer brothers, Ralph and Joseph, must be duly recognized. Whether because of good taste or for other reasons, they have, thank fortune, never utilized their positions to secure political office, or to plaster their names all over their papers after the manner of Hearst, or to feather their nests. They have, if an outsider can judge aright, given free play to their editors. The shortcomings of the World are not due to its being controlled either by business considerations, or by any selfish dominance of the owners.

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