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Some Reflections on the American Press | The Nation

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Some Reflections on the American Press

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The man famous for saying "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one" writes about a free and a responsible press for The Nation.

About the Author

A group of gentlemen operating under the official-sounding title of the Commission on Freedom of the Press has published a slender book called "A Free and Responsible Press" that may be a mild shock to Henry R. Luce, who in 1942 plunked down $200,000 to finance the group's work. The membership of the commission, selected by Robert Maynard Hutchins, includes no types remotely resembling George Seldes or Upton Sinclair, and yet the book, subtitled "A General Report on Mass Communication: Radio, Motion Pictures, Magazines, and Books," has little good to say about the American press of which Mr. Lace's publications form so imposing a segment. Certain of the strictures even seem to have been set down with Time-Life operating procedure particularly in mind.

Of equal importance with reportorial accuracy are the identification of fact as fact and opinion as opinion, and their separation, so far as possible," the commission says, high on its list of requirements for a free and responsible press. "This is necessary all the way from the reporter's file, up through the copy and makeup desks and the editorial offices, to the final, published product." And again "Sales talk should be plainly labeled as such whether for toothpastes or tariffs, cosmetics or cosmic reforms, devices for reducing waists or raising prices."

Mr. Hutchins as chairman of the commission contributes a foreword in which he tells how the commission came to be, as a result of a brief conversation between Mr. Lace and him at a meeting of the board of William Benton's Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.--Old Yales are always up to big things--and how the commission worked, banging out every line of the report after argument, so that it is a collective expression. He says the commission carried out no elaborate "research"--the quotation marks are his, as if he considered the word a neologism-- and I was inclined to wonder uncharitably as I read the book what they had spent the $200,000 on; it contains some sound, unoriginal reflections, but nothing worth over one grand even at Ladies Home Journal rates. It does not shed as much light on our journalistic dilemma as Morris Ernst's 1946 book, "The First Freedom," or the even more exciting seventy-two-page pamphlet printed for the Senate Small Businesses Committee--Survival of a Free, Competitive Press," which, you have to write to the committee to get, if there are any copies left.

Nevertheless, the book has importance in the long struggle for a truly free press that is beginning all over again because of technical advances which have wiped out the old freedom of any effective journalist who could hire a handpress to start an effective newspaper. It is important because a group that includes John Dickinson, Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania and general counsel for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and Beardsley Ruml, chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, as well as Archibald MacLeish and Arthur M. Schlesinger and William E. Hocking (there are thirteen members of the commission altogether, all with impressive signatures) has publicly recognized that the American press is more or less of a mess. The collective authors refuse to accept the propaganda put out by the officers of press associations and schools of journalism that the press is our national glory, distinguishing us from lesser breeds. They don't even think much of schools of journalism.

Their statement of the technical changes which have threatened a conception of press freedom that was fairly adequate in colonial times is concise and convincing. Their view of the performance of the press in our time is marked by considerable asperity--and a lot of sharp insights which break through at unpredictable places, as if some one member of the commission, with more feeling for newspapering than the others, was talking on a more craftsmanlike level all the time but only occasionally getting his remarks into the record. I liked particularly the commission's recognition of the death of mutual criticism among newspapers, and its almost certainly futile recommendation that it be revived.

"Whatever its shortcomings, the American press is less venal and less subservient to political and economic pressure than that of many other countries," the commission states. It doesn't say that the American press isn't venal or isn't subservient, or even that it is less venal or subservient than that of any other country. "The leading organs of the American press have achieved a standard of excellence unsurpassed anywhere in the world." It doesn't say unequaled, and it doesn't say which the leading organs are or how much of the national circulation they reach.

The book ends with thirteen recommendations for action by government, the press itself, and the public. Mr. Hutchins confesses, "The commission's recommendations are not startling. The most surprising thing about them is that nothing more surprising could be proposed." (An editor I know, reading Mr. Hutchins's copy, would have penciled there, "Who told him?"). A sample is, "We recommend that the agencies of mass communication accept the responsibilities of common carriers of information and discussion."

A chief service of the volume is that it makes criticism of the press respectable. Surely no one will accuse the general counsel of the Pennsylvania Railroad of following the Party Line.

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