Ruth Elder’s oversea hop is acclaimed by the daily press as a triumph, although she fell more than six hundred miles short of her destination, and seems from the headlines to have accomplished nothing much beyond saving her lipstick. Flying over water is a commonplace, and Miss Elder was not the first woman to undertake it; but her adventure is described as “sheer daring,” and herself as “the prettiest, bravest of girls.”
In view of the stories as cabled to the American newspapers, my allusion to the lipstick may seem ill-natured. Let us see. The Associated Press vouched for this daredevil feat:
Before their descent to the sea . . . her courage was tested in a breath-taking manner. The fliers had been driving their plane, even then slowed down by a defective oil line, through a sleet storm. The tail of the plane, on which a heavy coating of sleet had formed, became too heavy for the machine to be kept on an even keel.
Something had to be done to right this. There was some gasoline stored in the tail of the plane—a reserve supply to be used in an emergency. Haldeman and Miss Elder consulted each other regarding what should be done. They decided the reserve supply of gasoline would have to be jettisoned. They then took their turns at the stick while one or the other crawled along the icy fuselage of the plane and threw overboard some of the reserve supply.
Miss Elder took her turn at crawling along the fuselage without a tremor, it was related, and, this chore accomplished, returned to do her shift at the stick.
How ungallant to call it a chore! You get the picture: a dauntless heroine buffeting icy midatlantic blasts as she crawls over a sleety, sloping surface, with watery wastes yawning beneath her. How thin and sterile the ten-twenty-thirty melodrama in comparison with such a situation! Who shall say Miss Elder doesn’t deserve the pulpwood encomiums heaped upon her? Well, let “Bill” Brock and “Ed” Schlee, who actually flew across the Atlantic, in a plane precisely like Miss Elder’s—let them say it.
“Once you are in the cabin of that plane,” they explained to the New York Evening Post, “you can’t get out on the fuselage as long as you are in flight. It simply can’t be done. Silly to talk about it.” They added that there was no aperture in the plane making it possible to get out of the cabin to the top of the wing and thence to the tail. It seems a pity that mere physical fact should interfere with a story so romantic that the Associated Press and its member newspapers swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. Romance and peril was what was wanted, to build circulation. For the sake of circulation, a heroine is still being made of a young woman.
The flight is another in the chain stimulated by the successful journey of Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh, which was arranged as a publicity stunt to put St. Louis, Missouri, on the map, and succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its promoters. The chain has included an aerial derby to Honolulu, to advertise a “pineapple king,” which cost seven lives. The majority of these events, encouraged by the press because they help sell papers, have left tragedy in their wake.
The newspapers of this country have just come through their first peace-time summer without a slump in circulation. In a page “spread” the New York World declares that in the six months ended September 30 “one event of international importance followed fast upon the heels of another.
When news of transcendent importance is afield it is to the World that New Yorkers turn in ever-increasing numbers for the most authoritative, quickest, and most reliable account of world events.” Editor and Publisher, however, offers no pious palaver about “news of transcendent importance.” It frankly entitles a leading article: Fights and Flights Banished the Slump from Summer Circulations. The New York dailies, its figures show, have gained an aggregate of 400,000 daily sales, and similar benefits were reaped the country over. The Dempsey-Sharkey fight sent the Seattle Times circulation up 113,729, which was three thousand more than the gain on Lindbergh’s flight; while the Dempsey-Tunney fight gave a gain of 15,000 more than Lindbergh. The circulation manager wired the trade journal: “I believe this type of news has genuine circulation-building power; the best, in fact, we have yet experienced.” From many other quarters the cry was echoed. “Sports seemingly fetch more and hold more than crime news,” said the Philadelphia Enquirer. Of all the papers quoted, only one attributed its advance to crusading. “Our gain,” said the St. Louis Star, “may best be attributed to the steadfast policy of this newspaper in defending the interests of the public in several outstanding issues during the last year, rather than to any sensational news.”
Flights got due credit, but not one word was whispered about prize fights when the New York Times polled the publishers and printed their views under the headline What Increased Newspaper Sales. Ralph Pulitzer of the World said that paper’s gain was accentuated by a reduction in price, a fact ignored in the page advertisement. The others spoke of “an abnormal amount of news,” “unusual and stirring events,” greater proportionate literacy since the stoppage of immigration, and “a widening interest in news happenings.” But not one word about the squared circles, a strange instance of ingratitude. It was too bad that no statement was obtained from the Evening Post, which outdistanced them all in the proportion of its gain. In the year ending the first of October it doubled its circulation. “More sports play than last year,” said Editor and Publisher, “is the crux of the Evening Post‘s story.”
Occasional peaks of sales from sensational events alone do not mean substantially higher levels of circulation; the theory is that they make new readers, and make old readers buy more editions, and that some of the gain is maintained between times. The New York Journal, which has a highly responsive audience, affords an instance of how certain circulation-building stories have fattened its figures during the late spring and the summer months; the circulation of the paper is 680,000, and the peaks are given in round numbers,
May 10 — Snyder-Gray murder verdict and disappearance of the Nungesser-Coli plane, 106,000 gain.
May 21 — Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris, 170,000 gain.
June 6 — Chamberlain and Levine land in Germany, 95,000 gain.
July 22 — Day after Dempsey beat Sharkey, when discussion of foul added interest, 85,000 gain.
August 23 — Sacco-Vanzetti execution, 50,000 gain.
The only event of “transcendent importance” in this list was the Sacco-Vanzetti execution, and it was at the bottom of the list as a circulation stimulant. All the others were prearranged and press-agented exhibition stunts, to which the newspapers lent their columns in order to pad their sales. The advertiser demands mass circulation; and the newspapers are generous with free advertising of commercial sport and aviation enterprises, however dubious their nature, when there is the prospect of a circulation gain.
The period under discussion included other big stories. There was the Mississippi flood and the Geneva conference on naval limitation, during which the world saw with astonishment that Great Britain and the United States were eyeing each other with a view to “the next war.” In the spring there was an arrangement between the Federal Reserve Board and the central banks of France and England to maintain a low interest rate here, which would improve the international position of the franc and pound, and would enable the Treasury to refund our Second Liberties at advantageous terms. The low interest rate and cheap money brought an orgy of Wall Street speculation, but the story about the Federal Reserve Board did not get onto the first pages until a minor development fitted it into the journalistic pattern of sensationalism. When the board commanded the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago to maintain its low rate, despite an announced increase, there was the threat of court proceedings and a Congressional fight; Here was conflict, and the story made Page One.
But none of these stories was “played” by the press, for none of them had the thrilling emotional quality thought necessary for circulation building. The Gray-Snyder murder trial shouldered the Mississippi flood, which imperiled a million and a half of the population and made 700,000 homeless, over to the inside pages. The press is preoccupied with thrills; and a tabloid picture paper outbids its big brothers by paying $100,000 for Ruth Elder’s “own” story, that its readers may have an illusion of intimacy. The newspaper’s function, on which its privileged status and Constitutional guaranty are based, has been abdicated.