“It is customary in these days to laud the newspaper, but, except for the little news that it contains, which is to its managers a secondary consideration, the newspaper is simply an organ of deception. Every prominent newspaper is the defender of some interest and everything it says is directly or indirectly (and most effective when indirectly) in support of that interest.”
Lester F. Ward, Pure Sociology (1902)
More than a century later, it remains customary to laud the newspaper and to imagine that it is primarily a vehicle for the conveyance of news. We should not be so easily beguiled by the spurious prestige of the press. We should rather follow the founder of American sociology and see a newspaper as, first and foremost, a shill.
For those who need a refresher on the meaning of this valuable word:
“The word ‘shill’ . . . is synonymous with ‘capper,’ ‘booster,’ ‘ringer,’ ‘dummy,’ ‘stool,’ ‘stool-pigeon,’ and ‘outside man’; all technical slang titles for the shabby creature, the human buzzard, who picks up his foul living by rascality and roguery in working between the public and some swindling game.”*
A shill works between the public and some swindling game by acting as the secret partner of the swindler. He is, we might say, the secret salesman who softens up the mugs. He does this by feeding the mugs what appears to be honest enthusiasm for, and disinterested knowledge about, the article or service on offer in the swindle.
Ward tells us that propaganda is most effective when it is “indirect.” Indirect propaganda is propaganda that looks like something other than propaganda—that looks, for instance, like “news.” This is because a reader feels that the opinions he forms while reading “news” are his own opinions, and that they are therefore to be valued and trusted above the opinions promulgated by other men. As a psychologist explains:
“One of the remarkable aspects of indirect suggestion is that the hidden idea is not thought to have its origin in the suggester’s mind, but in the mind of the recipient.”**
All the opinions a newspaper reader forms are, in fact, “suggested” by the newspaper stories he reads, and therefore by the writers of those stories and the editors of the newspaper. The writers and editors leave the reader to “draw his own conclusions,” but they of course tell and arrange their stories in such a way that the conclusion he will draw can be pretty well known in advance. It hurts a man’s vanity, and arouses his suspicions, when he is told what to think; it strokes his vanity and sooths his suspicions when he thinks he is thinking for himself.
Another writer explains that it is a mistake for an adult to tell a child the moral of a story, since a child naturally resists direct moral instruction as an unwelcome attempt to curb and control its behavior. A “sententious handling of episodes” therefore defeats its purpose by putting the child on guard.*** The correct method is indirect moral suggestion by way of stories that do not seem to be preachy and didactic, but that subtly illustrate and indirectly suggest the moral lesson that the storyteller hopes to impart. Moral instruction is only effective when the child feels (however mistakenly) that he is making the moral judgements for himself.
Aspiring novelists are told, “show, don’t tell,” and this is exactly how indirect suggestion works. But when you “show,” you must never appear to be “showing” anything at all. You must speak with the seemingly artless impartiality of a shill.
If we apply this to newspapers and their readers (and of course to all other branches of the media), we see that it is a mistake for writers and editors to openly editorialize, but that they can nevertheless shape public opinion by feeding the public seemingly disinterested stories that illustrate and indirectly suggest the opinions that the writers and editors hope to impart. A “sententious handling of episodes” puts readers on their guard, and that is why the serious propaganda is not on the opinion page, but is rather in the “news.”
* * * * *
A piper plays the tunes that are called by the man who puts coins in his hat. A journalist writes the stories that are called by the man who signs his paycheck on the front. Lester Ward quotes the journalist John Swinton toasting “The Independent Press” at a banquet of the New York Press Association in 1895,
“The business of the New York journalist is to distort the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of Mammon, and to sell his country and race for his daily bread; or for what is about the same thing, his salary . . . . We are tools, and the vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are jumping-jacks. They pull the string and we dance.”††
This reminds me of something I read about the griot of west Africa. It was written by a doctor attached to the French military in Senegal. Of the griot he says,
“He is the musician, the singer of praises of whoever will pay him . . .”†
The griot is, in other words, the primitive prototype of the independent journalists of the New York Press Association. Like those “jumping-jacks” and “tools,” the griot must sing for his supper. His social status is likewise low, and like the journalist he controls men because he has power to make and break their reputations.
“The free man has a great contempt for the griot, but is afraid of him. He is more intelligent than the common run of the natives, and ‘exploits’ everybody, either by singing the praises of the generous, or by making insulting songs about those with whom he has a quarrel.”
The griot is also the model for our saber-rattling chickenhawks of the press, and for our lickspittle turncoats of journalistic opportunism.
“The griot goes to war without any musket . . . . He contents himself, during the battle, with singing, and exciting the warriors to kill each other. If his side should happen to be vanquished, he will, without the least sense of shame, change his opinion and servilely exalt the victor, whom, before the battle, he had been cursing.”
I think we would be wise to take example from the west Africans and treat our journalists as the shills they are, as “shabby creatures,” and “human buzzards,” who “pick up their foul living by rascality and roguery in working between the public and some swindling game.” I think it would be fitting if our journalists lived and died much like the despised griot
“They only marry amongst themselves generally: and at their death, are not deemed worthy of a funeral ceremony. They are usually buried, with their instrument, in the trunk of a hollow tree, which is then closed up.”
*) H.E. Twinells, “The Fake Auction,” Pierson’s Magazine (Oct. 1910), p. 488.
**)William Henry Mikesell, Mental Hygene (New York: Prentice Hall, 1939), p. 187
***) M. W. Keatinge, Suggestion in Education, third ed. (London: A. & C. Black, 1924), p. 167
†) Lester F. Ward, Pure Sociology: A Treatise on the Origin and Spontaneous Development of Society, (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1902), pp. 487-488.
††) X. Jacobus, Untrodden Fields of Anthropology, two vols., second ed. (Paris: Libraire de Médecine, Folklore et Anthropoligie, 1898), vol. 2, pp. 41-42.