Thursday, May 06, 2010

'There is no such thing in America as an independent press': Upton Sinclair

Now that the Washington Post company has put its loss-making weekly The Newsweek on the chopping block (any buyers?), I am uncannily reminded of Upton Sinclair. The man was a walking talking company--novelist, essayist, polemicist, activist, politician and what not. He also won a Pulitzer.

His influential 1906 novel, The Jungle, changed the face of the meatpacking industry in the USA in the early 20th century, finally leading to the establishment of the FDA. Now apparently FDA is controlled by food company lobbyists (read works of Eric Schlosser, of The Fast Food Nation fame).

Anyway, has the mainstream media really changed in the last 100 years? Is Newsweek dying because there are no readers for it, or is it that the powers that be have media like Google and Yahoo to do what Newsweek and Time did for them for 70-80 years or so (that is to chaperon public opinion).

Here are some quotes from Sinclair on the US media and journalists that still seem relevant:

It happens, curiously enough, that I have met socially half a dozen members of the [Los Angeles] Times staff. They are cynical worldlings, doing a work which they despise, and doing it because they believe that life is a matter of "dog eat dog." I met the lady, Alma Whitaker, who had written the account of my Friday Morning Club lecture. She had enjoyed the lecture, she said, but afterwards had gone to the managing editor and inquired how I was to be handled; she took it for granted that I would understand this, and would regard it tolerantly. I explained to her the embarrassments of an author in relation to an unpaid grocer's bill. As a result of what she had written about me, I had not been invited by any other woman's club in Southern California.

Also I met one of the high editors of the Times, an important personage whom they feature. Talking about the question of journalistic integrity, he said: "Sinclair, it has been so long since I have written anything that I believed that I don't think I would know the sensation."

My answer was: "I have been writing on public questions for twenty years, and I can say that I have never written a single word that I did not believe."

Sinclair on page 400 of The Brass Check:

As I have said, I know several of the men and women who help to edit [The Los Angeles Times]. These men and women will read this book, and I now request the general public to step outside for a few moments, while I address these editors privately. I speak, not in my own voice, but in that of an old-time journalist, venerated in his day, John Swinton, editor of the New York Tribune. He is answering, at a banquet of his fellow editors, the toast: "An Independent Press":

There is no such thing in America as an independent press, unless it is in the country towns.

You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to writes (sic) his honest opinions, and if you did you know beforehand that it would never appear in print.

I am paid one hundred and fifty dollars a week for keeping my honest opinions out of the paper I am connected with--others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things--and any of you who would be so foolish as to write his honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job.

The business of the New York journalist is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of Mammon, and to sell his race and his country for his daily bread.

You know this and I know it, and what folly is this to be toasting an "Independent Press."

We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping-jacks; they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.