Letter of Congratulations to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
My dear Mr. Pulitzer:
It is not my purpose primarily to deliver a lecture on the ethics of journalism; but our newspapers are so essentially public institutions that they are subject to the closest scrutiny of their readers. Since it is the readers who make possible by their patronage the publication of all of our papers perhaps the readers are entitled to be heard on that age-old question of a free press. The ramifications of that question are so many that a book would be required if all were to be dealt with.
But more forcible than any criticism from without is the self-searching inquiry of those within editorial sanctums and newspaper counting rooms as to what constitutes their obligation to the readers of American newspapers. After all, if certain tendencies need to be reformed the reform will have greater force if it comes from within rather than through external pressure from readers.
Grover C. Hall, Editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, in a recent issue of The Bulletin of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, uttered some truths not only frank but brutal in their frankness.
"That newspaper that happens to come by an enlightened, 'spirited publisher," wrote Mr. Hall, "is fortunate; the one that inherits a stuffed shirt and a merchant can never again hold up its head." Continuing, he said, "You' see, the timid money-seeking publisher is the heir and assign of the rowdy, blatant office seeking editor, and American journalism is still young and immature. Its traditions are tender and delicate. Neither the old-time newspaper editor nor the current type of publisher represents the ideal of journalism."
Mr. Hall made it clear that he was not talking of the great editors of other days nor yet of the great publishers of today. He was talking, he said, of the run-of-the-mine stuff, those who "have no blood on their spurs, much less their swords."
"Most of them came," he said, "not from news room desks but from the counting room, otherwise they would not have the money necessary to buy even a country daily. Some of them are lawyers, bankers, manufacturers and many are former advertising managers—few of them are journalists at heart. Most of them do not know the difference between an objective news story and a free reader for a furniture store. It pains and annoys them for a trained editor to call their attention to the difference. Few of them are sub-Pulitzers or sub-Ochses. They remember only that Pulitzer and Ochs were financially successful."
Now bear in mind this is not the criticism of an outsider. It is the considered opinion of a representative American editor and the vehicle of his utterance is none other than The Bulletin of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Not to make Mr. Hall end on too pessimistic a note let me allow him this additional quotation: "Our newspapers are better today than ever before, but they are not yet half good enough, taking them state by state."
In these past few years there has been so much resounding thunder about the freedom of the press that one sometimes wonders what it is all about. Is the freedom of the press endangered from without? I doubt it. I am inclined personally to think that Editor Hall was moving in the right direction when he pointed an accusing finger in the direction of the newspaper counting room. I have implicit confidence that Mr. Hall knows whereof he speaks when he says run-of-the-mine publishers "do not know the difference between an objective news story and a free reader for a furniture store."
I have always been firmly persuaded that our newspapers cannot be edited in the interests of the general public, from the counting room. And I wish we could have a national symposium on that question, particularly in its relation to the freedom of the press. How many bogies are conjured up by invoking that greatly overworked phrase.
I do not think that anyone would seriously argue that the freedom of the press to criticize the Administration in office has, in any manner, been curtailed since the spring of 1933. A casual reading of a representative digest would reveal the fallacy of allegations to the contrary. Praise be! And may that freedom ever prevail—throughout this Administration and throughout every administration in all the years to come.
This is a theme which is worthy of serious thought in connection with the commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of a great journal like the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Assuming, as I do, that complete liberty to criticize government is a paramount right under freedom of the press—as we know it and as it is guaranteed under the Constitution—I have found it enlightening to peruse some editorials selected at random from various American newspapers.
Let me give you this quotation:
"All the material interests of the country are undergoing a strain without example. Every branch of business is suffering. Enterprise is arrested. Capital lies idle, and bankruptcy is common. Relief must come first through severe economy in the public service, such as individuals are forced to practice in their private households."
That has such a familiar ring that it might be offered as a current editorial. As a fact, it is from our old friend, the Sun (New York) and the editorial quoted appeared in that paper in 1878, the year the Post-Dispatch was founded.
Here is one so fresh one would expect to find dew on the petals: "The greatest measure of centralization and of paternalism in government ever undertaken in this country since the adoption of the Federal Constitution, is undoubtedly the Inter-State Commerce bill."
So spake the same New York Sun, not this week, but fifty-one years ago last February.
Something which brings the past right up to the present is found in this wail: "There is depression, distrust and gloom on every hand," from the New York Herald of April 30, 1893.
This is the way a very old friend reversed English on the approach of the millennium, December 9, 1893: "There has never been anything more closely approaching monarchy or autocracy than there is in this country today under a so-called Democratic government. . . . It may as well be admitted, as dictators go, (the) President would make a very fair specimen. . . . He is right sometimes, and then we all have occasion to compliment him on his resolution, his dogged persistency, and his utter disregard for what seems to be the prevalent public opinion. Also he is wrong sometimes, and then his partisans have to admit that he is the most mulish and most obstinately wrong-headed man who ever sat in the chair of Washington. . . . The struggle between the would-be dictator and the people of the United States is one which men of all parties may watch with much interest." New York Daily Tribune.
The same paper felt no better on the day before Christmas of the same year. The writer had prescience, almost the gift of prophecy. Exemplifying the truth of an oft-quoted passage from Ecclesiastes the Tribune said: "Millions are in distress because hundreds of thousands were deluded into believing that a change of party control would give them a larger share of the common prosperity, or misled by an irrational inclination to take the chances of 'A New Deal.'"
I think I ought to add for the record that Ecclesiastes' exact words were: "There is no new thing under the sun."
But here is one that is even more up-to-date: "The old man made a bad mistake on the Supreme Court business."
That appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle the year this writer was twelve years old.
I give these quotations as evidence that the freedom of the American press to criticize the Federal Administration has not been interfered with during the three score years since the Post-Dispatch first saw the light of day. Whether the criticisms of contemporary editorial writers have the spice of originality I leave to the newspapers themselves and to their readers.
Whenever thought of the press of the country as a fundamental institution comes to mind my memory goes back to the admonition that Melville E. Stone once gave an enthusiastic young "cub" who was about to begin his career in the news reporting field as a member of the Washington staff of the Associated Press.
And so the receipt of your request that I contribute to the sixtieth anniversary edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch caused me, as I do habitually when the subject of news reporting and news writing is mentioned, to think again of that sagacious and farseeing newspaperman, Mr. Stone, and of the advice he gave to the young man about to enter journalism.
Mr. Stone knew out of the wealth of his long experience that freedom of the press would take care of itself if the newspapers were faithful to the trust which they undertook to discharge for their readers. His chief concern, I like to think, had to do with freedom of news rather than freedom of the press. At any rate, to the youngster about to embark on a career as a newspaperman the then General Manager of the Associated Press said: "Write factually, truthfully and simply. The American people are sufficiently intelligent, if given the facts, to draw their own conclusions-to form their own opinions."
Mr. Stone knew that freedom of the press could never be lost, endangered or encroached upon so long as we preserve our American form of democratic government. In that knowledge, he was as secure in his day as we are in ours. A free press is essential to us as a people and to the maintenance of our form of government. That is an axiom from which no thoughtful person will dissent. On the other hand, however, our government, federal, state and municipal, has rightfully and necessarily an interest in freedom of the news as well as in the preservation of a free press.
There was another great American newspaperman who knew that freedom of the press would never be endangered so long as our newspapers, as living, virile forces, faithfully performed their duties to their readers. The sire whose honored name the editor of the Post-Dispatch bears—Joseph Pulitzer—in establishing The World (New York) on May 10, 1883, made a declaration of purpose and policy that may still be upheld as the ideal for which all American newspapers should strive—a declaration which the Post-Dispatch for many years past has carried daily at its masthead. Mr. Pulitzer announced, with never a reference to freedom of the press, that he was establishing The World as:
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.
My own feeling is that these great luminaries of American newspaperdom, each of whom in his own way put the stamp of his vital personality upon his work, still have much to teach us.
May I extend my congratulations upon the attainment of the three-score mark by the Post-Dispatch.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch,
St. Louis, Missouri.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Letter of Congratulations to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/209325