The state of the Fourth Estate Essay: The immortal, and not always flattering, words of H.L. Mencken on journalism in his day.

August 05, 1998

Editor's note: This week, 2,000 journalism professors and journalists from around the world gather in Baltimore to assess the state of the trade. We thought these guests and our readers might find it amusing to hear what the most famous of Sun reporters, H. L. Mencken, had to say about the state of the trade in his 1927 essay "Journalism in America." 'One of the agreeable spiritual phenomena of the great age in which we live is the soul-searching now going on among American journalists. Fifteen years ago, or even 10 years ago, there was scarcely a sign of it. The working newspaper men of the Republic, of whom I have had the honor to be one since the last century, were then almost as complacent as so many Federal judges, movie magnates, or major-generals in the army. When they discussed their puissant craft at all, it was only to smack their chests proudly, boasting of their vast power in public matters, of their adamantine resistance to all the lest tempting varieties of bribes, and of the fact that a politician of enlightened self-interest, giving them important but inaccurate news confidently, could rely upon them to mangle it beyond recognition before publishing it. I describe a sort of Golden Age, and confess frankly that I can't do so without a certain yielding to emotion.

The journalist can no more see himself realistically than a bishop can see himself realistically. He gilds ... the picture, unconsciously and irresistibly. For one thing, and a most important one, he is probably somewhat in error about his professional status. He remains, for all his dreams, a hired man -- the owner downstairs, or even the business manager, though he doesn't do it very often now, is still free to demand his head -- and a hired man is not a professional man.

The essence of a professional man is that he is answerable for his professional conduct only to his professional peers. A physician cannot be fired by anyone, save when he has voluntarily converted himself into a job-holder; he is secure in his livelihood so long as he keeps his health, and can render service, or what they regard as service, to his patients. A lawyer is in the same boat. So is a dentist. So, even, is a horse-doctor. But a journalist still lingers in the twilight zone, along with the trained nurse, the embalmer, the rev. clergy and the great majority of engineers.

Most of the evils that continue to beset American journalism today, in truth, are not due to the rascality of owners, nor even to the Kiwanian bombast of business managers, but simply and solely to the stupidity, cowardice and Philistinism of working newspapermen.

The majority of them, in almost every American city, are still ignoramuses and proud of it. All the knowledge that they pack into their brains is, in every reasonable cultural sense, useless; it is the sort of knowledge that belongs, not to a professional man, but to a police captain, a railway mail-clerk, or a board-boy in a brokerage house. It is a mass of trivialities and puerilities; to recite it would be to make even a barber beg for mercy. What is missing from it, in brief, is everything worth knowing -- everything that enters into the common knowledge of educated men.

There are managing editors in the United States, and scores of them, who have never heard of Kant or Johannes Muller and never read the Constitution of the United States; there are city editors who do not know what a symphony is, or a streptococcus, or the Statute of Frauds; there are reporters by the thousands who could not pass the entrance exam for Harvard, or Tuskegee, or even Yale. It is this vast and militant ignorance, this widespread and fathomless prejudice against intelligence, that makes American journalism so pathetically feeble and vulgar and so generally disreputable.

The average Washington correspondent, I believe, is honest enough, as honesty goes in the United States, though his willingness to do press work for the National Committees in campaign time and for other highly dubious agencies at other times is not to be forgotten. What ails him mainly is that he is a man without sufficient force of character to resist the blandishments that surround him from the moment he sets foot in Washington.

A few men, true enough, resist, and their papers, getting the benefit of it, become notable for their independence and intelligence, but the great majority succumb almost at once. A few months of associating with the gaudy magnificoes of the town, and they pick up its meretricious values, and are unable to distinguish men of sense and dignity from mountebanks. A few clumsy overtures from the White House, and they are rattled and undone. They come in as newspaper men, trained to get the news and eager to get it; they end up as tin-horn statesmen, full of dark secrets and unable to write the truth if they tried.

American journalism suffers from too many golf-players.

Pub Date: 8/05/98

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