The Menace of Privilege, by Henry George Jr.
Installment 43

We are pleased to present, in installments, a very rare yet significant book written by former Congressman Henry George Jr. in 1905.

Earlier installments are available at the Progress Report Archive.


Attempts to Crush Freedom of the Press

Coercion was tried in Milwaukee. Had it been successful, it might have proved a formidable weapon in the hands of monopoly. But it was too plainly in violation of personal and property rights, and the higher courts fell foul of it.

The News, the Sentinel and the Evening Wisconsin, all published in Milwaukee, entered into a business agreement to force advertising away from a newspaper rival, the Journal, which was a very successful publication and which had raised its advertising rates. The allied papers announced that if any person should agree to pay the increased advertising rate charged by the Journal, he should not be permitted to advertise in any of the three other newspapers except at a corresponding increase of rate, but that should he refuse to pay the Journal the increased rate, then he should be allowed to advertise in any of the other three papers at the rate previously charged.

One of the statutes of 1898 of the State of Wisconsin imposed imprisonment and fine on "any two or more persons who shall combine . . . for the purpose of willfully or maliciously injuring another in his reputation, trade, business or profession by any means whatever." Under this statute the publishers of the leagued papers were convicted and sentenced. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin upheld the action of the lower court.

Their case was then appealed to the United States Supreme Court on the ground that the proceedings violated the rights of the plaintiffs under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Presumably the passage was in section one of that amendment, reading: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." But the appeal was of no avail. With but one dissenting voice, the Federal Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the State Supreme Court. Justice Holmes read the opinion of the Federal Court and said: --

But if these centralizing moves have failed, other attempts will come under the regime of Privilege - attempts that will be successful. For do not all these things make for the triumph of Privilege?

The general interest is best served by a fair field and no favor for newspapers, where the cost of production is at the minimum and there is open invitation to competition. Privilege, on the contrary, asks a restricted field, the least competition; so that, obtaining the ownership or influence over existing newspapers, it will dominate. Our newspaper field is now to a great extent restricted; competition, relatively speaking, is limited; Privilege does own or influence most of the newspapers, if in differing lines, and to that degree it now rules.

Yet the public is not altogether deceived. It sees the livery. It reads this or that paper and makes allowance for bias. This is a habit of the people. It began with the free utterances of the press. Every citizen exercised the same freedom to judge as the editor did to write. And thus it was that De Tocqueville wrote half a century ago that "the personal opinions of the editors have no weight in the eyes of the public: what they seek in a newspaper is knowledge of facts, and it is only by altering or distorting those facts, that a journalist can contribute to the support of his own views."

Who will say that, speaking for the press at large, this is not so in this country to-day? How common is the remark: "I read the Star Spangled Banner for its bright and reliable news reports. I care nothing for its editorials, because I know the editor has political or other axes to grind"! This is one way in which the public shows independence, and that independence now and again becomes marked when the polls are carried for some measure despite the combined opposition of the press. But on the whole, Privilege, as it grows stronger, strives to strengthen its hold on the channel of news, whether of the newspaper or of the higher periodical press.

This is not to say that the entire press is actually in bondage today. Some of the greatest newspapers and periodicals are free in all respects. But the large majority of the dailies, weeklies and monthlies turn pleader and champion for Privilege in this, that or the other respect, each in its own way, some all the time, others only on rare occasions. And if Privilege shall wax in power, it must certainly increase its influence over the press, for that is the means of informing the public mind.

Unless the informing be in favor of Privilege, it must be against Privilege. In the nature of things, the press in the United States must as a whole be for or against Privilege. Privilege is busy every hour binding it to itself. "From the control of the markets to the control of the minds of the people -- this is the line of march," says Mr. Henry D. Lloyd. But the case is yet broader. It is: From the possession of or the desire for privileges to the control of the minds of the people.

Nor can any appreciable change in these relations reasonably be expected to follow the college rearing of the working newspaper man. That would give him a more varied stock of knowledge and a more finished technical skill. But would it enable him to see the workings of monopoly any better than he can see them now, or release him from any of the restraints in his newspaper attitude toward monopoly that check him now?

The distinguished journalist and public spirited citizen, Mr. Joseph Pulitzer, the owner and editor of the New York World, who has given a million dollars for the founding of a college of journalism in Columbia University, would develop an esprit de corps in the profession akin to that with which the military academy endeavors to imbue its graduates. Says he: --

Would that this could be so, but Mr. Pulitzer must realize that no amount of such "class spirit" will change the conduct of working newspaper men as a body, if the papers on which they must work are not impelled by similar principles.

It is not necessary to suppose all editors to be like the one of which Mr. Walter S. Logan, ex-President of the New York Bar Association, wrote in congratulating Congressman Robert Baker of New York for introducing an anti-railroad pass bill into Congress. "I rode the other day with the editor of a leading daily," said Mr. Logan. "He pulled out a bunch of 'annuals' that would take him half over the country. He always had them in his pocket when he was writing editorials on the relation between the people and these railroads giving him the passes."

Railroad passes are undoubtedly persuasive with a great many small papers, just as they are with a great many legislators and other public officials. Such editors are usually the owners of the papers they edit. Passes constitute part of their valued perquisites, which they are unwilling to lose. They therefore keep the peace with the railroads of the neighborhood. But in the large cities railroad passes do not often buy editors. That would be trivial compared to the value of a metropolitan newspaper's advocacy. But a better reason is that the railroads own or, through others, exercise a direct or indirect influence over the papers; and that ownership or influence the editor must heed or get out.

"The policy of this paper is devoid of principle," protested an aroused editorial writer to his employer. "I know this speech means insubordination, and so with the declaration goes my resignation." The resignation was not accepted because the proprietor really wished his newspaper to adopt a principle, and because he valued the honest, outspoken words. But of how many newspaper proprietors of the first magnitude may this be said?

Just as the vacant chair and the walking stick of the dead and gone Peter Stuyvesant were potent in the council of the New Amsterdam Fathers, so in the editorial councils of most of the great dailies the spirit of privilege is present. There are steam railroad, pipe line, street railroad, telegraph, telephone and gas privileges; there are electric lighting, heating and power privileges; there are mineral, oil, timber, agricultural, grazing, urban and suburban land privileges; there are incorporating, patent and tariff privileges, and a brood of lesser privileges growing out of these and belonging to legislative enactment, judicial favoritism and political graft. These vast, immensely powerful, ramifying and, for offensive and defensive purposes, coordinating powers of privilege, want the voice of the press to influence the people. And when they cannot purchase it, they try any of a thousand other expedients at their command.

Picture a session of the editorial council of a great morning daily. The departmental heads are gathered about a large table, and each in turn reports the important news features in sight for the next day's issue. In this way all the news and comment departments act with full knowledge and in harmony. The city or local editor generally has the heaviest budget, and in this instance he has at the head of his long-written list what he calls "a first-class sensation and scoop."

"Well?" says the chief editor, expectantly.

"Smithson, our City Hall man," observes the city editor, "has got under the lid of the gridiron railroad grant - names, dates, places, amounts, affidavits -- everything. Good for two pages, straight running. Not another paper has a peep at it. Will give the town the biggest shake-up it has had in a year!"

"Any important people involved?" asks the chief, with easy self-command.

"Traced almost up to the door of old Creesus himself, and inferentially to a lot of highly respectable --"

"Hump!" breaks in the chief; "it reminds me of an epoch in New Orleans history. The city had descended to the depths, perhaps owing to the post-bellum 'black-and-tan' politics. Some of the best and most substantial men of the town got together and resolved to make a change. They needed a newspaper to help them in the task. They bought the Picayune. The difficult thing was to find a suitable editor - some man whose name would stand for honesty, ability and fearlessness. Colonel Daniel Dennett of the parish of St. Mary's seemed ideal. His character was unimpeachable. He had a brilliant, fearless, pungent pen. He was known and honored far and wide in the planter region as the publisher of the Planter's Banner. A committee waited upon the colonel and formally invited him to come to New Orleans and accept the editorship of the Picayune. 'Strike with a free hand,' said the committee. 'Clean up the town.' Colonel Dennett accepted, took a little time to fit himself in his place and size up things, and then, with an avalanche of eloquence and a blaze of indignation, fell upon the great Louisiana Lottery as the first evil for extermination.

"The Lottery was at that time in the heyday of its power. Colonel Dennett's intrepid onslaught spellbound the town. The Picayune's board of directors met hastily, and Colonel Dennett was requested to attend. 'How is it, Colonel,' asked the chairman, 'that you waylay in this astonishing fashion one of the great institutions of the State?' The doughty colonel replied: 'You said: "Strike with a free hand. Clean up the town." I struck the Lottery, which appeared to me to be good for a start.' --'But,' rejoined the chairman, 'I neglected to tell you that President Charles Howard of the Lottery Company contributed $100,000 toward our purchase of this paper. It hardly befits us to use the paper in which he owns a large interest to torpedo the company of which he is president.' 'Then your injunction to me,' observed Colonel Dennett, 'is not to be to strike with a free hand; clean up the town?' - ' Oh, yes,' answered the chairman of the board; 'strike anything, barring the Lottery.' -'Ah !' said the colonel, 'you mean, clean the town, but leave the corruption. I decline the task. Gentlemen, I resign.' And he went back to the parish of St. Mary's and the Planter's Banner."

A pause falls upon the council when the chief finishes his anecdote. The city editor is the first to speak. "I suppose that means that the gridiron sensation is not to be; that it's dangerous; that it may reach somebody at court. Well, it breaks my heart; but I'll kill it. A wink is as good as a nod to a blind ass."

"This council," adds the editorial writer, "being said ass." Nobody disputes the assertion, and the council resumes its routine.

Next Week: Privilege Influences the University

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