Newspapers in a Democracy


By GROVE PATTERSON, Editor of the Toledo Blade

Delivered at the Bill of Rights Anniversary Dinner, Waldorf-Astoria, New York, December 15, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 221-224.

THE institutions of democracy rest more securely upon the foundation of a free press than upon any other idea or practice known to man. We recognize five institutions for social, economic, political, and moral betterment. They are the home, the church, the school, industry, and the newspaper.

The responsible editor long ago came to the conclusion that he faced the opportunity of making a newspaper into something more than a newspaper. He faced and seized theopportunity of making it into an institution for constant service in the community.

He knows now that he faces the even greater opportunity, the profound duty, of making the newspaper the chief agent for enabling representative government to function. After traveling through 14 countries in Europe, I came home convinced that the free newspaper is the major defense that can keep one man or one group of men from stealing a government and operating it in the interest of a privileged few.

Three Observations

In supporting the role of the newspaper in American life, I shall submit three observations. The first has to do with the nature of democracy itself.

A great deal of misstatement is made and written about democracy. I have heard it praised as superior to all other forms of government. I question this. Autocracy is more competent. Things can be done over night in the dictatorship state that take six months or a year to do under a loose system of representative government. That is not the point. Let us not miss the essence. Let us not miss the real meaning of democracy. If God had an idea in putting life upon the earth, it was not principally that man might develop a gadget for government. I believe it was, and remains His primary purpose to bring forth the good man and the good woman, who may some day come to live what the philosophers call the Good Life.

Democracy is immeasurably more than a form of government. Democracy is the spirit. Democracy provides an atmosphere in which man can be somebody and go somewhere under his own power. We think of it as a great inheritance which can be eternally preserved without continuing individual effort. We think of it as a gift more than we think of it as a responsibility. But I say that if man is to continue to breathe in the atmosphere which democracy provides, if under its provisions he is to continue to express himself in meaningful terms of utility and beauty, he must come to regard it as a continuing, cooperative effort in human society.

In short, he must put into the field of democracy, in sacrifice and in devotion, as much as he takes out in privilege.

Taken as a form of government, it seems to me that democracy has been superficially defined as the rule of the majority. That is not a definition. The glory of democracy is that it is the one type of government upon the earth which provides for the continuing rights of a minority not in power. What could be more despotic, more tyrannical than a majority in power, without provision for the rights of the minority? The newspaper is peculiarly the medium for the expression of the minority not in power, because it is not under the control of government.

Free expression is the most important attribute of democracy and a free newspaper is its most vital medium. For the printed word gives permanence to free expression. Unhappily the average American citizen does not think through the meaning of a free press, its significance in a representative government. It probably occurs only to a minority that the institutions of a democracy rest upon a system which opens and keeps open a channel for human expression, a channel through which flows, from the center of government, the stream of information which makes it possible for democratic organization to function over the far-flung territory of a nation. It was H. G. Wells who said that the Roman Empire could not endure because there were no newspapers—no methods of apprising the outlying peoples of the behavior of the center.

Channel Must Be Open

Democracy, then, can continue to function only so long and insofar as this channel is not tampered with or dammed or used exclusively by the state, as in dictatorship countries—this channel through which can flow constantly, from the center to the border, a stream of objective information, and, from the border to the center, a stream of analysis, of criticism, of praise and, if necessary, condemnation.

Millions in the totalitarian countries of Europe and in all the lands possessed by the Dictator, millions with hopes and fears and aspirations like unto our own, are chained in the slavery of silence or driven under the whip of official falsehood.

Every morning at ten o'clock the jittery editors of Berlin gather at the office of the Ministry of Propaganda and arc told not only what they shall print and not print, but arc instructed as to wether the government story for that day shall be put under a one column head, a two column head, given little play or heavy play.

Every newspaper is a design for lying.

Every night from the Kremlin in Moscow is telegraphed to the principal newspapers of the Soviet Union the leading editorial for the following morning. In Rome, Mussolini's mouth-piece speaks the line for the Italian press. News does not travel fast in the slave states; news does not travel at all.

Only expediency is expedited.

There are men in high places in Washington who would like to see the government-controlled newspaper. There are members of our growing bureaucracy who could immeasurably increase their opportunity to regulate, regiment and destroy, in the muddy and bewildering darkness of censorship. The old proverb has it that what you don't know won't hurt you. Not so in a democracy. What you don't know will destroy you.

Recently certain motion pictures and producers have been treated to a thoroughly un-American senatorial investigation in the best Nazi manner. It is exactly the kind of investigation that was at first rare and then common in the rise of the Nazi party to power in Germany.

I am glad the President tried to laugh it out of court, but I am afraid it is more diabolical than comical. What a short step further upon this road, from a tragically silly investigation of pictures and picture producers, to newspapers and publishers! And let us be perfectly clear upon this: If general censorship ever comes to the American newspaper, the effect in intrinsic damage to the newspaper will be infinitesimally small in comparison with the paralyzing blight which it will put upon the liberties of the people.

Vital Advertising Service

My second observation is that the newspaper, not only because of its information service, not only because of its analysis of national policies, but because of its advertising service, is vital to the economic health and well-being of this country.

As Mr. Paul Garrett, vice-president and director of public relations of the General Motors, points out: "Look back to a time when we had no radios, no electrical household appliances, no automobiles, no moving pictures, no plastics, no wireless communication, no telephones, no electric refrigerators, no air-conditioning, no rayon, no incandescent lamps, no canned foods, no bathtubs, no streamliners, and no air travel. We call these the products of mass production. And so they are. But who would say they have come to be the necessities of American life solely because we learned earlier than the rest of the world the art of mass production? Of what value would mass production be without mass consumption? How could we stimulate mass consumption without mass merchandising? And how could we have mass merchandising without mass advertising?

"May I establish in your mind the part advertising plays in this peculiar American mass production formula? Advertising basically is a vital part of our economy, equally important with designing, engineering, and production."

Free Enterprise and Free Press

How often does it occur to those not engaged in some form of the business, to sense the major contribution that mass advertising has made to the widening of the horizons of the average man and to the elevation of the standard of living? Mass production, mass merchandising, mass advertising, and mass consumption! The highest standard of living ever reached in this world has been built upon and standstoday upon those achievements. Advertising is as fundamental to well-being as manufacture. Advertising is the inevitable concomitant of a high standard of living.

Just as democracy is inconceivable without a free press, so business, free enterprise, is inconceivable without a free press. The newspaper, unlike the radio, is so far free from government regulation. Business deserves to be immeasurably more free from bureaucratic regulation than it is. No medium is in such good position, so well equipped, as the newspaper to preach and to teach the value of free enterprise. It is not only the privilege, it is the duty of the advertiser—the duty of the businessman and the professional man—to build up, to support, to strengthen this most substantial of all bulwarks against the encroachments of totalitarianism.

I know, of course, that you believe in the theory and principle of a free press. But I say to you all, not only as an editor but as an American, conscious of the eternal values inherent in the American way of life, that you must do more than believe and more than approve if you are not to be regulated and regimented into a dark world which will not contain a medium for the expression of your needs and the defense of your rights.

Newspapers and all enterprise face a common enemy. We are face to face with a cramping, crippling bureaucracy, that day by day is seeking to regiment us into a retreat toward an egalitarian destitution. Businessmen and editors are asked to cooperate to the end that we may all reach a secure poverty.

Bureaucracy School

There is a school of thought in this country which has won a good many millions of adherents in late years. This school holds that the social and economic system, under which we grew great, is now worn out, that a new era is upon us, that men and businesses must be hedged about with regulations and edicts and verboten signs. This school teaches that in order to perpetuate this nation, men and businesses must be made subservient to an all-powerful bureaucracy which will tell them what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. This bureaucracy will regulate, if it has its ultimate way, everything from the color of your toothbrush handle to what products and how much of them a corporation may manufacture.

The leaders of this school of thought do not openly declare their intentions so that the man in the street understands their objectives. These bureaucratic people know well that the only way in which you can regiment a nation is first to regiment its mind. They have already persuaded a lot of people that our system of free enterprise and competitive business and unlimited opportunity for the individual just can't be made to work. In trying to get this idea across they have utilized the instrument they most fear. These overlords of our economic life have used the American press as the sounding board for their ideas. Inasmuch as the newspaper is committed to the presentation of news and opinion, the press has aided and abetted them. If it had refused to print their ideas, it would have stripped itself of its integrity.

Newspapers Are Old

Newspapers in America are old and they are substantial. They are older than the Bill of Rights. They go back 239 years in American history. Even if some newspapers were willing to hide the truth, competition would force the news into print. The public has learned through more than two centuries to follow this established line of communication and of information. Just as I can visualize no decent publisher enduring any sort of government control of his right to set forth the news, neither can I visualize the most commercial-minded publisher who would dare to suppress whatall the people have a right to know and are accustomed to be told.

Bureaucratic bosses are trying to plant the seeds of suspicion and distrust in the minds of newspaper readers, so that if or when the time comes, they will not be resisted in taking over and destroying, either by regimentation or economic pressure, free newspapers, and, after that, the free enterprise which the newspaper protects.

I say to you that the mind of the American public is in danger of being conditioned to accept the abolition of the right of newspapers to print the news without distortion and the right to comment on it—the right to take sides and to be vigilant for the preservation of the American Way. We cannot have a morally and a spiritually free press until we are all economically free. The chief barrier between all business and complete regimentation is the newspaper. If its independence is destroyed, either by legislation or economic strangulation, we have all lost our liberties.

Economic Value of Free Press

In whatever business or profession you are engaged, may I, as an editor, suggest that you appraise carefully and prayerfully the value to yourselves of an economically independent, and therefore intellectually free, press, and that in your approach to newspapers you keep this larger aspect in the forefront of your thinking.

It is not my intention in this speech to claim the undiluted, unblemished all-out purity of all newspapers. Believe it or not, editors and publishers are human beings. The late Marlen E. Pew, brilliant editor of Editor & Publisher, in an address before the American Society of Newspaper Editors a few years ago, freely recognized whatever popular discontent with newspapers there is. I quote him and add my affirmation:

"Reader confidence has been impaired because too many newspapers seem, on their face, to be cautious to the point of cowardice, morbidly expedient, slyly illiberal, holding back from any forthright part in the great controversies that are sweeping the country, and many people deduce that they are hog-tied by managements in league with special interests. It is a shame that the vast majority of public service newspapers, honestly edited must suffer for the sins of a few."

And now I want to speak for a moment somewhat critically to my colleagues in the profession of journalism and in the business of making newspapers. Daniel Burnham, the architect, once said: "There is no magic in little thoughts." We are called upon to have a renewed faith in the high calling upon which we are engaged, and we must especially in this emergency, accept a greater responsibility than we have ever felt before. As Ribert Quillen, able southern editor, has said: "The press has the right to be free, but the more free it is, the less right it has to be wrong."

Personal Responsibility

The most constructive suggestion that can come to any man is the idea of personal responsibility for corporate action. Our newspapers can rise no higher than ourselves. We must impose upon ourselves the censorship of good taste. We must be restricted—but only by truth and decency. We must serve, not only our better natures, but the better natures of those who look to us for interpretation in a bewildering world. If we are to have a free press, we must furnish a responsible press.

Thus, I have devoted myself to three observations: first, that the institutions of democracy rest principally upon the foundation of an independent press; second, that the newspaper, as the chief medium of information and advertising, is vital to the economic well-being of the nation; third, that

we newspaper people, desiring a free press, must accept the duty of furnishing a responsible press. We must weave for ourselves, and wear, not only in this hour of crisis, but in life's sunshine and storm, the durable fabric of character.

Our newspaper must be something greater than an information service, finer than a service of criticism and interpretation, more than a medium for the sale of goods. Those who make it must have the imagination to see it in higher terms. They must be guided, above all, by an impulse that comes from the heart and the emotions as much as from the mind.

We have been given this precious instrument to use, but we cannot use it aright unless we have love in our hearts.

We are engaged, in some fashion, in widening the horizons of men's thinking. There is surely something humanly progressive, eternally purposeful, in this effort. May we editors—indeed may we all—write over our doors, over our minds, over our hearts, those words of Thomas Jefferson, carved in stone, above the entrance to the University of Virginia: "Enter by this gateway to seek the light of truth, the way of honor, and the will to work for men."