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Dragon’s Teeth: The Press and International Misunderstanding

ISSUE:  Summer 1928

Since the great war left much of Europe in ruins, and sorely shattered the social and financial fabric of even those nations which were remote from the actual field of action, there has been a wide-spread and searching examination into all activities which may possibly lead to a repetition of that suicidal conflict. The League of Nations, it was hoped, would put an end to the secret diplomacy, which led Europe into the impasse of 1914. The struggle for control of raw materials, the search for outlets for surplus population, the restless activities of militarists, the propaganda of Bolshevists, the resentment of peoples upon whom the Versailles or collateral treaties imposed some loss of sovereignty or territory, are all watched with sedulous vigilance not only by those whom official station makes in some degree responsible for continuing peace, but by millions who view with dread the slightest symptom of a return of the war madness.

The world wants peace. Cynics to the contrary, every people is today living in dread of war, and if there be governments or dynasts nursing an ambition for conquest they must keep it secret or fall from power. Hence the succession of protocols, draft treaties, Locarno agreements, arbitration treaties, The Permanent Court of International Justice, the Commission for the Codification of International Law, the “all in” treaties, advocated by Lord Cecil, the Briand-Kellogg correspondence and the multiplicity of suggestions, official and otherwise, for causing the peace of the world to endure.

A very distinguished psychologist, Dr. Morton Prince of Harvard, remarked to me recently while contemplating a newspaper, the first page of which was largely filled with reports of peace meetings, that if the constant discussion of peace could be maintained the thing itself would inevitably follow. For such educational discussions of something that the whole world really wants tend to create common habits of thinking, hard-boiled patterns which govern our behavior and from which we cannot escape if we would. In doing this they create a common point of view and a common emotional attitude towards peace and away from war. And out of this there would develop a common international will-to-peace. In other words there would inevitably be developed a world consciousness which would think of and approach every international dispute in terms of peace instead of in terms of war. That is the way public opinion of groups of people, large and small, whether of nations or communities, is created. Without such a world consciousness and will to peace, world peace is not possible.

In time of war, governments, perhaps without any scientific knowledge of psychology, have always acted in accordance with this principle, welding the press of their nations into one coherent whole, having for its single purpose the creation of mass hatred of the enemy and the stimulation of the warlike passions of the people. Up to the present moment no government, however peaceful its professions, has thought to mobilize the press for peace, nor have the newspapers of any nation recognized it as a patriotic duty to strive as earnestly in times of peace to show the good and lovable traits in foreign peoples as in time of war they, labor to transform by constant calumny a formerly friendly people into the semblance of savages, barbarians, Huns!

May it not be worth while at this time of universal inquiry into the causes of war to consider somewhat the psyetiological effect of the ordinary international news published throughout the world? The press, particularly that of the United States and England, is untiring in the task of collecting and publishing intelligence from the four corners of the globe. As the telegraph and cable succeeded the post so the radio has succeeded these forms of intercommunication. Three notable press associations bring tens of thousands of words daily under the two oceans and the Caribbean Sea to the newspapers of the United States, and nine great American newspapers maintain special correspondents in the capitals of the world, and, in most instances, sell the news thus gathered to lesser dailies outside their own immediate zone of publication.

Thackeray’s famous panegyric on the press in “Pendennis,” which has turned so many youths into the pleasant if not profitable ways of journalism, still holds good—with modern addenda:

They were passing through the Strand as they talked, and by, a newspaper office, which was all lighted up and bright. Reporters were coming out of the place, or rushing up to it in cabs; there were lamps burning in the editors’ rooms, and above where the compositors were at work: the windows of the building were in a blaze of gas.

“Look at that, Pen,” Warrington said. “There she is— the great engine—she never sleeps. She has her ambassadors in every quarter of the world—her couriers upon every road. Her officers march along with armies, and her envoys walk into statesmen’s cabinets. They are ubiquitous. Yonder journal has an agent, at this minute, giving bribes at Madrid; and another inspecting the price of potatoes in Covent Garden. Look! here comes the Foreign Express galloping in. They will be able to give news to Downing Street tomorrow: funds will rise or fall, fortunes be made or lost; Lord B. will get up, and, holding the paper in his hand, and seeing the noble Marquis in his place, will make a great speech; and—and Mr. Doolan will be called away from his supper at the Back Kitchen; for he is foreign sub-editor, and sees the mail on the newspaper sheet before he goes to his own.”

The Foreign Express no longer gallops in, but the needle on the cable dial, the tape at the radio receiving station, the voice over the long-distance wireless ‘phone still bring the news of the world. And sometimes one is moved to wonder at the character of the news gathered at such cost and transmitted by such triumphs of inventive genius.

I happened to be in Berlin in the days of the mark’s deepest depreciation. Never was a city so plunged in apprehension and gloom. No workingman could tell whether his day’s wages would suffice to buy even his breakfast on the morrow. Unbelievable as it seems today notes were printed for ten billion marks—the German billion being equivalent to our trillion—and such a note had a value, for the moment, of less than two dollars and a half. Established fortunes were swept away—investments other than those in real property were worthless. It was an occasion on which every generous and sympathetic sentiment of the visitor from another and more fortunate land would seem to have been stirred to the depths.

I dropped in at the office of the correspondent of one of the best known American newspapers. The young gentleman there established took only a mild interest in the currency situation. His proprietor had but recently been in Berlin and had left words of instruction which were repeated for my edification. “The chief told me,” he said impressively, “to cut out all this high brow stuff about reparations, the stabilization of the mark, the permanence of the Reich, or the troubles in the Ruhr. He says that with all this blotting out of old fortunes the aristocracy must be turning some sharp corners to get a living—women on the streets, men at the gambling tables, and the like. A good scandal or a crime in high society is what will get on the first page!”

Not long after at the Press Bureau of the Foreign Office a distressed official said to me earnestly, “If you wished to do us a service, you would try to persuade American newspapers to send either older and more serious men here, or cut down the salaries of those they have. With our currency in its present state, a man with $75 or $100 American money a week is a millionaire. Some of your younger fellows can’t stand it, and we are worried over the possibilities.”

That was five years ago. The depreciated currency is gone. The mark has been stabilized. There are probably no correspondents to Germany who can deport themselves like millionaries. But whether the standard of news has been raised as has the value of the mark is another question. And it is not in reporting the great international events that the tendency to sensationalism, exaggeration, or national bias does its chief harm. It is the steady flow of news, misleading because so largely one-sided, and disproportionate in the stress it lays upon the irritating phases of international relations, which does the chief mischief. Just now, for example, it is difficult for the American newspaper reader to think of the French as anything save a nation intent upon repudiating its just debts, and eager to plunge into a new series of wars in pursuit of glory. As to the social morality, of the French people, that, as Mr. Wegg said of the difference in the Rooshan and the Roman Empire, is a thing not to be discussed before ladies. On the other hand the French, being schooled thereto by their own press, have come to regard the United States as “Uncle Shylock,” believe implicitly that our statesmen and soldiers claim exclusive credit for the victory in the world-war, and regard our visiting legionnaires as persons who should be rigidly excluded from French homes, and left to riot in the resorts which alone attract them to Paris. No less a person than Henri Berenger, former French Ambassador to Washington, has recently formally protested against the attitude of the French press toward the United States, and there have been innumerable protests in the United States against the misleading picture of French life presented by too many American newspapers.

The somewhat flamboyant mayor of Chicago has given English correspondents stationed in the United States an opportunity to arouse hostility to this country which they have eagerly, improved. But we can hardly criticize them for informing their papers of the existence in the second American city of a chief executive who has detected a plot to annex the United States to the British Commonwealth of Nations, and who has defiantly threatened to “punch King George’s snout!” It does, however, occur to the well-informed American that “Big Bill” is not all there is to Chicago, nor are his fulminations against Great Britain all there is to him. A city which is rebuilding itself at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars merely to improve its aesthetic qualities is worth occasional news mention even when its mayor is not in eruption. And, for that matter, Mayor Thompson himself has certain qualities as an executive, and is accomplishing certain reforms which are not sensational enough to make good “copy,” but which should not be wholly obscured by his demagogic crusade against King George. The average English newspaper reader, however, is given no opportunity to doubt that all Chicago is made up of violent foes to his country under the leadership of a mayor eager to declare war at an instant’s notice.

It is not as between America and the old world alone that newspapers tend to awaken misunderstandings. What in this field is apt to be only the outcome of carelessness, an incorrect estimate of the quality of news, or a zest for sensationalism, becomes on the continent almost an exact science. Politicians there employ the press as an agent provocateur. The task is made the more simple by the fact that the news gathering agencies, corresponding to our Associated Press and United Press Association, are government agencies, and brazenly employed for purposes of propaganda. In Paris you will hear of the scandalous way in which the Wolfe Agency distorts the utterances of French public men, and misinterprets the actions of the French Government. In Berlin the Foreign Office responds, “But you ought to see what the Havas agency does to news affecting Germany!” Continental journalism takes this as a matter of course, for it must be regretfully conceded that in that field many qualities are more greatly prized in a newspaper article than either good faith or sincerity of purpose. The trail of personal and party politics is everywhere, and neither writers nor readers seem disquieted by, it. But the importance of that situation to the American or English reader lies in the fact that to a great extent the source of information to which the correspondent stationed in France, Germany, or Italy must turn are either these subsidized news agencies or the prejudiced and untrustworthy press. News thus polluted at its source is not apt to be fit for general consumption.

This is a situation not easy to correct. Indeed it can only be met by the creation of a corps of correspondents able to go back of such secondary sources of news as local papers and the agencies. This implies a thorough command of the language of the country to which the correspondent is accredited—not an invariable accomplishment—and an intimate social relation with the people who make the important news. Perhaps in time newspapers will apply to ambitious youths desirous of going abroad something of the tests which the Rogers law exacts from aspiring diplomats. A man at the end of a cable with a great newspaper at the other end, ready to spread his words among a million people, is at least as well equipped to make international trouble as the second assistant sub-secretary at Caracas. Yet to get the latter job a youth must have passed searching examinations in history, geography, and economics, especially as bearing upon conditions in the country to which he is sent, must have command of two foreign languages, and must undergo a searching inquiry into his habits and affiliations, his personal manner and his social aptitude. In journalism a record of reportorial achievement and a “nose for news” are too often the chief qualifications of the youth whom a managing editor—himself often ignorant of foreign affairs—picks to represent the paper at a foreign capital.

Time was that the representative of a London newspaper at such a capitol as Paris, Berlin, Vienna, or Constantinople was in the truest sense a diplomat. He was equipped to mingle with those who were making history on equal terms, and his paper supplied him with means to maintain his station. American journalism seldom produced correspondents of this type and British journalism is rapidly ceasing to maintain them. Just as the general tendency of the press is away from dignity, and toward the more sensational treatment of the news, so foreign correspondence is becoming more trivial and the dignity of the correspondent’s place is slowly vanishing.

The lamentable failure of the recent conference for the Limitation of Naval Armament at Geneva was due to a variety of causes. But one of the most potent influences against its success was the attitude of the press representatives of both the United States and England. Since the debacle one American observer has published in an influential American weekly an enthusiastic article declaring that during this conference, for the first time, the American correspondents were a unit in upholding their own country’s position. In England, shortly after, I was told that the British correspondents had manifested their patriotism in the same manner. Now the obvious result of this belauded nationalism is that the people of the United States have no accurate idea of what the British government’s position was, nor have the British any conception of the reasons behind the attitude of the American conferees. Probably the conference would have been a failure in any event. Veteran diplomats say that its collapse was assured by failure to confer in advance upon points which were held subject to discussion and agreement. Both groups of delegates were bound by iron-clad instructions from which they could not depart. A conference implies mutual concessions, but in this case concessions were practically prohibited in advance. To these elements of discord may be added the voice of the press which systematically treated the event as a fight rather than a peace conference, which raucously presented its own nationalistic point of view, and which, from the moment the delegates began to gather, predicted failure. In the first days of the conference the very, distinguished correspondent of one of the American press associations declared that it was destined to be “the greatest Anglo-American tragedy of the century.”

In a certain sense it has proved exactly that. Not because it failed. Diplomatic conferences have done that before and left no evil results behind. But this one, with the aid of the press of the nations involved, has sown dragon’s teeth. It is no exaggeration to say that the American and the English people are each profoundly convinced that the other strove to acquire for itself the mastery of the seas while professing plausibly and hypocritically a desire only for equality of power. Had the British press reported fairly and dispassionately the American position, and had the press of our own country subordinated its patriotic zeal to a determination to make understandable the position of an honorable and friendly adversary, the irritation so apparent today in Anglo-American relations would not exist. Day by day it was insisted on the one hand that the British demanded that cruisers be limited to the smaller type because they would be of little use to the United States with its lack of naval bases, and on the other hand that the United States wanted 10,000 ton ships because they would outclass the smaller cruisers required by Great Britain for her far-flung police duties. But both nations were right in their conception of the character of the ships best suited to their needs. The error, the criminal blunder, was the action of the press in attributing to each a sinister purpose to overreach the other. From that has sprung the mistaken public sentiment which leads the people of the United States to look with complacency upon the greatest and most costly naval programme ever presented to Congress. From it has proceeded the resentment which fills the London press today with gibes and sneers at the United States as preaching peace, repudiating all organizations intended to assure it, and turning calmly from a conference for the limitation of naval armaments to initiate legislation for the construction of incomparably the most costly and powerful fleet the world has ever known.

Is there a remedy? Is there any safeguard that can be applied to methods of international news correspondence which will eliminate from it the elements of danger?

Primarily the situation would be improved if newspapers generally would instruct their correspondents to avoid transmitting news which is merely irritating or provocative in character and without enough importance to make its publication necessary. Doubtless the immediate journalistic response to this would be that unless important no news, whether provocative or not, should be cabled. Unfortunately this is untrue. For example not very long ago a great number of American papers carried a cable with a Czechoslovakian date line describing a duel fought by Mussolini in which II Duce was “detected” in wearing a coat of mail! Of course the story was untrue, and it was equally unimportant. But irritating as it was to the Italian people, it was widely published in the United States, as had been an earlier story that II Duce had quarrelled with the Crown Prince and struck him in the face. For sending the latter story a correspondent was expelled from the country and has ever since been posing as a martyr to the Italian censorship.

Fundamentally this whole problem grows out of the demand of advertisers for huge circulation, and the tendency of newspaper readers to buy. the more sensational sheets. It is unfortunately a fact that the very class of news, either domestic or international, which contributes most to the sale of a newspaper is of the least benefit to the reader, and, in the case of foreign news, most contributory to international antagonisms. Sensationalism in domestic news contributes to a certain extent to the spread of crime, and to the blunting of the public consciousness by its effects on the minds of individuals. Sensationalism in international news reacts immediately upon the attitudes of governments, and antagonisms created between states logically lead to war. It is for this reason that there should be expected of newspaper owners and responsible editors a higher sense of responsibility for the character of the news they gather throughout the world. Many already manifest such a sense of responsibility. Some, unhappily, repudiate it and seem to seek for the needlessly irritating and provocative. There can probably be no broad generalization as to the attitude of the press as a whole, because in every country, there are notable exceptions to the rule that sensationalism has an irresistible attraction for the editor seeking great circulation. Nor would it be fair to dismiss with a few phrases correspondents who serve their papers in foreign lands. Many of these are men of high culture and a serious comprehension of the responsibilities of their position. Some possess neither culture nor an adequate comprehension of responsibility. A suitable estimate of the part played by international news in creating or correcting misunderstandings between nations and peoples would require an exhaustive investigation which could only be conducted with the co-operation of the press itself. Such an inquiry should not be confined to the methods adopted in Europe and America, but should take into consideration the obvious irritation of the South American press with the policies of the United States, as reported to them, and should embrace some investigation into the character of the news that came out of China at the time when the world was led to fear that the placid people of that great country were going Bolshevist. An inquiry of this sort would prove enlightening to the public and might even result in a correction of journalistic methods which too often imperil the harmonious relations of nations.


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