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Southern Image-Breakers

ISSUE:  Autumn 1928

Once upon a time I taught, or at least was a professor of, Journalism, and I suppose that for the rest of my life whenever my liver grows sluggish, reviving a latent faith in Predestination and Infant Damnation, I shall reflect miserably upon the terrible accounting I shall have to make at the Last Judgment for the mayhems I then committed upon the minds of quite decent college students. But in such moments of depression a small consolation remains to me. There is one outrage of the kind which I might have committed, and did not. At least I think I did not. I believe that I never told a class that personal journalism is a thing of the past.

Yet this statement has been made so often that it is accepted and repeated quite generally by men otherwise sane and intelligent. Even the South is coming to believe that it is axiomatic that personal journalism is gone forever. Nevertheless, the idea is a false one; it is applesauce, it is hooey, it is the sublime and ineffable boloney. In brief, there’s nothing in it.

For we still have journalism, and as long as we have it at all we must have personal journalism, because there is no other kind. That is, there is no other kind that is worthy of the name. The newspaper world is filled with dreadful incompetents, to be sure. So is the world of business; ninety per cent of the men who set up in business for themselves cannot make the grade, and either go into bankruptcy or fail less spectacularly. The mortality in the law may not be as heavy, but it is tremendous. The rigorous training exacted of doctors eliminates most of the hopeless incompetents before they are permitted to begin to practice, but happy is the man who has never in his life seen a physician who is no good. The sacred desk I hurriedly pass by to land with a crash upon the farmers. Farmers, as a class, are so notoriously incompetent that it was once thought that the present Presidential campaign might revolve around the question of whether or not they are to be supported out of the National Treasury, as Messrs. Mc-Nary and Haugen demand.

Therefore, if the land is filled with bad newspapers, still it cannot be said that their worthlessness is a characteristic mark of the business. The swarms of bad business men, bad lawyers, bad doctors and bad farmers are sufficiently great to obscure the multiplicity of bad journalists. The point is that there remain numerous good newspapers, and in the South, especially, they tend to multiply. But every good newspaper indicates the existence of at least one good journalist; it is the personality of a competent man that makes a newspaper good—that, and nothing else under heaven.

Early this year a Southern newspaper—”The Enquirer-Sun,” published at Columbus, Georgia—celebrated its hundredth anniversary, and not only the Georgia press, but half the metropolitan newspapers of America, as well, seized the occasion to fling editorial bouquets in that direction. Yet for ninety-two years the country had hardly heard of the place. I know five men who have been in Vladivostok, and three who have been in Tsinan-Fu, and two who have been in Bankok, but I have never, to my knowledge, seen but one man who had ever been in Columbus, Georgia, and he is the editor of “The Enquirer-Sun.”

Why, then, did American newspaperdom get so excited over the birthday of this journal published in a remote Southern town? The answer is contained in two words— personal journalism. Eight years ago the editorship of “The Enquirer-Sun” was assumed by Julian Harris, a journalist who had learned his work thoroughly and who has the great courage which is as much the foundation of really fine newspaper work as a sense of rhythm is the foundation of good musicianship. Incidentally, he had prudently married Julia Collier, who is a good newspaper woman, and thereby doubled his effectiveness.

Julian Harris is not a “fine writer.” His English is graceful enough to make pleasant reading, but he carefully eschews the ornamentation that obscures and weakens. His writing, however, depends for its effect on the matter, not the manner. Yet what he says is not bizarre, not unheard-of, not a plunge into unexplored realms of thought. Ordinarily it is just what any honest man of sense would say, under the same circumstances. But unfortunately what any honest man of sense would say in private conversation is but rarely what the same man would write for publication in a newspaper. Therefore the effect was sensational when Harris began to print in “The Enquirer-Sun” just the sort of thing that intelligent men all over Georgia were saying in private about such developments as Ku Kluxism, and the pernicious activity of preachers in politics, and the ghastliness of Georgia penology. Not only was Georgia stirred, but newspaper men throughout the country took notice of the fact that here was a newspaper speaking sensibly, honestly, and candidly.

Most newspaper men desire to speak like that, but not all of them have the guts to do so. Harris has, and the fact has made the Columbus “Enquirer-Sun” one of the notable newspapers of the country. If this isn’t personal journalism, what is it?

This story might be applied almost without changing a word to a newspaper man just across the State line from Harris. This man is Grover Hall, editor of “The Advertiser,” of Montgomery, Alabama. Hall is apparently a more excitable type than Harris. He loves to put the language through its evolutions; he knows how to make it march, wheel, about-face, stand at attention and salute. He loves to make an editorial surge and thunder. When he gets in a weaving way on such a subject as, for example, the menace of Ku Klux government in Alabama his sentences, crowded, hurrying, almost leaping over one another, come crashing in like breakers with a Gulf hurricane behind them. But his rhetoric is effective because it is based on common sense. He has no preconceived notions which he is determined to sustain, even if he has to warp the facts all out of proportion to do it.

Both Harris and Hall have gathered able assistants around them, but they have none the less made their papers stand for the things in which they, personally, believe. Each paper represents a definitely individual point of view. And if this isn’t personal journalism, I repeat, what is it?

The same thing is true of Charlton Wright, the South Carolina image-breaker of “The Columbia Record.” Wright has laid violent hands on taboos that no South Carolinian had dared touch for generations. He does not, like Jurgen, content himself with doing what seems to be expected. He prefers, rather, to do always what seems to be unexpected, at least in South Carolina. It is journalism as personal as a toothbrush.

On the other hand, personality need not necessarily be injected into a newspaper directly. Sometimes it is as well, or better, inculcated more subtly. A case in point is that of the Greensboro, North Carolina, “News,” one of the sanest, steadiest, and withal most enlightened newspapers to be found in the South. Its editor, Earle God-bey, is one of those who hug the delusion that good journalism may be impersonal. He lays great stress on the impersonal character of his editorial page. His paper recognizes no pet enemies who must always be denounced, and no friends who must always be praised—in the language of the craft, no son-of-a-[Here the Editor used his blue pencil] list and no Sacred Cow. He lays no explicit inhibitions upon his men. He is the one editor of my acquaintance who has no assistants, but only associates.

But he has the knack of asking two questions in fifty-seven different ways, and they are perfectly appalling questions to a man who has just handed in an article which he knows is more ingenious than sound. One question is, “Are you certain of this?” The second, and even more destructive one is, “Is it fair?” These two queries inevitably force “The Greensboro News” into a certain, definite mould, which is the mould chosen by Earle Godbey, although others may actually fit the paper into it. Thus he stamps his personality not merely on his paper, but also on his men, which is surely carrying personal journalism to its ultimate extreme.

Robert Lathan, now of the same State as editor of “The Asheville Citizen,” came into national prominence when, as editor of the Charleston, South Carolina, “News and Courier,” he won the Pulitzer prize for the best editorial of the year. But this editorial was only an expression of what all intelligent Southerners were saying in private. No generalized policy, but Lathan’s personal courage and common sense impelled him to put it into type.

As for North Carolina’s most celebrated editor, Josephus Daniels, of “The Raleigh News and Observer,” and President Wilson’s Secretary of the Navy, nobody ever hinted that there is anything impersonal about his journalism. Mr. Daniels is full of romantic notions about the Democratic Party and the ante-bellum South which sometimes lead him to support what seem to me to be dubious men and more than dubious measures. But his newspaper is unquestionably a power, and what has made it powerful is the personality of its editor. Lie can’t be bought and he can’t be scared. Those two traits are the assets of “The News and Observer,” and all the world knows it.

In the Old Dominion the prestige gained within the last few years by “The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot” is due largely to the sanity and courage of Louis I. Jaffe, another editor who has the nerve to draw the obvious conclusion and state it.

This list is not by any means exhaustive, but it includes a group sufficiently large to furnish an indication of the trend of modern journalism in the South. Anything that is true of all the newspapers here listed may fairly be regarded as true of the best Southern journalism; and I think that any careful observer of these newspapers will mark certain similarities among them.

The most conspicuous characteristic in which they are all alike is their common disinclination to accept traditional romanticism as established fact. Perhaps someone may rise here to point out a glaring exception to the rule. Jo-sephus Daniels’ conceptions of the Democratic Party and of the Old South are so romantic that by comparison with them the tale of Prince Charming and the Sleeping Beauty seems as prosaic and matter-of-fact as a statistical abstract. But these, after all, are generalizations. When it comes to modern instances the case is different. Mr. Daniels, after all, is in part a product of the old school. But when he turns his attention from Democracy and begins to discuss Democrats, he becomes a realist indeed. North Carolina has never hatched a Republican capable of flaying Democratic officeholders as dextrously and as ruthlessly as Daniels can and does flay them. And while he accepts all the fairy tales about the nobility and moral grandeur of the South, when it comes to the specific cases of the cotton-mill barons, the hydroelectric power interests, the railroads and other great corporations, he regards them with a cold and skeptical eye; and this refusal to fall down and worship the economic overlords of the South entitles him to a place among the followers of the new school as well.

These modern Southern newspapers differ somewhat in their economic theories, but there is nothing resembling true radicalism among them. They startle the conservatives often enough, but that is because the Southern conservative is the most easily startled man on earth. The Southern conservative has been on the defensive ever since 1831, when William Lloyd Garrison first began to hit his stride; and ninety-seven years of incessant defending and explaining have developed in the Southern conservative an inferiority complex so gigantic that it colors and flavors his whole life. He has established defense mechanisms which operate so perfectly that not only is he unaware of them, but it is next to impossible for him to be persuaded that they exist.

One of these defense mechanisms is the belief that the South is set apart from the rest of humanity so completely that the very laws of nature, not to mention statute law, do not operate in the region below the Potomac as they do elsewhere. Therefore the assertion that two and two make four in the South exactly as they do in darkest Yankeedom is enough to startle the true Southern conservative.

But the new Southern press seems to be completely devoid of the inferiority complex, hence under no compulsion to believe and to teach that the South is super-human lest the common enemy establish his doctrine that it is sub-human. Accepting the theory that the twelve Southern States are simply, twelve States and not necessarily a peculiar spot set apart as the dwelling place of God’s chosen people, the better Southern newspaper comments on events in the South precisely as it would comment on similar events in other regions.

The rise of the Ku Klux Klan therefore was regarded by this section of the press precisely as it regarded the activities of the Black Hundreds under the Russian czars, and the activities of the Mafia in Italy. A secret society which undertook to regulate the lives of non-members seemed to these newspapers as evil in the South as it would be anywhere else.

A Pogrom in Georgia or Mississippi was deplored by these newspapers precisely as they deplored race-riots in Kiev or Odessa.

Duels a I’outrance between Southern gentlemen have been regarded by these newspapers exactly as they regard fights between Chicago gunmen.

Peonage in the South they have seen as just the sort of disgrace to this country that peonage used to be to Mexico.

But in all this there is nothing even faintly reminiscent of red radicalism. It is merely the reaction to be expected of any intelligent man, decently educated, and candid enough to speak what he really believes. It is exactly the reaction that intelligent, educated Southerners exhibit in private conversation.

The new element that these newspapers have injected into Southern journalism is, in the last analysis, nothing but candor. But candor does not exist suspended in midair. It cannot exist except where it is based on a foundation of very solid courage. Now courage is an intensely personal quality. No corporation was ever per se courageous. No group was ever more courageous than its leader. And no newspaper ever possessed courage except as it was endowed with the personal courage of its directing executive. Therefore the new journalism that is reconstructing the South intellectually is primarily personal journalism.

To be sure, it is quite different from the personal journalism of the past. There is no Henry Watterson in the modern South, no Horace Greeley, no Charles A. Dana. There is not even a Henry Grady, nor an Edward W. Carmack.

But who was Henry Watterson? Why, he was first and foremost the archetype of the Kentucky Colonel. He fought in the Confederate Army, he presided over Democratic National Conventions, he served upon commissions, he advised Presidents, he made after-dinner speeches, he charmed the high-born and fascinated the lowly. Incidentally, he edited a newspaper. But if from his multitudinous activities he had omitted editing altogether, he would still have been a celebrated man.

To a lesser, but still important degree, this was true of Greeley, and it was conspicuously true of Grady and Car-mack. All the old stars, except Dana, were not so much men who became great editors, as great men who became editors incidentally. Dana, alone, was an editor primarily and a great man incidentally. The rest found in their newspapers only one of many expressions of their personalities, and in some cases not the most important one. Their newspapers were appendages, not their whole lives. They wore their newspapers as a man wears a boutonniere. Men respected the papers on account of the editors, instead of respecting the editors on account of the papers.

But was this really personal journalism, or the reverse? Did it not, in fact, strip the journal of personality and convert it into a purely impersonal stage property, a mere background for the editor? It might be argued very plausibly that the great protagonist of real personal journalism is not Greeley nor Watterson, but the elder Joseph Pulitzer, who buried his personality in “The New York World” and thereby made it the greatest personal journal of his day. It is argued that this is impossible, because “The World” survived Pulitzer; but the most astonishing achievement of Pulitzer’s career was his picking an editor as big as himself. Frank I. Cobb, indeed, made the paper glitter as it never did under J. P. himself. And Ralph Pulitzer inherited something of his father’s genius, as well as his father’s fortune. If “The World” survives Ralph, then the theory will begin to wabble.

“The London Times” remained the Thunderer under generation after generation of the Walter family; in the course of a century it had gained enough prestige to carry it forward for years after Northcliffe bought it. But it was plainly going to pieces when Northcliffe died, and the method adopted recently to restore it was to return it to the control of another Walter. This is stretching the theory of personality pretty, far, but not too far. There are plenty of examples of an art being handed down from father to son through several generations. The violin makers of Cremona come to mind at once, as do certain painters, goldsmiths, potters and other artists. These families gave a distinctive stamp to all their work, and what shall we call it, if not personality?

The confusion of ideas that had led to the assumption that personal journalism is out has grown up since newspapers have become immensely profitable. When newspaper proprietors die leaving scores of millions—and this has come to be nothing at all uncommon—the public assumes that such men must have been engaged in a business, or a profession, with a sound scientific basis. Not only do laymen make this assumption, but newspaper men themselves do the same thing. Within the craft for years there has been a persistent and vigorous effort to persuade journalists that they are professional men.

This is arrant nonsense. The professions are, in theory at least, born of the sciences. The case of the medicos is obvious, but lawyers maintain that jurisprudence is a science, and some day it may become true. So do clerics claim that theology is a science, while economists advance the same claim for economics, and historians for history. These claims may be pretty shadowy, but they exist, and on them is erected the claim of professors of these branches of knowledge to the status of professional men.

Newspaper men have no such claim, for their work is as unscientific as any activity in which men engage. There are rules, to be sure, but a man may observe every rule with scrupulous care and produce a bad newspaper, just as a man may observe all known rules of play-writing and produce a rotten play.

Newspaper work is not a science, but a craft, and its practitioners are craftsmen, that is to say, artisans or artificers. They fall naturally into the three grades of apprentice, journeyman and master-craftsman; and when one adds a touch of genius to superb competence, he is not a professional man, but an artist.

This concept is difficult because the world cannot be persuaded that art produces colossal fortunes. Yet what is so strange about that? After all, even in newspaper work it is not the artist who gets the fortune, but the impresario. Why should it be strange that a publisher should die a multi-millionaire, when it is well known that a theater-manager who knows an actor when he sees one can do the same thing? Yet no one seriously regards actors, or singers, or pianists as professional men.

Nor is producing plays, or operas, or managing concerts regarded as the same type of occupation as practicing medicine or law or preaching. The impresario may be something of an artist himself, but he is not a member of a learned profession. No more is a newspaper publisher.

There is, indeed, a sort of journalism that is almost completely impersonal, just as there is a sort of acting that is impersonal. There are scores and hundreds of newspapers as mechanical as the presses they are printed on, as mechanical as a performance by a troupe of ham actors. But which of the arts is not full of dull fellows who ought to be swinging a pick or carrying a hod? Which of the learned professions has no ignorant members? Which of the sciences is free of quacks?

It is not by the dull, machine-minded, uninspired hacks that journalism deserves to be judged, but by the best it can produce. And the best newspapers are being produced today, at least in the South, not by a corporation and not by a committee, but by individual men who stamp their personalities upon their papers. I do not mean that every good newspaper is a solo performance. On the contrary, no big newspaper can be anything of the sort. It is necessarily more in the nature of a symphony. But no symphony was ever played creditably without a conductor who made a personal matter of it.

Most competent newspaper editors seek advice constantly, but none worth his salt accepts dictation. An able staff, ably commanded, makes a great newspaper; but under incompetent command the abler the staff the more certain it is to fly to pieces, and probably to explode the newspaper too. A really fine newspaper never existed without the presence on its staff of at least one journalist who is better than a master-craftsman and approaches the rank of an artist.

Now the most curious fact about the intellectual life of the modern South is its sudden fecundity in literary artists. The last ten years have brought into national fame Paul Green, Dubose Heyward, Julia Peterkin, Frances Newman, James Boyd, Clement Wood, T. E. Stribling, Laurence Stallings and I know not how many more. What obscure forces are responsible for this sudden flowering I have no idea; but I do believe that the same forces that are responsible for these acknowledged artists are responsible for such men as Julian Harris, Grover Hall, Charlton Wright, Robert Lathan, Earle Godbey and Louis Jaffe. They are part of the renaissance. Their contribution to the life of the South affects its economics, its science, its mechanics; but in itself it is no more economic, scientific or mechanical than is the “Perseus” which Benvenuto Cellini contributed to the Florence of Lorenzo de’ Medici.


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