From the March—April issue of East-West Magazine, 1928 VOL. 3—3.
“Blessed are those who do not indulge in sensational news.”
Millions start the day with the gruesome sight of murder headlines in the morning newspapers. The sleep-refreshed young mentality starts the day’s race for success with the dark cloud of wrong thoughts hanging over his mind. The law of “All’s well that starts well” is trampled upon.
Newspapers have more or less become the tin gods worshipped by the mass mind. They can make or unmake a man, at least in the public eye. Human opinion, however, and God’s opinion are different. One forsaken by all humanity may not be forsaken by the God of Truth. One worshipped by all the world may not be true to himself. He may not be acceptable in the eyes of Truth. It is the duty of truth-loving people to reform the newspapers since they almost completely control unthinking, child-like mentalities.
Modern journalism originated in the desire of man to know all about his fellow man and about his environment. The busy man looks at a paper and at a glance knows in what relation his business and social affairs stand with the community. Newspapers are the gods of information. They are the soul of modern business. They are the epitome of the city news. The modern world cannot get along without them. They can act as the breath of life to noble human activities or they can react like chlorine gas to asphyxiate people’s independent thinking. Through the sluice-gates of newspapers the reservoir of human mentalities is constantly fed. That is why a truth-loving country should keep a strict eye on the operation of these gates through which the river of information flows into the public mind. Muddy and defiled water must not be allowed in when clean and sparkling streams are available.
Freedom of the press must respect the law by which true freedom can alone exist. Intoxicated with the wine of freedom, some newspapers often abuse their powers. They often do not know how to operate the gates of information. They have not learned how to exercise self-control and thus prevent the wild river of muddled information from overrunning and clogging the tank of human mentalities. Moreover, newspapers ought not to introduce poisonous news into the tank of human minds, for the thirsty, undiscriminative masses drink poisonous, unwholesome news wherever they find it and hence suffer with nervousness, worry, fear, and subconscious criminal suggestions.
In a few minutes a newspaper prints the headline: “Four hold-up men cleaned up a million. No trace of the robbers found.” The weak and poverty-stricken, or criminally-bent mentality reads it and induces a few friends to join him to try to get rich quick by this unholy method. Unwholesome news whets the appetite for crime. Hold-ups at the point of the gun with the aid of automobiles were unknown in many parts of the world until the idea was unwittingly introduced into the minds of weak mentalities through the channels of western newspapers and movies. That is why sensational movies and newspapers should be gradually crowded out by educating the tastes of children and adults to a higher standard.
Some newspapers and some film producers, in order to be the best sellers of the day, vie with one another in breaking all gates of propriety, morality, purity, and truth in order to overflood and devastate human mentalities with their sensationalism. In order to reform sensational movies and newspapers we must first reform ourselves and our children. “Catering-ism” is the watchword in everything in America. Business, religion, lectures, all must be made to suit what is called “public demand.” That is wrong, unless the demand is wholesome. If people want to eat cocaine, opium, cobra poison, or to indulge in a flattering religion which is afraid to even constructively criticize, or to hear only those lectures which gloss over and explain away their faults, should the business men, religious leaders and lecturers reason, let us give the people what they want, let us sell them poison, flattery and untruth, let us thus kill their souls and choke their mentalities of progress, it doesn’t matter since we are getting rich? No right-thinking man would want society to be run along such lines. The law of honesty should be the policy of newspapers, movie concerns, business men, religious leaders and reformers. They should only cater to the wholesome taste of people. That will bring out the latent good taste even in apparently lost souls who have artificially developed a bad taste for good things.
Who is responsible if the described-in-detail crime news, murder headlines and indirect divorce suggestions begin to influence and mould the clay mentalities of children, burning and hardening them into fixed habit-thoughts of evil? Is not sensationalism responsible for taking a large part in suggesting crime to children and to weak mentalities? Let us save the masses from the drug of sensationalism. Let us have more newspapers with aims and platforms like the Christian Science Monitor and a few other American papers who are trying to be fair and constructive. The New York World has a “Department of Accuracy and Fair Play” which investigates and gives publicity to cases of false and unjust publicity. This is a step in the right direction.
Some newspapers have grown bold and despotic in order to be the best sellers. They don’t stop at anything. They libel a man, writing half-truths or evading the true facts about him, just for the sake of sensationalism. They give head-lines to scandalize him, and syndicate their news, for most papers take it and swallow it wholesale. They murder a man’s life-long-earned reputation in a few minutes and go scot free, laughing. If the person is exonerated and the time for retraction comes, no more headlines. Most of the papers hide behind indifference, do not print the retraction, saying it has no news interest. If they do print it, they give it an insignificant place. If the man sues in court for libel, the process is endless and expensive, and some newspapers even encourage this as a publicity stunt. They employ the best attorneys to fight the libel case. If they lost some money they make up their losses by printing more sensational head-lines like the following: “Reverend John Denies He Was a Bandit and Criminal.” The unthoughtful people are led to buy the papers out of curiosity and thus unknowingly patronize injustice. Some religionists will then raise a hue and cry and say, “Oh, don’t sue the papers; that’s against Christ’s principles.” That’s a fine view, but why not root out the evil instead of allowing it to grow to be later endured by Christ principles?
Many people will remember the case in London a few years ago of “Mr. A.,” Hari Singh of Kashmir, who was blackmailed by a woman and her accomplices. Under threat of blackmail and of newspaper headlines of scandal, the woman and her accomplices extracted seven hundred thousand dollars form the Prince. Later on we hear that the Prince told of this unfortunate experience to one of the English judges. The judge felt a righteous indignation and began to move heaven and earth to break the net of blackmailers who prey upon wealthy or noted people, public men and great ministers by falsely scandalizing them and extracting money from them on threat of newspaper head-lines. Thus we hear a law was passed in England by which all cases of blackmail involving noted persons are heard behind closed doors without the presence of newspaper men. When a case of this kind is settled, only a short correct report is given to the newspapers. No mention is ever made of the nature of the charge if the blackmailed man is found guiltless. Should not America enact such laws and safeguard the lives of public men and women which consist in their reputation? Besides, the English newspapers are very conservative and make thorough investigation before passing any remarks about a public man. The English libel laws are very strict and rigidly enforced, which is far from being the case in America.
From a thorough study of the situation of public life in America, I am of the opinion that the reputation of no public man is safe from being wrongly newspaper-handled. Many newspapers try to create prejudice against individuals and nations to suit their nefarious ends of narrow, bigoted, short-sighted political views. Bad-motived newspapers, lecturers, books, movies and magazines can let loose all the messengers of evil—racial hatred, seeds of war, prejudice, too strict immigration laws based on pure injustice or political inequality or racial and color prejudice, gossip, scandal, love of criminal news, and thrills by the suffering of others. Such newspapers, instead of teaching Christ-love which promises forgiveness and spiritual help even to Mary Magdalenes, just try to foster intolerance and revengefulness, self-deception, and persecution of others for a fault which the persecutors themselves do not try to get rid of or sometimes for no fault at all.
Some syndicating news agencies at times make wholesale productions of lies and baseless scandals. I have studied and examined so many cases of untruthful exaggerations, whipped and bluffed untruths, that I wonder how the Sunday sheets of some papers containing sensational news can continue to exist.
However, one hardly ever sees any contradictions made by the persons persecuted. Why is this? I hear there is an unwritten law among some newspapers that when they are sued for libel they keep silent about it and that news is not syndicated. Since they control public opinion they don’t want to turn the wrathful spot-lights of public opinion on themselves, whereas they rejoice when they turn those furious burning lights on some innocent person. Most papers gloat at the prospect of scandalizing someone. They are too ready and willing to use the materials cunningly supplied by blackmailers, but often quite unwilling to print retractions and save the reputation of innocent people from being murdered at the hands of evil publicity. Do Christian newspapermen consider this is right?
Seeing this condition of evil present amongst some conscienceless sensation-loving newspapers, I have a suggestion to make. Let the leading business men, ministers, and worthy public men of each city come together to form a board for educating the newspapers. Any public man or society scandalized by any unscrupulous newspaper or syndicate of newspapers should be invited to state its case and give positive proofs of newspaper untruth or false insinuations, to the above-mentioned board. Let the board members investigate and, when the person or society is found to have been attacked without adequate grounds, let them write or visit the mischief-making newspaper publishers and editors and exercise their powerful influence to make the newspapers give the same amount of space, kinds of type, position and page to the retraction as they gave to the attack. The city fathers should also write to the syndicating news agencies requesting them to print retractions for maligned persons. The syndicates and local newspapers should be made to consult the members of the above-mentioned board before printing any scandal about a prominent man or society. Last of all the newspapers must be taught by the board to respect others’ freedom as they love their own.
Freedom of the press to print anything it chooses about anybody by writing in a clever insinuating way and distorting the truth should be accompanied by the freedom of giving the persons criticized a chance to reply in the same way. It is cowardly to attack a defenseless, forcibly-made-voiceless person. The same page, position, kind of types and forcible language used to criticize a person should be used in printing the reply of the person criticized if he so desires. There should be no putting off of the retraction or explanation by saying the news is old and uninteresting.
I once heard an account of a conversation between a reporter and an editor about a Peace Conference. The editor listened with disgust and obvious lack of interest in his eyes as the reporter related how smoothly the Peace Conference went along. At last the editor said, “Go put that news in ten lines of small type on the last inside page of the paper.” The reporter realizing that he had not brought news of interest suddenly remembered a little incident which took place in the Peace Conference and exclaimed, “Sir, the President of the Peace Conference lost his temper in suppressing a crazy man who was saying irrelevant things and trying to disturb the Conference.” The editor quickly turned to the reporter, his face beaming with the joy of evil smiles, and said, “Get busy, put headlines on the front page, ‘The President of the Peace Conference Loses Peace’.”
If some newspapers want to make half truths or exaggerated truths sensational they should make the real truth prominent and interesting too.
A sincere friend of mine, Mr. Telford Groesbeck, a prominent citizen of Cincinnati, once said to me, “Please tell the newspapers in your lectures that we do not want the murder and scandal headlines at all. If they still think that some of the public need it or are interested in it, let them print about murders, arsons, divorces and gossip on a loose page and let them make the letters on that page as big and blood-red in color as they want, calling it ‘Red Scandal Page.’ When these newspapers are sent into good homes like ours let them be sent without that ‘Red Scandal Page,’ thus saving our children and homes from being infected with such destructive thoughts.”
Half truths and distorted truths are worst than the blackest of lies. They are very hard to fight. Yet I believe that though evil travels with the wind, nevertheless truth has the power to travel against the wind. Catering to evil tastes will precipitate more evil, disorder, inharmony and suffering into society, and since newspapers are universally read by people, they should act like wholesome, reforming parents and not like murderers who secretly stab those who seek their protection. Of all social crimes, the crime of press distortion and giving prominence to scandals is of the most unfathomable harm to the rising world generation. Let us all by moral persuasion, love, determination and practical measures reform the newspapers and rid them of their epidemic of sensationalism.
Jesus and all world-teachers taught us to sympathize with and help people in error, whereas sensationalism creates the desire to rejoice in others’ shortcomings. Christian newspapers that have sinned and indulged in sensationalism should repent and cease from further blunders. Let us spiritualize the newspapers. Let the morning and evening papers carry headlines on the front page containing the brave sayings of Jesus or the great prophets. Let men, women and children wake up beholding words of truth. Let them sleep, dreaming thoughts of restful, peace-giving truth and lasting joy celestial that dwells within them.