“There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.”
Modern history is peppered with public intellectuals speaking up against the follies of popular media, including E. B. White, Einstein, and David Foster Wallace. But among the most articulate critics of the press are Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling, who famously met in 1889.
On March 31, 1873, Twain — adviser of little girls, recipient of audacious requests, cat-hater — gave a talk before the Monday Evening Club at Hartford, titled “License of the Press” and critiquing the state of the popular press. It was later included in the altogether indispensable volume The Complete Essays Of Mark Twain (public library). Though his admonitions target the newspaper as the archetypal press, it’s remarkable to consider how prescient his remarks are in the context of today’s online media. Twain writes:
[The press] has scoffed at religion till it has made scoffing popular. It has defended official criminals, on party pretexts, until it has created a United States Senate whose members are incapable of determining what crime against law and the dignity of their own body is, they are so morally blind, and it has made light of dishonesty till we have as a result a Congress which contracts to work for a certain sum and then deliberately steals additional wages out of the public pocket and is pained and surprised that anybody should worry about a little thing like that.
I am putting all this odious state of things upon the newspaper, and I believe it belongs there — chiefly, at any rate. It is a free press — a press that is more than free — a press which is licensed to say any infamous thing it chooses about a private or a public man, or advocate any outrageous doctrine it pleases. It is tied in no way. The public opinion which should hold it in bounds it has itself degraded to its own level.
There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.
It seems to me that just in the ratio that our newspapers increase, our morals decay. The more newspapers the worse morals. Where we have one newspaper that does good, I think we have fifty that do harm. We ought to look upon the establishment of a newspaper of the average pattern in a virtuous village as a calamity.
After bemoaning the downward spiral of newspaper integrity over the previous 30 years, Twain takes Raymond Chandler’s belief that “the reading public is intellectually adolescent at best” to an even more unforgiving degree:
It has become a sarcastic proverb that a thing must be true if you saw it in a newspaper. That is the opinion intelligent people have of that lying vehicle in a nutshell. But the trouble is that the stupid people — who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations — do believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies.
Among us, the newspaper is a tremendous power. It can make or mar any man’s reputation. It has perfect freedom to call the best man in the land a fraud and a thief, and he is destroyed beyond help.
He then foretells with astounding, uncompromising accuracy the “sponsored content” and “native advertising” debates of today and laments:
In the newspapers of the West you can use the editorial voice in the editorial columns to defend any wretched and injurious dogma you please by paying a dollar a line for it.
He ends with his signature package of keen cultural observation tied with a bow of irreverent satire:
I have a sort of vague general idea that there is too much liberty of the press in this country, and that through the absence of all wholesome restraint the newspaper has become in a large degree a national curse, and will probably damn the Republic yet. There are some excellent virtues in newspapers, some powers that wield vast influences for good; and I could have told all about these things, and glorified them exhaustively — but that would have left you gentlemen nothing to say.
More than a quarter century later, in September of 1899 — a decade after he had met Twain and had his fanboy moment — Kipling penned a poem of similar sentiment. Titled “The Press”, it is one of fifty newly discovered Kipling poems found in the recently released hardback set The Cambridge Edition of the Poems of Rudyard Kipling, Volume 3 (public library). It echoes the heart of Twain’s concerns with a satirical tone, perhaps ironically, more typical of Twain and his own little-known verses:
Why don’t you write a play —
Why don’t you cut your hair?
Do you trim your toe-nails round
Or do you trim them square?
Tell it to the papers,
Tell it every day.
But, en passant, may I ask
Why don’t you write a play?
What’s your last religion?
Have you got a creed?
Do you dress in Jaeger-wool
Sackcloth, silk or tweed?
Name the books that helped you
On the path you’ve trod.
Do you use a little g
When you write of God?
Do you hope to enter
Fame’s immortal dome?
Do you put the washing out
Or have it done at home?
Have you any morals?
Does your genius burn?
Was you wife a what’s its name?
How much did she earn?
Had your friend a secret
Sorrow, shame or vice –
Have you promised not to tell
What’s your lowest price?
All the housemaid fancied
All the butler guessed
Tell it to the public press
And we will do the rest.
Why don’t you write a play?
Whether or not Twain’s essay was a direct influence on Kipling’s poem, of course, will never be known, for the anatomy of influence is a complicated matter. But what we do know is that all great art builds on what came before, every “new” idea a combination of past fragments, and creativity is a slot-machine of knowledge end experience. After all, it was Twain himself who told Helen Keller that “all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.”