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Six Apostles of the Reformation of Newspapers
I wish we had some of those men who are prophets and apostles of the newspaper era to tell us what is the function of the daily press.
— William I. Fletcher, "Supplying of Current Daily Newspapers in Free Library Reading-Rooms"
MANY OF THE CHRISTIAN PUBLIC intellectuals of the age held a dim view of the newspaper's potential as a vehicle of social change as it then stood. It was, many pastoral critics declared, an institution in need of reform before it could be employed to bring about social change. They argued the newspaper's key mission was to influence social change by advancing public opinion and not merely reflecting it. That was because influencing public opinion was the key to reform. For example, theologian Justin Wroe Nixon maintained that the failure of Prohibition clearly showed that reforms of any kind could not just be commanded but needed a "supporting 'ethos' in society at large." Thus, inspiring the mass-appeal press to help create that ethos was the cornerstone of the criticism of many of those Christian public intellectuals' many sermons, essays, and influential books. And the most prominent of these were the Reverends Lyman Abbott, Washington Gladden, Josiah Strong, Charles Sheldon, and Walter Rauschenbusch and renowned economist Richard T. Ely, a founder and secretary of the Christian Social Union.
This chapter will briefly look at the backgrounds, press criticism, and journalistic theories of these six influential voices of the era. Most of these men had varying degrees of experience in journalism and were prolific writers and primary social diagnosticians of the era whose work represented some of the most articulate and influential criticisms of the secular press over many decades. And their work in journalism could not have helped but bring each of them closer to the struggles of daily life in a changing America. As one historian has noted, normally a pastor was rarely "brought face to face with conditions in his own congregation which called upon him to consider seriously the problems of a changing society." It was therefore significant that many of the religious leaders of the era had worked as editors. Certainly, Gladden recalled that his own work on a country newspaper in the mid-nineteenth century brought him into close contact with all strata of society and gave him the opportunity to study human nature.
The Reverend Lyman Abbott rose to prominence during the Gilded Age as a well-known advocate of social Christianity and as editor of an influential weekly magazine. His Christian view of life melded — as it did with many reformers who came before and after him — with the grievous effects of the Industrial Revolution. Abbott recalled that his interest in studying the problems of labor in America over many decades grew out of two influences — his work as a reformer concerned with the welfare of his fellow Americans and his work as a journalist dealing with "the most important public question of the time." Abbott as a journalist saw the power of the press done correctly as an ablution for the age, which was, he wrote in his memoirs, a time
of curious contrasts, of sordid selfishness and of impracticable idealism. Each, by reaction, intensified the other. The unconscious cruelty perpetrated by the current forms of industry made reformers too impatient to consider gradual remedies. The impracticability of their panaceas confirmed the practical business men in their conviction that the injustices of the prevailing industrial system were unavoidable, and the ministerial representatives of the capitalistic system were fond of quoting the text, "The poor ye have with you always," without remembering the addition, "and whensoever ye will ye may do them good."
And as with Gladden, his fellow pastor and journalist, Abbott had much to say about the daily press and how journalism should be conducted. The newspaper, he wrote, had great power as an educator of the American people. And he believed that both the pulpit and the press could be powerful tools for reform and moral uplift, which, when they worked together, "can develop a better public conscience."
Abbott was ordained a minister of the Congregational Church in 1860 but spent much of his career as a journalist. In a roundup of "religious journalism and journalists" in 1895, one writer observed, "The same qualities of mind and heart that have made him successful as a commentator and preacher have given him favor as an editor. He is catholic in spirit, open-minded to truth from any source, indifferent to the approval or disapproval of his fellow men providing his conscience approves, and peculiarly lucid in expressing his thought." Early in his career, Abbott was the general secretary of the American Freedman's Union Commission, which was engaged in Reconstruction activities after the Civil War. Abbott also wrote for the society's monthly publication, the American Freedman. He also contributed to Harper's magazine, was the New York correspondent for the Boston Congregationalist, and wrote for both the Independent and the Christian Union, as well as other papers. Abbott's editorial career began with the Independent, a liberal Congregationalist paper founded in 1848. The Independent later cast off its connection to the denomination and became a popular and influential national publication that covered an array of religious, social, and cultural topics. In 1876, when he was forty-one years old, Abbott took over the editing reins of the Christian Union, which later changed its name to the Outlook. He remained the editor there until his death in 1922.
Abbott's interest in the problems of industrialization led to his joining the American Economic Association, founded in 1885 through the leadership of economist Richard T. Ely. Abbott — who influenced the economic thinking of his friend Walter Rauschenbusch, one of the leading lights of the Social Gospel movement — was not alone in his membership. Washington Gladden and twenty-two other ministers helped to establish the association. The group, which reflected a "high degree of evangelical fervor," rejected classical economics and called for a more progressive policy. And as Ira Brown noted in his biography of Abbott, "They likewise declared their conviction that the government should fulfill an important ethical role." Brown also observed that while other religious leaders such as Gladden and Rauschenbusch were stronger adherents to the Social Gospel movement's call for social justice, "Abbott's position as a publicist enabled him to wield perhaps a broader influence," as his editorship of the Christian Union — and later the Outlook — played a major role in the movement. Abbott's newspaper was the first religious journal to include in its coverage news and discussion about the industrial strife then roiling the nation. Contemporary scholar Susan Curtis has observed that Abbott's leaving the church to join the Christian Union onward "gave him a chance to articulate the social gospel, which had important implications for American popular culture." That was a view espoused by the International Congregational Council in 1921, which lauded him as "a prophet who kept before the American people the thought of a new social order motived by Christian ideals" through both his pulpit and his work as a journalist.
Abbott became an early practitioner of the social analytic "new journalism" of the late nineteenth century whose publications offered themselves as venues for discussing, debating, and analyzing the escalating social issues of the day. He once noted that this "new journalism" had its roots in the Independent, which "gave voice to the reforming spirit of the day" — most especially its support for the antislavery movement. Renowned preacher Henry Ward Beecher became editor of that publication in 1861, and then after a fallout with management Beecher went on to found the Christian Union. Abbott later took over as editor and later renamed it the Outlook, which offered a snapshot of the opinions of contemporary religion about the issues and events of the day and which Theodore Roosevelt once observed "desires in every way to represent, to guide aright, and to uphold the interests of those whom Abraham Lincoln called the plain people."
Abbott had his own ideas about what the editorial policy of the Christian Union should be and began to gradually transform it from a weekly journal of "generally entertaining and instructive literature" to a weekly periodical that offered the "history and interpretation of current events." That was a change, magazine scholar Frank L. Mott observed, from "the moral and religious to the sociological and political." Abbott began this by changing a regular feature that was essentially a "series of incidental editorial paragraphs into a systematic paragraph history of the week," titled "The Outlook." In July 1893 that became the name of the magazine, indicating that it was changing its emphasis from "religious news and comment to the broader fields of public affairs and arts and letters." The column also differed from other such features in that it was "prophetic rather than historical." That meant, Abbott said, narrating the week's events but also interpreting them in order "to turn the mind of the reader toward the future and help him to see in what direction current history was moving."
By 1902 the Outlook reached a circulation of one hundred thousand and held above that for the next twenty years, garnering much influence and respect. From the beginning, it was Abbott's goal to make the "paper Christian without making it either theological or ecclesiastical." In other words, "religious truth" would take on a cast other than discussions and sermonizing about religion, but by creating a paper people would like and "then express in it the truths and sentiments we wish them to imbibe." Abbott was attempting to bring the sacred and secular together and then ground his news ethic in Christian ethics. "Making books or publications too exclusively religious," he argued, "tends in some degree to dissociate religious sentiments and thoughts from the ordinary affairs and avocations of life, whereas it has always seemed to me desirable that the two sets of ideas and feelings should be indissolubly blended."
Abbott held that while press censorship had been abolished in America, the secular newspaper's attendant responsibility to be truthful had yet to come fully to fruition. Freedom of expression, he wrote, "gives us a journalism which does not distinguish between gossip and news" and that is more concerned with sensation than education. Even so, he insisted, the advantages of free expression to a community were worth much more than its disadvantages. Still, more than once Abbott would discuss the malicious methods of journalism. For example, at one point rumor abounded that the Outlook was in the pocket of Standard Oil because a close associate of John D. Rockefeller owned stock in the Outlook company. Abbott noted, however, that 90 percent of the stock was owned by those who edited and published the publication. The effort by "journalistic prostitutes" to spin these facts into a lie was "an exasperating illustration of the vicious side of American newspaper publishing," he complained.
Brown, the Abbott biographer, has also claimed that Abbott and the Outlook were disdainful of the muckrakers, describing muckraking and its literature of exposure as "a curious social and journalistic phenomenon." However, a closer look at what was said in the article titled "A Frenzied Financial Critic" that ran in the Outlook reveals a much too broad interpretation on Brown's part. Instead, a close reading of the article from which that quote was taken does reveal another analysis of the "vicious side" of journalism. Abbott was taking to task a series of articles in Everybody's Magazine called "Frenzied Finance" by controversial Boston stock promoter Thomas W. Lawson that purported to be an exposé of the workings of Wall Street. Abbott argued that Lawson's articles were "so violent, so sweeping, so undiscriminating, and so irresponsible, that he may justly be said to give his readers the impression that all great financiers and financial institutions are untrustworthy; and thus he fans the flame of class suspicion and hatred. This is why The Outlook believes the Lawson articles are unworthy of serious consideration except as a curious social and journalistic phenomenon." Abbott asserted that the series of muckraking articles stemmed from Lawson's love of notoriety and that Lawson —"the partner, agent, and tool of a small group of unscrupulous and vicious financiers"— was at odds with the group for some reason. Thus, Lawson's "craving for notoriety and a seeking for personal revenge are therefore the motives with which he writes, and not a public-spirited desire to serve the people as an unselfish adviser."
This is not unlike the editorial position once taken by one of the most renowned muckraking editors of the early twentieth century, Norman Hapgood of Collier's magazine. Hapgood once had the opportunity to publish Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle as a serial. The magazine's owner, Robert Collier, wanted to run it, but Hapgood did not. As he explained to Collier, he worried that the book's very style conflicted with the principles and standards of truth that the magazine tried to uphold. He told Collier: "We have quickly made a great reputation for the weekly. In doing it we have used a method that is sensation, but it is our own special kind of sensation. It is the sensation of telling the exact truth about important things — as exact as science itself. Sinclair's sensationalism is of a more familiar type, the sensationalism of exaggeration, of piling on the colors, of saying, if there is blood on the floor of a slaughterhouse, that it is an inch thick, when it isn't." Here, Hapgood and Abbott are expressing the conscience-ridden ideals of a journalism that holds as close to the shore of truth as possible. Their views are not unlike those of William T. Stead whose "purpose was to give a 'soul' to sensational journalism."
Such vicious journalism as Lawson's, Abbott wrote, reached its zenith with the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Indeed, journalist and editor Willis Abbot recalled that when he was editor in chief of the New York Journal, his paper was at the center of the controversy surrounding William Randolph Hearst's sensational journalism and the president's slaying. Abbot noted that the controversy began after William Goebel, a Democrat who had recently been elected governor of Kentucky, was shot, "and some imp of the perverse" prompted Hearst writer Ambrose Bierce to write the following quatrain:
The bullet that pierced Goebel's breast Cannot be found in all the West.
McKinley was shot a few days after the poem's publication, and "public sentiment raged over this 'incitement to assassination,'" as it became the topic of Sunday sermons and as societies passed critical resolutions and businessmen boycotted the Journal, Abbot recalled.
But on a larger scale, Lyman Abbott argued, McKinley's death was more the product of a press-created ethos — of a pattern of "vehement rhetoric in vituperation of the chief magistrate of the nation" that had regularly been appearing in the nation's newspapers. He noted that the newspapers published such abusive accusations as part of a traditional partisan approach to journalism. But in an age when anarchists abounded in the nation, the scathing language of the newspapers' partisans and the "private teachings" of anarchists had congealed into a murderous compound. That is, the newspapers' accusation that McKinley was a tyrant combined with the anarchists' belief that all tyrants must die. Thus, Abbott argued, "The assassination of William McKinley was the ripened fruit of seed sown by lawless tongues in partisan invective which public opinion, regardless of party, should have sternly rebuked."
Still, Abbott saw a place for the press in reform and moral uplift because he believed that as one of the permanent institutions of society, journalism's purpose was "to lift men up, not to drag men down." He believed that while the press certainly had its flaws, it furnished one vital service to reform by holding a "mirror up to American life." It was not always a true mirror but one sometimes out of proportion to reality, like a convex or concave carnival mirror in which the reflection is unrecognizable. Despite that, journalism's great power was to help awaken the public "to self-consciousness." However, Abbott clung to the belief that people still needed to look to the ministry for "instruction in the moral principles of a true social order." Certainly, the editors of the daily press should be "public
teachers, but with few exceptions they have abdicated." That abandonment of their mission, he charged, stemmed largely from the fact that money had become the measure of success. Newspapers with the largest circulations and the most advertising lines boasted about these achievements as proof of success, Abbott observed. "Whether it is promoting the moral and intellectual life of its subscribers, whether its advertisements are of things which aid or hinder that life, are questions scarcely considered." The newspapers' view of what constituted success was a metric of the old political economy, Abbott held, which clashed with the ideals of the new political economy. And economic reformers — including Ely — insisted that citizens were not simply cogs and consumers. Instead, the new economy's primary concerns were developing and maintaining society and that it "must deal with man as an intellectual and moral being, — must, in a word, be ethical." But in practice, Abbott wrote, life in America was more in accord with the old political economy, in which "he who has made a fortune we regard successful; he who has lost a fortune we say has failed." To illustrate, Abbott recalled a comment by the editor of a newspaper who asserted during a debate that "the daily paper was organized to make money, and that was what it ought to be organized for." Alas, Abbott lamented, if that was what editors believed, no newspaper could ever be a teacher.
Excerpted from "The Struggle for the Soul of Journalism"
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