Tuesday, September 25, 2012


One evening the talk at dinner turned on the Press. Lamancha was of opinion that the performances of certain popular newspapers in recent years had killed the old power of the anonymous printed word. "They bluffed too high," he said, "and they had their bluff called. All the Delphic oracle business has gone from them. You haven't to-day what you used to have--papers from which the ordinary man docilely imbibes all his views. There may be one or two still, but not more."

 Sandy Arbuthnot, who disliked journalism as much as he liked journalists, agreed, but there was a good deal of difference of opinion among the others. Pallister-Yeates thought that the Press had more influence than ever, though it might not be much liked; a man, he said, no longer felt the kind of loyalty towards his newspaper that he felt towards his club and his special brand of cigar, but he was mightily influenced by it all the same. He might read it only for its news, but in the selection of news a paper could wield an uncanny power.

Francis Martendale was the only journalist among us, and he listened with half-closed sleepy eyes. He had been a war correspondent as far back as the days of the South African War, and since then had seen every serious row on the face of the globe. In France he had risen to command a territorial battalion, and that seemed to have satisfied his military interest, for since 1919 he had turned his mind to business. He was part-owner of several provincial papers, and was connected in some way with the great Ladas news agency.

 He had several characters which he kept rigidly separate. One was a philosopher, for he had translated Henri PoincarĂ©, and published an acute little study of Bergson; another was a yachtsman, and he used to race regularly in the twelve-metre class at Cowes. But these were his relaxations, and five days in the week he spent in an office in the Fleet Street neighbourhood. He was an enthusiast about his hobbies and a cynic about his profession, a not uncommon mixture; so we were surprised when he differed from Lamancha and Sandy and agreed with Palliser-Yeates.

"No doubt the power of the leader-writer has waned," he said. "A paper cannot set a Cabinet trembling because it doesn't like its policy. But it can colour the public mind most damnably by a steady drip of tendencious news."

"Lies?" Sandy asked.

"Not lies--truths judiciously selected--half-truths with no context. Facts--facts all the time. In these days the Press is obliged to stick to facts. But it can make facts into news, which is a very different class of goods. And it can interpret facts--don't forget that. It can report that Burminster fell asleep at a public dinner--which he did--in such a way as to make everybody think that he was drunk--which he wasn't.  That's the fun of journalism. You light a match and fling it away, and the fire goes smouldering round the globe, and ten thousand miles off burns down a city. I'll tell you about it if you like, for it rather proves my point."

NOTE:  I have had many journalist friends, so this excerpt from the short story “The Last Crusade” in John Buchan's 1928 collection “The Runagate’s Club” isn’t intended to be as tendentious as it might seem or critical of any particular person.  But it’s simply impossible to feel these days that we have a responsible, skeptical and judicious press which adheres to goals and standards of fairness and what used to be called objectivity.  The example-in-chief would be the mainstream reporting of the current US presidential campaign and the kid gloves, see no evil treatment accorded to the Obama administration concerning every single thing comprising its record of failures Domestic and Foreign.

The uppermost photograph shows the spot where the Oracle of Delphi made her pronouncements.  The description of reporting a couple of paragraphs below comes from a piece written by John Cook and published in Australia’s Defamer.  Below that is a page from Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary showing the definition of “Runagate,” which I thought was appropriate to include since the word, like so much of John Buchan's remarkable vocabulary, isn't well-known.  The black & white photograph of a sulfur ignition shows a German WWI incendiary disc used to cause mayhem and death.  The picture ran in England's  Illustrated War News on November 18, 1914.  The story's reference to arson made me recall my days in Brooklyn's District Attorney's Office, where arsonists were by far the scariest people I encountered.  Michelangelo’s Delphic Sibyl of 1509 from the Sistine Chapel appears in last position.


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