Promoting socialism in the press
Media | The growth of the journalistic left from 1885 to 1921
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 10/06/18, 12:57 am
Sojourners and other Christian left groups like to think of themselves as cutting edge, but “Christian socialism” in America goes back the late 19th century. Professor Richard Ely, who founded the American Economic Association in 1885, strove to apply principles enunciated by Horace Greeley to all of American society and tried to meld the Bible and forced redistribution. He demanded that all unite behind the “coercive philanthropy … of governments, either local, state, or national.”
One much-quoted book of that era, William H. Fremantle’s The World as the Subject of Redemption, asserted that government alone “can embrace all the wants of its members and afford them the universal instruction and elevation which they need.” Fremantle praised the worship of governmental power as a furtherance of Christian worship of God: “We find the Nation alone fully organized, sovereign, independent, universal, capable of giving full expression to the Christian principle. We ought, therefore, to regard the Nation as the Church, its rulers as ministers of Christ, its whole body as a Christian brotherhood, its public assemblies as amongst the highest modes of universal Christian fellowship, its dealing with material interests as Sacraments.”
It is hard to know how much of this many journalists absorbed and believed—but these notions did begin receiving favorable press. It was easier to attribute problems to social maladjustments than to innate sinfulness—if personality was a social product, individuals were not responsible for their vices. Crime reporting began to change as journalists attributed “antisocial action” to the stress of social factors beyond an individual’s control. Editorial pages began calling for new government action not merely to redistribute income but as a means to achieve a cooperative commonwealth in which men and women could become godlike.
Those ideas grew out of a misapplication of Christianity, but others quickly popularized them. The New York World, Joseph Pulitzer’s famous newspaper, combined easy-to-read, gripping stories with economic envy. Typical World headlines were like a dragon’s fire: “Death Rides the Blast,” “Screaming for Mercy,” “Baptized in Blood,” “A Mother’s Awful Crime,” “A Bride but Not a Wife,” and “Victims of His Passion.” Readers who paid a penny in response to such appeals would encounter, on inside pages, Pulitzer’s political agenda: tax large incomes, tax corporations, tax inheritances, redistribute income.
Pulitzer’s World juxtaposed current horror with future social salvation; it transmitted a message of hope through science and material progress, evenly distributed by benign government agents. Features such as “Experimenting with an Electric Needle and an Ape’s Brain” showed that scientific transformation of man’s thought patterns was just around the corner. Stories such as “Science Can Wash Your Heart” suggested that immortality was possible. In the meantime, however, monstrous crime and terrible scandal rode mankind.
In one sense Pulitzer was merely imitating the methodology of the Puritan press two centuries before: Emphasize bad news so that the need for the good news becomes even greater. But the message was totally changed. Instead of pointing readers toward man’s corruption and God’s grace, the World portrayed itself as the battler against systemic oppression and proposed running over anyone (including business owners in America, Spaniards in Cuba, and Boers in South Africa) who stood in the way of “progress.”
The World’s circulation rose from 60,000 in 1884 to 200,000 in 1886 to 1 million during the Spanish-American War in 1898. For journalists yearning to transform society and have fun and profit, the World became the New York workplace of choice, much as Horace Greeley’s Tribune had been at mid-century. The World’s full-time workforce numbered 1,300 in the mid-1890s, and the growing arrogance of what had become a major institution soon was apparent: “The World should be more powerful than the President,” Pulitzer argued, since presidents are stuck with four-year terms but the World “goes on year after year and is absolutely free to tell the truth.”
Eternal life plus absolute knowledge of good and evil: Pulitzer believed he had feasted from both of Eden’s trees, but he found no joy. By 1900, Pulitzer was spending most of his time on his yacht, with 75 employees trained to cater to his whims. As one biographer put it, “The yacht represented the logical end toward which the eccentric despot, so concerned with democracy, had been working for decades. It gave him complete control. It was an absolute monarchy.”
A second major editor-publisher of the period, William Randolph Hearst, took Pulitzer’s insights and spread them across the nation through a mighty newspaper chain. One reporter described his excitement upon going to work for Hearst: “At last I was to be the kind of journalist I had dreamed of being. I was to enlighten and uplift humanity. Unequaled newspaper enterprise, combined with a far-reaching philanthropy, was to reform … the whole United States. The printing press, too often used for selfish ends, had become a mighty engine for good in the world, and I was to be a part of the directing force. Proudly I was to march under the banner of William R. Hearst, helping to guide civilization’s forward strides.”
Hearst, owner of the San Francisco Examiner and the New York Journal starting in the 1890s, ordered his editors to “make a great and continuous noise to attract readers; denounce crooked wealth and promise better conditions for the poor to keep readers. INCREASE CIRCULATION.” Pulitzer and Hearst offered not only big headlines and exciting stories but a class-based attack on the wealthy (other than themselves).
Hearst’s editorial writers worked hard to press issues into a class-struggle mold. Classic Journal editorials portrayed “the horse after a hard day’s work grazing in a swampy meadow. He has done his duty and is getting what he can in return. On the horse’s flank you see a leech sucking blood. The leech is the trust. The horse is the labor union.”
Hearst’s ostentatious sympathy for workers made readers think he cared about them. Calls for socialism came next. Hearst wrote in one signed editorial that socialism was the key to advancement, since folding small businesses into massive combinations would create industrial progress: “We are advancing toward a complete organization in which the government will stand at the head and to be the trust of trusts. It is ridiculous to attempt to stop this development.”
One way to bring about political and social change was to emphasize the evil of the present. Hearst built a chain of American newspapers that emphasized sensationally tragic incidents, with headlines such as “He Murdered His Friends” or “He Ran Amuck with a Hatchet.” A woman already in jail for beating a man senseless with a beer bottle, stabbed her jailer with a hat pin. A maidservant poisoned her mistress’s soup. In New York, a boy shot and killed his father, who was beating his mother. Another woman told “How She Horsewhipped Husband.” An 11-year-old drank a bottle of acid because she “did not want to live.”
Hearst newspapers also tried to promote change by forecasting a much-improved future, if resources now used for “barbaric” displays of wealth would fight “distress and misery.” Science (actually, pseudoscience) would help: The San Francisco Examiner reported that one professor had produced “solidified air” and another had found out that what a woman eats determines the gender of her baby.
The third ingredient for change: Create cults of personality by making leaders seem godlike. Hearst instructed his reporters and editors to praise him at every possibility. He posed as a benefactor of the poor, sending pale children on jaunts to the beach. A reporter sent to cover one expedition, however, later wrote that she was given only one container of ice cream to be dealt out on a beach trip: “When at last I placed a dab on each saucer, a little fellow got up and declared that the Journal was a fake and I thought there was going to be a riot. I took away the ice-cream from a deaf and dumb kid who couldn’t holler and gave it to the malcontent. Then I had to write my story beginning: ‘Thousands of children, pale-faced but happy, danced merrily down Coney Island’s beaches yesterday and were soon sporting in the sun-lit waves shouting, ‘God bless Mr. Hearst.’”
Hearst overreached when his New York Journal editorialized that “if bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.” When an anarchist assassinated U.S. President William McKinley in 1901, police found that the killer had a copy of the Journal in his coat pocket. Citizens hanged Hearst in effigy and the new president, Theodore Roosevelt, criticized “reckless utterances of those who, on the stump and in the public press, appeal to dark and evil spirits.” Congressman John A. Sullivan called Hearst the Nero of American politics for his attempts to incite class conflict.
But others promoted Hearst. Best-selling author Upton Sinclair, who funded the establishment of a commune that he called “an industrial Republic in the making. declared in his book The Industrial Republic that a bright socialist future would not be far off if Hearst became president. Sinclair also confused holiness and hatred, eventually declaring that Jesus had been an anarchist and agitator whose vision of violent upheaval was covered up by church institutions. One prominent liberal columnist, Herbert Croly, wrote that Hearst’s ambition was to bring about a “socialistic millennium.”
Hearst gained election to Congress in 1904 and said, “We have won a splendid victory. We are allying ourselves with the workingman, the real Americans. This is just the beginning of our political actions. Our social aspirations have a greater chance than ever to be realized.” Popular journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote a sympathetic profile of Hearst and said the publisher “was driving toward his unannounced purpose to establish some measure of democracy, with patient but ruthless force.”
Hearst failed in his attempt to become governor of New York and then president of the United States. He settled back into newspaper publishing and gave up on socialism, but his emphasis on oppression spread around the country, aided by national magazines such as Munsey’s, McClure’s, Cosmopolitan, Everybody’s, and The Arena, which provided an outlet for freelancing radicals during the 20th century’s first decade. The Arena, for example, pushed its 100,000 readers to “agitate, educate, organize, and move forward, casting aside timidity and insisting that the Republic shall no longer lag behind in the march of progress.”
One of the most prominent magazine writers, David Graham Phillips, compared Karl Marx to Jesus Christ, not unfavorably: “both labor leaders—labor agitators. The first proclaimed the brotherhood of man. But he regarded this world as hopeless and called on the weary and heavy-laden masses to look to the next world for the righting of their wrongs. Then—eighteen centuries after—[Marx] said ‘No! not in the hereafter, but in the here. Here and now, my brothers. Let us make this world a heaven. Let us redeem ourselves and destroy this devil of ignorance who is holding us in this hell!’”
Roosevelt in 1906 criticized Phillips and others he called “muckrakers.” Roosevelt explained, “In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward, with the muck-rake in his hand; who was offered a celestial crown for his muck-rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor. In Pilgrim’s Progress the Man with the Muck-rake is set forth as the example of him whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of on spiritual things. Yet he also typifies the man who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing.”
Roosevelt added, “It is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck-rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck-rake, speedily becomes, not a help to society, not an incitement to good but one of the most potent forces for evil.”
That criticism did not end the influence of socialism-promoting journalists. Sinclair said the muckrakers’ “revolt against capitalism” would continue, and the muckraker, “as forerunner of a revolution … will be recognized in the future as a benefactor of his race.” But journalists who stayed on the left became more aggressive in considering how change could come. Liberal journalists such as Ray Stannard Baker had found socialism attractive because of the “high & unselfish ideals” and “community spirit of service” that they found among socialists they knew. But some press leaders came to scorn such spirit in the way Marx, Lenin, and Mao came to scorn those who thought a revolution could be a garden party.
For example, E.W. Scripps, a publisher whose chain of newspapers rivaled Hearst’s, started out calling his socialism-promoting editorials the “teaching department, the statesmanship department and the spiritual department.” He wrote, “I do not believe in God, or any being equal to or similar to the Christian’s God,” and prided himself on “leveling my guns at the employer class.” But he also read and believed Charles Darwin’s teachings about what became known as “survival of the fittest,” and worried that socialism had “no practical plan for the elimination of the unfit and for the dominance of the fit.”
While some were dismayed by the murderous results of the Bolshevik Revolution, Scripps wrote in 1921 an essay, “Wanted—a Tyrant.” He argued that “as Lenin has striven and is still striving to seize and hold power of dictator in Russia, so may we have to depend on some coming strong man.” Scripps left to posterity the news service that became United Press International, and also a maxim for never-ending revolution: “Whatever is, is wrong.”