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   Chapter 2 No.2

The Free Press By Hilaire Belloc Characters: 5136

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"The Press" means (for the purpose of such an examination) the dissemination by frequently and regularly printed sheets (commonly daily sheets) of (1) news and (2) suggested ideas.

These two things are quite distinct in character and should be regarded separately, though they merge in this: that false ideas are suggested by false news and especially by news which is false through suppression.

First, of News:-

News, that is, information with regard to those things which affect us but which are not within our own immediate view, is necessary to the life of the State.

The obvious, the extremely cheap, the universal means of propagating it, is by word of mouth.

A man has seen a thing; many men have seen a thing. They testify to that thing, and others who have heard them repeat their testimony. The Press thrust into the midst of this natural system (which is still that upon which all reasonable men act, whenever they can, in matters most nearly concerning them) two novel features, both of them exceedingly corrupting. In the first place, it gave to the printed words a rapidity of extension with which repeated spoken words could not compete. In the second place, it gave them a mechanical similarity which was the very opposite to the marks of healthy human news.

I would particularly insist upon this last point. It is little understood and it is vital.

If we want to know what to think of a fire which has taken place many miles away, but which affects property of our own, we listen to the accounts of dozens of men. We rapidly and instinctively differentiate between these accounts according to the characters of the witnesses. Equally instinctively, we counter-test these accounts by the inherent probabilities of the situation.

An honest and sober man tells us that the roof of the house fell in. An imaginative fool, who is also a swindler, assures us that he later saw the roof standing. We remember that the roof was of iron girders covered with wood, and draw this conclusion: That the framework still stands, but that the healing fell through in a mass of blazing rubbish. Our common sense and our knowledge of the situation incline us rather to the bad than to the good witness, and we are right. But the Press cannot of its nature give a great number of separate testimonies. These would take too long to collect, and would be too expensive to collect. Still less is it able to deliver the weight of each. It, therefore, presents us, even at its best when the testimony is not tainted, no more than one crude affirmation

. This one relation is, as I have said, further propagated unanimously and with extreme rapidity. Instead of an organic impression formed at leisure in the comparison of many human sources, the reader obtains a mechanical one. At the same moment myriads of other men receive this same impression. Their adherence to it corroborates his own. Even therefore when the disseminator of the news, that is, the owner of the newspaper, has no special motive for lying, the message is conveyed in a vitiated and inhuman form. Where he has a motive for lying (as he usually has) his lie can outdo any merely spoken or written truth.

If this be true of news and of its vitiation through the Press, it is still truer of opinions and suggested ideas.

Opinions, above all, we judge by the personalities of those who deliver them: by voice, tone, expression, and known character. The Press eliminates three-quarters of all by which opinion may be judged. And yet it presents the opinion with the more force. The idea is presented in a sort of impersonal manner that impresses with peculiar power because it bears a sort of detachment, as though it came from some authority too secure and superior to be questioned. It is suddenly communicated to thousands. It goes unchallenged, unless by some accident another controller of such machines will contradict it and can get his contradiction read by the same men as have read the first statement.

These general characters were present in the Press even in its infancy, when each news-sheet still covered but a comparatively small circle; when distribution was difficult, and when the audience addressed was also select and in some measure able to criticize whatever was presented to it. But though present they had no great force; for the adventure of a newspaper was limited. The older method of obtaining news was still remembered and used. The regular readers of anything, paper or book, were few, and those few cared much more for the quality of what they read than for its amount. Moreover, they had some means of judging its truth and value.

In this early phase, moreover, the Press was necessarily highly diverse. One man could print and sell profitably a thousand copies of his version of a piece of news, of his opinions, or those of his clique. There were hundreds of other men who, if they took the pains, had the means to set out a rival account and a rival opinion. We shall see how, as Capitalism grew, these safeguards decayed and the bad characters described were increased to their present enormity.

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