Lessons about media from some old newspapermen

From P.J. O’Rourke in Stansberry Digest:

So President Trump won’t attend the April 29 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Why does this make news two months before the fact? Why does this make news at all?

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner makes news because it’s the media’s annual opportunity to slap its own back, shake its own hand, and use one of its arms to raise the other in triumph. So many celebrity nuisances, big-potato business types, and political high muckamucks are brought in to assist the self-congratulation that anyone with an eye on the “Big State” wonders, “Are they all in it together?”

A question with an answer that sounds a lot like the one for, “Is professional wrestling fixed?”

It’s a bun fight of less importance to the life of the nation than the county fair 4-H Club calf-and-heifer prize showing. You can eat a cow. There’s no livestock at the WHCD that I’d care to have a rump roast from.

Yet this year, it’s supposed to be important because the president of the United States uninvited himself.

Maybe Trump is distancing the presidency from the “Deep State.” Or maybe something less interesting is going on.

Trump has decided to cast the media – or a large portion of the media – as adversaries.

On Friday, February 17, Trump famously Tweeted: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

One of the great newspapermen of all time, H.L. Mencken, pointed out how right Trump is. In Heathen Days, the third volume of his autobiography, Mencken says, “The plain people… are always, in fact, against newspapers… “

A critic of the Deep State might find this hopeful. But Mencken, as he went on to say, was less optimistic about the motives of us the plain people: “… and they are always in favor of what reformers call political corruption. They believe that it keeps money in circulation, and makes for a spacious and stimulating communal life.”

Most of our problems come not from the media and its opponents or the president and his opponents. They come, of course, from ourselves. Another old newspaperman, Walt Kelly, put it succinctly in his “Pogo” comic strip that once ran in some 500 newspapers: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

As for “fake news,” it has been with us forever. Mencken has a gleeful passage in his autobiography’s first volume, Newspaper Days, about reporting for the Baltimore Herald during a slow news week in 1903:

A wild man was reported loose in the woods over Baltimore’s northern city line, with every dog barking for miles around, and all women and children locked up. I got special delight out of the wild man, for I had invented him myself.

Everyone in the media and politics (and most other forms of enterprise) is in the business of attracting attention.

Another lesson from Mencken is to be wary about “feuds” between politicians and the press.

In Heathen Days, Mencken recounts how, during the 1910s, his newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, was engaged in a political feud with Baltimore Mayor James H. Preston. Never mind that both Preston and the Sun‘s editor were diehard Democrats.

According to Mencken, if Preston “proposed to enlarge the town dog-pound,” the Sun would denounce it “as an assault upon the solvency of Baltimore, the comity of nations, and the Ten Commandments.” While if the Sun editorialized in favor of clean alleys, “Preston went about the ward clubs warning his heelers that the proposal was only the opening wedge for anarchy, atheism, and cannibalism.”

Everyone in the media and politics is in the business of stirring things up – or looking as if they’re doing so.

Mencken confesses, “My own share in this campaign of defamation was large and assiduous.” And then he goes on to say, “I was fond of [Preston], thought he was doing well as mayor, and often met him amicably at beer parties.”

Mark Twain was also an old newspaperman. He instructs us to be equally wary of feuds between media outlets themselves. In an 1869 humor piece for the Buffalo Express, “Journalism in Tennessee,” Twain wrote with only some exaggeration about witnessing a confrontation between the editor in chief of the Morning Glory and Johnson County War-Whoop and Colonel Bascom, proprietor of a rival paper, the Thunderbolt and Battle-Cry of Freedom

Both pistols rang out their fierce clamor at the same instant. The chief lost a lock of hair, and the Colonel’s bullet ended its career in the fleshy part of my thigh. The Colonel’s left shoulder was clipped a little. They fired again. Both missed their men this time, but I got my share, a shot in the arm. At the third fire both gentlemen were wounded slightly, and I had a knuckle chipped… They then talked about the elections and the crops a while, and I fell to trying up my wounds.

Nothing like that happens at Stansberry Research, I’m glad to say.

I’ve been writing for the Stansberry Digest for nearly a year and a half. I like the way Porter and his team treat the media. They sort through it for provable facts pertinent to their mission and analyze those facts with unbiased rigor.

This, for instance, gave me the luxury of waiting until Wednesday to watch President Trump’s Tuesday night address to the joint session of Congress.

Unlike Twain, I avoided the media crossfire and was safely out of the way until I could see what happened after the president and the pundits ran out of ammo.

(FYI: Not much.)

I pretend to have no expertise in investment, but I’ve spent 47 years in the media. By the way, I hate the word “media.” Call it for what it is – gossip, tittle-tattle, self-righteous bloviation, light diversion, lots of advertising and catering to advertisers, plus histrionic reports (variable in accuracy) of other people’s tragedies, disasters, and woes – “If it bleeds, it leads!” – so that viewers, readers, and listeners can feel pity from a comfortable distance or schadenfreude or relief that it didn’t happen to them.

You may agree or disagree with the Stansberry Digest, but it has no fake feuds, no bogus factoids, no desperate pleas for attention, no stirring the pot for the sake of the splashes it makes, no theatrical quarrels staged for public titillation… And it has no table at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.


P.J. O’Rourke

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