Upton Sinclair's View of the Cabal and The Press (from The Brass Check)


I studied Latin for five years in college, and from this study brought away a dozen Latin verses. One of them is from Virgil: "Happy he who has learned to know the causes of things." The words have stayed in my mind, summing up the purpose of my intellectual life: Not to rest content with observing phenomena, but to know what they mean, how they have come to be, how they may be guided and developed, or, if evil, may be counteracted. I would not have taken the trouble to write a book to say to the reader: I have been persecuted for twenty years by prostitute Journalism. The thing I am interested in saying is: The prostitution of Journalism is due to such and such factors, and may be remedied by such and such changes.

Here is one of the five continents of the world, perhaps the richest of the five in natural resources. As far back as history, anthropology, and even zoology can trace, these natural resources have been the object of competitive struggle. For the past four hundred years this struggle has been ordained by the laws and sanctified by the religions of man. "Each for himself," we say, and, "the devil take the hindmost." "Dog eat dog," we say. "Do others or they will do you," we say. "Business is business," we say. "Get the stuff," we say. "Money talks," we say. "The Almighty Dollar," we say. So, by a thousand native witticisms, we Americans make clear our attitude toward the natural resources of our continent.

As a result of four centuries of this attitude, ordained by law and sanctified by religion, it has come about that at this beginning of the twentieth century the massed control of the wealth of America lies in the hands of perhaps a score of powerful individuals. We in America speak of steel kings and coal barons, of lords of wheat and lumber and oil and railroads, and think perhaps that we are using metaphors; but the simple fact is that the men to whom we refer occupy in the world of industry precisely the same position and fill precisely the same roles as were filled in the political world by King Louis, who said, "I am the State."

This power of concentrated wealth which rules America is known by many names. It is "Wall Street," it is "Big Business," it is "the Trusts." It is the "System" of Lincoln Steffens, the "Invisible Government" of Woodrow Wilson, the "Empire of Business" of Andrew Carnegie, the "Plutocracy" of the populists. It has been made the theme of so much stump-oratory that in cultured circles it is considered good form to speak of it in quotation marks, with a playful and skeptical implication; but the simple fact is that this power has controlled American public life since the civil war, and is greater at this hour than ever before in our history.

The one difference between the Empire of Business and the Empire of Louis is that the former exists side by side with a political democracy. To keep this political democracy subservient to its ends, the industrial autocracy maintains and subsidizes two rival political machines, and every now and then stages an elaborate sham-battle, contributing millions of dollars to the campaign funds of both sides, burning thousands of tons of red fire, pouring out millions of reams of paper propaganda and billions of words of speeches. The people take interest in this sham-battle--but all sensible men understand that whichever way the contest is decided, business will continue to be business, and money will continue to talk.

So we are in position to understand the facts presented in this book. Journalism is one of the devices whereby industrial autocracy keeps its control over political democracy; it is the day-by-day, between-elections propaganda, whereby the minds of the people are kept in a state of acquiescence, so that when the crisis of an election comes, they go to the polls and cast their ballots for either one of the two candidates of their exploiters. Not hyperbolically and contemptuously, but literally and with scientific precision, we define Journalism in America as the business and practice of presenting the news of the day in the interest of economic privilege.

A modern newspaper is an enormously expensive institution. The day is past when a country printer could set up a hand-press and print news about the wedding of the village blacksmith's daughter and the lawn-party of the Christian Endeavor Society, and so make his way as a journalist. Now-a-days people want the last hour's news from the battle-field or the council-hall. If they do not get it in the local paper, they get it in the "extras" from the big cities, which are thrown off the fast express-trains. The franchise which entitles a paper to this news from all over the world is very costly; in most cities and towns it is an iron-clad monopoly. You cannot afford to pay for this service, and to print this news, unless you have a large circulation, and for that you need complicated and costly presses, a big building, a highly trained staff. Incidentally you will find yourself running an advertising agency and a public employment service; you will find yourself giving picnics for news-boys, investigating conditions in the county-hospital, raising subscription funds for a monument to Our Heroes in France. In other words, you will be an enormous and complex institution, fighting day and night for the attention of the public, pitting your composite brain against other composite brains in the struggle to draw in the pennies of the populace.

Incidentally, of course, you are an institution running under the capitalist system. You are employing hundreds, perhaps thousands of men, women and children. You are paying them under the iron law of wages, working them under the rule of "the devil take the hindmost." You have foremen and managers and directors, precisely as if you were a steel-mill or a coal-mine; also you have policemen and detectives, judges and courts and jailers, soldiers with machine-guns and sailors with battleships to protect you and your interests--precisely as does the rest of the predatory system of which you are a part.

And, of course, you have the capitalist psychology; you have it complete and vivid--you being the livest part of that system. You know what is going on hour by hour; you are more class-conscious, more alert to the meaning of events than anyone else in the capitalist community. You know what you want from your wage-slaves, and you see that they "deliver the goods." You know what you are furnishing to your advertisers, and your terms are "net cash." You know where you get your money, your "credit"; so you know "Who's Who" in America, you know whom to praise and whom to hate and fear.

There are perhaps a dozen newspapers in America which have been built up by slow stages out of the pennies of workingmen, and which exist to assert the rights of workingmen. The ones I happen to know are the "New York Call," the "Jewish Daily Forward," the "Milwaukee Leader," the "Seattle Union Record," the "Butte Daily Bulletin." It should be understood that in future discussions I except such newspapers from what I say about American Journalism. This reservation being made, I assert there is no daily newspaper in America which does not represent and serve vested wealth, and which has not for its ultimate aim the protection of economic privilege.

I am trying in this book to state the exact facts. I do not expect to please contemporary Journalism, but I expect to produce a book which the student of the future will recognize as just. So let me explain that I realize fully the differences between newspapers. Some are dishonest, and some are more dishonest; some are capitalistic, and some are more capitalistic. But great as are the differences between them, and clever as are the pretenses of some of them, there is no one which does not serve vested wealth, which has not for its ultimate aim the protection of economic privilege. The great stream of capitalist prosperity may flow irregularly, it may have eddies and counter-currents, stagnant places which deceive you for a while; but if you study this great stream long enough, you find that it all moves in one direction, and that everything upon its surface moves with it. A capitalist newspaper may espouse this cause or that, it may make this pretense or that, but sooner or later you realize that a capitalist newspaper lives by the capitalist system, it fights for that system, and in the nature of the case cannot do otherwise. Some one has said that to talk of regulating capital is to talk of moralizing a tiger; I would say that to expect justice and truth-telling of a capitalist newspaper is to expect asceticism at a cannibal feast.

It would be instructive to take the leading newspapers of America and classify them according to the nature of their financial control, showing precisely how and where this control shapes the policy of the paper. There will be certain immediate financial interests--the great family which owns the paper, the great bank which holds its bonds, the important local trade which furnishes its advertising. Concerning these people you observe that no impolite word is ever spoken, and the debut parties given to the young ladies of these families are reported in detail. On the other hand, if there are interests aggressively hostile to the great family, the great bank, the important local trade, you observe that here the newspaper becomes suddenly and unexpectedly altruistic. It will be in favor of public ownership of the gas-works; it will be in favor of more rigid control of state banks; whatever its policy may be, you will, if you sit at the dinner-tables of the rich in that city, have revealed to you the financial interests which lie behind that unexpected altruism.