Baltimore Evening Sun (21 July 1911): 6.
The University of Chicago continues its holy war upon newspapers--a war not uninspired, it may be suspected, by that levity which newspapers sometimes show when they discuss the university. A year or so ago it published a solemn and pifflish “study” of newspaper eithics, by a jejune pundit named J. E. Rogers, in the course which all American newspapers were set off into arbitrary classes, like hogs or winter wheat, and their crimes were divided into numerous, ridiculous and mutually inclusive categories. The rage for labeling which possesses all young scholars, and particularly those who have no actual coutributions to make to knowledge, reduced the laborious Rogers to a joke and his so-called book to a joke. And yet that book, for all its ponderous absurdities and all its downright and stupid mis-statements of fact, was published with the imprimatur of the university, and is still, I believe, on the university list of publications.
Now comes a second “study” of American newspapers--one not quite so ill-natured and preposterous, it must be said, as that of Rogers, but still an impressive example of academic windjamming. The author is Miss Frances Fenton, a candidate for the degree of doctor of philosophy, and the title of the book is “The Influence of Newspaper Presentations Upon the Growth of Crime, and Other Anti-Social Activity.” Miss Fenton starts off with the assumption that this influence is extremely pernicious, and thereafter her one endeavor is to find evidence in support of her assumption. She manufactures that evidence in a manner practiced by pundits since the invention of sciolism. That to to say, she gives the word itself a new and absurd meaning--a meaning which exactly harmonizes with her purpose. And then--Eureka! the thing is proved!
No sane man will deny, of course, that there is a class of newspaper articles which has a tendency to increase crime, or, at any rate, to encourage and reinforce the criminal impulse. When, for example, a newspaper prints an account of a successful robbery and describes in detail how it was accomplished and how the criminal escaped and throws a glamor of romance and high daring about the whole crime, it must be obvious that a weak-minded young man, reading that account, may be inflamed by a more or less idiotic yearning to emulate the robber, and that, given the opportunity and the native criminality, he may actually proceed to do so. And it is plain, too, that an appreciative account of some peculiarly picturesque offense against morals, if it falls, through parental neglect, into the hands of the young and inquiring, may arouse the imagination dangerously, and even lead to imitation.
But the difficulty to that such articles, even in the worst yellow journals, are not at all common. A paper which made a practice of printing them might conceivably survive, but its circulation would be quickly and almost entirely confined to persons already so degraded that their further degradation would be, indeed, an extremely arduous and fatiguing business. In the average paper, as everyone knows, articles which make crime and vice attractive, even indirectly, are always comparatively rare. The typical report of a crime, if it does not actually describe the punishment of the criminal, at least points out plainly that such punishment is forthcoming or argues eloquently that such punishment should be inflicted.
But Miss Fenton, in order to make out her case, does not hesitate to assume that all accounts of crime, whatever their tone, are contaminating. True enough, she attempts, in the characteristic fashion of seminarians, to divide such accounts into classes, based on their varying degrees of virulence, but in the end she groups those classes together, and returns to her assumption that all such articles, whether they make crime glorious or make it horrible, are dangerous to the reader. And in distinguishing between degrees of virulence, she is not at all inclined to lean away from her own thesis, for at the very head of her worst class she places an article describing ruffianism during the Philadelphia car strike, and defends its position there on the ground that, during the Spanish-American War, murders increased in Chicago!
In an effort to get expert support for her contention that reports of crimes directly inspire other crimes, Miss Fenton submitted a question list to 201 authorities--chiefly professional reformers, who might be expected to come to her aid with alacrity. But only 20 of them responded at all, and of these 20, fully a half, it would appear, either doubted that any such connection could be shown to exist, or were unable, despite a belief in its existence, to cite a single example in proof. And of the 181 who failed to answer at all, it may be assumed pretty safely that nearly same fix, else they would have come forward with their damning evidence in brief, Miss Fenton’s experts, like her statistics, failed miserably to support her argument.
The fact is that the determining element in crime is not so much the external suggestion at the combination of native impulse and chance opportunity. Honest men do not steal and decent men do not murder their wives, despite the plain fact that robberies and wife-murders are constantly reported. To argue that, whenever crimes of the same sort occur in series, each new one is suggested by those before it, and that newspaper reports supply the connecting suggestions--all this is easy enough. But actually to demonstrate any such connection is another and far more difficult matter, as Miss Fenton’s book shows. In the days before newspapers were known crimes were even more numerous than they are today. How were suggestions conveyed then?
The actual effect of newspapers, indeed, has probably been to decrease crime and not to increase it. They warn against roguery, they make the bitter consequences of crime patent to all; and, most of all, they combat the criminal impulse by combatting that combination of ignorance, false ambition and anti-social callousness, which lies at the bottom of it.
From the boomiferous literature of the Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association:
The present mortality rate in Baltimore is 16 per 1,000 of population per annum.
Who said it was? If, as a matter of fact, it has been actually less than 18 a thousand during any year or series of years since 1900, I shall be glad to give the statistician of the association a fine box of 5-cent cigars and to pay $2 into the corporation treasury.
From reformers who serve the Lord by trying to force their own private codes of morals upon their fellow-men--kind fates, deliver us!