John Swinton on the independence of the press
Variations on the quote below have been misattributed as a response to a
toast, by John Swinton, as "the former Chief of Staff at the New York
Times", before the New York Press Club in 1953. However, research
reveals that Swinton (1829-1901), after moving to New York, wrote an occasional
article for the New York Times and was hired on a regular basis in 1860
as head of the editorial staff. Afterward holding this position throughout the
Civil War, he left the paper in 1870 and became active in the labor struggles
of the day. He later served eight years in the same position on the New York
Sun and later published a weekly labor sheet, John Swinton's Paper.
The remarks were apparently made by Swinton, then the preeminent New York
journalist, probably one night in 1880. Swinton was the guest of honour at a
banquet given him by the leaders of his craft. Someone who knew neither the
press nor Swinton offered a toast to the independent press. Swinton outraged
his colleagues by replying:
There is no such thing, at this date of the world's history, in
America, as an independent press. You know it and I know it.
There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you
did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly
for keeping my honest opinion out of the paper I am connected with. Others of
you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be
so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for
another job. If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my
paper, before twenty-four hours my occupation would be gone.
The business of the journalists is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to
pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell his country and
his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it, and what folly is this
toasting an independent press?
We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the
jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our
possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are
(Source: Labor's Untold Story, by Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M.
Morais, published by United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America,
Despite the misattribution, the quote raises the issue of whether there is
not continuing truth in Swinton's remarks, and whether some candid journalist
might not be able to fairly say similar things today. Anyone who has associated
closely with journalists can hardly avoid finding a ring of truth in such
words, and the best evidence lies in the actual product of journalists and how
well, or how poorly, it both agrees with and covers what actually happens,
especially involving such things as corruption and abuse of power.
For more on the misattribution, see
John Swinton - Yes, He Said
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