Table of Contents
My Larger Education by Booker T. Washington
Chapter 4 My Experience With Reporters And Newspapers
I HAVE learned much from reporters and newspapers. Seldom do I go into any city, or even step out on the platform between trains, but that it seems to me some newspaper reporter finds me. I used to be surprised at the unex-pected places in which these representatives of the press would turn up, and still more surprised and sometimes embarrassed by the questions they would ask me. It seemed to me that, if there was any particular thing that I happened to know and did not feel at liberty to talk about, that would be the precise thing that the reporter who met me wanted to question me about. In such cases, too, the reporter usually got the information he wanted, or, if he didn't, I was sorry afterward, because if the actual facts had been published they would have done less damage than the half truths which he did get hold of.
I confess that when I was less experienced I used to dread reporters. For a long time I used to look upon a reporter as a kind of professional pry, a sort of social mischief-maker, who was constantly trying to find out something that would make trouble. The consequence was that when I met reporters I was likely to find myself laying plans to circumvent them and keep them in the dark in regard to my purposes and business.
A wide acquaintance with newspapers and newspaper men has completely changed my attitude toward them. In the first place I have discovered that reporters usually ask just the questions that the average man in the community in which the newspapers are located would ask if he had the courage to do so. The only difference is that the reporter comes out squarely and plumply and asks you the question that another person would ask indirectly of some one else.
For my part, I have found it both interesting and important to know what sort of questions the average man in the community was asking, for example about the progress of the Negro, or about my work. The sort of questions the reporters in the different parts of the country ask indicate pretty clearly, not only what the people in the community know about my work, but they tell me a great deal, also, about the feeling of the average man toward the members of my race in that community and toward the Negro generally. Not only do the newspaper reporters keep me informed, in the way I have described, in regard to a great many things I want to know, but frequently, by the questions that they ask, they enable me to correct false impressions and to give information which it seems important the public should have, in regard to the condition and progress of the Negro.
One other consideration has changed my attitude toward the reporters. As I have become better acquainted with newspapers I have come to understand the manner and extent to which they represent the interests and habits of thought of the people who read and support them. Any man who is engaged in any sort of work that makes constant demands upon the good-will and confidence of the public knows that it is important that he should have an opportunity to reach this public directly and to answer just the sort of questions the newspapers ask of him. As I have said, these inquiries represent the natural inquiries of the average man. If the newspaper did not ask and answer these questions, they would remain unanswered, or the public would get the information it wanted from some more indirect and less reliable source.
Several times, during the years that I have been at Tuskegee, a representative from some Southern paper or magazine has come to me to inquire in regard to some rumor or report that has got abroad in regard to conditions inside our school. In such cases I have simply told the reporter to take as much time as he chose and make as thorough an examination of the school and everything about it as he cared to. At the same time, I have assured him that he was perfectly free to ask any questions on any subject, of any person that he met on the grounds. In other words, I have given him every opportunity to go as far as he wanted, and to make his investigation as thorough as he desired.
Of course, in every institution as large as ours, there is abundant opportunity for a malicious or ill-disposed person to make injurious criticism, or to interpret what he learns in a way that would injure the institution. But in every such case, instead of printing anything derogatory to the school, the newspaper investigation has proved the most valuable sort of advertisement, and the rumors that had been floating about have been silenced. There is no means so effectual in putting an end to gossip as a newspaper investigation and report. On the other hand, I have found that there is no way of so quickly securing the good-will of a newspaper reporter as by showing him that you have if nothing to conceal.
Frequently I have heard people criticize the newspapers because they print and give currency to so much that is merely trivial; in other words, what we commonly speak of as gossip. What I know of the newspapers convinces me that they do not print one tenth of the reports that are sent in to them, and that a large part of the time of every newspaper man is spent in running down and proving the falsity of stories and rumors that have gained currency in the commu-nity as a result of the natural disposition of mankind to accept and believe any kind of statement that is sufficiently circumstantial and interesting. My own experience leads me to believe that if the newspaper performed no other service for the community but that of rooting out of the public mind the malice and prejudice that rest upon misinformation and gossip, it would justify its existence in this way alone.
In saying this, I do not overlook the fact that daily papers are responsible for giving currency to many statements that are false and misleading: that too frequently the emphasis is placed upon the things that are merely exciting, while important matters-or, at least, matters that seem important to some of us who are on the outside-are passed over in silence. To a very large extent the daily newspapers have merely taken up the work that was formerly performed by the village gossip, or by the men who sat around in the village store, talked politics, and made public opinion. The newspaper, however, does that work on a higher plane. It gives us a world-wide outlook, and it makes a commendable effort to get the truth. Even if, like the village gossip, it puts the emphasis sometimes on the wrong things and spends a lot of time over personal and unimportant matters, it at least brings all classes of people together in doing so. People who read the same newspaper are bound to feel neighborly, even though they may never meet one another, even though they live thousands of miles apart.
I have learned much from newspapers and from newspaper men. I think I have met all kinds of newspaper reporters, not only those who work on the conservative, but also those on the so-called "yellow" journals, and what I have seen of them convinces me that no class of men in the community work harder or more faithfully to perform the difficult tasks to which they are assigned or, considering all the circumstances, perform their work better. I confess that I have grown to the point where I always like to meet and talk with newspaper men, because they know the world, they know what is going on, and they know men. I have frequently been amazed, in talking with newspaper men, to learn the amount of accurate, intimate, and inside information that they had about public and even private matters, and at the insight they showed in weighing and judging public men and their actions.
One thing that has interested me in this connection has been the discovery that practically every large newspaper in the country has in its office a vast array of facts which, out of charity for the individuals concerned or because some public interest would be injured by their publication, never get into print. I am convinced that much more frequently than is supposed newspaper men show their interest in individuals and in the public welfare by what they withhold from publication rather than by what they actually do print. Considering that, under the conditions in which modern newspapers are conducted, any fact which would interest and excite the community has become a kind of commodity which it is the business of the newspaper to gather up and sell, it is surprising that these publications are as discriminating and as considerate as they are.
It seems to me, also, that there has been a noticeable improvement, in recent years, in the method of getting and preparing newspaper reports. I am not sure whether this is due more to the improvement in the class of men who represent the papers or whether it is due to a better understanding on the part of the public as to the methods of dealing with reporters; to a more definite recognition on the part of both the public and the newspapers of the responsible position which the modern newspaper occupies in the complex organization of modern social life. Both private individuals and public men seem to have recognized the fact that, in a country where the life of every individual touches so closely the life of every other, it is in the interest of all that each should work, as it were, in the open, where all the world may know and understand what he is doing.
On the other hand, newspapers have discovered that the only justification for putting any fact in a newspaper is that publication will serve some sort of public interest, and that, in the long run, the value of a piece of news and the reputation of a newspaper that prints it depend upon the absolute accuracy and trustworthiness of its reports.
I have learned something about newspapers and newspaper men from my own experience with them, but I have learned much, also, from the manner in which some of the best known men in this country have been accustomed to deal with them.
On several occasions when I was at the White House, during the time that Colonel Roosevelt was President, I saw him surrounded by half a dozen reporters representing great daily papers. I was greatly surprised on those occasions to observe that the President would talk to these reporters just as frankly and freely about matters pertaining to the government, and his plans and policies, as one partner in business would talk to another partner. While these men, as a result of the interview, would telegraph long dispatches to their papers, I am sure I am safe in saying that the President's confidence was rarely, if ever, betrayed.
It was largely through such frank interviews, taking the whole country into his confidence, as it were, that President Roosevelt was able, in so large a degree, to carry the whole country along with him. Ever since I have known Colonel Roosevelt, one of the things that I have observed in his career has been his ability and disposition to keep in close personal touch with the brightest newspaper men and magazine writers of the country. The newspaper men like him because he understands the conditions under which they work and at the same time recognizes the important part that they and their reports play in the actual, if not in the official, government in a democratic country like ours.
Another noted man whom it has been my privilege to see a good deal of, in connection with newspapers, is Mr. Andrew Carnegie. Not long ago I heard the question asked why it was that, while so many rich men were unpopular, Andrew Carnegie held the love and respect of the common people. From what I have seen of Mr. Carnegie I ascribe a good deal of his popularity to the can dour and good sense with which he deals with reporters and newspapers. Mr. Carnegie has something of Mr. Roosevelt's disposition to take reporters into his confidence. Both Colonel Roosevelt and Mr. Carnegie have known how to use newspapers as a means of letting the world know what they are doing and, in both cases, I believe that the popularity of these men is due, in very large part, to their ability to get into a sort of personal touch with the masses of the people through the newspapers.
In saying this I do not mean that either Colonel Roosevelt or Mr. Carnegie has made use of the newspapers merely for the sake of increasing their personal popularity. The man who is known, and has the confidence of the public, can, if he does not allow himself to be fooled by his own popularity, accomplish a great deal more, perform a much greater public service, than the man whose name is unknown.
In the case of both Colonel Roosevelt and Mr. Carnegie, the names of private individuals have, in each case, become associated in the public mind with certain large public interests. They have come to be, in a very real sense, public men because they have embodied in their persons and their lives certain important public interests. Although, so far as I know, he has never held public office of any kind, Mr. Carnegie is nevertheless a public man. Mr. Roosevelt has not ceased to be identified with certain important public interests; nor has he lost, to any great extent, political power because he is no longer President of the United States. The power which these men exercise upon the minds and hearts of the masses of their fellow countrymen is largely due to the fact that they were able to make the acquaintance of the public through the newspapers.
I have always counted it a great privilege that my name became associated, comparatively early in my life, with what has always seemed to me a great and important public interest, namely, a form of education which seems to me best suited to fit a recently enfranchised race for the duties and responsibilities of citizenship in a republic. The fact that I have been compelled to raise the larger part of the money for establishing this kind of education by direct appeals to the public has made my name pretty generally known. I am glad that this is true, for through the medium of the news-papers I have been able to get in touch with many hundreds and thousands of persons that I would never have been able to reach with my voice. All this has multiplied my powers for service a hundredfold. Of course it is just as true that a man who has become well known and gained the confidence of the public through the medium of the press can use that power for purely selfish purposes, if he chooses, as that he can use it for the public welfare. I have no doubt that nearly every man who has in any way gained the confidence of the public has every year many opportunities for turning his popularity to private account. Several times in the course of a year, for example, someone makes me a present of shares of stock in some new concern, and, on several occasions, I have had deeds of lots in some land scheme or new town presented to me. I have made it a rule to promptly return every gift of that kind, first of all for the good business reason that it would not pay me to have my name connected with any enterprise, no matter how legitimate it might be, for which I could be personally responsible, and the use of my name, under such circumstances, so far as it influenced anyone to invest in the scheme, would be a fraud.
A second reason is my desire to keep faith with the public, if I may so express it. In order to do that, I have never been able to see how I could afford to give any of my time or attention to any enterprise or any kind of work that did not have to do specifically and directly with the work of Negro education, in the broad spirit in which I have interpreted it. I have already said that, in my early experience with newspaper reporters, I used to think it was necessary to be very careful in letting them know what my ambitions and aims in regard to my work were. But I have learned that it is pretty hard to keep anything from the newspapers that the newspapers think the public wants to know. As a result of what I have learned I try to be perfectly frank with news-paper men. For some years I have made it my custom to talk with them concerning all my plans and everything of a public nature in which I am interested. I talk with them just the same as I would with one of my friends or business acquaintances. When a reporter comes to interview me I tell him what I wish he might publish, and what I wish he would not publish. Frequently I have discovered that the newspaper man understood better than I how to state things in a way that should give the right impression to the public. This seems to be especially true of the Washington correspondents of the great dailies, who, considering the many important matters which they have to handle, exercise, it seems to me, a remarkable discretion as to what should, and should not, be printed.
Let me give an illustration: When Colonel Roosevelt was President, he invited me to come to the White House to read over an important part of one of his annual messages to Congress. The passage of his message in regard to which he consulted me referred to a subject upon which there was great interest at that time, and the newspaper reporters in Washington, and especially those on duty at the White House, had some inkling as to the subject that the President wished to discuss with me. I was with the President for a considerable time. When I came out of the President's office I was at once surrounded by half a dozen newspaper men who wished me to tell them, in detail, just what I had dis-cussed with the President. After some hesitation I made up my mind to try the experiment of being perfectly frank with them. I gave them an outline of what was in the message and went into some detail in regard to our discussion of it. After I had given them the facts, I said to them: "Now, gentlemen, do you think that this is a subject that I ought to give out to the public at this time through the newspapers?"
Each one of them promptly replied that he did not think it was a matter that I ought to give out to the public. The result was that the next day not a single newspaper represented in this conversation had a line concerning the matter which had called me to the White House. This is an example of an experience which I have frequently had in dealing with reporters. If I had tried to hide something from them, or to deceive them, I suspect that some garbled report or misstatement of the facts would have been given to the public in regard to the matter.
There is always a question with me, and I presume there is with most public speakers, as to what is the best form of preparing and delivering a public address, and of getting the gist of it correctly and properly reported through the newspapers. When I first began speaking in public I used to follow the plan to a great extent of committing speeches to memory. This plan, however, I soon gave up. At present I do not commit speeches to memory, except on very important occasions, or when I am to speak on an entirely new subject.
The plan of writing out one's speech and reading it has its advantages, but it also has its disadvantages. A written speech is apt to sound stiff and formal; besides, if one depends upon a manuscript, he will not be able to adapt himself to the occasion. Writing out a speech, however, has the advantage of enabling one to give out something to the newspapers that will be absolutely accurate.
After trying both the plan of committing to memory and of writing out my addresses, I have struck upon a compromise which I find, in my case, answers the purpose pretty well. The plan which I now follow is this: I think out what I want to say pretty carefully. After having done that, I write head lines, or little suggestions that will call my attention to the points that I wish to make in covering my speech. After having thought out the general line of my speech, and then having prepared my head lines, I have for a number of years been accustomed to dictate my speech to a stenographer. By long practice, I have found that, after dictating my speech, I can take my head lines or memorandum sheet and follow the dictation almost exactly when I deliver my address. I give out all or a portion of the dictated address to the newspapers in advance. This the reporters consider an accommodation to them. It insures accuracy and at the same time leaves me free while speaking to throw aside the stiffness and formality that would naturally be necessary in reading an address or in delivering an address that had been committed to memory, and to take advantage of any local interests that would give a more lively color to what I have to say.
Another disadvantage of a written address, or of one committed to memory, is that it is difficult to adapt it to the interests of the immediate audience. To me, talking to an audience is like talking to an individual. Each audience has a personality of its own, and one can no more find two audiences that are exactly alike than he can find two individuals that are exactly alike. The speaker who fails to adapt himself to the conditions, surroundings, and general atmosphere of his audience in a large degree fails, I think, as a speaker. I have found that the best plan is, as I have stated, to study one's subject through and through, to saturate himself with it so that he is master of every detail, and then use head lines as a memorandum.
One of the questions which I suppose, every man who deals with the public has to meet sooner or later is how to deal with a false newspaper report. I have made it a rule never to deny a false report, except under very exceptional circumstances. In nine cases out of ten the denying of the report simply calls attention to the original statement in a way to magnify it. Many people who did not see the original false report will see the denial and will then begin to search for the original report to find out what it was. And then, unfortunately, there are always some newspapers that will spread a report that is not justified by facts, for the purpose of securing a denial or of exciting a discussion. My experience is that it always gives a certain dignity and standing to a slander or a falsehood to deny it. Every one likes a fight, and a controversy will frequently lend a fictitious interest and importance to comparatively trivial circumstances.
During a long period of years in dealing with the public I have been deceived only once in recent years by a newspaper reporter. This was the case of a man on a New York paper who got aboard a train with me, took a seat by my side, and began the discussion of a question which was much before the public at that time. He gave me the impression that he was a man engaged in business and was only incidentally interested in the subject under discussion. I talked with him pretty freely and frankly, as I would with any gentleman. My suspicions were not aroused until I noticed that suddenly and unceremoniously he left the train at a way station. I at once made up my mind that I had been talking, not to an individual but to the public. The next morning a long report of this interview appeared in his paper. I at once informed the managing editor of what had occurred.
I am not sure that anything definite came of my letter, but I believe that one way to improve the methods of the newspapers in dealing with individuals is to protest when you think you have been badly treated.
The important thing, it seems to me, about the newspaper is that it represents the interest and reflects the opinions and intelligence of the average man in the community where the paper is published. The local press reflects the local prejudice. Its failings are the common human failings. Its faults are the faults of the average man in the community, and on the whole it seems to me best that it should be so. If the newspapers were not a reflex of the minds of their readers, they would not be as interesting or as valuable as they are. We should not know the people about us as well as we do. As long as the newspaper exists we not only have a means of understanding how the average man thinks and feels, but we have a medium for reaching and influencing him. People who profess to have no respect for the newspapers as a rule, I fear, have very little understanding or respect for the average man.
The real trouble with the newspapers is that while they frequently exhibit the average man at his worst, they rarely show him at his best. In order to read the best about the average man we must still go to books or to magazines. The newspaper has the advantage that it touches real things and real persons, but it touches them only on the surface. For that reason I have found it safe never to give too much weight to what a newspaper says about a man either good or bad.
Nevertheless I have learned more from newspapers than I have from books. In fact, aside from what I have learned from actual contact with men and with things, I believe I have gained the greatest part of my education from newspa-pers. I am sure this is so if I include among the newspapers those magazines which deal with current topics. Certainly I have been stimulated in all my thinking more by news than I have by the general statements I have met in books. In this, as in other matters, I like to deal at first-hand with the raw material and this I find in the newspapers more than in books.
Frequently I have heard persons speak of the newspaper as if it's only purpose in making its reports was to tear down rather than build up. It is certainly true that newspapers are rather ruthless in the way in which they seem to bring every man, particularly every public man, to the bar of public opinion and make him explain and justify his work.
Nevertheless it is important that every man who is in any way engaged, directly or indirectly, in performing any kind of public service should never be permitted to forget that the only title to place or privilege that any man enjoys in the community is ultimately based on the service that he performs. I believe that any man, public or private, who meets newspaper men and deals with the newspaper in that spirit, will find himself helped immensely in his work by the press rather than injured.
For my own part I feel sure that I owe much of such success as I have been able to achieve to the sympathy and interest which the newspaper press, North and South, has shown in the work that I have been trying to do. Largely through the medium of the newspapers I have been able to come into contact with the larger public outside of my community and the circle of my immediate friends and, by this means, to make the school at Tuskegee, not merely a private philanthropy, but in the truest sense of that word a public institution, supported by the public and conducted not in the interest of anyone race or section, merely, but in the interest of the whole country.