The one thing the world will never have enough of is the outrageous.—Salvador Dalí, 1953
The press has scoffed at religion till it has made scoffing popular. It has defended official criminals, on party pretexts, until it has created a U.S. Senate whose members are incapable of determining what crime against law and the dignity of their own body is; they are so morally blind, and it has made light of dishonesty till we have as a result a Congress which contracts to work for a certain sum and then deliberately steals additional wages out of the public pocket and is pained and surprised that anybody should worry about a little thing like that.
I am putting all this odious state of things upon the newspaper, and I believe it belongs there—chiefly, at any rate. It is a free press, a press that is more than free, a press which is licensed to say any infamous thing it chooses about a private or a public man, or advocate any outrageous doctrine it pleases. It is tied in no way. The public opinion which should hold it in bounds it has itself degraded to its own level. There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’ speech but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press. A libel suit simply brings the plaintiff before a vast newspaper court to be tried before the law tries him, and reviled and ridiculed without mercy.
It seems to me that just in the ratio that our newspapers increase, our morals decay. The more newspapers, the worse morals. Where we have one newspaper that does good, I think we have fifty that do harm. We ought to look upon the establishment of a newspaper of the average pattern in a virtuous village as a calamity.
The difference between the tone and conduct of newspapers today and those of thirty or forty years ago is very noteworthy and very sad—I mean the average newspaper (for they had bad ones then, too). In those days the average newspaper was the champion of right and morals, and it dealt conscientiously in the truth. It is not the case now. The other day a reputable New York daily had an editorial defending the salary steal and justifying it on the grounds that congressmen were not paid enough—as if that were an all-sufficient excuse for stealing. That editorial put the matter in a new and perfectly satisfactory light with many a leather-headed reader, without a doubt. It has become a sarcastic proverb that a thing must be true if you saw it in a newspaper. That is the opinion intelligent people have of that lying vehicle in a nutshell. But the trouble is that the stupid people—who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations—do believe and are molded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies.
That awful power, the public opinion of a nation, is created in America by a horde of ignorant, self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditching and shoemaking and fetched up in journalism on their way to the poorhouse. I am personally acquainted with hundreds of journalists, and the opinion of the majority of them would not be worth tuppence in private, but when they speak in print, it is the newspaper that is talking (the pygmy scribe is not visible), and then their utterances shake the community like the thunders of prophecy.
I know from personal experience the proneness of journalists to lie. I once started a peculiar and picturesque fashion of lying myself on the Pacific Coast, and it is not dead there to this day. Whenever I hear of a shower of blood and frogs combined in California, or a sea serpent found in some desert there, or a cave frescoed with diamonds and emeralds (always found by an Injun who died before he could finish telling where it was), I say to myself I am the father of this child—I have got to answer for this lie. And habit is everything—to this day I am liable to lie if I don’t watch all the time.
In a town in Michigan, I declined to dine with an editor who was drunk, and he said in his paper that my lecture was profane, indecent, and calculated to encourage intemperance. And yet that man never heard it. It might have reformed him if he had.
A Detroit paper once said that I was in the constant habit of beating my wife and that I still kept this recreation up, although I had crippled her for life and she was no longer able to keep out of my way when I came home in my usual frantic frame of mind. Now, scarcely the half of that was true. Perhaps I ought to have sued that man for libel—but I knew better. All the papers in America, with a few creditable exceptions, would have found out then, to their satisfaction, that I was a wife beater, and they would have given it a pretty general airing, too.
Why, I have published vicious libels upon people myself—and ought to have been hanged before my time for it, too—if I do say it myself, that shouldn’t.
But I will not continue these remarks. I have a sort of vague general idea that there is too much liberty of the press in this country, and that through the absence of all wholesome restraint, the newspaper has become in a large degree a national curse and will probably damn the republic yet.
From “License of the Press.” Twain delivered this speech at the Monday Evening Club of Hartford, Connecticut. A decade earlier, while reporting for a newspaper in Nevada, he published a hoax titled “A Bloody Massacre near Carson” in an attempt to cast light on a “dividend cooking” scheme by a San Francisco water company. It was picked up by larger newspapers and eventually led to calls for his dismissal. “I found out then,” he later wrote, “and never have forgotten since, that we never read the dull explanatory surroundings of marvelously exciting things when we have no occasion to suppose that some irresponsible scribbler is trying to defraud us.”