Dora B. Monefiore

Book Review

Press Poison

Review of Upton Sinclair’s The Brass Check

Source: Vanguard, June 1920 (1,310 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

What should we do tomorrow, comrades, were we to discover to-day that capitalism, along with its other crimes, had organised a department for the poisoning, when it considered it necessary in its own interests of our daily food? A department which ostensibly organised as a useful and necessary industry, was in effect, lowering our vitality, destroying our powers of resistance and shortening, for its own purposes, our lives? Should we not, if we learned these facts and proved them to-day beyond dispute, rise up in our wrath and put an end to the powers Capitalism, which worked such evil and cowardly deeds? Yet, comrades is not the systematic poisoning of the mind every bit as evil and as deadly in its results as the poisoning of the body; and has not the Capitalist press its well organised department for pouring into our mental organisms its daily trickle of poison, in distorted facts and statements, in withholding of the truth, and in vilifying those who are striving to organise a new and a better order of society?

An American comrade has sent me Upton Sinclair’s latest book, “The Brass Check,” a study of American journalism, and on the cover are printed these three questions: “Who owns the press, and why? When you read your daily paper are you reading facts or propaganda? And whose propaganda? Who furnishes the raw material for your thoughts about life? Is it honest material?”

Inside the book are 444 pages of close indictment of the American Capitalist press for the daily, weekly and monthly mind-poisoning of millions of Americans and of other human beings. It is a well documented indictment, so well documented, and every accusation is so carefully proved that Upton Sinclair has evidently not been able to find a publisher who would care to publish it, so he has published it himself at Pasadena, California. Upton Sinclair, who showed up in his book, “The Jungle,” the methods of the Chicago Meat Trust, has been fighting for and with the workers for more than twenty years. He is therefore a man marked down by the Capitalists, and they gave him no quarter in their press at the time the book was published; they either described it as “insane rant and drivel,” as “a libel and an insult to intelligence”, or they entirely ignored it and its direct charges. “Yet,” writes, Sinclair in the book under notice, “a couple of months later the President of the United States makes an investigation, and his commission issues a report, which vindicates every charge I have made.”

Again in the chapter headed, “The Press and the Socialists,” Sinclair gives instance after instance in which the Capitalist press poisons the mind of the public by associating Socialists and Socialism with crime. When the King of Greece was shot by an insane man immediately leading papers came out with the headline, “King of Greece assassinated by a Socialist,” and the same tactics were repeated when Roosevelt was shot at in Milwaukee, and when David Graham Phillips was shot by Goldsborough. When A.M. Simons (editor of the “Chicago Socialist organ”) was reporting at the International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart for the United Press, supposed to be a Liberal organisation, he received the following dispatch from the London headquarters of the United Press:

“Wire 300 words on probable split of Congress into Bebelists, Herveists and Labourites.”

Needless to say, there was no “probable split,” but when Simons landed in New York he found that the story of the split of the Socialist Congress had been carried over the United Press wires to the paper he was serving. It is the Associated Press that is the supreme poisoner, and Sinclair quotes case after case in which it has lied against and defamed Labour, Socialism and Socialists. Barry, the editor of the “San Francisco Star,” which is a weekly and therefore not afraid of the A.P., is quoted as writing to Prof. Ross of the University of Wisconsin, “You wish to know my confidential opinion as to the honesty of the Associated Press. In my opinion, not confidential, is that it is the damndest, meanest monopoly on the face of the earth—the wet nurse of all other monopolies. It lies by day, it lies by night, and it lies for the very lust of lying. Its news-gatherers, I believe, only obey orders.”

As one example only of this poisonous action on the part of the Associated Press, when the copper miners of the “Upper Peninsular” went on strike, they stayed out several months, and during that time “they were slugged and beaten up by imported gunmen, their offices raided, their leaders shot or jailed. During this entire affair the Associated Press sent out to the country a string of subtle and knavish falsehoods, of which C.G. Russell gives seven pages, printing them in parallel columns, first the falsehood, and then the result of careful investigations, backed by numerous affidavits.” Some of these statements are given in Sinclair’s book and he summarises thus, “Why did they not prosecute Russell? Why is it that the general manger of the Associated Press makes nothing but ‘a loud squeal’? Why does he not come into court and vindicate his honour in an open contest before a jury?”

One more story, which brings the press right home in our midst. Sinclair is writing in his Californian home in 1919, and on his desk lies the “Los Angeles Times” with the scare-headline all the way across the page: “Britain defies Labour threat of Revolution.” Inside is a portrait of what purports to be Robert Smillie, the “brains of the Triple Alliance of powerful Labour Unions seeking social and economic revolution in the United Kingdom”. “The portrait”, Sinclair writes, “shows a foreign-looking individual with straggly beard and tousled hair, wearing a Russian blouse. It is Abram Krylenko, Commander-in-Chief, of the Russian Bolshevist Army.”

I hope these few extracts will induce comrades to send for and to read “The Brass Check.” They will learn, if they do not know it already, how Capitalist news was manufactured about the war, about Russia, and is still being manufactured about Labour and Communism. They will then perhaps get an inkling of why, if they want to stop this poison process, they must declare the Dictatorship of the People over the Press. They must do as the Soviets have done in Russia—take over the Associated Press and the United Press, and stop the corrupt Capitalist sources from which the lies emanate. There is at the present moment no work so necessary to be done by organised Communists as this, for wherever Capitalism is the dictator there the press is organised to disseminate the lies necessary for its corrupt existence. Let the workers, through their Soviets, become dictators in every branch of life, and let the first act of their dictatorship be to cut off the poison stream which is sapping the mental vitality and uprightness of the race.

Sinclair quotes at the end of Part II the words of an old time journalist, venerated in. his day, John Swinton, editor of the “New York Tribune”, who is replying at a banquet to the toast, “An Independent Press”:

“There is no such thing in America as an independent press, unless it is in the country towns. You know it and I know it.

. . . . The business of the New York journalists is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of Mammon, and to sell his race and his country for his daily bread.”

The disease is apparently not a new one, and the remedy will have to be drastic and surgical. But the longer the knife is delayed the deeper and more bloody in its process will be the operation.