Monday, May 13, 2019

Newspaperman Influences Verdict

Bird's-eye view of Virginia City, Nev. in 1875. Wikipedia.

(Editor's note: Excerpts in this post are from the outstanding historical novel "The Comstock Lode" by C.C. Goodwin.)

by Glenn Franco Simmons

In this post from C.C. Goodwin's literary masterpiece — among the best writing of the Sagebrush School, we find Alex Strong and Col. Savage, both of whom gave a speech at Anniversary Night in 1878 at Pioneer Hall in Virginia City, Nev.

At the time, Mr. Strong was reported to be an excellent journalist with several years' experience. Colonel Savage, a genius, was drawn west as a young lawyer from New York when the first news of gold discoveries in California was carried to that city. ...

As a former newspaper reporter, editor and publisher, Mr. Goodwin provides what I consider an accurate accounting in any era of American journalism that was and is typical of many newspapers and media organizations.
First, newspapers historically have attempted to reduce labor costs while squeezing out the most production from their editorial staffs — often at the expense of such staff members.
Second, many readers criticize newspapers for grammar, typos, improper word and comma use, and so much more. Because so many newspapers are bare-bones in terms of staff, it's often a wonder that more such errors are not published.

Third, because of an article, editorial or column I wrote, I've often heard people say, "I'll never read your newspaper again." Yet my circulation at all my newspapers kept increasing.

Fourth, the public often underestimates the importance of good community journalism, which is both a calling and a highly refined skill to be successful. In this age of digital communications and the crumbling of Main Street businesses that first began when catalogs were introduced, then malls and now Internet retailers, community newspapers are not as common as they once were, because newspaper advertising has so precipitously declined.

Fifth, I would wager a guess that most staff at such newspapers are overworked, overstressed and underpaid and underappreciated by the newspaper's management and owner(s) and by the public that sees a consistently deteriorating product.

In the dialogue that C.C. Goodwin so expertly established, you will recognize the variables I've touched and more, complete with his wit, intelligence and cultural refinement. In the diaglogue that follows, it has been slightly edited for length; other than that, I did not edit Mr. Goodwin's prose to update it to today's standards. He does just fine on his own.

The Comstock Club

{Col. Savage} was a tall, handsome man, his face was classical, and all his bearing, even when all unbent, was that of a high-born, self-contained and self-respecting man.

Strong, on the other hand, was of shorter statue; his face was the perfect picture of mirthfulness; there was a wonderful magnetism in his smile and hand-clasp; but when in repose a close look at his face revealed, below the mirthfulness, that calm which is the close attendant upon conscious power.

As they reached their seats Alex spoke:

"You were awfully good to-night, Colonel."

"Of course; I always am. But what has awakened your appreciation to-night?"

"I thought my speech was horrible."

"For once it would require a brave man to doubt your judgment, said the Colonel, sententiously.

"I was sure of it until I heard you speak; then I recovered my self-respect, believing that, by comparison, my speech would ring in the memories of the listeners, like a psalm."

"You mean Sam, the town-crier and bootblack. His brain is a little weak, but his lungs are superb."

"I believe you are jealous of his voice, Colonel. But sit down: I want to tell you about the most unregenerate soul on earth."

"Proceed, Alex, only do not forget that under the merciful statutes of the State of Nevada no man is obliged to make statements which will criminate himself.'

"What a comfort that knowledge must be to you."

"It often is. My heart is full of sympathy for the unfortunate, and more than once have I seen eyes grow bright when I have given that information to a client."

"The study of that branch of law must have had a peculiar fascination to you."

"Indeed, it did, Alex. At every point where the law draws the shield of its mercy around the accused, in thought it seemed made for one or another of my friends, and, mentally, I found myself defending one after the other of them."

"Did you, at the same time, keep in thought the fact that in an emergency the law permits a man to plead his own cause?"

"Never, on my honor. In those days my life was circumspect, even as it now is, and my associates — not as now — were so genteel that there was no danger of any suspicion attaching to me, because of the people I was daily seen with."

"That was good for you, but what sort of reputations did your associates have?" asked Alex.

"They went on from glory to glory. One became a conductor on a railroad, and in four years, at a salary of one hundred dollars per month, retired rich. One became a bank cashier, and three years later, through the advice of his physicians, settled in the soft climate of Venice, with which country we have no extradition treaty. Another one is a broker here in this city, and I am told, is doing so well that he hopes next year to be superintendent of a mine."

A page-capture from Washoe Courts' website, which features a C.C. Goodwin biography.

"Why have you not succeeded better, Colonel, financially?"

"I am too honest. Every day I stop law suits which I ought to permit to go on. Every day I do work for nothing which I ought to charge for. I tell you, Alex, I would sooner be right than be President."

"I cannot, just now, recall any one who knows you, Colonel, who does not feel the same way about you."

"That is because the most of my friends are dull, men, like yourself. But how prospers that newspaper?"

"It is the same old, steady grind," replied Alex, thoughtfully.

"I saw a blind horse working in a whim yesterday. As he went round and round, there seemed on his face a look of anxiety to find out how much longer that road of his was, and I said to him, compassionately: 'Old Spavin, you know something of what it is to work on a daily paper.' I went to the shaft and watched the buckets as they came up, and there was only one bucket of ore to ten buckets of waste. Then I went back to the horse and said to him: 'You do not know the fact, you blissfully ignorant old brute, but your work is mightily like ours, one bucket of ore to ten of waste.'"

"How would you like to have me write an editorial for your paper?"

"I should be most grateful," was the reply.

"On what theme?" "Oh, you might make your own selection." "How would you like an editorial on — scoundrels?"

"It would, with your experience, be truthfully written, doubtless, but Colonel, it is only now and then in good taste for a man to supply the daily journals with his own autobiography."

"How modest you are. You did not forget that, despite the impersonality of journalism, you would have the credit of the article."

"No, I was afraid of that credit, and I am poor enough now, Colonel; but really, that credit does not count. If, for five days in the week, I make newspapers, which my judgment tells me are passably good, it appears to me the only use that is made of them is for servant girls to kindle fires with, and do up their bangs in: but if, on the sixth day, my heart is heavy and my brain thick, and the paper next morning is poor, it seems to me that everybody in the camp looks curiously at me, as if to ascertain for a certainty, whether or no, I am in the early stages of brain softening."

"A reasonable suspicion, I fancy, Alex; but what do you think of your brother editors of this coast as men and writers?"
"Most of them are good fellows, and bright writers. If you knew under what conditions some of them work, you would take off your hat every time you met them."
"To save my hat?" queried the Colonel.

"But whom do you consider the foremost editor of the coast?"

"There is no such person. Men with single thoughts and purposes, are, as a rule, the men who make marks in this world. For instance, just now, the single purpose of James G. Fair, is to make money through mining. Hence, he is a great miner, and he, now and then, I am told, manages to save a few dollars in the business. The dream of C. P. Huntington is to make money through railroads, so he builds roads, that he may collect more fares and freights, and he collects more fares and freights so that he may build more roads, and I believe, all in all, that he is the ablest, if not the coldest and most pitiless, railroad man in the world. The ruling thought of Andy Barlow is to be a fighter, and he can draw and shoot in the space of a lightning's flash. The dream of George Washington, he having no children, was to create and adopt a nation which should at once be strong and free, and the result is, his grave is a shrine. But, as the eight notes of the scale, in their combinations, fill the world with music — or with discords, so the work of an editor covers all the subjects on which men have ever thought, or ever will think, and the best that any one editor can do is to handle a few subjects well. Among our coast editors there is one with more marked characteristics, more flashes of genius, in certain directions, more contradictions and more pluck than any other one possesses.

"That one is Henry Mighels, of Carson. I mention him because I have been thinking of him all day, and because I fear that his work is finished.

"The last we heard of him, was, that he was disputing with the surgeons in San Francisco, they telling him that he was fatally ill, and he, offering to wager two to one that they were badly mistaken."

"Poor Henry," mused the Colonel; "he is a plucky man. I heard one of our rich men once try to get him to write something, or not to write something, I have forgotten which, and when Mighels declined to consent, the millionaire told him he was too poor to be so exceedingly independent. Here Mighels, in a low voice, which sounded to me like the purr of a tiger, said: 'You are quite mistaken, you do not know how rich I am. I have that little printing office at Carson; paper enough to last me for a week or ten days. I have a wife and three babies,' and then suddenly raising his voice, to the dangerous note, and bringing his fist down on the table before him with a crash, he shouted, 'and they are all mine!'

"The rich man looked at him, and, smiling, said: 'Don't talk like a fool, Mighels.' The old humor was all back in Mighels' face in an instant, as he replied, 'Was I talking like a fool, old man? What a sublime faculty I have of exactly gauging my conversation to the mental grasp of my listener!' But, Alex, do you not think there is a great deal of humbug about the much vaunted power of the press?"

"There's gratitude for you. You ask me such a question as that."

"And why not?" inquired the Colonel.

"You won a great suit last week, did you not— the case of Jones vs. Smith?"

"Yes. It was wonderful; let me tell you about it." "No; spare me," cried Alex.

"But how much did you receive for winning that case?"

"I received a cool ten thousand dollars."

"And you still ask about the influence of the press?"

"Yes. Why should I not?"

"Sure enough, why should you not? If you will stop and think you will know that three months ago you could not have secured a jury in the State that would have given you that verdict. There was a principle on trial that public opinion was pronounced against in a most marked manner. The press took up the discussion and fought it out. At length it carried public opinion with it. That thing has been done over and over right here. At the right time, your case, which hung upon that very point, was called. You think you managed it well. It was simply a walkover for you. The men with the Fabers had done the work for you.
"The jury unconsciously had made up their minds before they heard the complaint in the case read. The best thoughts in your argument you had unconsciously stolen from the newspapers, and the judge, looking as wise as an Arctic owl, unconsciously wrung half an editorial into his charge. You received ten thousand dollars, and to the end of his days your client will tell (heaven forgive his stupidity) what a lawyer you are, but ask him his opinion of newspaper men and he will shrug his shoulders, scowl, and with a donkey's air of wisdom, answer: 'Oh, they are necessary evils. We want the local news and the dispatches, and we have to endure them.'
"I am glad you robbed him, Colonel. I wish you could rob them all. If a child is born to one of them we have to tell of it, and mention delicately how noble the father is and how lovely the mother is. If one of them dies we have to jeopardize our immortal souls trying to make out a character for him. They want us every day; we hold up their business and their reputations, beginning at the cradle, ending only at the grave."

"What kind of character would you give me, were I to die?"

"Try it, Colonel! Try it! And if 'over the divide' it should be possible for you to look back and read the daily papers, when your shade gets hold of my notice, I promise you it shall be glad that you are dead."

"But what about that unregenerate soul that you were going to tell me of — has some broker sold out some widow's stocks?" "No: worse than that."

"Has some one burglarized some hospital or orphan asylum?" suggested the Colonel.

"Oh, no. Old Angus Jacobs, you know, is rich. Among strangers he parades his thin veneering of reading, and poses as though all his vaults were stuffed with reserves of knowledge. Well, while East last spring, he ran upon a distinguished publisher there, with whom he agreed that he would, on his return, write and send for publication an article on the West.

"He came and begged me to write it, confessing that he had deceived the publisher, and asserting that, he must keep up the deception, or the integrity of the West would be injured in the estimation of that publisher.

"I went to work, wrote an article, became enthused as I wrote, wrote it over, spent as much as three solid days upon it, and when it was finished I looked upon my work, and lo, it was good. "Then, at my own expense, I had it carefully copied and gave the copy to old Angus. He sent it East. To-day he received a dozen copies and a letter of profuse praise and thanks from the publisher.

"I saw the old thief give one of the copies to a literary man from San Francisco, telling him, cheerfully, as he did, that he dashed the article off hastily, that most of the language was crude and awkward, but it might entertain him a little on the train going to San Francisco."

"I never heard of anything meaner or more depraved than that," indignantly remarked the Colonel. ...

{I'm not sure what Faber referred to, but it has been used to refer to craftsmen. The Oxford Dictionary says it refers to "mankind as a maker, especially a maker of tools. Artisan is another meaning.)

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