A TALE OF TWO CITIES.
By P. G. Wodehouse.
Vanity Fair (UK), July 7, 1904
New York, June 24th.
WHEN Mr. Crummells wished to know how “these things” got into the papers, he was referring to the English Press. In New York the mystery is, how anything keeps out of the papers.
New York is the journalist’s Paradise. To be President of the United States is good: to be a multi-millionaire brings a certain sense of power. But if you wish to feel that you have bought the city at your own price, be a newspaper man. With the exception of a few of the more retiring denizens of Wall Street, who do not take kindly to publicity, the ambition of every free-born citizen is to get his name into the papers. He would like a favourable notice if it could be managed, but, failing that, he would rather be held up to the scorn of men than not be held up at all. That is the essential difference between New York and London, and it accounts for the difference between the newspapers of the two countries. As one who has “done” interviews on both sides of the Atlantic, I can speak feelingly of the superiority of New York to London from the point of view of a journalist. The Briton hates publicity. He suspects the papers, and regards those who fill them as something in the nature of gad-flies, something which is a blend of the collector of autographs and the collector of taxes.
After the British interviewer has waited an hour in the halls of the great, and been requested a few times to write and explain just what it is that he wants, “and Mr. So-and-So will see what he can do,” he begins to feel that the office of news-collector is a thankless one. And even if, by rare luck, he does contrive to enter the den of the lion he has marked down, his troubles are only beginning. The interviewee may, or may not, make him feel that he is a worm, and no man, but in either case it is the reverse of probable that he will have anything to tell him. And to a sensitive interviewer there is nothing more painful than the subject who cannot speak. An Englishman is haunted by the fear that anything he says will be taken down, altered, and used in evidence against him subsequently. Nor is this feeling confined to the upper classes. Everyone knows what happened to Mr. Pickwick when he tried to extract information from the cabman.
In New York (and, I suppose, in the other cities of America) the reverse obtains. Let anything happen, and the reporter wanders abroad with the comfortable knowledge that the first man he meets will tell him all the details if he knows them, or, if he does not know them, will invent others just as good. We will suppose that the only son of Citizen Brown has been sent to Sing-Sing for embezzlement, and that the position of Citizen Brown is of sufficient importance to justify a quarter of a column in next day’s paper. Off goes the reporter, calls on the Browns, and chats pleasantly to them about the affair. “Oh, yes,” they say, “Jimmy was always a wild boy. We knew that he would get into trouble some day. We always said so.” Follows a short biography of the bad James, full of good stories of his chequered childhood, how he stole two cents at the age of ten, took prematurely to cigars and chewing-gum, and teased the cat. Having filled his note-book, the reporter leaves the house with all the pomp of an old friend of the family. “Our names will be in the paper, won’t they?” are the last words he hears.
That evening somebody else commits suicide. The reporter is shown up, told all the details, and takes flash-light photographs of the late-lamented in his coffin. It may be because I have suffered much from British interviewees, but this seems to me the ideal life. Next to employing some obliging Asmodeus to lift the roofs of houses, and replay the life written, there can be nothing more soothing to an inquisitive man than a post on the reporting staff of a New York paper.
Down East it is just the same. Open conversation with an inhabitant of Whitechapel by remarking that you are a newspaper man, and would like to know a few things about some vexed question or other, and the man is either violent, or retires into his shell with all the coyness of one of his native whelks. But go into the Bowery, and you are the good, kind gentleman who is going to make his fellow-man happy by putting him into the papers. “Blinky” Bill Casey, and “Lefty” Jim Sullivan, respond to your overtures with delighted eagerness, where “Alf” and “ ’Erry” would, to quote Mr. Jabberjee, become at once the silent tomb.
The New York journalist is everybody’s friend. The policeman at the corner knows him, and withholds his club. The “tough” lounging along Hester Street knows him, and lays aside his sand-bag. The business man, hurrying down Nassau Street, knows him, and finds time to nod. He goes through the lowest quarters of the city unmolested. The reason of this popularity as contrasted with the cold reception of the London journalist is not far to seek. The reserve of the Briton wraps him round like a suit of mail. He is not expansive. All he asks of the stranger is that he shall leave him alone. And he insists that his house shall be his castle. That is why New Yorkers, coming across the Atlantic to work on the London press, find that they have to go to school again. The hustling, stand-and-deliver methods of the American will not do for London. To gather news on this side requires an infinite amount of tact. Mr. C. A. Pearson, who ought to know, says that the ideal man for the post of news-collector is an Englishman born and bred, who, having been accustomed to English methods all his life, goes to New York and works there for five years. When he returns he has the American push and smartness, tempered and judiciously toned down by his English traditions. American newspapers are inclined to look askance at London papers, because, in their opinion, they are slow and unenterprising. They should remember that we cater for a different public. We talk about our Yellow Press, but it can never be anything more than lemon-coloured compared to that of New York. Until London is inhabited exclusively by Americans, the journalist here will continue to find his path a thorny one.
Moreover, in New York—happy place—there are few libel actions. And the fear of a libel action is to the active mind of a journalist what an icy douche would be to his body.
Mr. Crummells: Mr. Vincent Crummles is a character in Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby; in ch. XV he produces some newspaper clippings about himself and wonders how “these things” get in the papers.
Asmodeus: a demon, first mentioned in the Book of Tobit. In satirical seventeenth-century Spanish and French tales, he is depicted as a clever social critic, who removes the roofs of houses to display the secret vices of the inhabitants.