The Apostle and the Wild Ducks/A Plea for Hasty Journalism

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The Apostle and the Wild Ducks by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Part IV. On Literature, A Plea for Hasty Journalism

My last week's article, which reads worse in print than anything I have ever had the misfortune to read, was written under an opulent beech-tree on a walking tour, and only just caught the post. I do not mention this fact merely in order to introduce the adjective `opulent'--admirable as it is--nor do I do it out of mere egotism; for egotism is even more of a nuisance to the ego than it is to other people. The precept `know thyself' did not fall from heaven; it fell upstairs from the other place. I decline to know myself; he is not in my set. He is an unknown benefactor of mine, who prefers to remain anonymous. Nor do I mention it out of any pride in the walking tour; for, to tell the truth, my walking tour chiefly consisted of sitting under opulent beech-trees for very long periods and at very short intervals. I state the circumstances under which the article was written because I am convinced that this is the only moral thing to do. Journalism would be far more honest if it dropped its tone of monastic meditation and Papal gravity, and talked a little more about the commonplace conditions of muddle and procrastination and flurry and scurry in which it is really produced. And I wish that at the beginning or end of all the articles we read, there were a brief note stating the situation in which the work was written. Thus we should read, `Will Australia adopt Bimetallism?' then, in small letters, `Top of Omnibus'; or some such place in which we journalists do most of our learned research and compilation. We should see in some excited morning paper the headlines, `Battle at Ping Cho still in Progress, by an Eyewitness. Latest'. Then in the usual place would be the note, `A.B.C. shop, Strand'. The title, `Should Spinsters Marry Widowers?' would be annotated with `Swan and Elephant, 12.15', and so on. Perhaps, as rather longer descriptions would often be required, it might be as well to confine the matter to a system of easily recognised initials. Thus, for instance, `How England could be Invaded. L.S.R.D.' (Lodgings at the Seaside. Rainy Day); or `Buddhism and the German Pessimists: a Parallel. C.W.P.P.S.' (Cottage. Wallpaper with Pink Spots). The thing would throw a kind of flush of colour into our articles. Nature would creep into them as she creeps into the colour of flowers and wine.

Of course I am for righteousness, and all that. But, as I say, I think this plan of talking about the way the thing is done is really a vast deal more righteous than the present habit of keeping up an enormous pomposity of veil and temple. A good many people who say they want journalism to be honest really want it to be solemn. But honesty is never solemn; it is only hypocrisy that can be that. Honesty always laughs, because things are so laughable. It remembers what a queer thing is man--a creature that picks up objects lying all round him (eggs, water-melons, sheep, and so on), and packs them into himself as if he were a carpetbag. It remembers that the very bones of our heads are grinning. And so you will always find in every age that very sincere men are accused of what is called `blasphemy' (it was Caiaphas's charge)--blasphemy, which means taking things too lightly. The people who can be consistently and entirely solemn are the people who have no convictions at all. Look at them, as they walk down Band Street, in their burnished hats. No belief on any earthly subject has ever broken into the perfection of that innocent and colossal gravity. It is the same, I fear, with most of the great bigwigs of our trade, with the men who write leading articles especially. They are not sincere enough to take anything lightly. If the leader-writer on The Times were sincere (intellectually sincere, I mean), if he became in his own mind serious and real for a second, the consequences would be awful. The terrified sub-editors would peer into his room and see him rolling about on the floor in an agony of laughter, curled up, screaming and kicking--a new problem in the office.

The first step in the making and keeping of journalism an honest thing, is to confess that it is journalism and nothing more. It is a thing produced in a violent hurry, generally in the middle of the night, by men who (terrible as it may sound to say so) are commonly of the average human intelligence. It cannot be accurate. It can be honest; and if it is honest it will own--nay, vaunt-- its ingrained and necessary inaccuracy. Its object is not to tell the absolute truth about Russian gunnery or Canadian finance. But its object is, or ought to be, to tell the absolute truth about the minds and convictions of the men who write it.

The real journalistic sin is not that the leading article should misrepresent history (for who will ever be certain what represents history?); the real sin is that the articles should misrepresent the journalist's own soul. This is vile and by no means uncommon. But it is less likely, obviously, to happen when a man writes hastily than when he writes carefully. The slap-dash style is all on the side of morality.

A paper ought not to be an encyclopaedia--nor, perhaps, to puff one. Both the paper and the encyclopaedia have, of course, eventually the same fate. They are both proved wrong. But the difference is this: that the paper comes out so quickly that even its mistakes are important, while the encyclopaedia comes out so late that even its discoveries do not matter. The newspaper should be the best account of the daily impressions of an intelligent man on one side or the other. If it is anything else but this, it is, or tends to be, a fraud. Honest milk is milk that is milky; honest wine is wine that is wine, and nothing else; honest journalism is journalism that is journalistic. To be journalistic is to be daily, to be constantly receiving impressions vividly and expressing them with absolute fidelity. Give us a frivolous journalism, and we will save England.