Commentary Magazine

The Sugar Pill, by T. S. Matthews

Newspapers and the News
The Sugar Pill.
by T. S. Matthews.
Simon & Schuster. 221 pp. $3.75.


The modern newspaper suffers from the concessions it must make in solving the severe economic problem of holding a mass audience. Only with such an audience can most newspapers hope to survive. This means that the newspaper must satisfy a kind of mass taste. Such a task is infinitely more difficult, and unpalatable, than the job of newspapers in the 19th century. Then each catered to a particular, limited public, with well-defined prejudices and preferences. The grim casualties among American newspapers in recent months are a warning that the problem must be solved on some terms or other if people are to be served by news printed each day.

T. S. Matthews spent most of his term in American journalism on the staff of Time magazine, from 1929 to 1953. Then he migrated to London. From his British eyrie he watched and wrote about affairs in the United States as a dispassionate critic. Now in The Sugar Pill he dissects and discusses affectionately two important newspapers: the Daily Mirror of London, which has the world’s largest daily circulation, and the Manchester Guardian, which is one of the world’s most respected newspapers.

His thesis, indicated by his book’s title, is that the press is not the world’s daily bread, but its sugar pill. From this stricture he does not exempt even the Guardian, although he says he likes its flavor (spelled, British style, flavour). His account gives a vivid picture of the men and principles by which the two newspapers are produced.

Two more different men than Alfred Harms-worth, Lord Northcliffe, who created modern British popular journalism, and C. P. Scott, who molded the Manchester Guardian, can scarcely be imagined. One was a genius at giving the public what it wanted: an effervescent cocktail. The other propounded and lived what ought to be the people’s conscience. Mr. Matthews tells how the institutions these two men created continue to do their work today. It is a fascinating report. “On balance,” he concludes, “I prefer the Guardian to the Mirror. For one thing, I think the Guardian might really be useful in the long run—if the run is long; perhaps the only possible kind of spoke-in-the-wheel to the Juggernaut of Progress, which seems bound to crush us all but may be impeded. . . . Though the Mirror is flawed, it is the truest mirror we have of our culture (i.e., our expenditure), as the Guardian is one of the truest guardians of our civilization (i.e., our capital).”

More important is what Matthews has to say about journalism altogether. Not only does he deny that the information furnished by newspapers constitutes the people’s daily bread, but he doubts if even the best newspapers report much news, or the most important news, and he insists that the press does not have great power.

The kind of power a newspaper has, he says, is a nasty sort of power—to hurt somebody’s reputation, to bully somebody. “Its vaunted might is a gigantic spoof”; it cannot make or break governments, or swing an election. As for news, he insists that newspapermen rarely know what it is and fabricate a great deal of it. “The press is only a reflection of the world it reports,” he concludes, “and like the world it’s quite unable to recognize or accept really good news—a saint for the ages, a hero both immediate and lasting, a revelation of permanent truth; it can only exaggerate or minimize, ignore, misreport or doubt, just like the rest of us. Big bad news it can’t miss; big good news it never sees—though it pretends a lot of good little news is big, and manufactures all the big good news it can. What keeps the press going is mainly snippets: some news, much gossip, loads of rumors—not to speak of all the features, extras, special acts, and entertaining etceteras.”

Beyond any doubt, the sugar coating around the pill is very thick in many newspapers, and there is some of it in all. But is there no core—no ultimate basis of hard news, as he seems to imply? Here I think Mr. Matthews exaggerates, and the distortion is central to his thesis. All newspapers, even the worst, do give their readers some final residuum of news. Their problem is the kind of diet their readers can consume. Of course newspapers include too much trivia. Of course this kind of irresponsibility is very damaging to society. Of course they could do much better, and still survive. But when all is said and done, there is some thing at the heart of the sugar pill.

Mr. Matthews, following the example of many others, seeks to diminish the role of American newspapers by pointing out that during the twenty years of Democratic party government under Roosevelt and Truman, something like 85 per cent of the American press was owned and controlled by Republicans and newspaper readers were being frequently exhorted to vote Republican. This is reasonably true as far as the editorial page is concerned. But the trouble is that it ignores the news pages. And what happened in the headlines on page one was far more important than what was happening in the editorials. Roosevelt and Truman, both of whom were highly skilled in press relations, were constantly winning the battle of the headlines. They were making news, or what passes for it, or both. And the newspaper, as a chief vehicle for conveying their policies and personalities to the people, helped to put and keep them in power. True, there was distorted treatment of the news by Republican publishers and staffs. But there was not enough of it to deprive the Democratic presidents and their supporters of the immense power of the headlines.

At bottom, Mr. Matthews distrusts people and dislikes modern civilization. He thinks citizens get as good newspapers as they deserve. In this respect he may be right. But after all his cynical arguments and smart phrases, his insight and his rhetoric, one cannot help feeling that this book is not worthy of his best perception. In this respect, as he might say, it is authentic journalism.



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