The Brass Check (U. of Illinois Press, 2002)

Monday, January 19, 2009

"In this systematic critique of the structural basis of U.S. media -- arguably the first one ever published -- Upton Sinclair writes that "American journalism is a class institution serving the rich and spurning the poor." Likening journalists to prostitutes, the title of the book refers to a chit that was issued to patrons of urban brothels of the era. Fueled by mounting disdain for newspapers run by business tycoons and conservative editors, Sinclair self-published The Brass Check in the years after The Jungle had made him a household name. Despite Sinclair's claim that this was his most important book, it was dismissed by critics and shunned by reviewers. Yet it sold over 150,000 copies and enjoyed numerous printings. A substantial introduction to this paperback edition by Robert W. McChesney and Ben Scott asserts the book's importance as a cornerstone critique of commercial journalism and a priceless resource for understanding the political turbulence of the Progressive Era." - Amazon

Open Letter to Lincoln Steffens issue - "Such is the picture of a magazine "run on a personal basis". And see what it means to you, the reader, who depend upon such a magazine for the thoughts you think...here I am, making what Steffens declares is the best criticism of his work. It is accepted and paid for ... a date is set to give it to you ... but an ignorant and childish old pack-peddler (Peter Collier) steps in and with one wave of his hand sweeps it out of your sight."

"I had made a remark about "The Jungle" which was found amusing - that "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach". It is a fact that I had not been nearly so interested in the "condemned meat industry" as in something else. To me the diseased meat graft had been only one of a hundred varieties of graft which I saw in that inferno of exploitation. My main concern had been for the fate of the workers and I realized with bitterness that I had been made into a "celebrity" not because the public cared anything about the sufferings of these workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef"

Fake Packingtown reforms, labor issues not addressed (newsmen did not run coverage of them), Sinclair's attempts to draw attention to them suppressed

"Here is one of the five continents of the world, perhaps the richest of the five in natural resources. As far back as history, anthropology and even zoology can trace, these natural resources have been the object of competitive struggle. For the past 400 years this struggle has been ordained by the laws and sanctified by the religions of man. "Each for himself" we say "and the devil take the hindmost". "Dog eat dog" we say. "Do others or they will do you" ... "Business is business" ... "Money talks" ... "The Almighty Dollar". So, by a thousand native witticisms, we Americans make clear our attitude toward the natural resources of the continent.

As a result of four centuries of this attitude, ordained by laws and sanctified by religion, it has come about that at the beginning of the twentieth century the massed control of the wealth of America lies in the hands of perhaps a score of powerful individuals. We in America speak of steel kings and coal barons ... and think perhaps we are using metaphors; but the simple fact is that the men to whom we refer occupy in the world of industry precisely the same position and fill precisely the same roles as were filled in the political world by King Lewis, who said "I am the State".

This power of concentrated wealth which rules America is known by many names. It is "Wall Street", it is "Big Business", it is "The Trusts". It is the "System" of Lincoln Steffens, the "Invisible Government" of Woodrow Wilson, the "Empire of Business" of Andrew Carnegie, the "Plutocracy" of the populists. It has been made the theme of so much stump-oratory that in cultured circles it is considered good form to speak of it in quotation marks, with a playful and skeptical implication; but the simple fact is that this power has controlled American public life since the Civil War and is greater at this hour than ever before in our history.

The one difference between the Empire of Business and the Empire of Louis is that the former exists side-by-side with a political democracy. To keep this political democracy subservient to its ends, the industrial autocracy maintains and subsidizes two rival political machines, and every now and then stages an elaborate sham-battle, contributing millions of dollars to the campaign funds of both sides...The people take interest in this sham-battle - but all sensible men understand that whichever way the contest is decided, business will be business and money will continue to talk."

Posted by St. Drogo at 4:19 PM  

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