Upton Sinclair (2003, reprint of 9th edition, Long Beach, CA, 1928)
The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press). 446 + xxxiii pp. ISBN 0-252-07110-7. $19.95 (paper), $39.95 (hardbound). Index, new introduction by Robert W. McChesney & Ben Scott.
Upton Sinclair (2003, reprint of 9th edition, Long Beach, CA, 1928). The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press). 446 + xxxiii pp. ISBN 0-252-07110-7. $19.95 (paper), $39.95 (hardbound). Index, new introduction by Robert W. McChesney & Ben Scott.
This is one of those books that everyone in journalism has heard about, and everyone should have read-but, unfortunately, most haven't. Upton Sinclair wrote two books that changed the world in some way-his most famous, The Jungle, was written as an attack on the way in which workers were treated by their "industrial masters" but wound up leading to the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. (As Sinclair once put it, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.") But it is The Brass Check that made the most difference to the mass media-and could do so still.
So what if it was originally written more than 80 years ago? So were Shakespeare, the Bible, and many other works from the past that remain valid today.
The original book was self-published, as were the eight subsequent editions. Some 144,000 copies were sold through 1926-a remarkable distribution for a self-published book, in a U. S. population less than half the size it is today.
True, the first half of the book deals with "The Evidence" of the venality of the American newspaper in the first quarter of the 20th century. Many of its examples are tied to a specific date or event. Yet, the assiduous reader of today will find plenty that seems familiar. As this review was being written, Bill Moyers was delivering an address to a conference of the National Security Archive in which he detailed how politics and economics were straitjacketing the press. He could have written Sinclair's book, and Sinclair would have found little difference in Moyers' speech about the brutal pressures of today and the events that Sinclair recounts in The Brass Check.
As one who was frequently attacked in the press (and ignored by it otherwise, in spite of support from many reporters), Sinclair has a wealth of stories to tell-which he has done masterfully in the 34 short chapters of the first half of the book. Today's scholars might prefer footnotes and references to personal observation, but it is refreshing to see material written in the first person by an intelligent observer who doesn't let his temper get the better of him. While many of these stories might remind today's reader of CJR, AJR, Quill, Project Censored, some of the truly liberal magazines-of-opinion and certain blogs, that is their strength as well as their weakness. They do remind us of what is happening today!
It is the second part-"The Explanation"-that makes this book more than personal complaint about his own mistreatment. As an analytical study, it suffers somewhat from being dated, but is still remarkably valid. These 27 chapters look specifically at relationships between the press and institutions such as public welfare, radicals, socialists, sex, crime, Jack London, and labor. Yes, Sinclair-like many others, including Jack London-was a socialist at heart at a time when socialism was allowed to be a popular alternative to the overwhelming might of capitalistic industry. Yes, Sinclair has his pet peeves, such as the Associated Press, but he strongly makes his case against them. His discussion of the relationships between the media, owners, advertising, bribery, the war (it is very easy to compare Sinclair's analysis of the press in World War I with the actions of the press in Iraq today), and America's fear of communism and even socialism are sobering.
We don't have to accept all of the 35 pages of Sinclair's third part, "The Remedy," in order to benefit from The Brass Check. If each journalist, or lover of freedom, or student of public polity, who reads this book will think about whether Sinclair's remedy or some others would do the job better, there are few-outside of those in various executive offices in government and business-who would deny that the problem remains and some remedy is needed.
There aren't too many excuses for not buying a copy of The Brass Check for oneself and persuading one's library to get a copy-it only costs $19.95, minus any discounts one might find. (At the time it first was published, it cost $1.20, postpaid, and would have had a commercial price tag of $2.00-which makes today's price a bargain after inflation is considered). It is printed on acid-free paper (unlike some of the older editions-the copy I bought many years ago and have treasured is a darkening brown) and intended for hard use
The University of Illinois Press deserves our thanks. McChesney and Scott's fascinating introduction puts the volume in context-and reminds us that the more things change, the more they are the same.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2006 (17:2), pp. 34-35.