John Swinton - Yes, He Said It, But...

John Swinton: Yes, he said it, but...
I got email from Jay Salter, one of my readers, who had come across the John Swinton vignette in my "Other Voices" section. He forwarded it to a journalist's discussion area, asking for feedback.
One journalist there, Jeff McMahon, made this response to Jay:
"Yeah, I'll take that bait.
"The last time I saw that phony quote Swinton was identified as the "chief of staff" of the New York SUN, the date was 1853, and where it now says "I am paid weekly," it then said "I am paid $150 a week." Which is, actually, about how much I made in journalism. Then some liar realized that newspapers don't have chiefs of staff, at least the editorial departments don't, and if you're going to lie you might as well do it big, so they made him the EDITOR IN CHIEF of the New York TIMES in NINETEEN 53. Unfortunately, the editor of the New York Times in 1953 was Turner Catledge.
"So, the quote itself betrays a need for journalists because otherwise people who spread such propaganda might go unchecked.
"That having been said, I will acknowledge that this cheap lie, like most cheap lies, has some truth to it. I think it is expressed rather bitterly, personally, but I'm sure every journalist with any history in the biz has had at least one day when they felt that way. It's the very reason that I gladly applied the word "former" to the word "journalist" when it is attached to my name.
"Indeed, New York Times executive editor Max Frankel said something very similar about the impact of profiteering on journalism after he retired in 1994. Frankel probably isn't quoted quite so widely because he doesn't use 21st century Neo_Old_Testament Naderite phrasiology like "fawn at the feet of mammon."
"What "Swinton" describes is not so easily described or it would have been dealt with. It is more like a constant, subtle pressure to bend to power. A pressure that can be defied and maybe even often, but that does not seem to ever go away. The strong spend a career tilting against it; the weak let it direct them, as you can see every day in this county's media.
"It certainly isn't true that you can never write your true opinion in the American press. I wrote my true opinion plenty of times, most recently when I wrote that commentary about Hearst Ranch. It managed to pass through two editors and a publisher without one word changed. However, no anti-Hearst commentary can run in this county without a Steve Hearst commentary on the very same page. And who is responsible for that? Is it the fault of the journalists? No, for that subversion of truth and integrity we can thank our county's professional greenwashers.
"Anyway, before posting such, we should consider how our brothers and sisters in the Newspaper Guild might feel about such a broadbrush defilement of a very diverse group of largely hard working and unanimously underpaid men and women.
"I propose the following bumper sticker:
In cheerful solidarity, Jeff McMahon" ___
OK. Jay forwarded McMahon's response back to me, and since I would like to keep things reasonably accurate on my webpage, I went looking to see if I could verify or dispute the Swinton vignette.
It turned out - surprise! - that like most really good stories, it contained a little bit of truth, and a bit of fiction, and, unlike most really good stories, the reality behind the story is even more interesting.
Yes, Virginia, there was a John Swinton, and yes, he was an editor of the New York Times, and yes, he did say the remarks attributed to him. However, he did not say it at a retirement party, he did not say it as an editor of the Times, and he certainly did not say it in 1953, for the simple reason that he died in 1901.
A web search turned up the same vignette, word for word as I had it, in hundreds of locations. However, as McMahon notes, there are variations on the theme, including one which had him born in 1829 and giving the remarks at a retirement party in 1918. He would have been at least 88. Feisty old bastard, what with being dead 17 years and all.
But I hit paydirt in some odd areas. At, I found the following:
John Swinton (1829_1901)
The managing editor of the New York Times during the Civil War, John Swinton later became a crusading journalist in the movement for social and labor reform. Scottish_born, he learned typesetting in Canada before moving to the United States. During the trouble in Kansas he was active in the freesoil movement and headed the Lawrence Republican. Moving back to New York he wrote an occasional article for the Times and was hired on a regular basis in 1860 as head of the editorial staff. Afterward holding this position throughout the Civil War, he left the paper in 1870 and became active in the labor struggles of the day. He later served eight years in the same position on the New York Sun and published a weekly labor sheet, John Swinton's Paper.
At another location, Ayer Company Publishers, I came across this information:
Ayer Company Publishers Phone: (888)_267_7323 FAX: (603)_922_3348
Swinton, John
A MOMENTOUS QUESTION: The Respective Attitudes of Labor and Capital Introduction by Leon Stein and Philip Taft In 1883 John Swinton founded a four_page "independent" labor paper known simply as John Swinton's Paper, and for the next four years until he could no longer sustain it, made it the voice of the workers.
His book reflects his continuing concern for the interrelationship between the workers and political and economic events. In particular it provides a close_up view of the dramatic sympathy strike of the railroad workers who made the cause of the Pullman Strike their own. It is fully documented with statements by the chief participants including Debs, Gompers, John W. Hayes (Secretary_Treasurer of the Knights of Labor), Governor Altgeld and President Cleveland.
LC 77_89764 Philadelphia & Chicago 1895 $28.95
ISBN: 0405021550
From this, we can surmise that he was disaffected with capitalism and the American media, making the remarks attributed to him much more credible. And it turns out that he has peripheral involvement in a trial in 1885, Illinois vs. August Spies et al. He is regarded by the defendants, hard core Marxists, as being (ironically) too fond of and trusting in the media and democracy.
People's Ex. 38.
THE ALARM, February 21, 1885. The Dynamite Terror.
As for the American people the thing to bear in mind is that here the ballot can be so wielded that there shall be no need of resorting to force for the cure of any public evil however deep rooted or malignant. --John Swinton's paper.
The above is the concluding paragraph of a lengthy article of John Swinton's paper last week. We are surprised to see our old friend bow at the shrine of that capitalistic humbug -- the ballot.
America is not a free country. The economic condition of the workers here are precisely the same as they are in Europe. A wage-slave is a slave everywhere, without any regard to the country he may happen to have been born in or made the living in.
Friend Swinton, how can the industrially enslaved be politically free? How can a man without the right to live possess the right to vote?
You give the facts and illustrations in your own columns which proves that the hand which holds the bread can alone wield the ballot.
What do you mean by "public evils"? Do you mean the political offices with its bribery and corruption? And that [Image, People's Exhibit 38, Page 2] all the workers have to do in order to be saved is to "turn the rascals out?" Well, from a democratic point of view, Cleveland will
do that after the 4th of March next. The "outs" will go in and the "ins" will go out. But surely you cannot mean that the wage_slave will no longer be a slave?
Here in America the worker is deprived of life, liberty and happiness (The Declaration of Independence to the contrary notwithstanding) in spite of, yes, mainly by means of the ballot. With a copy of the Declaration in one hand and the ballot in the other, the wage_worker is deluded into the belief that he is a free man and a sovereign?
The poor have no votes; poverty can't vote __ for itself Wealth alone can vote. The workers vote wrong, because they are poor, and are poor because they are robbed. Robbed of their inheritance__ the land; robbed of their right to the free use of all the resources of life __ the means of existence. The workers are deprived of all opportunity to acquire and apply knowledge. They are deprived of all access to culture and refinement. For the perpetuation of these evils they have to thank government, the state, and ballot box and the politicians. Politicians and the State are the legitimate, inevitable outgrowth of the profit_mongering system of wage_slavery, based upon competition and wages. We cannot get rid of the former until we remove the latter.
The deep rooted, malignant evil which compels the [Image, People's Exhibit 38, Page 3] wealth_producers to become the dependent hirelings of a few capitalistic Czars, cannot be reached by means of the ballot.
The ballot can be wielded by free men alone; but slaves can only revolt and rise in insurrection against their despoilers.
Let us bear in mind the fact that here in America, as elsewhere, the worker is held in economic bondage by the use of force, and the employment of force therefore becomes a necessity to his ecomonic [sic] emancipation! Poverty can't vote! ___
At I found what I believe may be a more accurate rendition of the story. Given what I learned of the manís far-left politics (a voice nearly dead in our comfortable corporate existence) I find it easy to believe that he did say that which was attributed to him. However, the claim that he so said as managing editor of the NY Times, and in 1953, appear to be nothing more than misguided efforts to give the story cachet and topicality.
As for Mr. McMahon's response, I would say that he is entirely correct in saying that the story creates an unfair image of the media. However, with the possible exception of Hunter S. Thompson, there are no Swintons in the American media these days, and I would ask Mr. McMahon why he thinks that is so. A media that presents only half the range of opinion is presenting no information at all.
One night, probably in 1880, John Swinton, then the preeminent New York journalist, was the guest of honour at a banquet given him by the leaders of his craft. Someone who knew neither the press nor Swinton offered a toast to the independent press. Swinton outraged his colleagues by replying:
"There is no such thing, at this date of the world's history, in America, as an independent press. You know it and I know it.
"There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinion out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job. If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before twenty_four hours my occupation would be gone.
"The business of the journalists is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it, and what folly is this toasting an independent press?
"We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes."
(Source: Labor's Untold Story, by Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais, published by United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America, NY, 1955/1979.)
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