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The Real Journalist

Our age which has boasted of realism will fail chiefly through lack of
reality. Never, I fancy, has there been so grave and startling a divorce
between the real way a thing is done and the look of it when it is done.
I take the nearest and most topical instance to hand a newspaper.
Nothing looks more neat and regular than a newspaper, with its parallel
columns, its mechanical printing, its detailed facts and figures, its
responsible, polysyllabic leading articles. Nothing, as a matter of fact,
goes every night through more agonies of adventure, more hairbreadth
escapes, desperate expedients, crucial councils, random compromises, or
barely averted catastrophes. Seen from the outside, it seems to come
round as automatically as the clock and as silently as the dawn. Seen
from the inside, it gives all its organisers a gasp of relief every
morning to see that it has come out at all; that it has come out without
the leading article upside down or the Pope congratulated on discovering
the North Pole.

I will give an instance (merely to illustrate my thesis of unreality) from
the paper that I know best. Here is a simple story, a little episode in
the life of a journalist, which may be amusing and instructive: the tale
of how I made a great mistake in quotation. There are really two stories:
the story as seen from the outside, by a man reading the paper; and the
story seen from the inside, by the journalists shouting and telephoning
and taking notes in shorthand through the night.

This is the outside story; and it reads like a dreadful quarrel. The
notorious G. K. Chesterton, a reactionary Torquemada whose one gloomy
pleasure was in the defence of orthodoxy and the pursuit of heretics, long
calculated and at last launched a denunciation of a brilliant leader of
the New Theology which he hated with all the furnace of his fanatic soul.
In this document Chesterton darkly, deliberately, and not having the fear
of God before his eyes, asserted that Shakespeare wrote the line "that
wreathes its old fantastic roots so high." This he said because he had
been kept in ignorance by Priests; or, perhaps, because he thought
craftily that none of his dupes could discover a curious and forgotten
rhyme called 'Elegy in a Country Churchyard'. Anyhow, that orthodox
gentleman made a howling error; and received some twenty-five letters and
post-cards from kind correspondents who pointed out the mistake.

But the odd thing is that scarcely any of them could conceive that it was
a mistake. The first wrote in the tone of one wearied of epigrams, and
cried, "What is the joke NOW?" Another professed (and practised, for all
I know, God help him) that he had read through all Shakespeare and failed
to find the line. A third wrote in a sort of moral distress, asking, as
in confidence, if Gray was really a plagiarist. They were a noble
collection; but they all subtly assumed an element of leisure and
exactitude in the recipient's profession and character which is far from
the truth. Let us pass on to the next act of the external tragedy.

In Monday's issue of the same paper appeared a letter from the same
culprit. He ingenuously confessed that the line did not belong to
Shakespeare, but to a poet whom he called Grey. Which was another
cropper--or whopper. This strange and illiterate outbreak was printed by
the editor with the justly scornful title, "Mr. Chesterton 'Explains'?"
Any man reading the paper at breakfast saw at once the meaning of the
sarcastic quotation marks. They meant, of course, "Here is a man who
doesn't know Gray from Shakespeare; he tries to patch it up and he can't
even spell Gray. And that is what he calls an Explanation." That is the
perfectly natural inference of the reader from the letter, the mistake,
and the headline--as seen from the outside. The falsehood was serious;
the editorial rebuke was serious. The stern editor and the sombre,
baffled contributor confront each other as the curtain falls.

And now I will tell you exactly what really happened. It is honestly
rather amusing; it is a story of what journals and journalists really are.
A monstrously lazy man lives in South Bucks partly by writing a column
in the Saturday Daily News. At the time he usually writes it (which is
always at the last moment) his house is unexpectedly invaded by infants of
all shapes and sizes. His Secretary is called away; and he has to cope
with the invading pigmies. Playing with children is a glorious thing; but
the journalist in question has never understood why it was considered a
soothing or idyllic one. It reminds him, not of watering little budding
flowers, but of wrestling for hours with gigantic angels and devils.
Moral problems of the most monstrous complexity besiege him incessantly.
He has to decide before the awful eyes of innocence, whether, when a
sister has knocked down a brother's bricks, in revenge for the brother
having taken two sweets out of his turn, it is endurable that the brother
should retaliate by scribbling on the sister's picture book, and whether
such conduct does not justify the sister in blowing out the brother's
unlawfully lighted match.

Just as he is solving this problem upon principles of the highest morality,
it occurs to him suddenly that he has not written his Saturday article;
and that there is only about an hour to do it in. He wildly calls to
somebody (probably the gardener) to telephone to somewhere for a messenger;
he barricades himself in another room and tears his hair, wondering what
on earth he shall write about. A drumming of fists on the door outside
and a cheerful bellowing encourage and clarify his thoughts; and he is
able to observe some newspapers and circulars in wrappers lying on the
table. One is a dingy book catalogue; the second is a shiny pamphlet
about petrol; the third is a paper called The Christian Commonwealth. He
opens it anyhow, and sees in the middle of a page a sentence with which he
honestly disagrees. It says that the sense of beauty in Nature is a new
thing, hardly felt before Wordsworth. A stream of images and pictures
pour through his head, like skies chasing each other or forests running by.
"Not felt before Wordsworth!" he thinks. "Oh, but this won't do...
bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang...night's candles are
burnt out... glowed with living sapphires. leaving their moon-loved
maze...antique roots fantastic... antique roots wreathed high...what is
it in As You Like It?"

He sits down desperately; the messenger rings at the bell; the children
drum on the door; the servants run up from time to time to say the
messenger is getting bored; and the pencil staggers along, making the
world a present of fifteen hundred unimportant words, and making
Shakespeare a present of a portion of Gray's Elegy; putting "fantastic
roots wreathed high" instead of "antique roots peep out." Then the
journalist sends off his copy and turns his attention to the enigma of
whether a brother should commandeer a sister's necklace because the sister
pinched him at Littlehampton. That is the first scene; that is how an
article is really written.

The scene now changes to the newspaper office. The writer of the article
has discovered his mistake and wants to correct it by the next day: but
the next day is Sunday. He cannot post a letter, so he rings up the paper
and dictates a letter by telephone. He leaves the title to his friends at
the other end; he knows that they can spell "Gray," as no doubt they can:
but the letter is put down by journalistic custom in a pencil scribble and
the vowel may well be doubtful. The friend writes at the top of the
letter "'G. K. C.' Explains," putting the initials in quotation marks.
The next man passing it for press is bored with these initials (I am with
him there) and crosses them out, substituting with austere civility, "Mr.
Chesterton Explains." But and now he hears the iron laughter of the Fates,
for the blind bolt is about to fall--but he neglects to cross out the
second "quote" (as we call it) and it goes up to press with a "quote"
between the last words. Another quotation mark at the end of "explains"
was the work of one merry moment for the printers upstairs. So the
inverted commas were lifted entirely off one word on to the other and a
totally innocent title suddenly turned into a blasting sneer. But that
would have mattered nothing so far, for there was nothing to sneer at. In
the same dark hour, however, there was a printer who was (I suppose) so
devoted to this Government that he could think of no Gray but Sir Edward
Grey. He spelt it "Grey" by a mere misprint, and the whole tale was
complete: first blunder, second blunder, and final condemnation.

That is a little tale of journalism as it is; if you call it egotistic and
ask what is the use of it I think I could tell you. You might remember it
when next some ordinary young workman is going to be hanged by the neck on
circumstantial evidence.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton