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Upton Sinclair and the Contradictions of Capitalist Journalism

ROBERT W. McCHESNEY is a coeditor of Monthly Review. BEN SCOTT is a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This essay is adapted from the foreword to a new edition of Upton Sinclair’s The Brass Check to be published this fall by the University of Illinois Press.

Beginning in the 1980s, there was a significant increase in awareness of the deep flaws of mainstream journalism among those on the U.S. left. Writers such as Todd Gitlin, Herbert Schiller, Gaye Tuchman, Ben Bagdikian, and Michael Parenti, each in his or her own way, drew attention to the incompatibility between a corporate run news media and an ostensibly democratic society. The work of Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, in particular, introduced an entire generation of progressives to a critical position regarding mainstream journalism. As the title of their masterful Manufacturing Consent indicated, the capitalist news media are far more about generating support for elite policies than they are about empowering people to make informed political decisions.

What is not so well known across the left, not to mention elsewhere, is that this radical criticism of the limitations of a capitalist sponsored journalism is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, it dates back to the birth, at the beginning of the twentieth century, of both modern monopoly capitalism and modern commercial media, roughly one hundred years ago. Radical criticism of the press was an integral component of the many large social movements of the Progressive Era, which sought to resist the effects of accelerating capitalist development. It was a time of striking similarity to the present, mirroring in particular the corruption of democracy by political and economic elites whose control over the media strangles public awareness, debate, and activism. However, unlike today, radical criticism of capitalist journalism was a dominant theme on the left during the Progressive Era, particularly in the socialist, anarchist, and progressive press. This was the Golden Age of radical press criticism, and Upton Sinclair was at its epicenter.

Upton Sinclair is best remembered for his novel The Jungle, the 1906 muckraking exposé of labor and sanitary conditions in the Chicago stockyards. The book catapulted the then-twenty-seven-year-old author into international prominence, and Sinclair remained a highly acclaimed and widely read author until his death in 1968. What has been forgotten is that, although he wrote ninety-two books and twenty-nine pamphlets, for much of Sinclair’s career he was known as a “two book author.” The other book, besides The Jungle, was The Brass Check, which he published himself in 1919. In The Brass Check, Sinclair made a systematic and damning critique of the severe limitations of the “free press” in the United States. “(T)he thesis of this book,” he wrote, is “that American Journalism is a class institution serving the rich and spurning the poor.”*If The Jungle was notorious for its aggressive assaults on capitalist industry, The Brass Check pulled even fewer punches. The title itself is a reference to the chit issued to patrons of urban brothels at the time. Sinclair drew an analogy between journalists and prostitutes, beholden to the agenda, ideology, and policies of the monied elites that owned and controlled the press. It was an integral part of his broader critique of the corruption of U.S. politics and the appalling nature of capitalism: “Politics, Journalism, and Big Business work hand in hand for the hoodwinking of the public and the plundering of labor” (p. 153).

With the ostensible voice of the public in the hands of the editors and news writers of the capitalist press, Sinclair saw that he and the movements for social justice could never expect a fair deal. The very public opinion which the socialists sought to mobilize against the social order was wielded not by the democratic polity but by the elites who ruled them. So long as this situation continued, there could be no justice. The press was the key to every political issue in isolation and essential to the success of the larger movement as a whole. By the time Sinclair sat down in 1919 to write The Brass Check, he did so knowing that this book was of far greater significance than any he had written before. In the text of the book itself, he called it “the most important and most dangerous book I have ever written”(p. 429).

Yet while The Jungle remains a staple of American literature, The Brass Check has been all but forgotten. This is the case despite its groundbreaking critique of the structural basis of U.S. journalism, arguably the first such systematic critique ever made. Anticipating much of the best in more recent structural media criticism, Sinclair explained the class bias built into journalism in a four-part systemic model emphasizing the importance of owners, advertisers, public relations, and the web of economic interests tied into the media system, and invested in its control of public opinion. Integrating the critique of the press into the larger history of Progressive Era activism, Sinclair pointed to the centrality of the media in all of the problems of social injustice which attended the rise of modern capitalism.

Yet, those historians who bother to mention The Brass Check dismiss it as ephemeral, explaining that the problems it depicts have been solved. As John Ahouse, Sinclair’s bibliographer put it, the criticism made by Sinclair in “The Brass Check played an important part by provoking and broadening a debate that eventually led to greater objectivity in the American press.”* Sinclair, the curmudgeonly muckraker, helped clean up the newsrooms much like he helped clean up the stockyards. We can all move on to some other more pressing social issue.

In fact, many of the concerns Sinclair had about commercial journalism did not disappear with the rise of professionalism and “objectivity”—a development he witnessed and regarded with disdain as a sham solution. Moreover, as commercial pressures on the integrity of U.S. journalism have intensified over the past two decades, much of Sinclair’s critique now appears startlingly accurate. What then explains the erasure of The Brass Check, not to mention the entire radical tradition it crystallizes, from public consciousness, or even from the reading lists of contemporary media scholars, both mainstream and critical?

In our view, the explanation is that in this book Sinclair analyzes a central and powerful institution in the United States—the commercial press—and offers an unambiguously radical critique. The fact that attacking the press system was considerably more sensitive, difficult, and controversial than criticizing meatpackers or robber barons was quickly and immediately apparent to Sinclair.

From the outset, The Brass Check faced an opposition unlike any other book he published. For starters, each of the first two hundred pages contained the potential for a libel suit. He could not even find a commercial book publisher willing to tackle the project, so he self-published the book, something he did on only a few other occasions in his career. And the book was hardly lacking in commercial promise. Sinclair organized ten printings of The Brass Check in its first decade and sold over 150,000 copies. He did not even copyright the book, hoping to maximize his readership, but also knowing that no one was likely to reprint it and join him in the hot seat. Indeed, at one point, he had difficulties securing sufficient paper from recalcitrant vendors to reprint the book.*

Nor did the hostility of the established media powers end there. Most newspapers refused to review the book, and those very few that did were almost always unsympathetic. Many newspapers, like the New York Times, even refused to run paid advertisements for the book (p. 294). Critics loosely charged that Sinclair had been sloppy with his facts in The Brass Check, and the book did not stand up to close scrutiny. Sinclair, a fanatic for factual accuracy, directly challenged any of those he criticized in The Brass Check to sue him for criminal libel—often in the footnotes of later editions of the book—if they could prove a single word in the text was false. No suits were ever forthcoming. Indeed, in 1921, the Associated Press announced it was appointing a commission to review, collect evidence, and denounce the charges Sinclair made about the AP in The Brass Check. The project was quietly abandoned without any report, formal or informal, being issued (p. 376).

In our view it was this smear campaign, more than anything else, which led to the virtual disappearance of The Brass Check by the middle of the century. Sinclair was effectively powerless to reply in the mainstream media, so unanswered charges and innuendos assumed the aura of truth. Sinclair himself moved on to other pressing matters. His media criticism was always part of a broader commitment to social justice, and in the 1920s and 1930s there were numerous causes to engage his attention.

That it was Upton Sinclair who spearheaded the attack on the capitalist press was no small matter. During much of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, Sinclair was a public figure of the highest magnitude, something of no small accomplishment for an avowed socialist. H. L. Mencken asserted that Sinclair was, “by far,” the most widely translated American author abroad. In 1941, George Bernard Shaw told Sinclair, “When people ask me what has happened in my lifetime, I do not refer them to the newspaper files or to the authorities, but to your novels.” As Greg Mitchell puts it, “No American writer converted more young people to socialism.”*

But he was also much more than a writer. Sinclair was directly involved in social experiments, like group-living cooperatives, and he had a keen interest in health food. Most important, he ran for public office on several occasions, usually as a Socialist. He was never effectively a party politician tied to specific ideologues or doctrines—but he was never far from the action. His greatest success came in 1934 when he ran as the Democratic candidate for Governor of California on his End Poverty in California (EPIC) platform. In the words of the New York Times, it was “the first serious movement against the profit system in the United States.” As Greg Mitchell has brilliantly chronicled, Sinclair was defeated after an extraordinary war of sophisticated propaganda conducted by the state’s wealthy elite, including the leading Hollywood moguls and the news media.* The brass check, indeed!

As talented as Sinclair was, and as remarkable as his career was, he is best understood not as some exceptional genius, but, rather, as representative of broad developments in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. This was especially true of the media criticism Sinclair provided in The Brass Check. The crisis of the press Sinclair wrote about was commonly discussed all across American society during the Progressive Era. The basis for the crisis was fairly clear. Traditionally, newspapers in the United States had been highly partisan. The views represented in the pages were those of the owner; the editor and publisher were indeed one. A major city might have ten to twenty daily newspapers, or more, each representing a distinct political viewpoint. No single paper dominated the market, and if someone was dissatisfied with the existing range of viewpoints, it was not impossible to launch a new newspaper. The market was relatively competitive.

All of that changed by the end of the nineteenth century as newspaper markets became vastly less competitive. The largest newspaper magnates—Pulitzer, Hearst, Scripps—had constructed “chains” of newspapers across the country which often accounted for one of the two newspapers in a given market if it did not hold an outright monopoly. Moreover, what economists call “barriers to entry” made it much more difficult for new entrepreneurs to found competitors. Advertising became the largest source of revenues; it rose from relative insignificance in the mid-nineteenth century to accounting for some two-thirds of newspaper income by the beginning of the twentieth century. This greatly enhanced the concentration process. Advertisers tended to flock to the paper or papers that offered the most readers at the lowest “cost per thousand.” This tended to drive marginal papers out of business, strengthening the monopolies of wealthy owners or chains in all but the largest cities. Despite the immense profitability of daily newspapers in the United States throughout the twentieth century, no more than a few upstart newspapers have successfully entered established markets since 1920. This is a classic indicator of monopoly, or, at least, oligopoly. Newspaper publishing was a big business.

This concentration in newspaper markets, along with the rise of advertising, was the foundation for the crisis of journalism in the Progressive Era. It was one thing to have stridently partisan journalism when there were numerous papers in a community offering a range of viewpoints, and it was not that difficult to launch a new one. It was quite another matter to have stridently partisan journalism when there were only one or two newspapers, and they clearly represented the politics of their owners, which were usually decidedly conservative. Journalism in such a context has the scent not unlike that of official propaganda in an authoritarian society where there are formal restrictions on press freedom. This was the context that Sinclair was addressing.

Conventional accounts of the crisis of journalism in the Progressive Era, including the most frequently cited history by Frank Luther Mott and the most thorough study by Marion Marzolf, have tended to emphasize the increase in sensational fare—or what was termed “yellow journalism”—as profit-hungry publishers published whatever was necessary to attract the mass readership that would win over advertisers.* The hallowed obligation of the democratic press accurately to report public affairs was brushed aside by a wave of new gimmicky features, trumpeting the lies of elite interests who used their papers to manipulate national politics. Progressives encamped with Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin frequently flayed the commercial press in the pages of La Follette’s Magazine, warning of the perversion of democratic processes through the manufacture of public opinion.

Universities organized conferences to address the problems of degraded public information, manipulation of prejudice, and the agenda setting by the web of vested interests behind the commercial press system. Editors and journalists within the system expressed their own concerns, advocating the endowment of a noncommercial press, the creation of fairness and accuracy bureaus, and the restriction of advertising revenues. Between 1900 and 1920, hundreds upon hundreds of critical articles were printed in the popular press, from socialist newspapers to mass circulation magazines.

At the root of this almost universal opposition were some very simple concerns. “If the country is governed by public opinion, and public opinion is largely governed by the newspapers,” Harvard professor Hugo Munsterberg wrote in 1911, “is it not essential to understand who governs the newspapers?” The power of the press was axiomatic. “The American press has more influence than it ever had in any other time, in any other country,” Will Irwin wrote in 1911. “No other extrajudicial form except religion, is half so powerful.” Charles Edward Russell expressed the sentiments of many, when he wrote for La Follette’s political magazine in 1910: “If the people of the entire United States could be informed every day of exactly what happens at Washington and the reason for it, the peculiar stranglehold that the corporations have upon national legislation would last no longer than the next election.”*

If the conventional accounts saw the problem with journalism as commercialism out of control, with everyone the loser, the radical press critics saw it in stark class terms. “A subservient press and a free government cannot abide under the same roof,” Max Sherover wrote in a socialist political pamphlet. And the subservience was to big business. Liberal editor Hamilton Holt, though a far cry politically from socialism, quoted a journalist off-the-record to make a very similar point: “The business of a New York journalist is to distort the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the foot of Mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes.” La Follette was a constant critic of the press system. In a speech to a convention of magazine publishers in Philadelphia, in February 1912, he warned of the dangerous forces at work in the press: “The control comes through the community of interests, that interdependence of investments and credits which ties the publishers up to the banks, the advertisers, the special interests.”*

Although the radical criticism was laced with anger at editors and reporters who failed to tell the truth, this was never a conspiracy theory. The premise was never that the problem was bad people; to the contrary, the problem was that it was a bad system that forced good and bad people to do bad things. The central logic of capitalist news production corrupted its democratic purpose to the very core. “It cannot be denied,” one socialist wrote, “that the financing of large-scale newspapers and magazine enterprises depends, with but few exceptions, on the good will of the business community. And this goodwill cannot be had without serving the interest of the business community.” One editor of the Boston Common argued: “It is not accident nor the special depravity of publishers but the cold logic of commercial necessity which brings into being the fact that in most of the great battles against special privilege the big newspapers are found openly or stealthily lined up on the side of privilege.” Industry proposals for internal reform smacked of futility. Professor Edward Ross of the University of Wisconsin advocated the notion of an endowed press with these sentiments: “To urge the editor, under the thumb of the advertiser or of the owner, to be more independent, is to invite him to remove himself from his profession. As for the capitalist-owner, to exhort him to run his newspaper in the interest of truth and progress is about as reasonable as to exhort the mill-owner to work his property for the public good instead of for his private benefit.”*

In this radical press criticism, advertising was regarded as a particularly negative force and the primary instrument of corruption. “When the news-columns and editorial page are a mere incident in the profitable sale of mercantile publicity, it is strictly ‘businesslike’ to let the big advertisers censor both,” Professor Ross wrote in 1910. La Follette termed advertising “a subtle new peril,” and he informed journalists that it would “in time seek to gag you.” “It is the big advertiser,” William Salisbury, a prominent journalist, concluded, “who is the gold-sceptered king of American journalism—the king who can do no wrong.”*

Sinclair, too, more than any previous press critic, zeroes in on advertising and its ignominious implications for a free press. “Everywhere in the world of Journalism, high and low, you see this power of the advertiser,” he writes. “This system of publicity in return for advertising is a fundamentally dishonest one, but it is inseparable from the business of publishing news for profit, and the legitimate and the illegitimate shade into one another so gradually that it would be hard for an honest editor to know where to draw the line”(p. 285). Moreover, to Sinclair, the political biases of advertisers made it vastly more difficult for socialist pro-labor publications to survive in the marketplace. “For some strange reason,” he noted of a magazine that generated a large circulation but still could not generate enough revenue to break even, “the packers of hams and bacon, the manufacturers of automobiles and ready-made clothing, of toilet perfumeries and fancy cigarettes, would not pay money to a Socialist magazine!” (p. 294)

Sinclair’s genius in The Brass Check is, in part, to sift through much of this entire body of criticism and distill it into a coherent monograph. Combined with his own extensive experience as a journalist and political activist, it makes for a heady brew. There is, for example, the rudimentary basis of a sophisticated critique of the use of propaganda by powerful forces to subvert democracy: “Journalism is one of the devices whereby industrial autocracy keeps its control over political democracy; it is the day-by-day, between-elections propaganda, whereby the minds of the people are kept in a state of acquiescence, so that when the crisis of an election comes, they go to the polls and cast their ballots for either one of the two parties of their exploiters” (p. 222). “You will miss the point of this book,” Sinclair writes later, “if you fail to get clear the perversion of news and the betrayal of public opinion is no haphazard and accidental thing; for twenty five years…it has been a thing deliberately planned and systematically carried out, a science and a technique. High-priced experts devote their lives to it, they sit in counsel with the masters of industry, and report on the public minds, and determine precisely how this shall be presented, and how this shall be suppressed” (p. 262).

The scope of the opposition is testament to the depth of the crisis in the press. The Progressive Era was awash in progressive, independent media. Members and supporters of the Socialist Party alone published some 325 English and foreign language daily, weekly, and monthly newspapers and magazines. Most of these were privately owned or were the publications of one of the five thousand Socialist Party locals. They reached a total of more than two million subscribers. Appeal to Reason, the legendary socialist weekly in which Sinclair had his own page, had a readership of more than 750,000 alone. But the monopolistic, advertising-supported media marketplace elevated the degree of difficulty for the alternative press such that it was virtually impossible to become “mainstream.” Sinclair had contempt for the idea that radicals should content themselves with financially insolvent media on the margins, dismissing that notion as a clear indication that “bourgeois thought is bankrupt” (p. 404).

For Sinclair, it is the treatment of movements for social justice that is the real measure of journalism in his era, and it is here that he found the treatment of labor, socialists, and feminists so unsympathetic and hostile, that it became an enormous barrier to the peaceful exercise of democracy. “Journalism follows this simple and elemental rule,” he writes, “if strikers are violent, they get on the wires, while if strikers are not violent, they stay off the wires; by which simple device it is brought about that nine-tenths of the telegraphic news you read about strikes is news of violence, and so in your brain channels is irrevocably graven the idea-association: Strikes—violence! Violence—strikes!”(p. 353)

The point of The Brass Check is not merely to criticize commercial journalism, but to explain the reasons so the system may be changed. “The thing I am interested in saying is: The Prostitution of journalism is due to such and such factors, and may be remedied by such and such changes” (p. 221). Although a socialist, Sinclair was loathe to have a government monopoly over newspapers or journalism. He presents a range of solutions in The Brass Check, including several that would work within the system. He called, for example, for powerful independent unions of journalists. “In every newspaper-office in America the same struggle between the business-office and the news-department is going on all the time” (p. 234). “One purpose of this book,” he concluded, “is to advocate a union of newspaper workers, so that they may make their demands as an organization, and not as helpless individuals” (p. 421). He also urged organized labor to establish well-funded independent newspapers. For several years after the publication of The Brass Check, Sinclair collected money pledges to launch “an honest weekly newspaper entitled the ‘National News,’ serving no party or cause, but giving the facts to the people. Sinclair abandoned the newspaper idea when it became a drain on his time; he preferred to write books (p. 440).

Sinclair is to be commended for his willingness to offer plans for reform in addition to providing a critique of the status quo. That his solutions did not measure up to his critique is another example of the supreme difficulties that have faced radical media critics. “The American people thoroughly despise and hate their newspapers,” Sinclair observed, “yet they seem to have no idea what to do about it, and take it for granted that they must go on reading falsehoods for the balance of their days”(p. 201). The commercial news media were an especially strong adversary, with their domination over the dissemination of ideas and their influence over politicians. Those politicians that dared attack the press barons, like Robert M. La Follette, earned powerful enemies who would then work to undermine their political careers and agendas (pp. 325-26). Whatever success media reform would enjoy at the time of The Brass Check would depend largely on the success of the Socialists and the La Follette branch of the progressive movement. When those movements were crushed, by the 1920s, the prospects for media reform, dim to begin with, disappeared with but a handful of exceptions.*

It is ironic that observers at the time argued that the rise of professionalism effectively resolved Sinclair’s main criticism of the news media. Though the notion of professional journalism was introduced in the Progressive Era, it resolved very little at the time—hardly surprising since it has never served as more than a rhetorical stand-in for its supposed accomplishments despite becoming internalized as a rule by the mid-twentieth century. Even if it could be credibly developed, the revolutionary idea that the political views of the news media would not automatically reflect those of the owner began as just that, an idea. The much ballyhooed construction of the “Chinese Wall” that would separate the business office from the editorial office would take time to reinforce. The trained professionals who would refuse the biases of the ownership and sublimate their own partisanship had yet to be trained to do so. Moreover, it was a major obstacle to the legitimacy of the practice that this was an informal agreement, made by the owners because it legitimated their product in the face of more concentrated ownership and was therefore very good business. Nonetheless, for most establishment observers, then and subsequently, professionalism in the Progressive Era was the perfect solution, and it worked.

But Sinclair was anything but a mainstream observer, and enough of a socialist to think any solution that left the power in the hands of the owning class was invariably flawed. He believed that, ultimately, those who own, and hire, and fire, and set budgets determine the values of the medium. Quoting Will Irwin, he noted that the “subordinates” drift “inevitably toward the point of view held by their master” (p. 276). “A professional journalist,” he concludes, “may be defined as a man who holds himself ready at a day’s notice to adjust his opinions to the pocket-book of a new owner”(p. 248).*There were plenty of disillusioned journalists floating around to confirm the sentiment. Professionalism lowered the menace of commercial journalism just below the threshold of public outrage and held it there with a combination of mild internal reform and stunningly comprehensive public relations to compensate for the ever-present reality of business as usual. Will Irwin captured this duality vividly. “Publicly, the controlled newspaper assumes to exercise its ancient office of tribune of the people. Privately, it serves wealth. Publicly, that it may keep its subscribers, it pretends to favor progress; privately that it may guard its owners sources of revenue and social position, it suppresses and denatures the news which would assist that process. The system is dishonest to its marrow.”*

In the decades since The Brass Check was first published, professionalism in journalism has become far more sophisticated. It has provided a measure of autonomy for journalists from commercial pressures, and it has placed a premium upon factual accuracy. That is all to the good. But professional journalism’s basic claims of fairness and social neutrality have come under sustained criticism, and there is ample evidence to justify Sinclair’s skepticism. To be blunt, the newly minted code for professional journalists had, as media critic Ben Bagdikian points out, several distinct biases written into it that reflected the commercial and political needs of the owners. (For a discussion of these, see Robert W. McChesney, “Journalism, Democracy, and Class Struggle,” Monthly Review, November 2000.)

The bogus neutrality of professional journalism is evident in the manner in which it tends to cover anti-capitalist social movements. In professional journalism, business is assumed to be the natural steward of society, while labor is seen as a less benevolent force and left politics generally are held in suspicion. A cartoon from the late 1940s in the CIO News captured progressive sentiment toward this trend in the news media. It showed the cigar-smoking fat boss caricature manipulating two levers connected to a skull cap fitted over the head of a person identified as the American public. One lever is for radio, the other for newspapers. The message being pumped into the head is “business is good, labor is bad.”

During the past twenty-five years, it has gotten even more difficult for progressives to receive satisfactory press coverage in the mainstream media. This is due primarily to the tightening corporate ownership over the news media that has resulted from government deregulation of broadcasting and lax enforcement of antitrust statutes. Over the past two decades, the U.S. media system has been consolidated in the hands of a small number of colossal conglomerates. To give some sense of proportion, in 2000 AOL purchased Time Warner in the biggest media deal ever, valued at around $160 billion. That was 470 times greater than the value of the largest media deal in history that had been recorded by 1979. The nine or ten largest media conglomerates now almost all rank among the three hundred largest firms in the world; in 1970 there were only a couple of media firms on that list.

These media conglomerates often pay a premium price for TV networks or newspaper chains, so they have huge incentive to apply the same commercial logic to their newsrooms that they apply to their other divisions. Why should they grant editors carte blanche when their other managers are held to a strict accounting of all their moves? The logical result has been a reduction in resources for journalism, a decline in costly and controversial investigative reporting, and a softening up of journalistic standards to permit less expensive and more commercially attractive journalism. First in line for the corporate guillotine was international reporting which costs a great deal of money and adds little to the bottom line. Labor coverage has fallen off the map, while more lucrative “business journalism”—pitched to the top quarter of the population, if that—has become so widespread that it has effectively merged with general news. This tendency for business journalism to become the defining modality for journalism generally effectively established and celebrated the triumph of “market forces” as the beneficent guiding light of American democracy and public affairs—a boldly ideological move couched in the trappings of disinterested reportage.

In short, the media owners have increasingly abandoned the professional “deal,” because it no longer makes economic sense. One measure of the attack on the autonomy of the newsroom can be found in the plummeting morale of working journalists. Well into the 1980s, journalists were among the staunchest and most sensitive defenders of the media status quo. They enjoyed their privileges and were convinced that they used them for the betterment of society. Over the past decade, in what amounts to a sea change, journalists have grown despondent over the collapse of their autonomy. The Pew Center surveys of journalists showed a marked increase in demoralization over the course of the 1990s. The editor of the Chicago Tribune, James Squires, left his job, arguing that he had witnessed the “death of journalism” due to the “corporate takeover” of the news.*

So the dawn of the twenty-first century finds us in a position not entirely unlike the one found by Sinclair and his compatriots eighty plus years ago. The media are exceptionally concentrated, the journalism is of dubious integrity, journalists are demoralized, and the political system is awash in corruption. Upton Sinclair’s The Brass Check is not only the capstone of the first great generation of modern press criticism, but is also the first thoroughgoing critique of the modern era of capitalist journalism, an era in which we most certainly remain. The political crisis of capitalist journalism remains an unavoidable and central facet in understanding our current predicament, and there is no reason to think the problem will go away of its own volition. Any democratic reckoning will have to come to terms with the core problems that capitalist control over journalism and media pose for a free and self-governing society.


* Upton Sinclair, The Brass Check, 9th rev. ed. (Long Beach Cal.: The Author, 1928), 147. All page number references included in the text of this article are to this edition of Sinclair’s book.

* John Ahouse, Upton Sinclair: A Descriptive, Annotated Bibliography (Los Angeles: Mercer & Aitchison, 1994), 42.

* Leon Harris, Upton Sinclair: American Rebel (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975), 177–178

* All of these quotations are taken from Greg Mitchell, The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Modern Media Politics (New York: Random House, 1992), x-xvi.

* See Mitchell, op. cit., for his detailed analysis of the 1934 race, as well as the material in this paragraph. See also, Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked, with an introduction by James Gregory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). Originally published in 1934 and 1935.

* See Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism, rev. ed. (New York: MacMillan, 1950), 519; Marion Marzolf, Civilizing Voices: American Press Criticism, 1880–1950 (New York: Longman, 1991)

* Hugo Munsterberg, “The Case of the Reporter,” McClure’s, February 1911, 435–439; Will Irwin, The American Newspaper: A Series First Appearing in Collier’s, January–July, 1911 (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1969), 8; Charles Edward Russell, “The Press and the Public,” La Follette’s Magazine, June 4, 1910, 7–8.

*Max Sherover, Fakes in American Journalism, 3rd ed. (Brooklyn: Free Press League, 1916), 7; Hamilton Holt, Commercialism in Journalism (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909), 3-4; Robert La Follette, La Follette’s Autobiography, 258-259.

* S.E. “The ‘Free Speech’ Fallacy,” The Socialist Review, April 1920, 273; Livy S. Richard quoted in “Our Problem of the Press,” La Follette’s Magazine, July 20, 1912, 15; Edward Alsworth Ross, “The Suppression of Important News,” Atlantic Monthly, March 1910, 310.

* Ross, “Suppression,” 304; Robert La Follette, La Follette’s Autobiography, 259; William Salisbury, The Career of a Journalist (New York: B. W. Dodge, 1908), 523.

* One of those exceptions was the movement to establish a significant nonprofit and noncommercial component to U.S. radio broadcasting in the early 1930s. See Robert W. McChesney, Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928–1935 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

* A striking example of this is television journalist Ted Koppel’s response to Disney’s plan to replace Koppel’s highly successful news-interview show Nightline on ABC (owned by Disney) with the David Letterman comedy-entertainment show, if Disney could lure the comedian from CBS. According to Koppel, “It is perfectly understandable that Disney would jump at the opportunity to increase earnings.” Koppel quoted in William Safire, New York Times, Op-Ed, March 7, 2002.

* Irwin, American, 71.

* James Squires, Read All About It! (New York: Times Books, 1993).