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On Reading the Newspaper

Around the middle of the nineteenth century, artists in a rapidly modernising world began to take note of an increasingly popular activity which attracted their aesthetic attention, as much because of its novelty as because of its inherent significance, an activity that was elbowing aside older routines and embedding itself into the structure of every day, shaping the intimate inner world, becoming something one would resort to whenever there was a quiet moment, a newly sacrosanct and solemn process that had, the philosopher Hegel remarked, replaced morning prayer in the lives of all modern citizens: reading the newspaper.

Paul Cezanne, The Artist’s Father, Reading “L’Événement”, 1866

Marie Cassatt, Reading Le Figaro, 1878

William Merritt Chase, Woman Reading the Newspaper, 1886

L.A. Ring, At the Breakfast Table with the Morning Newspaper, 1898

The nineteenth century witnessed an explosion in newspaper publication and readership. A lot of this was down to technological innovation. Paper that had since the dawn of time been laboriously made from old textiles (hemp, linen and cotton) was, from the late 1840s, produced at a fraction of the cost from fibres extracted from wood pulp. Alongside this, the 1850s saw the development of high speed steam-driven rotary printing presses, followed by stereotype plates from the 1870s, and linotype in 1884. In the thirty years after 1850, the cost of producing a single sheet of newsprint in Europe and America fell by 90%. At the same time, more and more people could read. In Britain in 1800, around 50% of the population had been illiterate, by 1870, it was 22%, by 1900, 3% – figures that were almost identically repeated in France, the United States and Germany. Furthermore, the rapid spread of railways after 1850 meant that modernising countries could now carry newspapers from their capitals and large cities to their provinces in a matter of hours. And in terms of what might be printed, the options were vastly increased by the invention of the electric telegraph in 1837 and the completion of the first transatlantic cable in 1858, which reduced communication times between Europe and North America from 10 days (by ship) to just minutes. To further equip journalists, the telephone was invented in 1876 and the first world’s first commercially successful typewriter, the Remington no.2, in 1878.

On the back of such developments emerged the world’s first truly mass market newspapers. By 1870 in New York, The Sun, The New York Herald, and The New York Daily News were each reaching 100,000 readers a day. In Germany, the Berliner Morgenpost was selling 400,000 copies daily from 1898 onwards. Britain’s Daily Telegraph had a circulation of 350,000 by 1876. And in France in 1890, Le Petit Journal became the world’s first newspaper to sell a million copies; within another five years, it was selling two million.

In order to achieve such circulations, newspapers had made one significant breakthrough in their understanding of psychology: that no human can resist tales of another’s catastrophes. Fortunately for them, the nineteenth century was an exceptionally calamitous era. The new technologies being introduced were at once hugely powerful and (blessedly) unreliable. On an almost daily basis, as urgent undersea telegraph cables revealed, somewhere in the world, an ammunition dump would blow up, a bridge would collapse or a tall building would founder. Trains were the true godsend. On January 6, 1853, as newspapers down the eastern seaboard of America explained, a train carrying the President-elect Franklin Pierce, his wife Jane and their son Benjamin toppled off an embankment near Andover, Massachusetts – instantly killing the son (‘innocent Ben’ as the newspapers baptised him). Only a few months later, in Connecticut a train ran over an open drawbridge and fell into the Norwalk River, killing forty-six and severely injuring thirty. 

Norwalk River Rail Disaster, 6th March, 1853

In the so-called Great Train Wreck of 1856, two North Pennsylvania Railroad passenger trains collided head-on at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. Fifty-nine people were killed, two hundred more badly burnt. The conductor of one of the trains committed suicide the same day. The newspapers were transfixed.

There would in subsequent years be a near-limitless procession of broken piston rods, boiler explosions, collisions with horses, collapsed axles and drunken conductors. A further capacity to stun readers over breakfast was achieved through the invention of photography. The earliest photo of a train wreck recorded a head on collision in August 1853 in Valley Falls, Rhode Island; thirteen people were killed and fifty badly injured. 

Earliest known photographic image depicting a train wreck. Providence and Worcester Railroad near Pawtucket, Rhode Island, August 12, 1853.

To technological disasters were added a stream of extremely interesting murders. Sunderland-born Mary Ann Cotton poisoned 21 people with an arsenic-filled teapot and was hung in Manchester in 1873. A Kate Webster killed and dismembered her employer Julia Martha in Richmond, South West London, in 1879. A nurse, Amelia Dyer, Victorian England’s most prolific child murderer, believed to have killed 400 babies, was hung in Newgate prison in 1896. Even better for the papers, some crimes refused to be easily or quickly solved. A thirteen year old girl, Susie Martin, was abducted in New York in 1894: the headless, armless torso of what one paper called ‘the once fair body’ was then found three weeks later but it took five years for an itinerant ex-slave to be blamed for the murder – and in the meantime, there were so many questions for the newspapers to speculate on: ‘Where are the heads, legs and arms?’ implored The New York Post

Terrible things had of course always occurred in history but never before were so many people exposed with such efficient regularity to the very worst cases – carefully collated from around the world. To read a daily newspaper was willingly to submit to being dipped in a stream of horror. By throwing the emphasis squarely on the most outlandish possibilities, newspapers taught their readers to consider the planet as a dystopian morass, a place where strangers perpetually abducted and dismembered schoolgirls, where babies were at all times being kidnapped in the night, where trains were always falling into swollen icy rivers, where every carer was a paedophile and every government official a crook – a place where it was evidently absurd to trust or hope, to rest or be inspired. While setting itself up as an instrument of enlightenment through which to look more clearly at events, the newspaper ended up obscuring what life is – for the most part – actually like: it helped us to forget that almost everyone is kind, that nearly every train makes it to its destination, that impressive and good things regularly happen in government and that most days are quiet and uneventful. Far from ‘informing’ us, despite the transoceanic cables, press conferences and foreign bureaux, newspapers helped us to lose touch with the true nature of peoples, technologies and governments – leaving us in our own way less informed than an illiterate medieval farmer who, despite his lack of access to daily bulletins, at least knew how to form a picture of reality from the evidence of his own senses.

An associated risk opened up by newspapers was that one might, under their tutelage, forget how to feel. It might have appeared as though newspapers were helping us to feel rather a lot: outrage, horror, sorrow, pity, empathy. And newspapers certainly claimed, when explaining their higher purpose, that they were engaged in banishing ignorance and prejudice and helping nations to understand one another better. But – despite all the information they contained – these papers had a marked weakness when it came to getting us properly to engage with most of the facts they laid before us. Given the agonies we were reading about, what was ultimately striking was how little of it really touched us. A newspaper might, for example, go to great lengths to inform us that 50,000 people had died in an earthquake, that an orphanage had burnt to the ground killing 200, that the harvest had failed on another continent, that a ship had run aground off Greenland and that someone had killed their extended family with an axe – and our response might simply be to sigh and turn the page. An eerie gap opened up between the dramatic events that were being narrated and the inertia and nonchalance one typically registered on reading of them. 

In reality, we are creatures designed for intimate contact, for local lives and personal relationships. For ideas to become powerful in our souls, they need to be anchored in experience and in stories. This is what art has always known – which is why in the hands of a talented storyteller, the account of a child’s loss of a favourite toy will elicit a degree of pained emotion far exceeding what we experience when the morning paper informs us of the deaths of 10,000 combatants in a brutal civil war on the other side of the earth.

The newspapers of modernity overlooked that they weren’t merely in the business of gathering facts, they also had to help their readers to care about them. In this regard, they forgot to consider the role of art. They overlooked that their chief enemy was not ignorance, but indifference – to which the solution were all the techniques found in the treasury of the literary and visual arts. In 1816, French newspapers reported that a naval frigate, the Méduse, had run aground off the coast of Africa, with the loss of 133 lives. Only a few survivors made it, clinging desperately to a raft for many days. It could have just become one more tiny forgettable item in the vast catalogue of maritime disasters reported on every day. But the great French painter, Gericault, made it live in the imagination of humanity for ever – by spending months thinking about the position of every figure on the doomed raft, by working on facial expressions, by paying attention to the waves and the sky, by editing and compressing, by seeking the universal in the particular. His Raft of the Medusa helped its viewers to feel the range of emotions the story actually contained.

In April 1937, like Gericault many decades before, Pablo Picasso came across a shocking story in a newspaper. Like Gericault, when he came to address the massacre of innocents in the town of Guernica, he allowed us to feel a revulsion, anguish and rage at the insanity of war that we would never have felt if we had just picked up the bare bones of the story in an account of the aerial bombing of a Basque town by the German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion in a column in the International Herald Tribune.

Art may not only get us to feel, it can draw our attention to how much we have forgotten to do so. Andy Warhol understood the extent to which modern media has numbed us to the sufferings of others. But unlike Gericault or Picasso, Warhol took aim at the deadening force of the media itself. When an Air France Boeing 707 crashed on take-off at Orly airport on the 3rd of June 1962 killing all but three on board, Warhol wanted to admit – as the newspapers themselves never would – how little this apparently significant incident would ever in fact really matter, either to readers or news organisations, how soon it would become just another part of the banal spectacle of horror with which modern papers have surrounded us since the early nineteenth century. We might wonder for a moment, take an interest in a severed hand or leg or two and then move on to the business of the day. In his decision to transform that disastrous morning’s front page into a sober abstracted silk screen, Warhol made our unnoticed callousness his subject. When asked what made him make the picture, Warhol explained: ‘I made it because very time you turn on the radio, they say, ‘4 million are going to die.’ But then when you see the gruesome pictures over and over again, they don’t have any effect.’ It would be his goal to make the sort of picture that could shake us from our customary apathy, that would not allow us immediately to forget this charred plane as we had so many others before it. It is a tribute to his genius that Air France flight 007, long forgotten by the news organisations that first brought it to prominence, will, like the Gericault’s raft and Picasso’s screaming mother, live on perpetually in the annals of art. 

Andy Warhol, 129 Die in Jet, 1962

Long before there were newspapers in the modern sense, what we would call news was comprised of information sent, usually at huge cost, between royal courts and parts of kingdoms. Letters would arrive informing the king that there was a shortage of grain in the east, rumours of invasion from the south, an unexplained rise in the price of copper from a neighbouring country or some unrest in a village near the mountains. 

As newspapers developed, they took on much of this role, continuing to convey information that would be of great importance to anyone trying to run a government, though in a hugely democratic spirit, this was now sent out to everyone: to a sheep farmer in the village of Castlebay in the Outer Hebrides, a wine importer in Garmisch Partenkirchen in Bavaria or a retired soldier in Pincher Creek, Alberta. 

A lot of this information, when it reached one’s doorstep in the morning, was liable to feel very  urgent if not completely alarming: someone in parliament was stealing money from a discretionary fund, there was an oil leak in a natural reserve, a fungus was destroying the harvest, the deficit was spiralling because of mismanagement in the audit office… It was only normal to start to feel deeply exercised; the impulse was to pick up the phone, ask some very tough questions and hunt avidly for solutions.

But then would come a humbling realisation: despite the papers one had been given to read, one was – in fact – only working at the post office or teaching maths to the under eights, managing a bowling alley or looking after an elderly relative. Contrary to what one had imagined, there was actually no one to call, one wasn’t expected to come up with any ideas, there wasn’t an urgent meeting to discuss matters with the foreign minister. This was the paradoxical state of mind generated in citizens of modern democratic states: to be at once extremely well informed, deeply exercised – and completely powerless. 

One response might be rage. We might bang our fists at the image of the politician who hasn’t followed our advice around welfare reform for disabled veterans or the secretary of state who hasn’t listened to our plans for the prison system. We might write angry letters to the newspapers outlining alternative schemes for the management of the economy or the education of sixteen year old apprentices. While they attempt to prepare dinner, we may tell our loved ones precisely what should be happening with supply chains in the department of agriculture.

What the newspapers don’t quite tell us is that the wisest step might also be the most unlikely and taboo-sounding in modern society: not to listen or rather to listen a little less, not to pay attention to every outrage and inefficiency, not to keep delivering speeches to the unresponsive photographs of the treasury officials, not to keep thinking of what should happen next with the electrification of the railway line… These and a thousand other issues like them might be very important no doubt, but – despite the suggestions – not in fact so important to us.

Someone will undoubtedly need to sort out the mess in government, to ask themselves big questions around the economy and to fix the delays to the road building programme but this is not – for a variety of complex reasons – our job right now. Fate has imposed a different set of burdens upon us. Our responsibilities lie elsewhere, in less heralded and prominent places: with a child struggling to cope behind an outwardly gruff manner, with a group of colleagues confused as to their roles, with our own minds that, restless and unfathomed, need to be investigated, interpreted and calmed. The most urgent priority might be not to know – in order that other more important elements closer to home might gain the prominence they deserve. 

Then again, our obsession with news is no coincidence. It can be tempting to throw ourselves into its arms, because it is so hard to lead our own lives. The dilemmas in our relationships, the questions around our careers, the unresolved regrets and hurts in our pasts, all these can be so painful and so daunting to consider that it becomes a compulsive pleasure to obliterate ourselves in the news of a furious hurricane ripping a path through the tropics or a harrowing tale of a murder in a foreign town. News becomes the instrument through which we will forget about a life that feels too difficult to progress.

The newspaper is only too keen to welcome us in our confusion. It invites us with warmth to share in the troubles and joys of its revolving cast of characters and incidents. It encourages us to grow extremely knowledgeable about certain issues (why a law had to be passed, how the police intends to set up the event, why the bond market reacted as it did). It is being very cruel. It is pretending that this is our business, that this is what needs to count for us now, but soon enough, the issues will ebb away and we will be left with nothing. The cruise liner whose fate obsessed us, the scandal that was on our mind for nights on end, the little girl we couldn’t stop worrying about… these may feel like important pieces of our lives. But in time, we will discover that they had nothing much to do with us at all, we were agonised and excited for nothing – and in the meantime, the sand on the hourglass of our own existence continued to run down silently and remorselessly.

The trouble caused by newspapers comes down to their authority, their ability to squat at the center of societies and persuade us that they possess – thanks to their technology and their manpower, their mastheads and their intrepid reporters – the power to decide what matters and who we are. They will tell us what kinds of countries we are living in and what properly counts. They will be the arbiters of importance, the sifters of events and the righteous judges of humanity’s experiences. It is by keeping up with them that we will at last gain an answer to the question we long so much to have answered: what is really going on?

And yet naturally, the story they weave will only ever be one story, and a very partial one at that, about what is actually unfolding. There is so much that they will not notice: the kestrels in the night sky, the undramatic labour of millions, the small random acts of kindness, the minor technological breakthroughs, the disasters that didn’t occur because someone remembered at the last moment to put on the brakes and check the pistons, the things that have always been there, like the oak tree and the light of dawn, the inevitability of death and the comfort of a hug.

The newspapers hammer national consciousness into their image. We awake every morning, our minds filled with echoes of dreams, half remembered projects, scattered excitements, fragile impulses – and must then collide against a brutal, unyielding wall of news which seems to say that none of that mattered, nothing of what you are trying to become or have been can in any way count, for we must listen instead to what the president said and what the chairman of the board predicts. And because we are all still somewhere little children who once sat in school assembly and listened to supposedly important teachers telling us in booming voices what is what, we sit in deference before the newspaper’s national morning ‘assembly.’

It was the dubious achievement of the newspapers of the 19th century to standardise the mind. They did to the varied fruits of our imaginations and intelligences a little of what industrialists like Henry Ford had achieved in manufacturing; they helped to mass produce thoughts; reducing their variety, increasing their spread and stripping them of their local particularities. The French novelist Gustave Flaubert had a special hatred of them. The most repulsive character in his Madame Bovary (1856) is the pharmacist Homais, who is described as spending all his evenings piously reading the paper- and then peppering his conversation with reflections and portentous facts turned out in newspaper offices in Paris and Rouen. In an essay on Flaubert’s novel, Milan Kundera remarked that idiocy has always existed, but that for a long time humans had been able to comfort themselves with the hope that it would eventually be banished by knowledge. Yet the rise of newspapers forced a terrifying realisation: that far from knowledge banishing idiocy, it would merely lend it fuel and false confidence. The newspaper gave birth to one of the most unexpected personalities of the modern age: the well-informed idiot.

For the artists of the Dada movement of the early twentieth century, newspapers had pretty much started the First World War: they had spread stupidity and bile, they had coarsened minds and made us readier to accept the futile reasoning of the generals. Which was why so many of Dada’s creative figures cut up newspapers and glued them into irrational collages, disassembled their seeming logic and made them at last articulate the preposterous nonsense they had quietly been uttering all along.

John Heartfield, Whoever reads bourgeois newspapers becomes blind and deaf: away with the stultifying bandages!, 1930

The founding premise of the news industry is that the new and the important are one: what is important is new and what is new is important. But for most of us, for the length of our lives, this is likely to be profoundly untrue. What has just happened will not – as the newspaper tells us – be the most important thing we need to know. What may really matter for our flourishing has perhaps happened twenty or a thousand years ago; it may have been recorded in a book which has been sitting in library shelves since before the birth of Jesus. Our pressing priority may be to re-read an old work and properly absorb its lessons rather than skim through yet more disconnected contemporary ephemera.

Ambrosius Benson, The Magdalen Reading, c. 1525

In 1854, two years before Flaubert published Madame Bovary, across the Atlantic, the essayist Henry David Thoreau, a no less committed critic of newspapers, had taken aim at our wholly unjustified excitement about the latest information: ‘We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate… We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide [granddaughter of George III] has the whooping cough…’

We may not need ‘novel’ information at all, what we most urgently require is encouragement to make more of all the things which we’ve theoretically known about for a very long time already – but have so seldom listened to. The news we really need is that which speaks of the imperative to forgive, to be kind, to reflect, to appreciate, to be grateful, to be still and to be kind; these are the true bits of news we should push everything else aside for – the fires, the murders, the crashes and the crises – in order to render them more solid in our minds. Sometimes, and indeed usually, the news might just be the least important and least urgent thing we ever need to know.

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