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NYT Editor John Swinton and The Truth about the Independent Press

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The American journalist, orator, and fighter for progressive causes, John Swinton (1829-1901) has long been forgotten by the public but his comments on the Independent press of his day seems strikingly familiar to our own.


To Fawn at the Feet of Mammon



In 1880, newspaper publisher, New York Times chief editor and orator John Swinton was the guest of honor at a banquet for the press. When a toast was raised to the independent press, Swinton reportedly had this rather surprising announcement:
THERE is no such thing in America as an independent press, unless it is in the country towns. You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write his honest opinions, and if you did you know beforehand that it would never appear in print.
I am paid $150.00 a week for keeping my honest opinions 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 his honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job.
The business of the New York journalist is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of Mammon, and to sell his race and his country for his daily bread.
You know this and I know it, and what folly is this to be 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.
A few years later, in 1883, Swinton went on to launch his own broadsheet newspaper. Its mission statement clearly outlined on the masthead of each issue.
  • Boldly upholding the rights of Man in the American Way.
  • Battling against the Accumulating Wrongs of Society and Industry.
  • Striving for the Organization and Interests of Working men and giving the news of the Trades and Unions.
  • Uniting the Political Forces, searching for a common platform, and giving the new of all the Young Bodies in the field.
  • Warning the American people against the treasonable and crushing schemes of Millionaires, Monopolists, and Plutocrats...
  • Looking toward better times of fair play and Public Welfare.
Swinton was not afraid to stand up against the "Robber Barons" of his day like Vanderbilt and Gould. Progressive to the core, Swinton was a strong supporter of the developing labor movement. He had met Karl Marx in London years before and was impressed with his thoughts.


While an editor of the New York Times, Swinton had something of an awakening.


When I became an editor and saw how fortunes were made by a turn of the hand, by gambling tricks and secret combinations of capitalists, and how all this tended to the impoverishment of the community, I began to see that the whole thing was wrong, and that the entire system out to be changed.
And so began his mission to change the world one conscience at a time.
Once when somebody asked him while editing his paper, if he made money in it, he replied:
"Did you ever hear of Washington, Luther or Garrison, making money by their work? No, sir; only mercenaries live to make money."
Swinton was a plain-spoken man with great sensitivity for the poor and for the working man. On one occasion, when a friend warned him about giving money to beggars, he laughed it off, saying,
Begging is not such a profitable business as stealing. It is far easier to steal, legally, than to beg which is illegal. I have known what it is to be without a cent in my pocket, and although I never thought of begging, I have often thought of nabbing one of those Wall Street millionaires and saying to him, 'Disgorge some of your ill-gotten gains, or by Jehovah! I'll throttle you!"
However, because of his unyielding attitude about accepting financial gifts, he was forced to rely solely on revenue from his readership. That was clearly a risky business model.
"If it will not live without the help of capitalists," he once told a certain influential New York clergyman who asked about the project's viability, "if I cannot uphold it by my own efforts, if those for whom I am here do not support it, I shall let it die."
And eventually, Swinton proved that in a capitalist society, success is measured not by high ideals and uncompromising positions,  but by the profit. That alone is what counts.  
By 1887, he was a ruined man  have been wrecked by this paper and the labors associated therewith, in which during the past four years, having sunk "tens of thousands of dollars — all of it out of my own pocket."
It would, however, be wrong to paint Swinton as a total failure. His failure might have been a personal one but his style of journalism, his commitment to the truth inspired a generation of journalists and editors that followed him.
The age of the investigative journalist had only just begun.