W hen I was growing up, most of my friends wanted to get married. Whatever else they wanted, the main thing on their list was a husband. Not me. I wanted a newspaper. Three miles down the road from where we lived was a woman who had a newspaper. Her name was Mary Cain and her newspaper was the Summit Sun.
Tough and uncompromising, she nearly went to jail in 1952, for refusing to pay $42.87 in social security taxes she considered ‘unconstitutional, immoral and un-American’. Known as Hacksaw Mary, her editorials attacked the ‘bloated abomination’ of the federal government. When I was 15, my Saturdays were spent working in her diminutive office, drunk on the fumes of printer’s ink, sobered up by her segregationist and anti-Communist fervour.
After a year, I left the weekly Summit Sun for the daily Enterprise Journal. By then, I had another heroine, Hazel Brannon Smith, editor and publisher of the Lexington Advertiser. Although she began her newspaper career with the segregationist beliefs of most of the whites in a county where blacks formed at least 70% of the population, she took a different road in the 1960s, bravely standing up against the Citizens’ Council an organisation my father called ‘the Ku Klux Klan in cufflinks’ and pushed for the abolition of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a state agency she likened to a ‘Gestapo’ for subsidising the councils and gathering files on black dissenters and white liberals.
These women were my heroes. Both went bankrupt, but their influence lingered. When I finished university, I went out to California to save the world.
I believed the best way to do that was to start a newspaper, and I managed to put together a slender weekly (four pages) broad sheet called the Molly McGuire. Known simply as the Molly, its
editorial stance was opposition to the Vietnam war. My advertisers were the local bars, and I sold the paper at factory gates for 10 cents a copy. The war outlasted the Molly, but I didn’t go bankrupt.
One of my readers was Jessica Mitford.
A member of one of England’s most legendary families, she was also one of the great muckraking journalists of modern times. She revelled in her investigative journalism and, with the tenacity of a Jack Russell, she excavated the deeds and misdeeds of everything from the funeral business and weight-loss schemes to writing schools and television censorship. Tough with hypocrites and crooks, she unlocked doors with cunning and diligence, writing with an acid pen.
I revisited her rat-like genius recently when a collection of her articles was republished. Called Poison Penmanship, the Gentle Art of Muckraking, it’s the best manual for the fine art of investigative reporting. Reading Mitford in the days after the collapse of Britain’s largest newspaper is heartbreaking. Every page is a reminder of the journalists’ moral code: the way you get the story is as important as its unshakeable truth and muckraking is no ticket for law-breaking.
The collapse in that ethic did not begin at the News of the World. The decline didn’t even begin with Rupert Murdoch, although expanding his power further would be, in Mary Hacksaw’s phrase, a ‘bloated abomination.’ The pressure to sell newspapers in an era of decline feeds the sordid culture of yellow journalism, and the tyranny of the press over the politicians makes them reluctant to rock the boat. But this is a moment of truth that encompasses every aspect of our lives, from lawmakers to the police, from writers to readers.
Meanwhile, I gaze at a scrap of paper from my own newspaper days: ‘Beware of the scribes who… love salutations in the market places… and the place of honour at feasts; who devour widows’ houses.’ Luke 20: 46, 47. It’s cold comfort to know that our problems are as old as time.
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