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Robert Ingersoll Press Club

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Press Club

Robert Green Ingersoll

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Contents of this file                           page

ADDRESS TO THE PRESS CLUB.                             1

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This file, its printout, or copies of either
are to be copied and given away, but NOT sold.

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New Orleans, February 1, 1898.

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN of the New Orleans Press Club: I do not
remember to have agreed or consented to make any remarks about the
press or anything else on the present occasion, but I am glad of
this opportunity to say a word or two. Of course, I have the very,
greatest respect for this profession, the profession of the press,
knowing it, as I do, to be one of the greatest civilizers of the
world. Above all other institutions and all other influences, it is
the greatest agency in breaking down the hedges of provincialism.
In olden times one nation had no knowledge or understanding of
another nation, and no insight or understanding into its life; and,
indeed, various parts of one nation held the other parts of it
somewhat in the attitude of hostility, because of a lack of more
thorough knowledge; and, curiously enough, we are prone to look
upon strangers more or less in the light of enemies. Indeed, enemy
and stranger in the old vocabularies are pretty much of the same
significance. A stranger was an enemy. I think it is Darwin who
alludes to the instinctive fear a child has of a stranger as one of
the heritages of centuries of instinctive cultivation, the handed-
down instinct of years ago. And even now it is a fact that we have
very little sympathy with people of a different country, even
people speaking the same language, having the same god with a
different name, or another god with the same name, recognizing the
same principles of right and wrong.

But the moment people began to trade with each other, the
moment they began to enjoy the results of each other's industry and
brain, the moment that, through this medium, they began to get an
insight into each other's life, people began to see each other as
they were; and so commerce became the greatest of all missionaries
of civilization, because, like the press, it tended to do away with

You know there is no one else in the world so egotistic as the
man who knows nothing. No man is more certain than the man who
knows nothing. The savage knows everything. The moment man begins

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to be civilized he begins to appreciate how little he knows, how
very circumscribed in its very nature human knowledge is.

Now, after commerce came the press. From the Moors, I believe,
we learned the first rudiments of that art which has civilized the
world. With the invention of movable type came an easy and cheap
method of preserving the thoughts and history of one generation to
another and transmitting the life of one nation to another. Facts
became immortal, and from that day to this the intelligence of the
world has rapidly and steadily increased.

And now, if we are provincial, it is our own fault, and if we
are hateful and odious and circumscribed and narrow and peevish and
limited in the light we get from the known universe, it is our own

Day by day the world is growing smaller and men larger. But a
few years ago the State of New York was as large as the United
States is to-day. It required as much time to reach Albany from New
York as it now requires to reach San Francisco from the same city,
and so far as the transmission of thought goes the world is but a

I count as one of the great good things of the modern press --
as one of the specific good things -- that the same news, the same
direction of thought is transmitted to many millions of people each
day. So that the thoughts of multitudes of men are substantially
tending at the same time along the same direction. It tends more
and more to make us citizens in the highest sense of the term, and
that is the reason that I have so much respect for the press.

Of course I know that the news and opinions are written by
folks liable to the same percentage of error as characterizes all
mankind. No one makes no mistakes but the man who knows everything
-- no one makes no mistakes but the hypocrite.

I must confess, however, that there are things about the press
of to-day that I would have changed -- that I do not like.

I hate to see brain the slave of the material god. I hate to
see money own genius. So I think that every writer on every paper
should be compelled to sign his name to everything he writes. There
are many reasons why he has a right to the reputation he makes. His
reputation is his property, his capital, his stock in trade, and it
is not just or fair or right that it should be absorbed by the
corporation which employs him. After giving great thoughts to the
world, after millions of people have read his thoughts with
delight, no one knows this lonely man or his solitary name. If he
loses the good will of his employer, he loses his place and with it
all that his labor and time and brain have earned for himself as
his own inalienable property, and his corporation or employer reaps
the benefit of it.

There is another reason establishing the absolute equity of
this proposition, a reason pointing in other directions than to the
writer and his rights. It is no more than right to the reader that
the opinion or the narrative should be that of Mr. Smith or Mr.

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Brown or Mr. So and So, and not that of, say, the Picayune. That is
too impersonal. It is no more than right that a single man should
have his honor at stake for what is said, and not an impersonal
something. I know that we are all liable to believe it if the
Picayune says it, and yet, after all, it is the individual man who
is saying it and it is in the interest of justice that the reader
be appraised of the fact.

I believe I have just a little fault to find with the tendency
of the modern press to go into personal affairs -- into so-called
private affairs. In saying this, I have no complaint to lodge on my
own behalf, for I have no private affairs. I am not so much opposed
to what is called sensationalism, for that must exist as long as
crime is considered news, and believe me, when virtue becomes news
it can only be when this will have become an exceedingly bad world.
At the same time I think that the publication of crime may have
more or less the tendency of increasing it.

I read not long ago that if some heavy piece of furniture were
dropped in a room in which there was a string instrument, the
strings in harmony with the vibrations of the air made by that
noise would take up the sound. Now a man with a tendency to crime
would pick up that criminal feeling inspiring the act which he sees
blazoned forth in all its detail in the press. In that view of the
matter it seems to me better not to give details of all offenses.

Now, as to the matter of being too personal, I think that one
of the results of that sort of journalism is to drive a great many
capable and excellent men out of public life. I heard a little
story quite recently of a man who was being urged for the
Legislature, and yet hesitated because of his fear of newspaper
criticism of this character. "I don't want to ran," said he to his
wife, who urged that this was an opportunity to do himself and his
friends honor, and that it was a sort of duty in him. "I would if
I were you," said his wife. "Will, but there is no saying," he
responded, "what the newspapers might print about me." "Why, your
life has always been honorable," said she; "they could not say
anything to your disparagement." "But they might attack my father."
"Well, there was nothing in his career of which any one might feel
ashamed. He was as irreproachable as you." "Ay, but they might
attack you and tell of some devilment you went into before we were
married." "Then you better not run," said his wife promptly. I
think this fear on the part of husband and wife is identical with
that which keeps many a great man out of public service.

Now, there is another thing which every one ought to abhor.
All men and newspapers are entirely too apt to criticize the
motives of men. It is a fault common to all good men -- except the
clergy, of course -- this habit of attacking motives. And whenever
we see a man do something which is great and praiseworthy, let us
talk about the act itself and not go into a speculation or an
attack upon the motive which prompted the act. Attack what a man
actually does.

But these are only small matters. The press is the most
powerful of all agencies for the dissemination of intelligence, and
as such I hail it always. It has nearly always been very friendly

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and kind to me and certainly I have received at the hands of the
New Orleans press a treatment I shall never forget.

Our Sunday newspapers, to my mind, rank among the greatest
institutions of the present day. One finds in them matter that
could not be found in several hundreds of books, -- beautiful
thoughts, broad intelligence, a range of information perfectly
startling in its usefulness and perfectly charming in its
entertainment. Contrast please, how we are enabled by their good
offices to spend the Sabbath, with the descriptions of hell with
all its terrors and all the gloom characterizing the Sabbaths our
forefathers had to spend. The Sunday newspaper is an absolute
blessing to the American people, a picture gallery, short stories,
little poems, a symposium of brain and intelligence and refinement
and -- divorce proceedings.

As I have said, the good will and the fair treatment of the
American press have nearly always been my lot. There have been some
misguided people who have said harsh things, but when I remember
all the misguided thing I have done, I am inclined to be charitable
for their short commings.

I do not know that I have anything else to say, except that I
wish you all good luck and sunshine and prosperity, and enough of
it to last you through a long life.


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