The market for newes

“Put him into the pot for garlic,” was a nice Jacobean way to dismiss the more vexing news-mongers. Their stench would season the olla podrida.

Oh yes, they had them then: “journalists.” Ben Jonson, the sparkling ingenious playwright and Recusant, then turncoat, has much to say of them. This is not only in his play, The Staple of Newes, designed to settle a few scores. There are poisoned asides in all his other plays, for the whole race of newsmen. This man of London, or city boy, presents in his verses, dramas, and masques, a vision of the City at a time when a couple of hundred thousand could generate the cultural life of a couple hundred modern cities with more than a million inhabitants, each. (But for our contemporaries, “progress” can be measured in numbers, only.)

And for sure, he presents this very specific City of London as a small town, with its lanes and taverns, shops, churches, and houses both great and small. And while it is full of newes, there is a specific market where this commodity is bought and exchanged. It is in lanes near St Paul’s Cathedral, which is to say, near where books are sold; yet it is not to be confused with the market for books. For the newes, in the generation before the corantos flourished, was still generally written by hand, by hacks in the service of patrons; and whether official or often quite unofficial, read by specific paying subscribers; and only then sometimes, read aloud to the non-literate types, who would sometimes (directly or indirectly) actually pay to listen.

The story-telling skills were more developed then. People then as now wanted to hear a story, of the life a cut above their class; it was before the fact-checkers spoilt everything. The “relaters” still had some “poetic licence”; a “licence to kill,” as it were. But elegantly, not the crass way they do it today, in lying TV docu-dramas.

A man of that age would not associate the news with print, or any other mode of conveyance. It was something in itself. Rather than image a news-sheet, or a town crier, he would think of it as words, words, and rumour. The illiterate mind loves to imagine, and dream in fecund breadth for itself; the peasant literate mind demands spoon-feeding, the same sludge as his neighbour.

The market itself became more complicated, as a profession of independent news agents sprang up, who took pride in their access to sources within all the “three religions” of sad, merry London — “the Puritan, the Protestant, and the Pontifical” — with their respective connexions abroad. And who were too cynical to remain devout in any one. (Ah, modernity.)

It took me once thirty meandering lectures to give the fondest outline of the “evolution of journalists” between then and now. (King’s College, Halifax, 1991.) Each was the rough biography of a single prized “journalist” through the intervening half-generations, from such as Nash and Dekker, Dunton and Defoe, Steele, Addison, Swift, Johnson, &c; down to such as Mencken and Muggeridge, or my token Canadians, Bourassa and Needham. Plus rambling asides on their parallel Continentals. There was an extended note on Cardinal Richelieu as journalist, I seem to recall; and a long rant in praise of my beloved Karl Kraus. (I have no text because none was ever written; the whole series was delivered extempore.)

Looking back, I see that I had it badly wrong. The men I selected (along with a woman or two) were all writers, of great talent, adapting to the periodical genre, and consistently enlarging upon its possibilities. In each half-generation, however, the real journalists were nobodies: not worth remembering, as they are truly not remembered. Flunkeys, of one kind or another; “copy boys” as we used to say. Minions, hirelings, footmen, slaves.

We have today, owing to mental depravity, little ability to distinguish a thing from its passing physical representation. Hence the “histories of journalism” that I despise, which focus entirely on the technology. This has left us in a quandary when the newes once more has changed in outward form. People like me, attached to the craft of typography, have trouble dealing with the reversion to reporting in its earlier manner, though now on a “global village” scale.

I could accuse myself thus of being a secret Statist, for the whole tradition of journal-ism — that is, the presentation of news in established periodicals — begins with the post-Reformation claims of guvmint. Every Coranto, Gazette, Diurnall, Mercury, News-Letter, with some hope of surviving, was “Published by Authority,” or pretended to be; and this in every European realm, not only in England. (Amsterdam was something of a chaotic exception.) Each enjoying the use of the Gutenberg device had a “take” on the news, and like mainstream journalism today, it was invariably the same take. Hence the royal coat-of-arms in the title of the old Times, and the papers in all the leading county towns. Then, as now, deviants from the official line were hunted down within a few issues; sent to the stocks or the Tower; or at least, “named and shamed.” (On balance, this was for the best.)

Early American papers, both royalist and revolutionary, were more lively, perhaps; though with the passage of years they became ever more stultifying, in obsequious obedience to the progressive Zeitgeist. It is like that today in Europe, too: the Zeitgeist consistently honoured in its processions, on both its Left and Right sides; Absolute Zeitgeist having replaced Absolute Monarchy.

All governments, in the time since the Reformation, when her real estate was violently seized from Holy Church, and worldly Power monopolized  by the rulers of the new Nation States, have tried to corner all the markets, too. All have attempted to spiritualize the material, in the act of appropriation. Few have been shy.

But the thing itself, newes, is only a commodity, belonging like any other in a “market” as the Jacobeans still understood; and we need no more puff the news-writers and their proprietors than we celebrate the dealers in pork-bellies, or vegetable oils. If they are interesting, it will be for some other reason, such as the adventures they get into. The buy-and-sell of anything that has been reduced to a commodity is boring, except as a means to wealth and power.

The earlier “journalism,” going back into the Middle Ages, was mostly for merchants. Great families such as the Fuggers of Augsburg, or the Medicis of Florence before them, operated widespread, international intelligence services, for their private commercial ends. Indeed, all the good news journals since that time have been business newspapers, whose subscribers have consisted of businessmen and statesmen alike, who need to know what is actually going on. The “masses,” by contrast, have always been gulls, to be entertained with mindless sensations, and thereby commercially or politically manipulated and exploited. (Perhaps I am with Chomsky, here.)

One might almost say that there is nothing new under the Sun.

Wallace Stevens said memorably that, “prose is the Official View of Being. Poetry is the unofficial view.” The former can become jokey; genuine satire is possible only in poetic verse or prose, directed to those with supple mental capacities. (Rhyming jingles count as prose in this scheme.) The progress of “journalism” itself has consisted in the elimination of poetry, and with that the descent of man into an ever darker Dark Age.