In January 1920, Upton Sinclair wrote to his longtime friend Walter Lippmann about a topic that deeply concerned them both. ‘I have been reading your articles in the “Atlantic”, and it seems that your mind is wrestling with the same problem as mine,’ Sinclair, the muckraking author of the novel The Jungle (1906), told Lippmann, the political philosopher and adviser to the Woodrow Wilson administration. ‘I am just publishing a book dealing with our Journalism, and I have ordered a copy sent to you.’
‘I shall look forward to receiving your book and I shall read it eagerly,’ replied Lippmann. ‘The problem of how to get an adequate press seems to me infinitely the most important problem in modern democracy.’
Lippmann never wrote back to Sinclair about his book, The Brass Check (1919). In fact, the two authors, once frequent correspondents, mostly fell out of touch for the next three decades. Lippmann’s own later book on journalism, Public Opinion (1922), would explicitly deride Sinclair’s argument that the media was beholden to corporate interests. Its publication set off a feud between the two authors that would play out publicly over the next decade. Lippmann prevailed in their debate. His book became a classic for generations of journalists and their critics. It helped push those who sought to reform the profession away from the problems that Sinclair identified – profit and power – to the one that Lippmann diagnosed: psychology.
‘Mr Upton Sinclair speaks for a large body of opinion in America,’ Lippmann acknowledged in Public Opinion. Sinclair was far from the first or only critic who took his era’s media to task for what many perceived as its pro-business, anti-labour leanings. As the historian Sam Lebovic has argued, most early 20th-century commentators agreed that the major metropolitan newspapers served the interests of the elite.
But Sinclair’s The Brass Check went further, arguing that even liberal-leaning city papers systematically ignored or denigrated labour unrest and radical social movements. Sinclair believed that this was an inevitable result of the media industry’s financial structure. In the 19th century, most newspapers were party organs: funded by political machines and expected by owners and readers alike to adhere to their dogmas. By Sinclair’s time, though, a decline in partisanship and a rise in literacy rates had spurred the rise of a thriving commercial press. Increasingly consolidated under the ownership of a few very wealthy men, Sinclair believed this press was beholden to its owners’ class interests.