The journalist who cares not for history is a thee-legged stool minus one leg. Curiosity and appropriately-used aggressiveness get a reporter only so far. So does the ability to write well. The third leg of the stool is context and perspective. Our print colleagues in the Capitol press corps, like those of us at the Missourinet, pedal as hard as we can keeping up with the events as they unfold. The print colleagues often try to put those events in context or in perspective with their weekend pieces. Those of us in broadcasting who try to tell stories in thirty seconds (something like 75-80 words) or sixty seconds (150-160 words) are hard-pressed to provide similar services. That’s why we have “60 minutes” and related shows at the national level or “Meet the Press” and its related shows. We don’t have the luxury of staff and time at the Missourinet, nor do most local radio and television stations in contemporary broadcasting have the luxury of staff and time, to do the kinds of perspective pieces our print colleagues do. That’s why it’s important for the public to take the responsibility good citizens should display and seek out varying sources of context and perspective.
The Missourinet blog gives us that opportunity—to some degree.
In a previous entry we told you about some of Senator W. E. . Freeland’s papers given to us by one of his successors, former Senator Doyle Childers. As we went through them, we found some things that remind us—and somehow we HAVE to be reminded because we think that our times and our frustrations are unique when they are not—that things really don’t change.
One of our college professors who became a valued friend through the years was Dr. William H. Taft, who taught a journalism history course at the University of Missouri. Toward the end of his life, he put together a book for the Missouri Press Association, Show-me Journalists: The First 200 Years. It was “sketches of some 400 newspaper leaders.” One of them was William E/. Freeland, whose 1940 state senatorial campaign finance report we passed along in a previous entry.
Freeland was born in Kansas in 1879 but moved to northeast Missouri’s Shelby County a year later. He wanted to be a doctor when he graduated from Shelbina High School but he wound up teaching in rural schools for a time before he became a teacher in the Indian schools of Oklahoma and South Dakota. He and his wife, Minnie, bought the Taney County Republican in 1917. Forsyth had no electricity then so their linotype machine (maybe someday we’ll explain to today’s computer generation what a linotype machine was) was run by a gasoline engine. The Springfield News reported that he got results as a Senator “by knowing the subject matter…a little clearer than most and by discussing it with the utmost candor and good nature.” He was a Republican who blasted FDR in language that has echoes in some of the anti-Obama rhetoric today: “No wonder Roosevelt sneers at the Constitution: it has no place for kingly power. And it is kingly power and slavery for the people Roosevelt has ordered into his laws.”
And perhaps some of those seeking to legalize marijuana today might find his position on prohibition interesting. Although he saw “no good in intoxicating liquor for beverage purposes,” he did not wish to “dictate the personal habits of any man or woman. “Tobacco and high-heeled shoes may be more injurious to people but that does not justify a law against them,” he wrote.
One of the things in the small stack of Freeland papers that former Senator Childers gave us is a May 18, 1943 letter from the famous Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph of Galena, Missouri to Freeland, sending a check for $2.50 to pay for some newsprint cut to letter size that would fit into a binder that Randolph had.
If you think today’s fulminations against the federal government and the federal bureaucracy that spew from today’s talk radio shows and today’s political figures are something new, consider Freeland’s response as he returned Randolph’s check and suggested he order the newsprint from his hometown newspaper in Galena. Freeland’s print shop in Forsyth printed the Galena paper, using the paper stock that the Galena paper had paid for. Freeland wrote,
Ordinarily we would have had no hesitancy in filling your order but we have an impression that there is some sort of a rule, regulation, edict, directive, or ukase somewhere in the desk of some glorified bureaucrat that a little two by four business must not expand or go outside its field, whatever that may mean, to supply needs. We do not know whether this is true. We can not even open all the torrents of government mail and get any actual work done, much less read it all and besides they do not take the trouble to send us copies of the ukases that may affect us but leave us to learn of them the best we may. What they are most inclined to send is propaganda telling us of the wonderful job they are doing. Just to be safe we ask you to have it done through your local supplier. We have already probably unknowingly broken enough of the ukases to have covered the ancient patriarch’s almost one thousand years of reputed life with criminal penalties.
A “ukase” is an arbitrary command. It’s a word that has slipped from the vocabularies of most of us. The vocabulary might change from generation to generation but bureaucracy apparently does not. The difference today is that we have loud voices that pound us daily, hourly, with demands that we consider ourselves victims rather than considering ourselves, like Freeland, bemused observers of a necessary curse of a democratic republic that seeks to serve, protect, and control our diverse and conflicting interests and natures. There will always be “some sort of a rule, regulation, edict, directive or ukase somewhere in the desk of some glorified bureaucrat.”
Sometimes it’s good to spend some time with the papers of a previous generation. Context and perspective are in them. We are free to interpret that context and perspective as we wish. But it never hurts to understand that today’s generation is not the first to argue those issues.